August 9, 1998
John Hansen (left) and brothers Syl and Dick Yagoda grew up in Slab Town and Below the Tracks. The Duluth neighborhoods (located about shoulder height in the center of this photo) were replaced in the 1960s by WLSSD, Interstate 35, Salvation Army, the post office and other urban renewal projects. The three men and other former neighbors organize a neighborhood reunion each summer. (Josh Meltzer / News-Tribune)
SLAB TOWN & BELOW THE TRACKS
DULUTH NEIGHBORHOODS ARE GONE, BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
By Chuck Frederick, News-Tribune staff writer
The neighborhoods are long gone. They were bulldozed decades ago to make way for Duluth’s main post office, Interstate 35, the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District and other splashes of "urban renewal."
But memories of those adjoining neighborhoods — Slab Town and Below the Tracks — live in the always-young hearts and minds of the children who grew up there and who now refuse to allow their homes to be forgotten.
Each summer for the past four years they’ve held a reunion. It has been a chance to reminisce, to romanticize and to share stories filled with names from the past and places that once defined the neighborhood back when everyone called it West End.
"People don’t realize how many homes were down there where the post office and WLSSD are now," said Dick Yagoda, an organizer of the annual reunion slated for next weekend. "It was a working-class, blue-collar place, just a plain old good neighborhood.
"And it was home. It will always be home," he said. "We hated to lose it."
Like the rest of the West End (Lincoln Park), Slab Town and Below the Tracks were settled before the turn of the century by clusters of immigrants who built churches and lived in homes built close to another.
They came to Duluth from Poland, France, Germany and elsewhere to work in the smoke-belching factories that were quickly filling Duluth’s western neighborhoods.
In Slab Town, along the St. Louis Bay where WLSSD is now perched, the big industry was lumber. Logs floated down river were cut into lumber in the neighborhood’s waterfront mills. Workers threw the rough slabs from the logs’ exteriors back into the river. Residents fished out the slabs, piled them up on shore to dry and then used them to heat their homes. The area came to be known as Slab Town.
In 1962, small frame houses dominated the landscape near the foot of the 27th Avenue West bridge. This photo was taken shortly before the houses were torn down. (Photo submitted by Dick Yagoda)
The pocket of homes just inland, where the main post office now sits, was called Below the Tracks, a reference to the railroad tracks that still run parallel to Michigan Street.
This is where Yagoda grew up with his big brother Syl, their buddy John Hansen and others. The three men, now in their middle to late 60s, recently stood at an overlook near Enger Tower on a bright, sunny morning. A dreamy, faraway look crossed their faces as they gazed at their old neighborhood below.
"It sure looks different now," said Syl Yagoda, a retired sheet metal worker.
"It has changed a little bit, hasn’t it," Dick Yagoda asked, a grin of remembrance crossing his face. Then he pointed.
"That’s where we lived, right near where the rear of the post office is now," he said. "And there’s old Slab Town."
It’s easy to imagine the former neighborhoods, the men said. The next time you pass between the interstate exit ramps between 21st and 27th avenues west, look uphill. Take note of the narrow, two-story homes that climb the hillside, each with friendly porches and cozy front yards.
Then look the other way, toward the water, and imagine homes just like those, 232 of them to be exact, lining narrow streets that once stood below the interstate. They filled the area where you now see the post office, the Duluth Grill, Thompson’s Amoco Plus, the Salvation Army and other places.
You can almost see Dick Yagoda and his brother and all their friends, including the woman Dick Yagoda would later marry, playing on those streets that live only in ragged black-and-white photos.
During the Depression and before World War II, the kids filled their days playing football and baseball in the streets or in the dirty but soft sawdust piles near the lumber mills.
"Our playground was right out in the middle of the street," said Dick Yagoda, a retired Duluth police officer. "That’s the only place we had. There were few cars in them days."
In the winter, the kids stood on the 27th Avenue West bridge and tried to drop snowballs into the smokestacks of freight trains that passed underneath.
They also skidded along frozen St. Louis Bay on single-masted ice boats. Or they played broom ball or hockey there, using magazines as shin guards. On shore, they stayed warm in ramshackle huts they pounded together with boards "donated" by the lumber mills.
