True story: In the early 1980s, when I was living in Butte, I was in Billings one weekend to play hockey.
I was driving down Montana Avenue with a couple of other players, at a time when the avenue had probably never looked worse. The Rex restaurant was there, as it is now, and there were a handful of other businesses, mostly secondhand stores, but not much else.
There were plenty of abandoned buildings, derelicts and pigeons, and worst of all was the old Northern Pacific Depot complex, a string of boarded-up buildings with scarred brickwork, roofs with broken tiles and graffiti everywhere.
Despite everything, though, I was struck by the blocks of impressive old buildings, the faded advertising signs painted on their walls, and even by the depot, decrepit as it was.
“If they ever fix this up,” I said to my teammates, “this will be the coolest street in Montana.”
I don’t want to brag, or to pretend that I have any powers as a prophet, but in this one instance I was right. Thirty years later, I venture to say that Montana Avenue is the coolest street in the state.
Lined with beautiful trees and planters, lit with old-fashioned street lamps and retro neon signs, Montana Avenue is home to loft apartments, bars, restaurants, art galleries, microbreweries, a distillery, a live theater and—now the centerpiece of the avenue—the completely restored and renamed Billings Depot.
But maybe you’re asking yourself, how bad could it really have been? If you’re young enough, say under 35, meaning that for your entire (legal) drinking career Montana Avenue has been a fun, lively, happening place, you may be inclined to brush off tales of the avenue’s seedy past as the heavily embroidered recollections of a generation sliding into senility.
Well, listen up.
When Mike and Alex Gregory opened Oxford Antiques at 2411 Montana Ave. in 1981, Mike says another business owner, Bill McIntosh from McIntosh Art, walked down and welcomed them to the area. He also brought them a gift: a baseball bat. He said they might need it if transients barged into the store and refused to leave peacefully.
Vicki Van Buskirk, who worked as a framer for McIntosh starting in 1978 and later bought his building, turning it into the Toucan Gallery, said that at one point she had the only occupied building on the block. Sooner or later, transients found a way into every vacant space.
“They went from building to building,” she said. “They had bonfires there in the winter.”
Van Buskirk and Gregory both said Montana Avenue was actually pretty lively in the early 1980s, but after the oil bust in the middle of that decade, it went into a steep decline.
There were 24 bars on the beat in those days, O’Connell said, and a porno theater next door to one of the toughest bars on Montana Avenue, the Empire, had live strippers.
On any given night there were 15 to 20 prostitutes working Montana and Minnesota avenues, with more hookers in the cribs that lined First Avenue South. And most of the prostitution was tied to organized crime and gangs, with some of the operations run out of Chicago.
“There were over a dozen pimps that were on a circuit, and when they hit town they’d have anywhere from three to six girls with them,” O’Connell said.
With the pimps and hookers came active drug-dealing and a fair amount of robberies, what O’Connell the “hug and mug.” There might be a rancher in town looking for excitement, O’Connell said, and after striking up a conversation with a hooker on the corner, he might suddenly find himself sandwiched between two women in his car, both of them kissing and groping him.
“He’d think he was having a pretty good time until he realizes his wallet’s gone,” O’Connell said. “It would happen all the time.”
Busting prostitutes, pimps and johns was a regular part of the job, but O’Connell said all the beat cops got to know the hookers and sometimes even got involved in helping them leave “the life.” Sometimes it paid to know everybody on the avenue.
One night, O’Connell said, he saw two couples, obviously out-of-towners and the men obviously drunk, walking toward the Empire.
“You could tell they were headed for trouble,” he said.
Sure enough, they walked up to a pimp and started giving him trouble. Pretty quickly they were into a fight, which was soon joined by five hookers, who were kicking and beating on the tourists. O’Connell joined the fray, and in the process of trying to pull the tourists off the pimp, he lost his flashlight, his nightstick and his radio.
When the fight was finally over and backup arrived, O’Connell turned to find his lost gear. One by one, the prostitutes came forward, one with his nightstick, another with his radio and another with his flashlight.
“The roles were kind of reversed,” O’Connell said. “They had my back while I was down there.”
Scott Forshee, now chief of police on the Montana State University Billings campus, started working the same beat two years earlier than O’Connell, in 1982. He said one of their regular jobs was to check vacant buildings, to make sure they weren’t being taken over by transients.
“That was one of the things we were tasked with,” he said, “being seen and keeping the riff-raff out of the neighborhood.”
If anything, the situation was even worse at the depot buildings. O’Connell, who worked for the railroad for a few years before becoming a cop, knew the depot when it was an active passenger terminal, not in its prime but still well maintained. But after Amtrak discontinued passenger service on the southern line across Montana in 1979, the depot went downhill fast.
“By the time I became a cop, it was a shambles,” O’Connell said. “It was filled with pigeons. Even the transients didn’t want to go in there.”
