From the Archives: Looking for Gays in The Gateway District

James Flood after his arrest. He had shaved his head in order to wear a wig. (© Minnesota Historical Society. Photo used with permission)
Little of downtown Minneapolis belies the city’s 19th-century beginnings.  The City of Lakes constantly reacts to changes in popular trends, adopts the latest fashions, and makes every effort to obscure signs of old age.  Nowhere is this practice more evident than in the city’s Gateway District.  For decades, “The Gateway” was Minneapolis’ go-to area for prostitution, vagrancy, and yes, surreptitious queer behavior. The area’s flagrant disregard of Postwar norms eventually brought about its destruction; in the early 1960s, the City of Minneapolis used Federal money to completely demolish the area, which comprised 40 percent of downtown Minneapolis.  A few of the neighborhood’s survivors—such as the Brass Rail and the Gay 90s—remind us of LGBT life in early-to-mid 20th century America.

My study of the Gateway began with a single passage in a sizable book.  In Lost Twin Cities, Larry Millet wrote extensively of the Gateway’s architectural grandeur. Millet noted that, for almost a century, Minnesota businessmen built stately offices, lavish hotels, and grand public buildings near the intersection of Washington, Nicollet, and Hennepin Avenues to impress investors with the power of the Midwest’s industrial production and its commercial prestige.  Following decades of decline, Minneapolis’ oldest neighborhood came to be a civic embarrassment—Millet summed up its eventual population with  two sentences. “Not all of its drinking establishments were rotgut dives, and some—such as the Persian Palms nightclub—attracted a middle-class clientele searching, often with considerable success, for a taste of sin.” He wrote.  “The area also featured bars that catered to blacks, gays, and others not welcome in mainstream Minneapolis.” (1)

Surely, I thought, there’s more to the story of “gays” in the Gateway than a passing mention.  How did the Gateway come to attract a queer underground?  What Gateway bars catered to queer people? What bars catered to people of color? Why are these two groups assumed to be historically separate?

I set about finding answers to these difficult and began with the Tretter Collection in GLBT studies—where all local quests for LGBT history should begin.  The Tretter Collection had a relatively small amount of information—I discovered that, sadly, queer Minneapolitans did not actively produce many written accounts of their experiences during this era.  As a result, the Tretter Collection has little source material to preserve.

The sidewalk where Flood shot his victim (© Minnesota Historical Society. Used with permission)
Luckily, there are many other resources at the disposal of local historians.  I contacted the City of Minneapolis’ records management office in February of 2009 and explained my quandary. The office’s staff helpfully recommended a few sources within their collection.  Located below the clocktower in City Hall, the Municipal Archive is itself a piece of history.  Modeled after other late 19th century libraries, the (often-forgotten) space contains four levels of oak shelving, wrought-iron railings, stone floors, hundreds of brittle volumes, no heat source, and (to my shock) a sole electrical outlet.

After reading hundreds of run-of-the-mill criminal reports from the Minneapolis Police Department, I ran across an entry that suggested queer goings-on were part of the Gateway for most of the 19th century.  In the summer of 1908, police responded to a gunshot on Nicollet Avenue and 3rd Street (the present-day location of Central Library).  James Montague, a 16 year-old youth donned head-to-toe in women’s clothing (complete with shaved head and wig!), walked up to a middle-aged man and shot him in the head. (2)  The Chicago Tribune reported that Montague’s victim, an elevator builder named A.P. Chandler, had a “premonition” about his death, yet the paper claimed that Chandler was unacquainted with Montague before being shot. (3)  Police took Montague into custody, and reported that the young man was “clearly insane.”  Jackpot.

To be continued…

(1) Millet, Larry. Lost Twin Cities. St Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1992.  Page 267.

(2) Minneapolis Police Department. “Bertillon Ledger: 1917.”  Record No. 382.

(3) “Camden Had Premonition.” The Chicago Tribune, June 4, 1908.

The Column is a community-supported non-profit news, arts, and media organization. We depend on community support to continue the work of solid LGBT-centric journalism. If you like this article, consider visiting Give MN to make a contribution today.

2 responses to “From the Archives: Looking for Gays in The Gateway District”

  1. This preview by Van Cleve of his urban study, is unfocused, and with a political agenda unbefitting historical research writing.

    “Sadly,” “luckily,” “to my shock,” for whom? Certainly not for us reading this pablum.

    “Queer people?”, “queer behavior,” “queer Minneapolitans,”… Van Cleve is not writing about history of an era, but rather applying labels of one era’s agenda to another era’s existence.

    That isn’t research. That is an answer in search of a question. An instance to support a cause. No Sherlock Holmes here.

    Co-mingling terms “gay,” “LGBT/GLBT,” and “queer” does little to promote the communication of historical and archeological research and findings, but rather mixes up a garbage pail punch of a flippant spew of words to see which will stick to the wall.

    But, whose wall? Certainly not Minneapolis’ in terms of its sociology.

  2. This critique by “local historian” is unfocused, and has a critical agenda befitting of the Star Tribune’s comment sections.

    The words “gay” lesbian” “bisexual,” “transgender,” “straight,” and “queer,” etc. are arbitrary demarcations. In this context–writing a short piece on local history for a public audience–they are words that merely assist the description of particular phenomena (cross-dressing, insanity, and criminality).

    The purpose of this column is to find interesting stories from local archives, and to write about them for the’s audience. Any political agenda is imagined.

    I would suggest putting down that thesaurus, and writing an alternative piece about local GLBTTQQIAAPO (or whatever adjective/noun befits your particular sense of) history. Although, it is so much easier to wait for another to spend months rummaging for answers, and then nastily contest the result anonymously.

    I may be no Holmes, but you are certainly no Foucault.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *