Preserving historic Dinkytown owes a debt to efforts by a local grassroots organization.
When Ardes Johnson (B.A. ’57, M.A. ’70) arrived at the University of Minnesota in 1953, she lived in Sanford Hall, but many of her college memories are linked to Dinkytown. She remembers a neighborhood packed with an ecosystem of small businesses, including restaurants run by Greek families—today, Tony’s Diner on Fourth Street is owned by a grandson of one of those restauranteurs—as well as Meyer’s Grocery, Simms Hardware, and the shops in Dinkydale. There were no bars, though, because at the time it wasn’t legal to sell alcohol within a mile of the University.
After moving to the East Coast for graduate school and then working abroad, Johnson moved back to Minnesota in 1990. She purchased a townhouse in the neighborhood that held so many special memories, although that building was eventually torn down in 2013 to build Radius, a student apartment building managed by the University.
Today Johnson lives nearby in west Marcy-Holmes. And as a trustee of the grassroots organization Preserving Historic Dinkytown, she believes passionately that the neighborhood’s unique history is not only worth preserving, but central to its future.
“I think many alumni of the University link their Dinkytown experiences with their school experiences,” she says. “That is what we are trying to preserve.”
Indeed, the buildings and sidewalks just to the north of University Avenue hold stories that are both personal and historic. In the 1870s, the neighborhood was the terminus of the first horsecar line route and went on to become a hub for the metro area’s streetcars. As the streetcar line and the University grew, so did Dinkytown, where the majority of the commercial buildings at the intersection of Fourth Street and 14th Avenue SE were built between 1900 and 1920.
Dinkytown and Safety
Post pandemic, concerns arose about safety in Dinkytown and surrounding areas that lie outside of campus proper, but are near U of M grounds. The U of M has been working with Minneapolis police and businesses on a project called Dinkytown Safe Streets, to improve lighting, increase patrols, and implement other safety measures. In addition, the Department of Public Safety partnered with the City of Minneapolis to offer Dinkytown Alerts to enhance communication with the campus community about safety in a limited area of Dinkytown.
The Star Tribune editorial board wrote on July 31 that concerns about the area have mitigated. The editorial quoted Erin Brumm, leader of a concerned community group called the Campus Safety Coalition, who noted “things are going in the right direction.”
You can learn more about these and other ongoing efforts at safe-campus.umn.edu.
Former Vice President Hubert Humphrey planned his 1952 presidential run in a Dinkytown apartment. In 1959, a U of M student named Robert Zimmerman lived above Gray’s Campus Drug. (He changed his name to Bob Dylan and got his start playing music at the nearby Ten O’Clock Scholar coffeehouse.) In the 1960s and 1970s, the neighborhood was synonymous with social justice movements. Both the Loft Literary Center and the MSP Film Society were founded in Dinkytown.
Today, Dinkytown has undergone a construction boom, mostly in large buildings for student housing, but the buildings at the intersection of Fourth Street and 14th Avenue still have the bones of what stood there a century ago, thanks to being designated a historic district by the city of Minneapolis in 2015. The area was singled out for its relationship to the streetcar era—the Fourth Street Streetcar Line was one of the oldest in the city and dates to the 1870s, according to Rob Skalecki (M.A. ’19), a city planner and historic preservationist for Minneapolis.
“The commercial districts that grew up around Fourth Street Southeast and 14th Avenue Southeast really reflect the growth of the University at the beginning of the 20th century,” he says. “And we see a social history there, a commercial history that is still present in a lot of these buildings.”
The city is currently drafting design guidelines for the historic district, which is regulated by the National Park Service, to help building owners retain the historic character of the area. Skalecki estimates that the guidelines will be released to the public this year.
The Dinkytown Uprising
Among the most indelible memories of Dinkytown for students who were at the University in early 1970 is what has come to be known as the Dinkytown Uprising. See photos and learn more.
One organization that will be following these guidelines is the University itself: This past March the U of M purchased the building that formerly housed Gray’s Campus Drug, which closed in 1998 and then became the Loring Pasta Bar. The University plans to lease the space to a sit-down restaurant to expand dining options in a neighborhood that’s dominated by fast casual restaurants and bars.
“This historically charming neighborhood and commercial center is an asset to the University and the entire Minneapolis community,” says Leslie Krueger, the University’s assistant vice president for planning, space, and real estate. “We wanted to make sure that we were preserving that sit-down restaurant feel for Dinkytown that will allow students to go on a first date, where faculty can go for lunch or after work for dinner, where folks who are coming to basketball have a place to go for dinner before the game. We want to make sure that we have a range of commercial uses and that we are preserving that historically charming asset that’s on the doorstep of our campus.”
That the University is investing in Dinkytown is welcome news to the people at Preserving Historic Dinkytown, including Kristen Eide-Tollefson (M.P.A. ’05). Eide-Tollefson is a founding proprietor of the Book House, which opened in 1976 when independent bookstores were scattered throughout the neighborhood. The store operated for 37 years in the building that also housed the Podium guitar shop and House of Hanson grocery store. Then, in 2013, that building was razed to build a multiuse structure that includes retail and student housing. That event was the impetus for the launch of Preserving Historic Dinkytown and the campaign for historic designation of the neighborhood’s central commercial intersection.
Today, the Book House operates upstairs in Dinkydale on Fourth Street. This “new” location pulses with the energy of the past, not only in the volumes of used and rare books but also the flyers and posters that line the stairwell. The bookstore also houses Preserving Historic Dinkytown’s archives.
“I was motivated to [preserve] Dinkytown because of having been in the bookstore for all these decades and having students come in, generation after generation, and tell me how important the neighborhood is to them,” says Eide-Tollefson. “That really still moves me. I did not want that to be lost. Dinkytown is about hanging out. College is about hanging out. And that’s one of the pieces of our history.”
Ed. Note: If you’d like to learn even more about Dinkytown, alumnus Bill Huntzicker (M.A. ‘76, Ph.D. ‘76) wrote a 2016 book called Dinkytown: Four Blocks of History, which is available via Amazon or Kindle.