Overnight Thread ("Down on Skid Row")

I've been rather busy since the Oscars with work and home life, but I'll try to get back on regular schedule. I'm probably not able to maintain the breakneck pace, which was full-speed "full time job" tempo.

For tonight's overnight movie, I wanted to share this magnificent documentary film about the old "Gateway" district of downtown Minneapolis. "Skid Row" was filmed from 1955 to 1961 by John Bacich, a World War II veteran and successful real estate businessman who owned a bar and "flop house" hotels on Washington Avenue. He shot movies of his neighborhood patrons on 8mm film, and in the late 1980s, assembled the 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, and 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 sous of these sad, lost men, as though they were here with me today, trapped in Purgatory.

In 1958, Minneapolis began a five-year crusade to reclaim the Gateway district, demolishing over 20 blocks and nearly 200 buildings. This was the old city, the original buildings of downtown Minneapolis in the late 19th Century. As the city's business core moved several blocks west, the liquor stores and flop houses took over, and the streets decayed into alcoholic slums. After WWII, the 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 was the first indoor shopping mall. City planners envisioned futuristic cities with gleaming highways, shining skyscrapers, bright, clean, rational. And almost totally devoid of human life.

That is the city Minneapolis built 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, fortress-like buildings (City Center is the worst), and clueless banality. So many magnificent buildings were destroyed. It's heartbreaking. There is a spirit that hangs over places long after the people have died; this area continues to be haunted with sorrow and tragedy.

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

This 1998 TPT (Twin Cities Public Television) broadcast includes Johnny Rex's "Skid Row" film, and an additional 30 minute film discussing the history of the city and reminiscences by Bacich. He died in December, 2012, at age 93. Be sure to watch this movie, then maybe once more.


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