Leathered and Layered

I recently bought–on a rare shopping whim–a sturdy new wallet to replace my worn combination of zippered billfold, coin purse, and handmade leather cardholder. I always have a hard time discarding trusted old objects, but retiring the cardholder has been particularly difficult. I have been carrying it for 46 years. I bought it from a craftsman named Jonah who worked in a storefront leather shop called The Whale on Cedar Avenue near the corner of Riverside in Minneapolis. 

An All-But-Dissertation Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago, I had just moved to town from Chicago’s lively Hyde Park. The Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, also called the West Bank, was at the time a center of political and cultural activity. Its old brick bars had become venues for folk music, and its businesses sold East Indian fabrics and smelled of patchouli oil. The Draft Resistance had an office on the street, and I would soon be cranking out Twin Cities Female Liberation Newsletters on a mimeo machine in an old tire warehouse just off the Tenth Avenue bridge.

My UC education was in Scandinavian Languages and Literatures, and I knew that Cedar-Riverside had flourished as a Scandinavian immigrant neighborhood from the 1880s through the turn of the century. Cedar Avenue had been nicknamed Snusgatan, or Snoose Street, and its most impressive building, turreted Dania Hall, had hosted lectures by famous visitors, including authors Björnstjerne Björnson and Knut Hamsun. The old bars date from that period, when they were offset by temperance organizations and gospel missions.

The neighborhood has drawn immigrants and people on the socioeconomic edge since Minneapolis was founded in the 1850s. The bluff above the Mississippi, now dominated by the University of Minnesota’s West Bank campus, first became an industrial area, the site of two breweries and the city gasworks. Many of the people who labored there settled down below the bluff, in the frequently flooded river flats. A Danish family built the first shanty there, and other Scandinavians followed. When Slovak immigrants joined them, the area became known as Bohemian Flats.

Moving up the bluff from the Flats to Cedar-Riverside was the first evidence of social mobility the early immigrants could claim. As they earned more money–maybe at skilled jobs in the flour mills around the bend in the river–they moved south across Franklin Avenue to Seward, or west to Elliot Park, home to fewer bars and many churches. Over the years, Cedar-Riverside was left to the poor and elderly. When the University expanded across the river, houses and institutions were knocked down, leaving little but the Snusgatan spine. The homes that remained were subdivided into cheap housing for students, leftists, hippies, musicians, and artists. That’s how it was when I found my cardholder, handcrafted and amazingly cheap, at The Whale.

The University was not the only force encroaching on the neighborhood at that time. Interstate Highway 94 had sliced off its southern edge, and Interstate 35W cut a gorge between Cedar-Riverside and Elliot Park crossed only by Washington Avenue. Cedar-Riverside had been turned into an island. A company of idealistic but autocratic real estate developers bought up what was left of the housing stock and set out to replace it with a “New Town in Town,” a complex of high-rise and mid-rise buildings they envisioned mixing social classes and races. Only one section of their plan, Cedar Square West, was ever built. For forty years, it has served mainly as subsidized and low-cost housing for new arrivals to the city, a vertical successor to Bohemian Flats, which is now a commemorative park.

Snusgatan is Little Mogadishu now. Only a few of its bars remain, as gathering places for the old counterculture’s hangers-on. The venerable Cedar Cultural Center, a former movie theater known nationally for its promotion of roots music, has added African musicians to its roster. Sadly, Dania Hall burned down at age 114, just as it was being renovated for use as a Somali community center.

Cedar-Riverside is still the city’s entry point for immigrants. Waves of them have passed through over the last century and a half, along with the artists, musicians, and political activists who thrive on the edges of the city’s mainstream, here on the bank of its river. I love its dowdiness, its well-worn storefronts. The neighborhood is one of those special, layered places where the past is never really cleared away, where, in a summer haze or the drifting snow of winter, you might glimpse the shadow of a horse-drawn trolley or hear the rustle of skirts and whispers of Swedish as domestic workers with a rare evening off pass by.

My cardholder is free of cards now, but like the street where I bought it, it is still rich with memories.

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