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Positively Fourth Street

Though some of the bohemian vibe from Bob Dylan's day remains, Minneapolis's Dinkytown district by the University of Minnesota has been redeveloped and reinvented.

Positively Fourth Street

Uptown has Lake Calhoun, Summit Avenue has its mansions, Nordeast has its retro dive bars and the Art-A-Whirl gallery event. But Minneapolis’s Dinkytown can say that it’s been the partial subject of an art exhibit.

A tribute to the distinctive Minneapolis commercial district snuggled next to the University of Minnesota was a key part of the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum’s 2007 exhibition, “Bob Dylan’s American Journey, 1956–1966.” One of the show’s highlights was a 1960 recording of Dylan playing in the living room of someone’s Dinkytown apartment, shortly before he left his home state and moved to Greenwich Village.

Even though Dinkytown once saw a young Dylan roaming its streets (his classic song “Positively Fourth Street” may have referred, in part, to the district’s main drag), to say that it has ever been the Twin Cities’ version of the Village may be going too far. To several generations of University of Minnesota students, Dinkytown’s compact commercial node and its long-established independent businesses—like Al’s Breakfast, Annie’s Parlour, and the House of Hanson grocery store—seemed much like the hometown Main Streets that they left behind.

Its geography, with the U of M’s East Bank campus on its south, train yards to its north and east, and Interstate 35W on its west, effectively isolated Dinkytown and the adjacent Marcy-Holmes residential neighborhood, leaving them somewhat immune to forces changing the rest of the city. It still takes something of a special effort to get there.

(The origins of the area’s name aren’t certain. The most widely accepted theory is that it refers to the little trolleys, nicknamed “dinkies,” that were plentiful there decades ago.)

Along with typical Main Street-style businesses within its four square blocks, Dinkytown has always included college bars and countercultural establishments: head shops, used book and record stores, and eclectic clothing shops. It remains a unique mix of the staid and the psychedelic, a homey and unpretentious base covered with a veneer of bohemia.

But in the last few years, Dinkytowners say, there have been some changes. The district is emerging as a citywide nighttime dining and entertainment destination. The construction of the nearby TCF Bank Stadium, which will bring Minnesota Gophers football as well as other events to campus starting next fall, is increasing Dinkytown’s exposure to people who may have never seen it—as well as to those who, like Bob Dylan, have left it behind after brief stops years ago.

If its evolution into an entertainment hotspot means Dinkytown will become as expensive as Uptown and St. Paul’s Grand Avenue in terms of retail and office space—well, that hasn’t happened yet. Neighborhood business leaders say that’s one of the best things about Dinkytown: It hasn’t been “discovered.”

“It’s still affordable in Dinkytown,” says Dinkytown Business Association President Skott Johnson, who has owned Autographics Printing on Fourth Street since 1989. “These buildings are older, and there’s not a lot that the landlords can do as far as putting improvements into the buildings. But they work.”

Johnson notes that despite its small size, there are anywhere from 80 to 120 businesses in Dinkytown. “They’re tucked away in corners and basements—some of them are just one or two people, a mom-and-pop business in one room,” he says.

Jerry Raskin has operated NeedleDoctor out of one of Dinkytown’s many small storefronts since 1979. According to Raskin, NeedleDoctor offers the world’s largest selection of needles, cartridges, and turntables to vinyl enthusiasts worldwide. (One of its items is a Clearaudio Goldfinger phono cartridge that sells for $10,000.) The store’s size belies its sales: NeedleDoctor does most of its sales on line.

Other firms have “graduated” from the small-scale quarters Dinkytown provides. Case in point is Chowgirls Killer Catering, which founders Amy Lynn Brown and Heidi Andermack opened on a shoestring in 2004. The company’s first digs were located in “Dinkydale,” an old building on Fourth Street that has long been a warren of small nooks and crannies where a variety of small, often offbeat businesses have germinated. Specializing in local, organic, and seasonal ingredients, Chowgirls outgrew its Dinkydale nook; in 2008, it moved to larger quarters in Northeast.

It’s not just retailers who can get their start (or stay and prosper) in Dinkytown. At the University Technology Enterprise Center, pretty much anyone with a business dream and a few dollars can rent a 500-square-foot office (or larger) in the former Marshall-University High School at 1313 Fifth Street. Called Utec for short, the place has incubated hundreds of start-ups, reflecting Dinkytown’s continuing appeal to young entrepreneurs.

