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The West Bank says goodbye to Chester’s hippie wonderland

Chester and Marsha were neighborhood legends -- their squatter camp beneath the 10th Avenue Bridge an homage to all things weird and wonderful about the West Bank.

Chester and Marsha were neighborhood legends -- their squatter camp beneath the 10th Avenue Bridge an homage to all things weird and wonderful about the West Bank.

Underneath the 10th Avenue Bridge, hidden in the bramble between River Parkway and the mighty Mississippi, is a squatter compound built from wooden pallets, antique trucks, and a construction shack left over from the I-35W bridge rebuild.

Like a magpie’s nest, it’s strewn with treasures. Leather armchairs half overtaken by nature. Oriental rugs. Sheets of picket fencing draped with kid-sized sneakers. Chipped Christmas ornaments. A sort of karmic iconography – mandalas, dreamcatchers, and bike spokes chiming with seashells and buttons – repeats itself throughout the rummage.

Up until his death three years ago, this was the kingdom of homeless hippie Chester, née Bruce Nelson, a.k.a. Mayor of the West Bank.

Neighborhood lore has it that Chester took up residence sometime in the 1990s. Through the decades, he’d wander around Dinkytown and Cedar-Riverside, busk on the Stone Arch Bridge, and doodle on cocktail napkins at the Hard Times Café. He’d shovel snow for West Bank businesses and chase off the riff-raff trying to break into cars. There was no one who did not recognize his top hat, big gray beard, and spectral coat.

“Lots of drunken fiascos” was how local drifter Fat Chick Rick got to know Chester. “A lot of us worked in the junkyard, and we’d come down here after work. We’d drink, fight, fuck, and just have a good old time. Nobody would ever stop us. That’s just how it was back then.”

Chester also had a longtime female companion, Marsha Harvey, a fiery Bohemienne from Sauk Rapids who performed with the Minstrels of Mayhem at the Renaissance Fair. She raised cats, played the violin like she’d been classically trained, and – according to Fat Chick Rick – would clock Chester’s buddies with a frying pan if they got him too drunk.

“She was very, very sweet. When a friend of mine needed a little repair on his jean jacket, she gave it back to him two weeks later and it was completely covered in embroidery, and buttons, and beads. It was exquisite,” says Daniel Polnau, a puppeteer with In the Heart of the Beast.

“But boy, she also had an incredible temper if she felt wronged. She had no filter. I actually found it really wonderful and thrilling to be dressed down by Marsha. … It was amazing. She was amazing.”

When the I-35W bridge collapsed in 2007, the reconstruction crew wanted Chester and Marsha turned out of camp for good. Ward 2 Councilmember Cam Gordon quietly arranged for their return at the project’s completion. So there they lived, unmolested, in one of Minneapolis’ last remaining reliquaries of untamed creativity.

Marsha inherited the camp after Chester died in 2015. This summer, she too passed away on site. Friends held a memorial for the two at Palmer’s Bar sometime in September.

On Thursday morning, they gathered again to bid a final farewell to the place Chester and Marsha left behind. Upgrades are coming to the 10th Avenue Bridge, so the camp will soon be razed.

Mary Jane LaVigne, owner of the offbeat art gallery House of Balls, made sure the city contacted her first. Because Marsha was very protective of Chester and never liked him to drink and smoke, he’d wander over to the gallery and have a morning brew on the gallery’s big split pine bench. He’d give LaVigne some of his hand-drawn comics. They ended up becoming friends.

LaVigne invited neighbors to walk through, take mementos, and share stories. And a lot of what people remembered circled around Marsha’s music, Chester’s art, and the mythic drama of their unusual but lasting relationship.

Councilman Gordon’s policy aide, Robin Garwood, recalls that when Chester would stop by to shoot the shit, he’d often just want someone to listen to him talk about Marsha. One particularly memorable day, Chester sought shelter at City Hall because some college students had given him $20 to take his picture, while Marsha had only earned a couple bucks busking in the street for hours. She was not happy. But Chester felt he couldn't help it that people just seemed to like him.

“In many respects, I feel like they’re a dying breed,” said Polnau in his final send-off. “And I think of the West Bank, what it was. We’re in a strange back eddy. It’s kind of a privilege to be standing here right now. It’s about Chester and Marsha and it’s also about something much bigger, a deeper current that’s disappearing in this world.”