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Dinkytown at night.

Dinkytown as destination is the latest incarnation for this ever-changing neighborhood.

Dinkytown lights up again

by Martha Coventry

From M, fall 2007

Some of us are slightly embarrassed to admit that, in the 1960s and '70s, we chose to come to the University of Minnesota because of Dinkytown. It was Greenwich Village a mere few hours from our hometowns, and we hoped its cachet would rub off on us. Dinkytown has morphed over the years from groovy street scene to purveyor of practical goods to nightlife hot spot. Dinkytown's latest incarnation makes it a destination not just for students, who still fill its bars at night, but also for their parents--some who walked its sidewalks dazzled by dreams three or four decades ago and are now returning to eat its imaginative food and linger over a glass of wine. "Dinkytown has changed as it has needed to change," says Skott Johnson, president of the Dinkytown Business Association for 16 years, on and off. Dinkytown used to be a residential/commercial district with plenty of stores to serve the surrounding neighborhood. Then the face of retail changed, and Dinkytown had to follow. When the nearby Quarry shopping center--with its "big box" stores--opened in the late 1990s, it was the "nail in the coffin" for Dinkytown as a basic needs supplier, says Johnson. Students now make "Target runs" and drive, not walk, to get what they need. But as these customers were driving away from Dinkytown, others started driving toward it. Dinkytown's basic entrepreneurial spirit kicked in and helped the crossroads reinvent itself once again. "Entertainment has blossomed in places like [Minneapolis's] warehouse district, and Dinkytown went right along with this trend," says Johnson. "More people are traveling greater distances to come here." Jason MacLean helped foster the latest Dinkytown renaissance in 2000 when he moved his Loring Park restaurant to the old Gray's Drug building, which he renovated into the theater set called the Loring Pasta Bar. In 2003 he opened the bohemian Kitty Cat Klub. And in 2005, he reopened the Varsity Theater as an entertainment venue where local bands play, the Bell Museum hosts its Caf? Scientifique lectures, and lines form down the block. The now popular Kaf? 421 occupies the space of a former hardware store, which Georgia Sanders transformed into an inviting, attractive restaurant six years ago. "I wanted to come here because of the social climate," Sanders says. Students come during the day, and their parents show up in the evening to eat her first-rate food or sit at her new wine bar. The University has embraced Sanders, too, and her food turns up at catered events all over campus. Dinkytown's streets are now busy every night, with different age groups claiming their own time slots. Places like Mesa, which sells slices of pizza, do more business from 1 to 3 a.m., after the bars close, than during lunch or dinnertime. In 1978 business owners had a marketing campaign featuring T-shirts saying, "Dinkytown USA, 'Where it's at!'" Those T-shirts would work today. There's an energy in Dinkytown that's been absent since student protests filled the neighborhood. And although Dinkytown is cleaner now, odd and indecipherable characters still set it apart from anywhere else in the city. Like the young man with a peacock feather stuck in his giant Afro who sits nearly every day, shirt open to the navel, outside the Kitty Cat Klub, carefully smoking a cigarette and reading a book, a perpetual ironic smile on his face. Plus ?a change, plus c'est la m?me chose.

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