When traffic is bad and I want to ski at Theodore Wirth Park, I take a back route from Saint Paul which culminates with a stretch of Plymouth Avenue in Minneapolis. Plymouth is not the most attractive of streets—it goes from an industrial strip east of Interstate 94 and then is all urban renewal from Emerson to Penn. It’s another half mile from Penn to Wirth Park, and the closer to the park the houses are better kept and a bit statelier, with fewer chain-link fences (a good sign of low income in the Twin Cities).
But one thing caught my eye. On the southwest corner of Plymouth and Queen Avenue is a rather peculiar-looking building. At first, it looks like many apartment blocks in the Twin Cities. It’s three stories high and tucked in to a normal city block. The neighborhood is mostly African American today, so it seems like no place to have a building with two six-pointed stars, right? Wrong:
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On a length of street where nearly every non-residential building (and several residential buildings as well) has been torn down and rebuilt (or not rebuilt), for some reason, this small synaguge stands practically untouched. It doesn’t seem to be in use. It’s just—there. A relic of a half century ago.
It turns out that the neighborhood went through quite an upheaval during the 1960s. North Minneapolis was where you went in the first half of the century if you weren’t allowed anywhere else. Plymouth Avenue was a commercial strip with a streetcar line (it still has the #7 bus) and was the center of the north side Jewish community—Litvaks and Russians and other eastern Europeans.
It was also home to one of Minneapolis’s African American communities, and the two groups apparently lived in harmony before and after the second World War, possibly because much of the rest of the city and its suburbs were closed to both groups. As with many other cities (such as Boston), the exclusionary titles were lifted piecemeal, and in the 1950s and ’60s, as the Jews began to move out (they could get loan guarantees in Saint Louis Park, blacks could not), riots accelerated the process. By the 1970s, the Jewish community had moved to the suburbs, even as it had been building new structures two decades earlier.
Perhaps it still stands because it is not that old. The building was erected in 1948—20 years before the riots that would finish off reshaping the neighborhood. It’s not particularly stately or obtrusive—at least not now in its shabby state—but it’s amazing that it still stands. Nearly everything else on the street has been demolished (here are several pictures of the street from the 1950s and 1960s) yet this shul looks exactly the same.