The steeple of the former St. Mary’s Church has towered over Dubuque’s Washington Neighborhood for 150 years.
For decades, it served as the physical, social and cultural center of a prominently German-Catholic working-class neighborhood.
Dubuque artist Tim Olson on Friday will unveil his attempts to document the architecture, history and people connected with the “neighborhood in transition” as part of a new photo exhibit and book.
“It’s hard seeing everything change, but the one nice thing about this neighborhood is that a lot of the architecture is still there,” he said. “I think people really see that the neighborhood hit bottom maybe 10 years ago, and it is getting better here.”
Olson completed a similar project in 2014 recording stories and capturing portraits of more than 40 men and women who once worked in Dubuque’s Millwork District.
His most recent project is a collaboration with Steeple Square and Humanities Iowa, with support from the City of Dubuque, Mediacom and Dupaco Community Credit Union.
“This was a dirty, working-class neighborhood,” said Keith Clark, 72, owner of Dubuque Clampworks, 260 E. 18th St.
Clark is among the 40 people Olson photographed for the book and exhibit. Clark lived in the Washington Neighborhood during his teenage years only to leave and later move back.
“There were jobs everywhere,” he said. “Every block had somebody manufacturing something, and they were world-class. … And you had a community because you had St. Mary’s, and that’s what held the neighborhood together.”
He recalled showing up to Dubuque Packing Co. just after graduating high school looking for a job to earn money for college.
He was hired on the spot, working part time on the kill floor and making $80 per week.
”That was some pretty serious money at the time,” Clark said. “This used to be a wealthy neighborhood.”
In the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, following an economic downturn, most of the old factories along the river either closed or moved. With the closings, many Washington Neighborhood residents moved on as well. As a result, the congregation shrank. In 2002, St. Mary’s school closed, and in 2010, the church followed.
Today, the neighborhood has evolved into one with greater racial diversity, more rental units and lower-income residents.
That, coupled with absentee landlords and recent shootings, has left the neighborhood with an image problem, setting it apart from the rest of the city, Clark and Olson said.
Multiple efforts are being made through public-private partnerships to revitalize the church campus and once-thriving commercial areas within the neighborhood and rehabilitate and restore the area’s historic homes.
“It’s nice to preserve some of the old neighborhood — what’s left of it,” Clark said of Olson’s book and exhibit. “It’s never going to be the neighborhood it was, and I’m not sure what the future is. … I just hope the neighborhood improves.”
BY THOMAS J. BARTON
As published in Dubuque Telegraph Herald. View article here.