Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Pumpkin Joe Greenstein

We are in the run up to both Halloween and to a hotly contested election.  Our political class comes in for a great deal of criticism, of which perhaps 90% is entirely justified.  But honesty demands that I say a few words in praise of a long departed Pol who actually appears to have been a much better man than I had thought.

Long, long ago I was an elementary student at Lowell School on the North Side of Minneapolis.  I have a memory, or perhaps several memories compacted together, of free pumpkins being given away by our local Alderman.  A flat bed trailer pulled up onto the asphalt playground.  Hundreds of pumpkins were unloaded and arrayed like squat orange soldiers.  Kids were allowed to select one to take home.  My older brother adds a few details, he remembers that the younger grades picked first and that girls got to pick before boys.  Some helpful suggestions on how much of a punk' a given kid could carry must have been offered.  Recall that this was in the days before kids rode school buses, all or nearly all of the students at Lowell walked home.

I thought for many years that this was a sort of slightly disreputable tactic that aimed for the votes of the parents, what with the election being so soon after Halloween.  I remember seeing campaign buttons that were orange, with a jack-o-lantern face as the background, and the motto PUMPKIN JOE GREENSTEIN.  But decades later I looked into this, and I have to say, I was wrong about Joe.

The North Side of Minneapolis was home to different groups over the years.  In the 1800s it was mostly German immigrants, with an admixture of Scandinavians.  In the early 20th century it was the center of the Jewish community, with German, Polish and Russian immigrants all represented.  When I was growing up in the late 1950s and into the 60s, the neighborhood was turning over again.  It was becoming a black community.  Also an impoverished one, although to be fair the earlier waves of European new arrivals were generally at best blue collar up until the point that they could afford to move elsewhere.

Like many of the Jewish community Joeseph S. Greenstein was a merchant.  His store at 307 Plymouth Avenue North was called The Bargain Price Market.  It sold groceries,  meat, produce, and flowers.  Every year, starting back in the 1930s, Greenstein had "Pumpkin Day" where truck farmers from the outlying areas would haul in pumpkins that would be laid out on Plymouth Avenue, closing one lane in front of The Bargain Price Market.  Local school children would come, some riding buses on a field trip, to get the free pumpkins.  He did this entirely for the good of the community.  He  told his son that when he was a little boy the family was too poor to afford a pumpkin so he once stole one.  He did not want any child to have to chose between a small deprivation or a small crime.

Additional pumpkins were hauled to other schools on the North Side.  Hence my memories at Lowell Elementary.

Pumpkin Joe, circa 1950
The political career came later.  A major freeway was under construction, wiping out much of the business and residential areas along Plymouth Avenue.  This included Greenstein's store.  The last "Pumpkin Day" in 1965 was held at a "haunted house" done up for the occasion.  It is not clear how long the school giveaways lasted but my memories of one circa 1963 or so must have been one of the last of them.

Joe Greenstein by all accounts served his constituents well.  It was a difficult time in many ways.  In addition to the literal bulldozers crashing through the Fifth Ward there were social changes that seemed equally implacable.  Crime rates were rising, with the flight of the Jewish community being accelerated by a particularly gruesome double murder of a prominent couple.  Housing projects were built, concentrating poverty into structures that looked like dead trees raising their limbless concrete trunks above the new highway.  There were racially fueled riots in the late 60s, many surviving businesses were burnt down.

But Joe Greenstein never left the North Side.  His son still lives in the family home there.  Having pieced together the story of his life I regret my earlier impression of him as a standard "machine politician" trying to buy votes.  His generosity preceded and transcended his political career.

We do not hold our current generation of politicians in very high regards.  Perhaps because most of them have not earned our esteem.  Joe Greenstein joined the Army in his mid 30s.  He fought across Europe with General Patton's army, serving as an interpreter.  He was a Minneapolis Alderman from 1960 to 1971, probably the most tumultuous decade the city ever had.  He actually had a Molotov cocktail thrown at his house during the 1967 unrest.

A guy like that did not need to give away pumpkins to get our respect.


Anonymous said...

I was one of those kids who got free pumpkins from Joe Greenstein. I went to Grant elementary school in North Minneapolis. Glad to see someone else remembers Joe.

Brown Eggs said...

I was one of those kids who got free pumpkins from Joe Greenstein. I went to Grant elementary school in North Minneapolis. My parents left in 1958 for California,so the memory of free pumpkins impressed me as we could not afford to buy one either. Glad to see someone else remembers Joe.

Tacitus2 said...

Lowell Elementary, long, long ago. An open lot now, the plan to build new houses there faltered along with the neighborhood as a whole. I remember the asphalt playground. My memories are a bit later, towards the very end of the Punk giveaway.


Brown Eggs said...

Last time I was in Minneapolis,20 years ago, Grant Elementary was gone but I believe there was a commemorative plaque on the old steps.