Sometimes the games grew noisy and rambunctious and police were called, said Clarence "Sonny" Brever, another Slab Town native.
An officer, and it was always the same one, would confiscate the ball or the puck to satisfy whoever called. A few blocks down the road, however, the officer would toss the ball or puck out his squad car window to the kids who had learned to give chase.
"It almost got to be kind of a game," Brever said on an audio tape letter he mailed from his home near Seattle to Dick Yagoda before last summer’s reunion. "We never did lose any ball or anything. …That was really not a bad place to be a kid."
In 1962, the 27th Avenue West bridge carried motorists over railroad tracks between Slab Town and Below the Tracks. (Photo submitted by Dick Yagoda)
Days also were filled with work and plenty of it.
Teen-agers were hired on the ore docks to thaw frozen iron ore with steam so it could be dropped from train cars and into the bellies of Great Lakes vessels.
After school, they shoveled and hauled coal from the street and into their homes. Families could save 50 cents a ton on delivery fees, or about $3.50 per load, by having the coal dropped on the street rather than brought inside.
To make money during these hard times, the kids in Slab Town and Below the Tracks were ingenious and a bit sneaky.
When coal trains rumbled through the neighborhood, a few of the more-daring children hopped aboard to throw coal to the ground. Later, they collected it and sold it.
And when horse-drawn carts rolled down neighborhood streets looking to buy scrap metal, kids sneaked behind and swiped scrap metal off the back only to sell it back to the cart owner the next day.
Other carts roamed the streets in those days, too, the sounds of their ringing bells echoing off neighborhood homes. The cart owners sold ice, fruit, vegetables and bakery goods on streets that always seemed busy. Few people had cars. Everyone walked and it seemed no one ever left the neighborhood.
And as poor as everyone was, there were always leftovers from supper for the many hoboes who hopped off boxcars that rumbled through the neighborhood. The hoboes would knock on doors, sometimes offering to do some work, and would be fed on the front porch.
"It was a very busy little neighborhood," Hansen said. "It’s all just memories now. Good memories."
Today, the 27th Avenue West bridge carries traffic over Interstate 35, from a far more commercial area with restaurants and a gas station to the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District facility. (Josh Meltzer / News-Tribune)
In the decades that followed World War II, western Duluth’s smokestack industries fell on hard times. A lot of families moved away from Slab Town and Below the Tracks to find work. Many who stayed couldn’t afford to keep up their homes. The neighborhoods deteriorated.
Duluth city leaders decided the neighborhoods were candidates for urban renewal. For a decade or more during the 1950s and ’60s, homes were purchased, condemned and torn down. Plans were made for a new post office and new businesses in the area.
"They decided the post office downtown was too small," Hansen said. "They looked at our neighborhood and said, ‘Hey, there’s a nice place for a new one.’ They moved out a lot of people with a lot of nice little homes."
"A lot of people didn’t want to leave," said Dick Yagoda, who wound up in Piedmont Heights. "There were a lot of older people settled into their homes. It was where they were going to die. … But the whole neighborhood was getting blighted. I think some people would be offended if you say that, but the houses had deteriorated."
Urban renewal is still a sore subject in some families. There is little talk of it at the annual reunions, which are attended by upward of 200 people each summer.
Organizers send out invitations using a tattered and yellowing city directory from the 1950s to track down old friends. Others hear about the reunion by word of mouth.
"The neighborhood is gone and people don’t see each other anymore. This is a good way for us to get together," Syl Yagoda said.
"It was just a good neighborhood," his brother said. "It should be remembered. It was the kind of place where everyone knew everyone and no one had a problem with anybody else.
"Back when we grew up, if you did something wrong on 26th Avenue West, like you were swiping apples, the guy who lived there would give you a kick in the butt and send you home. Then by the time you got home at 29th Avenue West, your mother would have heard about it and she’d kick you in the butt, too.
"Everybody watched out for everybody like that," he said. "That’s the way the neighborhood was."
And the way it always will be. In the minds of the children who once called it home.