Dinkytown’s past meets students’ present

We are connected to the space that we move through each day.

Most University of Minnesota students have shopped, eaten, or studied in Dinkytown, and many live near or pass through the neighborhood every day. For most students living in Minneapolis, Dinkytown plays a supportive role in University life and is intrinsically connected with campus life and the student experience.

However, few students consider the history of the commercial district, or give much thought to the stories that the built environment can tell.

Clues to times past abound if you just look up: The word drugs is painted on the glass façade over the entrance to the Loring Pasta Bar, hotel is printed down the brick side of the Dinkydale building, and Simms Hardware can be seen above the awnings of Espresso Royale. What can these clues tell us about the Dinkytown of earlier generations?

No question is too big: How have students and business owners of the past participated in the creation of the Dinkytown of today? How do memories attach themselves to places and create layers of meanings over time?

In one history class this fall, students will investigate several aspects of the history of Dinkytown in order to engage some of these questions.

Public History (HIST 3001) will ask students to work in collaborative groups with Dinkytown businesses, organizations, and community members to create exhibitions to be displayed at the opening of the Bob Dylan exhibit at the Weisman Museum in March 2007.

Unlike other history classes, the projects will include oral history, ethnography and exhibit fabrication, in addition to archival research. In cooperation with community partners, students will choose an issue of particular interest to them and begin to explore.

Curious about the vaudeville performances held at the Varsity Theater? What happened to all of the railroad workers who used to live in the neighborhood? Where did Bob Dylan perform in his early years (and get booed off the stage)?

This course allows students to direct their own explorations; there is no textbook or data set to work from, so students make their own path in uncharted territory. This means bringing together materials that have never been published and may be scattered in private attics or stored only in memory.

Yet learning the stories that Dinkytown has to tell is only the tip of the iceberg. Dinkytown has been and continues to be a complex place of multiple and sometimes conflicting perspectives, memories and opinions.

Part of the challenge of public history is to present the diversity of perspectives on local history in a way that makes a difference. The exhibitions to be created by public history students will seek to prompt others to think critically about the built environment of Dinkytown and their place within it.

Why does this matter? By investigating the past around us, we can feel connected to the space that we move through each day and become more invested in its present condition.

This not only means cleaner sidewalks and friendlier neighbors, but also an awareness of how to take initiative and make a difference in the places that most directly affect your daily life. What do you want Dinkytown to be like in the next five or 10 years?

Thinking about where Dinkytown has been and how and why it has changed (or stayed the same) not only tells us about the consequences of past actions, but also what is possible in the future. Asking about the meanings in the spaces around you and listening for the stories it can tell will certainly address one important question: To whom does the history and future of Dinkytown belong? To those who claim it.

Lisa Blee is a graduate instructor at the University. Please send comments to [email protected]