“Dinkytown’s office customer base will probably always be students and nonprofits who don’t have a lot of money, and we can offer them good space and flexible terms,” says Doug Walker, Utec’s senior property manager. “We make it easy for people to expand and contract, depending on what’s going on in their business. Some tenants have been here for 20 years, some are brand new.”

Marshall-University became Utec four years after the high school closed in 1982. Utec’s most famous alumnus is probably Sistina Software, which developed data storage software based on the Linux operating system. It was purchased by North Carolina–based Linux developer Red Hat in 2003 for $31 million. Another Utec alum is New Boundary Technologies, whose software allows users to control their computer networks remotely. In 2002, New Boundary moved to larger headquarters at the Broadway Corporate Center in Northeast Minneapolis.

In addition to software providers and education-based businesses, Utec’s diverse tenant base includes attorneys, nonprofit organizations, and alternative medicine providers such as acupuncturists, massage therapists, and chiropractors.

Walker says that Dinkytown is one of the friendliest areas for small business in all of Minneapolis, where someone can gain a first toehold on the business ladder—basically an office and a phone line for the cost of a security deposit—in a safe neighborhood.

“We’re not 100 percent full, but we’re always getting more tenants,” he says. “With us, we can offer very nice office space with no credit checks—all they need to do is verify they are who they say they are and come up with a security deposit, which is one month’s rent.”

Though retail and office space are flourishing in their modest way in Dinkytown, there are signs also that its future is in restaurants and entertainment.

 

The proliferation of eateries in the last five or six years has been tremendous by neighborhood standards. Johnson says that Dinkytown now has 33 restaurants, many of them attached to bars.

“The late-night activity has really surged in recent years,” he says. “If you talk to a number of the restaurants, they’ll tell you they make more money from midnight to 3 a.m. than they do from lunch business on school days. The bars and clubs have entertainment going until 2 a.m., and there are a lot of people. Not just students, but people who come in from around town.” He cites Kafé 421, the Purple Onion Café, and the Burrito Loco as destination spots.

“Even the coffeehouses are great places to come to—they’re full, they’re comfortable,” Johnson says. “They’re all enjoying late-night activity. On a late night where I’m working on a project in the print shop, I’m just amazed at the people on the sidewalks.”

Perhaps the key catalyst for Dinkytown’s evolution into something of a dining hotspot opened in 2001 at the site of the former Gray’s Campus Drugs (a spot fondly remembered by baby-boomer U students) at Fourth and 14th. Writing in September 2007, Star Tribune restaurant critic Rick Nelson credited the Loring Pasta Bar with bringing Dinkytown “roar[ing] back to life” as a dining destination.

The man behind the Loring Pasta Bar, Jason McLean, became locally famous for opening the “bohemian” Loring Café and Bar in Minneapolis, which in the 1980s played a major role in building up Loring Park. McLean’s concept combined an eclectic theater company with a scene-creating bar and restaurant. A year before he was forced to close in Loring Park in 2002, McLean opened the Loring Pasta Bar in Dinkytown—a familiar area to him, since he’d attended Marshall-University High School. Since 2005, McLean has also controlled the nearby Varsity Theater, the former Dinkytown movie palace that he’s now using to stage independent music concerts, live theater performances, and catered events. It’s drawing people from other parts of the city to Dinkytown.

“Great area, great crossroads, a spectacularly large, ever-renewing source of new blood at the U of M, new customer traffic that changes over every four years,” McLean says of the location. “You’ve got a new customer base, so to speak.” McLean adds that the students are just part of that base: “I adhere to further development of the original Loring Café philosophy that you want to make a setting that will bring people from all walks of life together.”

McLean believes that Dinkytown has a ways to go to realize its potential. He’d like to see more independent retailers and fewer franchises, as well as fewer bars that cater to the “drink till you drop” student crowd—an “awful” phenomenon, he says.

