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Near North Side Minneapolis

Minneapolis’ North Side encompasses a large area and is home to many distinct neighborhoods ranging from Bryn Mawr on the south to Camden north of Lowry Avenue, and from the commercial and industrial area along the banks of the Mississippi River on the east, once home to the upscale Oak Lake Addition, to the lush green golf course and hills of Theodore Wirth Park on the west. One particular North Side neighborhood is the focus of this study: the so-called “Near North Side” that stretches westward from the Mississippi River to Penn Avenue North and from First Avenue North to Broadway.  This is an area that Linda Schloff calls in her book North Side Memories: An Oral History of Minnesota’s Largest Jewish Neighborhood (p. 4) the “immigrant and second generation North Side”.  The architectural critic Larry Millett in his book AIA Guide to the Twin Cities (p. 288) comments that the “North Side has never been a glamorous part of Minneapolis … it is literally on the other side of the tracks, separated from downtown Minneapolis by the city’s oldest rail corridor, along Third Avenue North, built in the late 1860s.”

     By the 1880s, the Near North Side was populated by a diversity of ethnic and religious groups attracted by skilled and unskilled jobs in the city’s emerging industries and commercial enterprises developing along the nearby Mississippi River and railroad corridors. Germans began to settle near Washington and Plymouth Avenues in the 1870s. These included German-speaking Bohemian born and American born Jews who lived near their businesses located along Washington Avenue and lower Hennepin and Nicollet Avenues.  A small group of French immigrants purchased land around 14th and Girard Avenue North, the Crepeau Addition, originally a French farm.  Among the last to arrive was Scandinavians attracted by jobs in the lumber and milling industries clustered along the banks of the river.  These newcomers chose to settle near the mills including an enclave around Washington and Lyndale Avenues North.  Finns formed a community known as “Finn Town” along Glenwood Avenue, south of Sixth Avenue North.  Each group’s communal and religious life was centered on its House of Worship.  According to Judith A. Martin and David A. Lanegran, “Churches of every denomination could be found here, as could be every kind of fraternal and benevolent association”  [Where we Live, p. 14].

On August 6, 1873, a notice appeared in the Minneapolis Tribune:

Oak Lake Addition: This is the tract heretofore known as Oak’s Grove, lying
north of Western Avenue and the Pacific Railroad and reaching from
the avenue named to Sixth Avenue North.  It comprises about fifty-five
acres, which the owners (S. C. Gale, H. A. Gale, and C. W. Griggs) have
plotted into lots of various sizes and shapes, averaging 50x100 feet.

[Put information about Gale’s in footnote:  Samuel Chester Gale and his brother Harlow formed a real estate firm, Gale & Co., in 1860.  The firm platted many additions in Minneapolis and around Lake Minnetonka.  In his obituary (September 23, 1916) he is described as “one of the fifty men who laid foundation for building community.” (Minneapolis Tribune)  His brother Amory was a Baptist minister. S. C. Gale was a member of the choir in a Congregational church, although he is described in his obituary as “religiously he was identified with the Unitarian church and was the chief contributor to the cost of the present church edifice on Mary Place.”  C. W. Griggs was a St. Paul alderman in 1877 and the founder of Griggs Cooper; he died in Tacoma, WA in 1908.]

A Brief Overview of Jewish Settlement on the Near North Side

     Much has been written about the history of Jewish settlement in Minneapolis and is readily available to scholars; however, the vast majority of books and articles have looked at the Jewish experience in isolation. Their foci have been on Jews with very few taking into consideration the larger context within which the Jewish people lived. Although the Near North Side is often described as a Jewish ghetto, it is obvious from our research that it was also a very diverse neighborhood inhabited by people of different faiths, ethnicities, and skin color. The published stories of the Jewish people on the North Side celebrate the cohesiveness of the neighborhood. As Linda Mack Schloff writes in her introduction to North Side Memories (p. 7), “…the North Side was a complete neighborhood; it had all the institutions and commercial establishments that Jewish communities need”. She does acknowledge the existence of other ethnic groups in the neighborhood, but only singles out African Americans for comment, noting “Relations between the two groups were good.” (ibid).  From the research conducted for this project, including interviews with Jews and Christians, the latter Caucasian and African American, who lived there in the 1930s-60s, and reading newspaper articles and other archival sources, it has become increasingly apparent that the neighborhood’s mosaic is far more vibrant and complex than what the current literature would suggest. The complete story has yet to be written, but the survey of the Near North Side’s religious institutions provides the reader with an introduction to its complexity.

