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The King of Skid Row

The King of Skid Row: John Bacich and the Twilight Years of Old Minneapolis

James Eli Shiffer
Copyright Date: 2016
Pages: 200
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  • Book Info
    The King of Skid Row
    Book Description:

    City blue laws drove the liquor trade and its customers-hard-drinking lumberjacks, pensioners, farmhands, and railroad workers-into the oldest quarter of Minneapolis. In the fifty-cent-a-night flophouses of the city's Gateway District, they slept in cubicles with ceilings of chicken wire. In rescue missions, preachers and nuns tried to save their souls. Sociology researchers posing as vagrants studied them. And in their midst John Bacich, aka Johnny Rex, who owned a bar, a liquor store, and a cage hotel, documented the gritty neighborhood's last days through photographs and film of his clientele.

    The King of Skid Rowfollows Johnny Rex into this vanished world that once thrived in the heart of Minneapolis. Drawing on hours of interviews conducted in the three years before Bacich's death in 2012, James Eli Shiffer brings to life the eccentric characters and strange events of an American skid row. Supplemented with archival and newspaper research and his own photographs, Bacich's stories re-create the violent, alcohol-soaked history of a city best known for its clean, progressive self-image. His life captures the seamy, richly colorful side of the city swept away by a massive urban renewal project in the early 1960s and gives us, in a glimpse of those bygone days, one of Minneapolis's most intriguing figures-spinning some of its most enduring and enthralling tales.

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-5020-4
    Subjects: History
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. v-vi)
  3. Prologue: A Bum’s Paradise (pp. vii-x)

    On All Saints’ Day 2014, in a corner of downtown Minneapolis normally deserted on a Saturday afternoon, a line of men and women formed on the sidewalk in front of the oldStar Tribuneheadquarters at 425 Portland Avenue. They had come to pay their last respects to this building, where most of them had worked at one time or another, some for decades. They knew the place would be torn down within months to make way for a park. The demolition of the once-mightyStar Tribuneheadquarters was a sign of both the newspaper’s diminished fortunes and the city’s...

  4. Introduction: Snapshots (pp. 1-14)

    A year or so after I moved to Minnesota to work at theStar Tribune,a friend lent me a grainy videocassette of a thirty-minute film titledSkidrow.It was assembled from home movies shot by a guy named John A. Bacich more than fifty years ago, in color but, curiously, with no sound other than the narration by a rough-hewn voiceover that seemed lifted from film noir. From the first moment I pressed the play button on my VCR, Johnny’s movie carried me into a lost world that to this day I haven’t quite been able to leave.


  5. 1 Johnny Rex (pp. 15-32)

    In the warm seasons of his retirement, after his annual migration from Florida to Minneapolis, Johnny Rex commanded a table at the Starbucks Coffee on the corner of Diamond Lake Road and Lyndale Avenue. On that May morning in 2009, when I walked into the Starbucks at the appointed time to meet the old man in person, he sat at the head of that table, actually several tables pushed together to accommodate the collection of retirees, self-employed guys, hangerson, and other folks that Johnny had accumulated like barnacles during his retirement years. He introduced me to the committee, and once...

  6. 2 The Gandies (pp. 33-58)

    The reunion took place on a summer day in 2009, a few months after the meeting at Starbucks. I carefully placed the box of curled, brittle photos in a messenger bag and rode my bike through the streets of Minneapolis, around the old water tower on the hill, across the bridge over Minnehaha Creek, and onto Harriet Avenue South. I chained my bike to a sign pole, walked up to Johnny’s house, and knocked on the door, feeling as if something important was going to happen.

    Moments later, I was sitting down on the couch in his TV room. The...

  7. 3 Ring in the Booze (pp. 59-86)

    The Sourdough Bar’s first customers of the day gathered on the sidewalk just before 8 a.m. Often twenty or twenty-five of them would queue up in the quiet of the morning, the previous night’s debauchery brought to mind only by a sour smell and broken glass in the gutter, a shoeless figure asleep in a doorway. Those who were upright formed a line of suffering on Washington Avenue, heads pounding, stomachs heaving, hands shaking, probably not talking much as they waited under the storefront’s colossal foaming beer glass and the immense 10, the never-changing price of a beer. In the...

  8. 4 The Flophouse (pp. 87-114)

    The Victor Hotel, Johnny Rex, proprietor, had no grand entrance, no doormen, no bellhops. The pillows were probably rock-hard, and forget about any mints. The Victor was located at 21½ Second Street South, in the same building as the Minnesota State Employment Service, which took up most of the ground floor and had a steady stream of laborers coming in and out, that is, those who weren’t finding jobs from the trucks pulling up to the “slave market” out front. But the gandies who lived at the Victor weren’t the ones lining up for those jobs. They were the characters...

  9. 5 Missions (pp. 115-132)

    Johnny Rex’s rambler on Harriet Avenue South in Minneapolis sat on a double lot with a big blooming garden that sprawled over the backyard. Every Sunday, the bells would toll from the Church of the Annunciation at the end of his block, and if he was feeling particularly Catholic that day, he could take his place in the pews in about forty-five seconds. The first time I walked up to his door, I noticed the sign to the left, propped in a window. It had three lines written in large, black, stenciled lettering:

    Like many people, Johnny Rex had a...

  10. 6 The Lost City (pp. 133-154)

    On a December afternoon in Minneapolis in 2011, Johnny Rex sat in his TV room with his body cradled in an easy chair. His legs were elevated on a footrest, and they looked too thin to hold him up. Resting on the wooden armrests, his hands seemed to move about on their own accord, as if they were compensating for the involuntary immobility of his other limbs. The side of his neck was a landscape of ridges and valleys, and one tract pulsated almost violently. He had aged dramatically since I first met him in person two years earlier, though...

  11. Epilogue (pp. 155-158)

    On a sunny Saturday morning in July 2014, Hennepin Avenue was waking up from its weekly hangover. Several hours earlier, the hordes of clubbers who had arrived in a cloud of perfume and cologne left in a haze of pepper spray, the preferred tool of the Minneapolis police for sending drunken crowds home at bar close. At 10 a.m., the wide sidewalks were sticky, but mostly deserted. My wife and I stood on the west side of the 400 block of Hennepin, home to Augie’s topless bar, the World Famous Brass Rail saloon, a small and furtive-looking porno shop, and...

  12. Acknowledgments (pp. 159-160)
  13. Notes (pp. 161-172)
  14. Bibliography (pp. 173-174)
  15. Index (pp. 175-180)
  16. Back Matter (pp. 181-181)