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Dinkytown has a clear sense of its history

map of dinkytown
MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant
Few neighborhoods have as clear a sense of their own history as Dinkytown.

In a recent Minnesota Daily article about the fight over a planned apartment complex in Dinkytown, House of Hanson grocery store owner Laurel Bauer says this: “Everybody is still riled up. People don’t like change. They want Dinkytown to stay exactly as it looks.”

You could interpret this as a criticism – which is how I think Bauer intends it – or as a point of pride. People are protective of Dinkytown, and for good reason. Few neighborhoods outside Summit Avenue have as clear a sense of their own history. Within a one block radius around 4th Street and 14th Avenue last weekend, I came across no fewer than four public markers commemorating very specific aspects of the neighborhood’s history. Not official markers dreamt up by a bureaucrat somewhere, either, but markers put up by local storeowners and residents of their own accord. I defy you to tell me any neighborhood in Minneapolis or St. Paul with a similar density of homemade historical markers. I can’t think of any.

The best part is, these markers commemorate not dull historic events or great statesmen, but the most mundane aspects of everyday life around the margins of a major university: Coffee shops! Restaurants! Student hangouts!

plaque
MinnPost/Andy Sturdevant

Most fascinating and emblematic of this celebration of everyday history is a marker near 4th and 14th commemorating one Sarah Fagan, “pioneer Southeast resident and entrepreneur” – and today, an exceptionally obscure figure.

How obscure? I sure didn’t turn up much information about her. Sarah Fagan seems to have been born right in the neighborhood in 1893. An 1895 state census lists her place of residence at 417 4th Ave. SE, less than a mile from Dinkytown. Three more short stories about the life of Sarah Fagan gleaned through publicly available online records: a court record about a rent dispute from 1937 indicates she owned a store nearby; a few city directories from the ‘40s and ‘50s list her and her brother Edward living on Walnut Street, near the University of Minnesota Medical School; and some public U of M real estate records indicate that property on Walnut was acquired from her and Edward by the U through “condemnation” (that is, eminent domain) in the late ‘50s.

That’s about all my amateur-hour Internet sleuthing can turn up. As the plaque indicated, she died in 1989, and she is buried in St. Anthony Cemetery on Central, but I couldn't find an obituary in the Star Tribune. Sarah Fagan seems to have lived a full, almost century-long life in and around Southeast Minneapolis. Who was Sarah Fagan? She was a neighborhood person, probably someone Dinkytown residents encountered in shops and restaurants and sidewalks every day for eight decades. Sarah Fagan is the sort of public figure I wish there were more tributes to on the walls and street signs of the cities.

window display
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Autographics Printing on 4th has a nice diorama of landscape photographs of 4th Street and Dinkytown in 1995 in its front window.

Looking into the more recent past, Autographics Printing on 4th has a nice diorama of landscape photographs of 4th Street and Dinkytown in 1995 in its front window. Not so long ago, it seems, but even in the past 18 years, the streetscape has changed dramatically. Back then, the Loring Pasta Bar was still located in Loring Park — the building was occupied by Gray’s Campus Drugstore, capped off with a horrifically ugly yellow awning.

mural
MinnPost/Andy Sturdevant

In fact, near the Loring Pasta Bar, there’s a mural immortalizing “Historic Businesses of Dinkytown.” Among them are the Campus Cobbler, Discount Records, and the Dinkytown Diner. The Loring Pasta Bar's building has the name Grodnik carved in cement over a doorway – also depicted in the mural. “Grodnik” was the name of an early owner, and also supposedly Russian for “Diminutive Town,” where the surrounding neighborhood gets its name.

mural
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Near the Loring Pasta Bar, there’s a mural immortalizing “Historic Businesses of Dinkytown.”

The Book House, at 14th Avenue, is one of the businesses that may be displaced by the apartment-complex development. Inside, over the stairs, there is a very similar sepia-toned mural, also depicting a different set of historic Dinkytown businesses, painted by Sherri Faye and based on a 1959 photograph by Mike Justen. It shows few long-gone landmarks, such as the Ten O’Clock Scholar, best-remembered as the coffee shop where Bob Dylan got his start, as well as Sammy D’s Italian Food, a red-and-white-checkered-tablecloth-style restaurant once located across 4th Street where the Library Bar stands now.

restaurant mural
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Sammy D's Italian Food was co-owned by a Northeast Minneapolis-born woman named Giovanna D’Agostino.