     At the time the Oak Lake Addition was opened in 1873, Washington Avenue, both north and south, was already Minneapolis’ major commercial thoroughfare.  Jewish settlers who began to arrive in the city in the 1860s and early 1870s operated shops along the avenue that furnished goods and services to all manner of people settling in the region and even traded dry goods and general merchandise for the furs and beadwork brought in on the Red River carts.   The largest men’s clothing store in the city in the 1870s was owned by a Jewish merchant.  Who were these early Jewish settlers?  Some came from areas of Germany including Bohemia, while others were American born.  All had been in business elsewhere in the United States before moving westward to Minneapolis, a city whose booming industries and commercial enterprises were attracting national attention. Although a few may have become peddlers, it does appear that most had enough capital to invest into businesses ranging from general merchandise and clothing stores to the manufacturing of cigars and furniture. Many either lived above their businesses or close by them, and while there is no evidence of housing restrictions, it does appear none lived in the nearby Oak Lake Addition.  By the early 1880s there were about one hundred Jewish families in the city. 

     Unlike their St. Paul co-religionists, it took the Jews in Minneapolis longer to organize Jewish institutions.  It remains unclear why this was the situation as there does not appear at this time to be any covert or overt effort on the part of the Christian community to limit Jewish participation in civic life.

     Traditionally the first institution established by a new Jewish community is a burial association. Minneapolis Jewry used the Jewish cemetery in St. Paul until 1876 when the Montefiore Burial Association was established. Soon after a women’s group, the Baszion (Daughter’s of Zion) Benevolent Society was founded; two years later a congregation was formed, Sha’ari Tob (Gates of Goodness), the second Jewish congregation in Minnesota (the first was Mount Zion in St. Paul, incorporated in 1855). The congregation hired Leroy S. Buffington to design its Moorish-Revival synagogue that was built in 1880 on Fifth Street between Marquette and Second Avenues. The building was moved in 1888 to 10th St. and Fifth Ave. S. where it remained until it was destroyed by fire in 1902.

     Sha’ari Tob’s congregants appear to have been well integrated into Minneapolis’ society as can be seen in newspaper articles published in the 1880s recounting their social activities, including the Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society “grand annual charity ball” held at Harmonia Hall.  One article recounts a “number of well-known guests who were present” at the ball including Mr. T. Hefflefinger. (Minneapolis Tribune, January 26, 1888).  However, at the same time, the newspaper was reporting on Jewish missions, an effort by the city’s Ministerial Association to “promote the conversion of the Jewish people. . . [that] in this country was considered a favorable field on account of the freedom of thought and general religious tolerance.”  (Minneapolis Tribune, December 7, 1886).

     An event in faraway St. Petersburg, Russia was to have an astounding impact on the character of American Jewry, including the Jewish communities in Minnesota. On March 13, 1881, Czar Alexander II was assassinated by revolutionaries attempting to overthrow Russia’s czarist autocracy. One of the revolutionaries was a Jewish woman resulting in Alexander’s successor, his son Alexander III, ordering a series of bloody pogroms (massacres) of Jewish settlements in the Pale of Settlement, a region of the Russian Empire consisting of twenty-five western provinces stretching from the Black Sea to the Baltic within which the Jewish people were confined. The pogroms continued until 1906 propelling two and a half million Yiddish-speaking Jews to seek a safe refuge in the New World.

The Minneapolis Tribune announced the arrival of the first Jewish refugees in Minnesota in an article published on April 16, 1882 under the headline, “A Persecuted People.”  At this time there were less than 500 Jewish people in the Twin Cities, primarily German or English-speaking, to welcome 75 impoverished newcomers whose language and customs they did not understand.  The article concludes: “Let the good people of Minneapolis, of all sects and of no sect, unite in this work of charity.”  Within a year, Minnesota became home to over 600 Eastern European Jews.  Twenty years later they numbered nearly 5,000, with the majority living on the Near North Side.  During this period the population of Minneapolis expanded from 50,000 to just over 200,000.  It was only natural that new neighborhoods began to develop as older ones close to the river and expanding industries began to deteriorate.

Initially Jewish immigrants settled in older housing located north and east of Sixth Avenue North and near Washington Avenue North and Fifth Street.  By 1900, they had expanded south into the once upscale Oak Lake Addition that was rapidly being overtaken by industry.  Although he recalls with nostalgia the Victorian houses shaded by great elms set among tiny parks and lakes in the Oak Lake Addition where he grew up, Harrison E. Salisbury also remembers “the fresh smell of pungent pine that hung over north Minneapolis, the acrid smell of the sawdust fires, and the terrifying sight of the lumber drives [along the river].”  (“The Victorian City in the Midwest” in Growing Up in Minnesota, p. 55).  It was the industries encroaching on this upper middle class enclave that spelled its doom, and made it affordable to Jewish immigrants.  Salisbury writes how the large Victorian houses were hacked and cut into “light housekeeping” apartments, rooming houses, and the like, and how many of the “solid bourgeois owners fled to the new developments near Lake of the Isles, Lake Calhoun, and beyond.”  He also describes a distinction his father, and others like him, drew between the recent Jewish immigrants and the “white-collar” Jews who preceded them; the former were “sheenies” and the latter were “white men.” (p. 62, 64)  Another author writing in 1936 (quoted in Calvin Schmid’s Social Sage of the Twin Cities, pp. 77 ff) describes the transition in blunter terms:  “People became alarmed and frightened at the number of Jews…with the influx of Jews the property and buildings were allowed to deteriorate”.

