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The King of Skid Row

John Bacich and the Twilight Years of Old Minneapolis

2016
Author:

James Eli Shiffer

The King of Skid Row

The vanished world of Minneapolis’s Skid Row, through the words and photographs of its most colorful character

James Eli Shiffer brings to life the eccentric characters and strange events of the Gateway District, the oldest quarter of Minneapolis. Following John Bacich, who documented the gritty neighborhood’s last days, The King of Skid Row recreates the violent, alcohol-soaked history of a city best known for its clean, progressive self-image.

In its final years, Skid Row was avoided by everyone except the police, storefront Bible-thumpers, slumming sociologists, and the occasional entrepreneur such as John Bacich—‘Johnny Rex’ to the drunks, drifters, and down-and-outers he served as publican and hotelier. James Eli Shiffer recalls the life and times of Johnny, Polack Wally, Moon Face Mary Ann, and other late-stage denizens of that dingy corner of Old Minneapolis with insight, wit, and compassion. The King of Skid Row is terrific urban history, beautifully told.

William Swanson, author of Stolen from the Garden: The Kidnapping of Virginia Piper and Dial M: The Murder of Carol Thompson

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 Row follows 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 recreate 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.

The King of Skid Row

James Eli Shiffer has been a professional journalist for twenty-five years and is currently a columnist and editor at the Minneapolis–St. Paul Star Tribune. In 2010 he partnered with Ewen Media to create Rubbed Out, a multimedia history of the murder of a journalist in Minneapolis in 1945.

The King of Skid Row

In its final years, Skid Row was avoided by everyone except the police, storefront Bible-thumpers, slumming sociologists, and the occasional entrepreneur such as John Bacich—‘Johnny Rex’ to the drunks, drifters, and down-and-outers he served as publican and hotelier. James Eli Shiffer recalls the life and times of Johnny, Polack Wally, Moon Face Mary Ann, and other late-stage denizens of that dingy corner of Old Minneapolis with insight, wit, and compassion. The King of Skid Row is terrific urban history, beautifully told.

William Swanson, author of Stolen from the Garden: The Kidnapping of Virginia Piper and Dial M: The Murder of Carol Thompson

The King of Skid Row brings to boozy life the alcohol-sodden, corruption-filled era when Minneapolis’ lost Gateway District harbored flop houses, slop joints, cage hotels, brothels, and raunchy speakeasies filled with B-girls and ‘gandy-dancers.’ Exceptionally literate, relentlessly humane, Shiffer peels back the veil from a dark and often violent past that, until now, had been literally paved over and believed forgotten. The King of Skid Row is a deft book that stirs together memoir, mystery, and history with the heartbreaking drama of how a city treats its most despondent and destitute. Moving and fascinating.

Paul Maccabee, author of John Dillinger Slept Here: A Crook’s Tour of Crime and Corruption in St. Paul

The King of Skid Row

Contents
Prologue: A Bum’s Paradise
Introduction: Snapshots
1. Johnny Rex
2. The Gandies
3. Ring in the Booze
4. The Flophouse
5. Missions
6. The Lost City
Epilogue
Acknowledgments
Notes
Bibliography
Index