Dinkytown is low-stress but high-traffic

Joe Carlson

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a weekly series, discussing the diverse neighborhoods surrounding the University’s Twin Cities campus.

On many spring afternoons, Dinkytown becomes a bustling hub of commerce where University and Marcy-Holmes communities overlap.
But unlike many commercial areas, Dinkytown is a people-centered place where most of the issues in the area involve cars — high traffic, parking and bridge construction.
Janet Morse, a local resident for five years, said, “It’s a place to meet friends, buy a book and a good cup of coffee.”
On Thursday, Robert Lindgrom was doing just that.
While drinking a cup of coffee on the sidewalk outside of Espresso Royale Caffe, he read George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” that he purchased that day from Cumming’s Bookstore just down the street.
“What little sense of community there is at the University you can find here,” said Lindgrom, a senior in history and Scandinavian studies.
But the exact “here” people refer to when speaking of Dinkytown varies from person to person. Many people use the term to refer to the general neighborhood north of University Avenue.
The Dinkytown Business Association officially defines the neighborhood as the four-block area from 13th to 15th streets and from Fifth to University avenues.
“We’re considered part of the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood,” said Martha Jirovec, administrative coordinator for the association. “We’re just a business district within it.”
Elements of the Dinkytown community make it unlike most suburban commercial hubs.
“What a shopping mall finds offensive, a community must have,” Lindgrom said.
And one thing that he said suburban malls would definitely find offensive to their sterile, corporate atmospheres are street musicians.

The Anti-Mall
Making it sound as poignant as the first time he ever played it, street musician Jerry Rau sang a familiar tune last week while skillfully strumming his 1974 custom guitar:
“Oh, Susanna, oh don’t you cry for me. Well, I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee.”
He said that although he has seen many places and faces in his travels, he still calls Dinkytown his home.
“I’ve lived in other places like California and Nebraska, but I always find my way back here,” he said.
To Rau, “here” refers to the busy intersection of 14th Avenue and Fifth Street, by far the most-traveled intersection by people and cars in Dinkytown. Warm smiles from passers-by offset the cool April breeze that penetrated Rau’s jacket as he played for their change. He has played at the spot for more than 20 years.
“I like the openness,” Rau said, “the easy way that people seem to look at life.”
That easygoing demeanor helps foster the strong sense of community that Dinkytown regulars enjoy. In fact, that’s one of the major aspects that lends a distinct local flavor to the community of people who gather in the small cluster of old buildings.
“It’s an anomaly in this world,” Rau said. “There isn’t much community, but there’s community here.”
Many people in the community are happy with the fact that there are no metropolitan committees or organizations trying to shape Dinkytown.
“I think that Dinkytown is probably … one of the last truly spontaneous little urban areas left in the Twin Cities,” said Jason Kallsen, a freelance photographer. “It just happens, it’s very organic.”
Kallsen was eating with his 15-month-old boy Spencer at Al’s Breakfast on Friday, where he was previously employed for three years. They ate syrupy pancakes while waiting for Kallsen’s wife Angela to finish her American Indian studies class in Scott Hall.
He said he comes to the area, and Al’s in particular, because he enjoys seeing people that he knows from the community.
“It’s been a very integral part of my life,” Kallsen said. The same sentiment is echoed by members of the neighborhood in which Dinkytown is embedded.

Marcy-Holmes sweet home
The four-block area of shops and restaurants serves not only University students, but indigenous residents as well.
“It’s the commercial hub for Marcy-Holmes,” said Janet Morse, president of the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association.
Traditionally, the neighborhood has been one of the most organized areas in the Twin Cities. “The people in Marcy-Holmes are very dedicated to their neighborhood,” Jirovec said.
As a result, the neighborhood and the Dinkytown business community have maintained a strong relationship through constant communication.
This stable commercial-residential interface makes city life attractive for Morse and approximately 10,000 other people living in the neighborhood. She said she wants to be within walking distance of most of the things she needs for daily life.
“If I can’t buy it in Dinkytown, I probably don’t need it,” Morse said, although she noted a desire among many residents for a larger grocery store.
But the neighborhood is not for everyone, including Kallsen, who lives in St. Paul.
“Marcy-Holmes does a good job of trying to bring back the families, but it’s rental,” Kallsen said. “It’d be great if the place came back as single-family housing, but I don’t see it happening.”
Another major criticism of Dinkytown by both residents and shoppers is heavy traffic.
The steady stream of traffic
Many people in the Dinkytown area resent not just the heavy traffic along the roads that define the area, but the way that area planners have catered to the needs of commuters rather than residents. Approximately 80,000 people commute to the University campus every day. To meet their needs, more than 50 mature boulevard trees were cut down along University avenue, Morse said.
“They’re just passing through and leaving their noise and fumes,” Morse said. “Why should we cater to them?”
One reason their needs are such a high priority is that traffic is vital for some area businesses. This fact has been accentuated by the drop in patronage that area businesses have experienced since the construction project began in late 1995.
“This has really been hard for them,” Morse said. “Lots of businesses have moved out.”
One such business is the National Camera Exchange and Video, which occupied a prime space on Fourth Avenue until Friday, when it was moved out of Dinkytown for financial reasons.
“Since the construction started, there’s been a big decrease in the traffic that comes through here,” said Sean Lafferty, district manager of National’s six Minnesota stores. “That’s the primary reason.”
He said that the decision to move the store, which was made about three weeks ago, was a hard one to make because the location had traditionally been strong in sales in its nearly 15 years in Dinkytown. But there were deeper reasons it was hard also.
“We’ve got emotional ties as well as financial ties here,” Lafferty said. “The owner, his alma mater was the University.”
Kinko’s and Coffee and Tea, Ltd. are among the other commercial victims of the construction project.
But when the railroad bridges are finally completed later this year, the problem will be too many cars, rather than too few.
Traffic hangover
Where there are too many cars, there are inevitably too few places to park them. For a while, the prospect of building a parking ramp in the area was being considered by business owners and residents, but a number of obstacles have fallen in its way, not the least of which is a lack of money.
“If anyone wanted to invest in a parking ramp, I’m sure we would take it,” Jirovec said.
But another, perhaps more important obstacle is a lack of support for the ramp in the surrounding communities. “It would be difficult to get one in because Marcy-Holmes likes their streets quiet,” Jirovec said.
Lindgrom said that he would personally hate to see someone build a Dinkytown parking ramp.
“That’s like 10 times as disgusting as a parking lot,” Lindgrom said. “It’s just another accommodation for them.”
Others like Morse agree that measures should be taken to curb the high level of traffic.
“I think the biggest thing that could help Dinkytown,” Morse said, “is to convert Fourth Street into two-way traffic.”
Although business and city planners have so far rejected plans for structural changes, they have approved a more aesthetic project.
The Dinkytown Streetscape project consists of many visual changes such as scored sidewalks and old-fashioned light posts. Also, the area next to the Facilities Management Building on University Avenue — which is currently occupied by construction vehicles and equipment — will be converted into a small triangle park when the construction is complete.
“This started about five years ago,” Jirovec said. “The property owners and the city got together and said, ‘If we’re going to redo the streets, why not do it right?'”
Rau said that he will continue to play his guitar in Dinkytown no matter what the lampposts look like because it is unlike any other place he has visited.
“It’s a little piece of the way you wish the whole world could be.”