Approximately 8,000 Jews were living in Minneapolis by 1910; over half were on the Near North Side and were generically identified as “Russian” Jews, although they came from different regions of the Pale. The majority were Orthodox in their observance and formed congregations of landsmen, men who came from the same region in the Pale. The first to be organized was a forerunner to Kenesseth Israel, O’Hel Jacob.

The African American Community on the North Side

A great deal has been researched and published about St. Paul’s African American community including David Vassar Taylor’s doctoral dissertation, “Pilgrim’s Progress: Black St. Paul and the Making of an Urban Ghetto, 1870-1930” (University of Minnesota, 1977) and Jon Butler’s article, “Communities and Congregations: The Black Church in St. Paul” (The Journal of Negro History, 56, April 1971, 118-134).  Far fewer sources are available about Minneapolis’, although by 1910, the number of African Americans living in Minneapolis far outnumbered those in St. Paul and the city had become the economic, social, and cultural center for African Americans. As a result of this lacuna in scholarship, it is more difficult to piece together the history of the city’s African American people. Besides secondary sources, scholars must rely on sketchy congregational histories, newspaper articles, a few memoirs, and oral interviews with descendants of early settlers.

According to the Minnesota Census of 1865, the combined Black population of St. Anthony and Minneapolis was 78 with 50 living in St. Anthony.  By 1885 the number had increased to 673, and doubled again by 1895. Initially the African Americans were concentrated in an area bounded by Hennepin Avenue, First Street North and Tenth Street South, but that began to change after 1910 (Taylor, pp. 69-70).  Although south Minneapolis retained a sizeable black community, the Near North Side began to attract an increasing number of African Americans who could afford the cheap rents in housing in the area north and east of Sixth Avenue North being vacated by Jews moving further west. One writer observed that “The first Negroes made their appearance in 1910 on Third and Fourth Streets North along Seventh Avenue.  As their numbers increased they migrated west.  A Catholic orphanage was completely surrounded by Negro residents and in 1916 moved away” (Schmid, p.78).  At the same time African Americans were moving into the Near North Side, an exclusive enclave was being opened west of Penn Avenue North, Homewood. Initially Jews, Greeks, Turks, African-Americans and other "undesirables" were not permitted to buy property in the new development, however when the housing didn’t sell, the developers allowed Jews to move in, and move in they did, abandoning in large numbers the deteriorating neighborhoods in the Oak Lake Addition and Near North Side. The same author notes “by 1920, a time when Minneapolis had a total Negro population of 3,927, Oak Lake was almost completely Negro…” (ibid)

     An important statistic from a 1936 social study of Minneapolis’ African American population shows that the amount of illiteracy was relatively small, 1.7% of the population, compared to 3.0% among foreign-born white.  (Schmid, p. 176)  However, literacy did not guarantee decent jobs. Minneapolis, no different than most northern cities at the time, did not have institutional segregation, but it did limit housing and employment opportunities for African Americans. As a result, the overwhelming proportion of African American men worked as porters, janitors, waiters, barbers, or on railroad and street construction. (ibid) Women were employed as domestic help or worked “behind the scenes” in ironing, sewing, sorting inventory in shops where they were not allowed to handle money; few were doing clerical or professional work. This corresponds with information we received from respondents we interviewed.

     Not all the Jewish people abandoned the Near North Side; many continued to live there well into the 1960s.  All of our respondents recall having Jewish and African American neighbors and schoolmates. While their parents did not socialize, many of the older Jewish residents still spoke Yiddish, the children did and many shared their memories of their friendships. Grant School, located between 11th and 12th and Girard had Jewish, Black, and Christian students well into the 1940s. Lincoln Junior High School and North High School continued to have a diverse student body well into the 1960s. As children they walked to school together and played afterward and were well aware of each other’s Houses of Worship, but everyone commented that they never entered any except their own.

     “Negro congregations,” according to Franklin Frazier were “a refuge in a hostile white world” (The Negro Church in America, (NY, 1964), 44).  This was certainly the case in Minneapolis where a number of African American congregations were organized. Not all fared well, due primarily to the scarcity of funds to maintain a building, but those that survived were to play important roles in providing its members with a safe oasis where they could practice their faith, as well as pass on their culture and traditions. The first African American Churches were organized on the South Side and will be discussed elsewhere. One South Side church, however, was a mother church to one that was organized on the North Side, and for a time, attracted members from that neighborhood.