Billings is booming. Its population has climbed from 80,000 in 1990 to more than 110,000 in 2015. It’s also growing—from 32.8 square miles in 2000 to 42 square miles in 2010. In that same decade, the city added 7,000 new housing units.
Billings is the biggest city in the state, home to the largest medical complex, the biggest newspaper and the tallest building in Montana. The school district recently opened a new middle school and is building another one.
When the Rimrock Mall opened in 1975 it was the biggest shopping center in the state. Now the center of retail gravity is shifting miles father west, to the area around Shiloh Road and King Avenue West. And even with the oil boom cooling off, the city seems poised to keep growing in all directions.
Billings has gained as it has grown, welcoming newcomers that arguably make the city stronger and adding to the list of attractions—shopping centers, restaurants, craft breweries, coffeeshops, entertainment venues—that in turn draw more people to the city, and give those already here more to do.
But it has also lost certain things, including some cohesive old neighborhoods, a sense of quiet and more than a few pockets of rural charm.
Starting today and continuing for the next two days, some Billings residents share their memories of three neighborhoods that have undergone some of the most noticeable changes in recent decades.
South Side memories
When Jim Ronquillo was a kid, he could walk from his South Side home and spend an entire Saturday at the Rio Theater with his sisters. They’d watch movie after movie, mostly Westerns, feasting on Novasio’s 10-cent hamburgers that the girls had sneaked in in their purses. The Rio charged entry based on age: one penny per year. Ronquillo liked to pay a dime and save his change for extra burgers.
“I used to be 10 for a lot of years” the former City Council member said.
Growing up on the South Side, entertainment like that at the Rio, on the corner of Montana Avenue and North 29th Street, was not hard to come by. Young Ronquillo and his friends would spend Friday nights perched on the cinderblock wall outside Mayor Joseph Leone’s house and watch across the street as the Bell Tones, made up of Chan Romero and the Williams brothers, practiced on the Williams family porch.
The South Side was a town within a town in the 1950s when Ronquillo was growing up. Not only was there easy access to music, movies and other entertainment, the city’s oldest neighborhood also had grocery stores, drugstores, gas stations, churches and elementary schools. One hardly had to leave for anything.
The South Side was also deeply family-oriented, connected and working class. The Germans from Russia, Italian, Irish, Mexican and other immigrants who had arrived by the first half of the century to work for the railroad, the Great Western Sugar Company and the meat packing companies wove a tight social fabric. Neighbors were both friends and family, cousins grew up alongside cousins and there was a general feeling that everyone belonged to the same bigger picture.
“You know, it was close-knit,” said former South Sider Mark Dahlberg, who now lives in Lockwood. “Everybody knew everybody for blocks and blocks and blocks. Go into anybody’s house and get a drink of water. Or a whipping, if you were out of line.”
And the neighborhood looked out for its own.
As the story goes, when South Park pool staff told the young brown- and black-skinned swimmers of the neighborhood they could only come one day a week, right before the pool was drained and refilled with fresh water, the neighborhood had an answer.
Roland Jim “R.J.” Dahlberg, Mark’s late father, dug a large rectangular pit in his front yard, poured concrete and filled it with water. A pool. It was for anyone who wanted to swim, any time of day, any day of the week.
R.J. Dahlberg added other amenities over the years to his home at South 22nd Street and First Avenue South: a rec room above his garage with hardwood floors and an oven so neighborhood kids could have dances and bake sweets; a small baseball diamond; a treehouse, complete with electricity.
R.J. Dahlberg was black and had had his own experiences with racism, and he didn’t want that, money, or anything else to prevent kids from having a good time.
His dad “just kind of filled in where society dropped it, I guess,” Mark said.
Gradually the South Side started to erode, as Dahlberg tells it. Family incomes rose and people moved to bigger houses in other areas of the city. Shop owners closed their doors and South Siders had to trek up 27th Street or elsewhere for groceries, pharmacies and other conveniences. Companies like Conoco or G.D. Eastlick, a grain company, bought out homeowners and razed houses to expand their operations.
Nowadays, many elementary-age students on the South Side get bused to other neighborhoods for school, and the Albertsons on Sixth Street West is for many the closest place to buy groceries.
Mark Dahlberg visited the site of his childhood home in early September. Memories rushed back—of summer days spent fishing the Yellowstone River, just a short walk from his house; of visiting his dad at the refinery where he worked and marveling at high-up walkways and imposing-looking buildings, now dwarfed by more recent additions; of the time the circus came to town and set up shop nearby, so that Mark awoke one morning, incredulous, to the sound of elephants.
Mark sold his family home in 1989, following his parents’ deaths, and hadn’t been back since. He’d driven by plenty of times but never stopped. And why would he, he asked aloud? The site is now a gravel lot bisected by the refinery’s chain-link fence, with more asphalt and chained-off parking areas where neighbors’ homes and local businesses used to stand.
“It’s all gone,” he said, throwing up his hands.
But for people like Nellie Foster, a friend of both Ronquillo and Dahlberg, it’s not all gone. Sure, many of the old homes and businesses are, including the house on South 22nd Street where Foster raised her family, across from the Dahlbergs’.
But friendships survived. Foster eventually left the South Side for a new home in the Central-Terry neighborhood. Although there are other options for her closer to home, she remains a regular at the Southside Senior Center, which offers lunch every day and bingo twice a week.
“It’s still an integral part of our lives, being in this area,” Foster said. “I don’t know how to say that any other way, except that we like each other and people are easy to get along with, you know? And it’s pleasant, familiar.”
Coming Tuesday: Disappearing farmland on the West End.
Coming Wednesday: The march of progress in the Heights.
Phoebe Tollefson has written for outlets large and small, from McClatchy DC to The Sheridan Press. She lives in Billings, her hometown.