Dinkytown: a slow evolution into hearts

Jared Roddy

Dinkytown is a tiny urban refuge of chipped paint and cracked masonry that has changed little in the last 100 years. The stacked storefronts and cramped spaces that line the streets will remain a haven for students and alumni.

In the opinion of some of its older tenants, the little city that nestled itself next to the University more than a century ago is making a slow evolution to hold a place in the hearts of its patrons.

Today, Dinkytown is an eclectic mix of stores, restaurants and service industries, gathered within walking distance of the tens of thousands of University students and staff.

Transported back in time, few current patrons would have had trouble finding their way through the familiar little town.

But certainly, someone from today might look out of place a century ago. In the 1930s, Dayton’s (now Marshall Field’s) and Al Johnson sold fine clothing to University men and women along 14th Avenue Southeast.

But, as Dinkytown Business Association President Skott Johnson said, as times changed, the stores moved on.

“Back in those days, all the young men wore slacks and ties to go to school; then they bought a nice suit after they graduated,” Skott Johnson said. “Now, the University is pretty casual.”

Character

Since she began working in her father’s store in 1969, Laurel Bauer has seen Dinkytown from the eyes of a teenager, college student and business owner.

Her father owned the House of Hanson until 1997, when he sold it to her.

She said the atmosphere of Dinkytown and its general feel have managed to stay constant since she worked there in seventh grade.

“The businesses have managed to stay fairly independent,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of chains in here.”

Bauer said even the chain stores in Dinkytown have been there a long time.

“I remember that McDonald’s sign saying ‘3 million served,’ ” she said.

Dinkytown Optical owner Larry Zidel has operated a shop off of Fourth Street Southeast for more than 30 years. He

said Dinkytown has always felt the same – which is one reason he is still there – but the shopping options have become limited.

“It’s not the thriving retail area it used to be,” Zidel said. “I feel it’s sort of becoming restaurants and services now.”

Skott Johnson, a 1977 University alumnus, said he remembers the various shops and retailers that lined the streets of Dinkytown.

“The success of Dinkytown was because a lot of people needed that stuff within walking distance,” he said. “More students drive now.”

Kristen Eide-Tollefson, owner of The Bookhouse, also said she lamented the loss of retailers.

“Dinkytown isn’t as self-contained as it used to be, and the Quarry (shopping center) kind of did that,” Eide-Tollefson said. “But I’m pleased how we’ve moved toward service and restaurants without losing the character of the neighborhood.”

That character, Eide-Tollefson said, dealt with Dinkytown’s image as a destination. She said people came to Dinkytown because it was a place to exchange ideas.

“It’s wonderful,” she said. “You see young people pick up old ideas and start thinking about them again.”

Construction

One thing that truly endures in Dinkytown is its look. Photographs from 1905 show that the corner of 14th Avenue Southeast and Fourth Street Southeast is virtually unchanged today.

Fifty years later, other photos showing streetcar tracks note the biggest difference in an otherwise unaltered panorama. The Purple Onion Cafe still has the same awning that protesters huddled under during Vietnam War demonstrations, when it was Bridgeman’s Ice Cream Shoppe.

But the buildings are beginning to show their age, Skott Johnson said.

“Ten or 15 years ago you would have called them quaint,” he said. “But a lot of them could use an upgrade.”

Skott Johnson said the business association has redone several store fronts and the Varsity Theater’s marquis using Minneapolis Neighborhood Revitalization Program funds.

But the age of the buildings is the only reason many can afford to rent retail space, Skott Johnson said. Some said higher rent has altered those who can afford to do business in Dinkytown.

“For years, if you had $500 and an idea, you could open a business in Dinkytown,” said Jim Picard, Fast Eddie’s Shoe Repair owner. “Now, it’s pretty much only chains that can afford a spot on the street.”

Customers

Many Dinkytown business owners said that although styles and storefronts change, students really do not.

Frank Vescio Jr.’s family owns Vescio’s Italian Restaurant. He has been working there since its opening in 1956 and said students remain largely the same – cheap.

“Students don’t have a lot of money to spend,” Vescio said. “They’re as frugal as they’ve ever been.”

Regardless of students’ purported frugality, Zidel’s business plan has been the same since he opened his optical store.

“We’re all selling cars or glasses,” he said. “In the end, it’s who you’re comfortable with.”

Customers have also come to The Bookhouse for a consistent reason, Eide-Tollefson said.

“A lot of what Dinkytown is is the memories,” she said. “And at the same time, you have to change and meet new demands.”

Unfortunately, Skott Johnson said, the number of students in Dinkytown has changed. He said foot traffic has diminished because much of the free parking, once available in the Marcy- Holmes neighborhood, now does not exist. With less nearby parking, students find other ways to get to campus.

But for those who still wander Dinkytown’s streets, business owners said there is something that draws them into the local stores and keeps them coming back.

“A lot of the customers are the grandchildren of the people who first came through,” Vescio said. “We have a real continuity of customers. Dinkytown has a lot of real loyal people.”

Many said they think what has made Dinkytown work for so long is what will carry it into the next century.

“It’s a small city in a big city,” Skott Johnson said. “It’s hard to grasp a big metro, but if you can hold onto a small corner – it’s almost like Mayberry.”