Bums, hobos, drunks, transients. Servicemen waiting for the train to the coast. Middlemen, warehouse managers, wholesalers, liquormen. Clerks from the cut-rate drugstores. Porters, engineers and railroad men; burlesque dancers, women workers from the blanket factory, men from the mills.

All races, classes, creeds, professions, persuasions.

Every city had a place like this - the old heart of the old town, the spot on which the town was founded, the place from which it grew. It's what the city once was, and what it soon became ashamed of. In the postwar world it looked like a sad outdated embarassment. So they tore it all down.

All of it.

It was the greatest act of altruistic vandalism in the city's history.

You can understand why they did it. Downtown was in bad shape by the 50s; businesses were leaving for the suburbs, retail was drying up as the malls popped up in new communities. Nothing of note had been built since the Northwestern Bell building of ‘31. The old part of town was an embarrassment to many. The buildings were unsafe, the tenants disreputable. The alleys were piled with trash; the parks full of dozing bums. The future was going to be clean, technocratic, rational, modern. It was not going to take place in old broken-down brick buildings with rotten cornices and toothless Swedes for tenants: knock it down.

When the Gateway renovation program was finished, dozens of blocks and hundreds of buildings had been leveled. The immediate result: parking lots. Eventually, developers built a nice new library, a fancy new hotel, an HQ for Munsingwear, expensive apartments and a temple for an insurance company. They figured the rest would follow. But for years, much of the cleared land stood empty, a wasteland at the edge of town that sat between the city and the river like an uncleared minefield from an old forgotten war.

The new hotel: already gone. The corporate HQ: knocked down a decade ago. The new library: obsolete, slated for replacement. Everything you see in these pictures: a prize resource, squandered. If they’d waited ten years, fifteen, this would have been the most extraordinary neighborhood in town. Lofts, bars, restaurants, housing, stores, humanly scaled, pedestrian friendly, a boon companion to both cars and trains - it had two train stations, after all. Just the sort of neighborhood city planners are trying to create. But planners do a bad job at creating places like this. These neighborhoods grow on their own, and any attempt to create them anew is doomed. It took 80 years to cook up these blocks. It took the planners a few years to remove them, and another 15 years before people started to forget they were ever there.

I never saw any of this. It was gone before I got here. But these pictures help me see it when I go to these places now, and I offer this site so others can learn as well.

Lileks

2007

(updated 2014)