Down on Skid Row

Down On Skid Row (1998)

Skid Row is a documentary movie that chronicles the lost era of downtown Minneapolis and its fabled “skid row” in the heart of the old city. It was filmed between 1955 and 1961 by John Bacich, a World War II veteran and successful real estate businessman who owned a bar and several “flophouse” hotels along Washington Avenue. He shot movies of his neighborhood patrons on 8mm film, and in the late 1980s, assembled his footage into a 30-minute short film, complete with running commentary of his memories.

This is a haunting documentary, deeply moving, and full of the human experience: tragedy, despair, misery, urban decay, but also humor, warmth, and the genuine compassion of Bacich, who was dubbed “Johnny Rex,” the “King of Skid Row.” It depicts an important part of American history that has now vanished. It is one of the most humane documentary films I have ever seen. Its power resonates and echoes in your heart and mind. I pray for the souls of these sad, lost men, as though they were here with me today, trapped in Purgatory and awaiting Salvation.

The Minneapolis Gateway district was the original heart of the old city, the merging of its three main avenues along the Mississippi River: Washington, Hennepin and Lyndale. Because its railroads lay nearby, this area became a source for cheap, easily exploitable labor — the “day laborers.” These men would work for the rail yards and trains for a short period of time, days, weeks or even months. Their temporary status prevented them from joining labor unions, thus keeping them poor and powerless. Ordinances were passed to force all the city’s liquor stores into the Gateway, and closed everywhere else. Police drove criminal elements — drugs and prostitution — into the growing slums, away from middle-class households. It was diabolical, brutally cynical, and highly effective. Soon, Minneapolis was home to the largest skid row in the American midwest.

In 1958, Minneapolis began a five-year crusade to reclaim the Gateway district, demolishing over 20 blocks and nearly 200 buildings. As the city’s business core moved several blocks west, Washington and Hennepin Avenues’ continued to decay. After World War II, a growing middle class embraced the new future of suburbs, with their clean and spacious streets, shopping malls, and luxurious cars. The age of the interstate highway had arrived. Edina’s Southdale Mall ushered in the age of indoor shopping. Skyway tunnels moved people off downtown streets and into safe, climate-controlled environments. City planners envisioned a futuristic city with gleaming highways, polished skyscrapers, a future that was bright, clean, rational. A future world totally devoid of crime, poverty, pollution.

This was the city Minneapolis sought to build in the 1960s. An ambitious “urban renewal” strategy demolished over 20 downtown blocks, and nearly 200 buildings. Fully 40% of downtown Minneapolis was demolished, in preparation for that glorious Modernist future. We’re still waiting for that future to arrive. So much of this city remains, to this day, a collection of empty parking lots, sealed-off fortresses (City Center is the worst offender), and a massive, unruly network of giant hamster tubes. It is a tribute to suburban banality and fear. So many magnificent buildings were destroyed. So much history was needlessly lost. There is a spirit that hangs over a place long after the people have died; this area continues to be haunted with sorrow and tragedy. It’s heartbreaking.

Today, amazingly, it is the young Millennial Generation that is returning to the cities, reversing the 60-year migration to the suburbs and systematic demolition of once-vital urban cores. The Gateway, Warehouse and Mill districts are rapidly growing with new apartments, restaurants, art galleries, boutiques. It is the biggest building boom Minneapolis has seen in decades. But the ghosts still remain in the air, and the few older buildings that were spared destruction remind us of what once was, of what could be, of what might have been. Nostalgia, regret, mourning: all sides of the same gleaming cube.

The 1998 Twin Cities Public Television broadcast, Down on Skid Row, includes Johnny Rex’s Skid Row film, plus an additional 30 minute film discussing the history of the city and reminiscences by Bacich. He died in December, 2012, at age 93, and is still fondly remembered for preserving a slice of lost history. Be sure to watch this movie, then maybe once more, and remember the lost souls who once built this city and paid such a terrible cost.

(Note: The photograph used in this review comes courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.)

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