St. Mary’s Church stands at the corner of White and 15th Street, where its steeple has towered over Dubuque’s Washington Neighborhood for 150 years. The church was built to serve a prominently German Catholic population and for decades it was the physical, social and cultural center of a compact, working-class neighborhood. Millwork plants, furniture makers, foundries, the Dubuque Pack, and many other factories were within walking distance and jobs, though not always well paid, were at least easy to come by.
In the 1970s, 80s and 90s, following an economic downturn, most of the old factories along the river either closed or moved. With these closings, many Washington Neighborhood residents moved on as well. The new residents who took their place increasingly had little or no connection to St. Mary’s church or school. As a result, the congregation shrank. In 2002 St. Mary’s school closed and in 2010 the church followed.
What was once a white, predominately German Catholic neighborhood has today evolved into the most diverse neighborhood in Dubuque. As a low-income neighborhood, it has experienced its fair share of crime and absent landlords. This, coupled with lower achieving schools, has left the neighborhood with an image problem, setting it apart from the rest of the city.
This project is an attempt to document the architecture, history and the people connected with this neighborhood in transition. As St. Mary’s itself finds new life as an event center and community gathering space, the neighborhood surrounding it is also evolving, though its future is less certain. Multiple efforts are being made through public private partnerships to revitalize once thriving commercial areas and rehabilitate and restore historic homes that line its streets.
This project is a collaboration between Tim Olson, Steeple Square and Humanities Iowa, with additional support from the City of Dubuque Arts and Culture and Mediacom.
Tim Olson, 2017
Twenty Photographs of St. Mary’s