Gregory, over at Oxford Antiques, remembers watching once as transients came out of the depot carrying big oak doors, obviously hoping to sell them. He called the cops, hoping somebody would stop them.
“Nobody cared,” he said. “It was considered abandoned property.”
OK. I hope we’ve established that Montana Avenue had sunk pretty low, and just 30 years ago was, generally speaking, a dirty, down-at-the heels, sometimes dangerous stretch of real estate. So your next question is, how did it go from that to the Montana Avenue of today, in a fairly short time?
It’s a long story, but we’ll try to summarize. The best thing that ever happened to the avenue, at least in modern times, is that Mike Schaer decided to move his business there. He had been running Computers Unlimited out on the West End, but after work he and some friends used to congregate at the Rex, then a lonely pioneer on Montana Avenue.
Because Schaer was from Chicago, he said, “I like neighborhoods.” Montana Avenue was a neighborhood, in a way that the West End decidedly was not. So he moved Computers Unlimited there in 1981. He started buying up other properties on the street, with an eye toward “cleaning up these buildings,” as he put it.
Another important milestone occurred in 1994, when Van Buskirk was approached by Judy McNally, then president of the Billings Preservation Society. McNally wondered if Van Buskirk and other business owners would be interested in working together to get junk vehicles towed off the avenue, and some streetlights installed in the alleys.
Yes, that’s how bad things were at that point.
That same year, a banker by the name of Harry Gottwals organized a meeting that would result, three years later, in the Downtown Billings Framework Plan. That plan would eventually help spur the redevelopment of the central business district, but that redevelopment got a big boost from the example set on Montana Avenue.
As Schaer described it, Montana Avenue went to work first, before the rest of the downtown, because there weren’t many business owners and all of them lived in Billings and worked on Montana Avenue. Elsewhere downtown, there were lots of absentee landlords, and lots of people who just couldn’t be bothered to undertake the hard work of redevelopment.
“It’s really simple,” Schear said in a news story in 2000. “Have a meeting and implement the next day. We don’t waste a lot of time.”
Those early meetings involved Schaer, Van Buskirk and Gene Burgad, the owner of the Rex. The city was pushing for a streetscape project that would spruce up the avenue with trees, planters, new lighting and decorative brickwork. Schaer said the owners agreed to pay half, but only if the city would take out parking meters and switch to two-hour parking.
The city agreed and the project went through in the late 1990s. Van Buskirk said the impact of the redevelopment was felt “massively, instantly.” It was the start of a boom on Montana Avenue that continues today. And Van Buskirk, unlike your correspondent, really was pretty prophetic.
Through all the tough years on the avenue, she was sustained by one thought.
“I read once, the best investment you can make is property in a historic district,” she said. “I always kept that in mind.”
Along with the city’s involvement, Schaer continued doing his part. He sold one building to the Venture Theatre so it could relocate from a tiny space on Central Avenue. It is still on Montana Avenue, though it now the NOVA Center for the Performing Arts.
Schaer also sold the building that houses Uberbrew, another that houses Ciao Mambo, and just around the corner from there on North 23rd Street, a huge old warehouse now occupied by CTA Architects & Engineers. Schaer said he sold it to CTA for $400,000, exactly what he paid for it, solely to promote redevelopment.
“It was just making the neighborhood nice,” he said.
More than 20 years ago, he bought the old McCormick Building and created the McCormick Café. He also helped redevelop half a dozen other buildings up and down the avenue. Just north of the Rex, there used to be a rough bar, Lobby Liquor, and a seedy motel, the Plaza. When the Lobby burned down, Schaer and Burgad convinced the owner to sell them the whole lot. They promptly razed the motel and built needed parking for both their businesses.
And then there were the depot buildings. After helping get the downtown back on its feet, Gottwals headed up another committee devoted to restoring the depot. It helped that a few scenes of “Far and Away,” the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman movie, were filmed there in 1991. The depot was cleaned out and weather-proofed before the filming, which may have saved it from being torn down.
Through donations, federal grants and the Horse of Course fundraiser, enough money was raised to bring the depot back to its glory days. Another big boost came from Philip Morris USA, which donated $500,000 to the depot in anticipation of running a “Marlboro Train” promotion for smokers. The promotion never happened, but Billings got the money.
And Billings got the Montana Avenue of today. Some old-timers complain of the yuppiefication of the avenue and long for its blue-collar past, but they are probably in the minority.
“It’s nice to see the change,” Forshee said. “I’m not saying I don’t sometimes yearn for the good old days, but it’s nice to see that it’s inhabited again, without all the criminal activity that used to be so blatant down there.”
O’Connell agrees with that assessment.
“We still have our problems with transients, but the night life down there is fantastic,” he said. “It’s amazing to me all the positive changes that have taken place in the last 20 years.”
Editor’s Note: A slightly different version of this story appeared in the latest edition of Noise & Color, which hit the stands on Friday. You really should check out the whole issue.