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Once upon a time, Dinkytown was something. Dinkytown was special. It had little nooks where you could hole up and nurse a coffee for a whole night without the help giving you a barbed look. It had entertainment — real music, not something coming out of a machine — and stores where the merchants sold stuff you couldn’t find anywhere else. It was a different place. It had a ragged, happy character. It was a community. Today? Seems like we’ve lost some of that. Maybe too much.

This is what I was told when I moved to Dinkytown. In 1978. That’s the year the Dinkytown Business Association invested in civic improvements like faux pavements and brand-new trash cans. They had a slogan: DINKYTOWN USA: WHERE IT’S AT! What IT was they didn’t specify, and where IT was AT exactly you had to guess, but if you lived there, you agreed.

Dinkytown was a small town transplanted into a big city. A company town for the U.

The Perfect Dinkytown always existed in some wondrous past where you happened to be about 22 and unencumbered by responsibilities. Is it different now? Yes. Worse? Hardly. But the pace of change will slow, because the City Council last month voted unanimously to make it a Historic District — a peculiar designation for a place almost devoid of historic architecture.

It’s a basic example of a dense, early 20th-century commercial district, but is that enough? Perhaps it’s a way of turning nostalgia into law: For visiting U of M alum, Dinkytown still looks like it did when you were young. Residents are sentimental, too, of course, but they also feared that the pace of change would swamp Dinkytown’s scale and charm. A six-story hotel/residential project foundered last year after neighborhood complaints, but neighborhood ire didn’t abate. Keep Dinkytown somewhat dinky! they said, and the City Council — bending to the will of people who actually live there — bestowed its historic status.

The new projects were big and dense — what we’re supposed to want in cities these days. New residents mean more vitality, more stores. You can imagine a developer yanking out his hair and pointing to ramshackle old structures and saying really, this? This is what you want to preserve? What can possibly be so special about this?”

It’s not that it’s special. It’s just that it’s Dinkytown. It’s not supposed to be Uptown; it’s not supposed to be all new, up-to-the-minute. Much of the neighborhood has ramshackle housing stock that looks one poorly attended candle away from a four-alarm fire. I lived in a house that once belonged to the university president, decades ago; it had been carved up into Sheetrock cells. The house next door, known as the Cathouse, housed another dozen people — students, dishwashers, people who drifted in and out of the U. Both houses were razed for an enormous block of apartments, the sort of dense urban beehives we’re supposed to celebrate.

And I suppose we should: It bumped up the population of Dinkytown tenfold. We lost nothing but a beer-soaked wreck that was begging to be relieved of the long burdens of gravity. There are still lots of houses like that in the area, but you know how that goes: People move in for the quaint funky places, someone builds housing to accommodate the newcomers, and eventually all the funky quaintness is lost to new buildings.

This isn’t always bad. Take the House of Hanson building, recently lost for a big new apartment with an upscale Goodwill on the ground floor. It was the worst sort of ’70s building, a row of brick arches that made each store look like some prehistoric cave. But it had the Bookhouse, with the carts outside heaped with cast-off unloved volumes, and if you stepped through the front door you entered a labyrinth perfumed with that old-paper aroma.

These places only seem to thrive around the fringes of a university. You can applaud the demolition of an undistinguished structure and the erection of a dense residential project, but some 20th-century college character was lost for good.

If you went to the U in the early ’80s, and killed some time with a cup of Burger King coffee at the pebbled tables on 14th Avenue, you might be able to remember the tenants of the stores across the street, which were much more diverse and useful than the current tenants. Gordon’s Campus Bakery: oh, those doughnuts. Tonto’s Taco Shoppe, with its incendiary green-chili burrito. (Later Rocky Rococo’s Pizza: oh, man, a chain? Dinkytown is ruined.) Simm’s Hardware, where you could buy a mousetrap or a screw or an actual tool. The Tub, where you dragged your duffel of odorous clothing and watched the machinery tumble your duds. Jerry Raskin’s needle store, for your phonograph needs.

That was Dinkytown! Right? Depends. On a recent sea voyage I sat at dinner with someone who’d attended the U of M in the years before my tenure. He remembered an entirely different set of names. I showed him some pictures of Dinkytown today, and he smiled to see it again. It was all the same. But everything had changed.

There’s little about Dinkytown that’s architecturally significant. The Varsity Theater, yes: an unmolested example of Liebenberg and Kaplan’s Moderne zest. The old Gray’s Drug is not what she used to be, and that’s good: Renovation for conversion into a restaurant revealed the ancient glass panels over its plate-glass display windows, and now it looks like it did a hundred years ago. The Simm’s Hardware building is a fine example of old commercial/office buildings, and it would be a pity to lose it when progress mows down so many of its brethren.

The chances of that happening soon are now smaller, as are the chances of someone saying they’re going to tear down Al’s Breakfast, but hey, don’t worry, we’ll save the interior and put it in the new building! Really? You’re going to save the grease and the smoke and the sweat and the stains? You can’t.

It’s the intangibles that give a place its character as much as the buildings. It’s the shared history of the residents past and present. Perhaps sentiment is the reason Dinkytown has been declared historic, but that’s always in the mix. There was really nothing special about it for a long, long time — until so many other places faded and fell, and left this place unique. Not for its treasures, but for its shopworn, everyday ordinariness. No other small town in Minnesota has so many former citizens, and like all small towns you leave, you want to know it’s still there. Dinkytown, USA. Where it’s at!

And where it was.

James Lileks • 612-673-7858