From the University of Minnesota Press


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. 

To read an excerpt, click here



Buy the book

Author photo by Karl Herber

Author photo by Karl Herber

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.


John Bacich’s “Skidrow,” a 30-minute film, remains the grittiest and most powerful record of Minneapolis’ Gateway District. It grew out of his documentary impulse, and awareness that this place would soon be gone. He shot the film in the late 1950s and early 1960s on a Bell & Howell 16 mm movie camera, in color, but with no sound. It probably would have remained obscure but for a serendipitous meeting between Bacich and Jerome Liebling, the legendary documentary photographer and filmmaker who at the time taught at the University of Minnesota. Liebling’s students, most notably Rod Lazorik, shot additional footage and edited it into a half-hour reel. Bacich added his voiceover in the mid-1980s. Newly digitized from the original film by Thor Anderson at Saving Tape, this version of the video offers vivid colors and sharper images that help bring this remarkable era back to life. Note: This film has some graphic images.

To arrange a reading or appearance:

Heather Skinner
Publicist and Assistant Marketing Manager

To reach James Eli Shiffer