Longtime West Bank resident last of his kind

by Tim Sturrock

Few signs remain of the small community the University began replacing in the late 1950s and nearly wiped out in the 1970s to build its West Bank campus.

Only a 70-year-old man and his house are left from the area once made up of Czech and Slovak immigrants that spanned from Riverside Avenue to the Mississippi River

“I’m the only one left,” said Gary Hibbing, who has lived in the small white house on Fifth Street his entire life. “The next place I move to is going to be the cemetery.”

Within the last year, the University has demolished all the dilapidated houses that sat on what is now the West Bank campus. Several hundred houses have fallen since the University began its expansion.

Hibbing’s nickname, “the mayor of Fifth Street,” has become more appropriate. Aside from his house, only a boarded-up fourplex, slated to be a construction office for the new Arts District, and a few
25-year-old town homes housing students remain.

With their houses declared
subject to eminent domain starting in the 1950s, residents such as Hibbing’s father had to sell their homes to the University.

Jack Koblas, Hibbing’s cousin, whose childhood home is now a parking lot, said he’s not angry anymore.

But at the time, the destruction and the low price paid for their houses infuriated the whole neighborhood, he said.

Every time a bulldozer destroyed a house, the neighborhood would gather outside; women would cry and men would swear, he said.

“At the beginning we thought we had a fighting chance,” Koblas said, “but it was a battle you couldn’t win.”

By the early 1970s, he said, the remains of the area resembled a ghost town.

Tim Mungavan, executive director of the West Bank Community Development Corporation, said by the late ’60s, community organizations were able to stop further construction of the West Bank campus.

“We were successful in preventing them from expanding beyond 19th and beyond Riverside, but that was it; we weren’t able to change any of their basic plans,” Mungavan said.

Mungavan said the University wasn’t alone in taking land. Interstates 35W and 94 took land in the area, and Augsburg College continues to do so.

The destruction of Hibbing’s home is inevitable, said Fred Frogner, coordinator of housing property for the University. Hibbing has so far rejected all offers from the University to relocate him.

“(Hibbing’s house) is not in the way of anything right now. He wants to stay there as long as he can, and until there’s an actual need for the space under that building, I don’t think we’re going to do anything,” Frogner said.

Now it’s impossible to look out of Hibbing’s yard without seeing signs of construction. Workers have reduced the street in front of Hibbing’s house to a dirt road. The growls of Caterpillar tractors and bulldozers fill the air from nine to five.

But all this doesn’t bother Hibbing. He said he’s used to the construction. He can’t move
anyway, he said: He’s too old.


Tim Sturrock encourages comments at [email protected]