 

Not far away from the Loring Pasta Bar, another newcomer is making his presence felt. Commercial developer Kelly Doran, founder and chief manager of Bloomington-based Doran Companies, is taking another famous Dinkytown structure, the “Dinkydome,” and renovating it as part of a $40 million redevelopment plan that will also include a 14-story apartment building and 14,000 square feet of new retail space. The Dinkydome building, opened in 1918 as the Minnesota Bible College, has been home to an eclectic and ever-changing variety of businesses and restaurants for four decades. Its dome is a neighborhood landmark.

Doran’s proposed move into Dinkytown (construction is to begin this fall after a legal challenge slowed the project down) is only the second by a major developer since the 1960s. 1301 University, a 92-unit apartment building designed by Minneapolis-based UrbanWorks Architecture that houses the Purple Onion Café. opened in 2004. Together they point to another new direction for Dinkytown: upscale student housing. Doran’s project, if built, could join other new U of M–area student housing projects, including one by Opus Northwest in the Stadium Village neighborhood and another by developer Bob Lux on the West Bank.

“The private sector is really only now getting into providing amenity-style housing for college students,” Doran says. “The market is moving. The days of students being happy living in tenements are over. They want the kinds of amenities they’re used to.” Good new housing in Dinkytown will also help the U of M recruit top students, he asserts.

The largest new building in the area, of course, is TCF Bank Stadium, which will open its gates for the first time this September 12, when the Golden Gophers take on Air Force. How will the stadium affect nearby Dinkytown? “That’s going to be a wait-and-see thing,” says the Dinkytown Business Association’s Skott Johnson. “I wouldn’t put a lot of money into a big bar not knowing how traffic patterns are going to shake out, as well as not knowing how much the U is going to use it.”

Johnson says that the Gophers playing just down Fourth Street would definitely bring people into Dinkytown during Saturday game days, but its real impact may depend on what else happens in the 50,000-seat venue. So far, university athletic department officials have discussed staging an outdoor Gophers Hockey game in the stadium, as well as unspecified “major campus events.”

Doran doesn’t think that the stadium will bring in new businesses to the area, at least not on its own. “The retailer won’t go to Dinkytown because the stadium is there,” he says. “They’ll go there because the U is there.”

Laurel Bauer, owner of The House of Hanson, says she believes the new stadium will make for some kind of impact on the neighborhood: “On the six Big 10 game days, it will certainly make a difference.”

Bauer thinks Dinkytown could benefit from any additional traffic from the stadium. “We have a lot to offer,” she says. “We’re a gem in the rough.”

 

Battle of The Barn

In 1970, “commercial” and “development” were fighting words in Dinkytown.


Nowadays, U of M students think of the Barn as Williams Arena, where the basketball Gophers play. But in 1970, the term had more sinister connotations—at least among a feisty group of students and their supporters.

The Red Barn chain has been stuffed into an overflowing dustbin of restaurant history that includes Howard Johnson’s and Henry’s Hamburgers. But at the end of the 1960s, it was a national phenomenon big enough to advertise on television; in the Twin Cities, there were at one time five locations, mostly within the cities’ limits. One was on Oak Street in Minneapolis’s Stadium Village. In March 1970, developers evicted five small businesses from a Fourth Street building that would be torn down for a new Red Barn.

Enraged by what they saw as a corporate chain evicting local independent businesses in “their” neighborhood (and undoubtedly on edge for other reasons, notably the Vietnam War), a group of young people took to the streets to protest. Several dozen took over the empty building, renaming it a “People’s Hotel.” The battle heated up after May 4, 1970, the day four students were shot and killed at Kent State University in Ohio. Two days later, police used force to remove the “hotel’s” guests. Meanwhile, another group gathered at the Oak Street Red Barn, shouting slogans and smashing windows.

In August 1971, the developers decided that building a Dinkytown Barn would be more trouble than it was worth, and abandoned their efforts. A year later, Dinkytown would be the site of an even bigger protest—disruptive demonstrations against the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong Harbor that would cause the area to be fogged by tear gas.

As for the Red Barn chain, it went into decline in the late 1970s and the Twin Cities locations were closed. The Stadium Village Red Barn is now the Lotus Vietnamese restaurant—you can still see the “barn” behind the façade. In Dinkytown, a post office and New Age shop sit on what would have been the Red Barn’s site. As for chain restaurants, McDonald’s and Potbelly have had better luck in Dinkytown.

—Gene Rebeck

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