The restaurant was co-owned by a Northeast Minneapolis-born woman named Giovanna D’Agostino, but known locally as Mama D. Mama D. cooked meals for Dinkytown college students for decades. I actually have a copy of her 1974 cookbook, "Mama D’s Italian Cooking ... with a Pinch." It’s a very sweet book. Between recipes for Lobster Fra Diavo, Zucchini al Acedo and Baked Lasagne al Forno, she tells stories about the neighborhood: “Dinkytown has a lot of heart. A kid comes here from New York or California and doesn’t have anything – you can be sure all he has to say is he has no place to go, and he’ll have three or four offers from other kids. They’ll take him home and let him stay overnight,” she writes. “I don’t think you could do that in any other town.”

Oddly, it’s that transitory nature of students coming and going over many decades that gives Dinkytown its sense of history. I sense an almost educational quality in a lot of these works: You live here now, they say. But there were a lot of things that happened before you got here, and you should know about them. You should know about Sarah Fagan and Mama D. and the Ten O’Clock Scholar. 

There are no didactics for any of these murals, of course – you wouldn’t know what the Ten O’Clock Scholar or Sammy D’s or Grodniks or the Campus Cobbler were unless you’d read about them, or – more to the point – you’d asked someone about them. Every college student who lives within three blocks of the Loring Pasta Bar thinks Bob Dylan once lived in their apartment building, and they think that because someone told them they thought they’d heard that somewhere. That’s how these stories are transmitted – kids move into the area, and they sit in those bars and coffee shops and sidewalks and talk to older students, professors, shop owners, townies, or other notable figures like that guy wearing the peacock feather and felt hat who's always hanging around the Kitty Kat Club. And they hear the history of the place from these people, and they realize, yes, I live here now, but there were things happening before I got here, and it’s important I know about them.

And in 50 years, maybe one of those kids has a plaque on a wall on 4th commemorating him or her as a pioneer.

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Comments (6)

where Dinkytown gets its name

I was told the story once by the guy who poaches eggs at Al's Breakfast that its a common misconception that Dinkytown is called Dinkytown because its small. Actually, he said, its because the train yard that used to be right near there had these things called "dinks", that were the small locomotives used to move one or two cars around through the yard, and that during the depression people started camping out near the railyard (classic hobo town / hooverville) and they started to call THAT Dinkytown, and that's how the name came to be...

(Anyway, its a bit like Frogtown, where there are competing theories...)

What's ironic to me

is that DT commemorates all the things that have come and gone in the neighborhood but now wants to freeze in time. It's also a bit funny to say the neighborhood knows its history when surface parking takes up probably half the non-street land. There used to be something there, and the locals are ok with the fact that those buildings are gone and parking is in its place (see: the people fighting development because there won't be enough parking), but don't want to see anything else go to put more 'stuff' in its place (full replacement of street retail and then some more, tons of housing, 35% of the parking spots replaced, etc). Just wild to me. The best thing about cities and neighborhoods is the ever-changing nature of them. The stories of what used to occupy this location or this building, etc. I love preserving buildings we can't recreate anymore (or, won't). But I won't shed a tear when a giant parking lot gets replaced with some very useful stuff.

"Giant parking lot"? in

"Giant parking lot"? in Dinkytown? surely you jest!

The UTech building has an attached parking lot that is to be destroyed by the new development of that former high school site. The only other parking in Dinkytown is the lot behind the Book House and the House of Hanson, which is not a "biant parking lot."

Change for change's sake--a developer's mantra--is ill-advised. Streetscape and history matter, and frankly, today's huge student-dorm-type apartment complexes are boringly dull and similar each to the other. Ugh. Not positive additions to any sense of neighborhood.

Curiously, one of the buildings that remains in Dinkytown and representing real, century-long history there, is not mentioned in this article. The large William Simms Hardware store, at 411-413 14th Ave. SE, dates from the early 20th century, but the business itself began there earlier, and was running up to the 1980s. You can still see the painted name on the north side brick wall. It had much more of a local history than Bob Dylan did--all of us who lived in Marcy-Holmes used Simms' hardware. Simms had a home in the Como neighborhood, just up 14th Ave. SE across the railroad line south of Van Cleve Park.

no offense to the plaque

I dug out my copy of Hiding in Plain Sight, a history of the Marcy Holmes neighborhood (guess where I found it), but its index contains no Sarah Fagan. It does mention a John C Fagan but only that he purchased some property from someone else. No offense to the plaque, but I don't know how someone could be considered a pioneer of a neighborhood that was settled some five decades before her birth.

Dinkytown

I was a resident of D-town from 1954 to 1961. On my most recent visit I was surprised that so much of the character and so many of the buildings remain. My old corner, 13th/4th, suffered a loss though. The U theater crowd had great parties in my old apartment, 1302 4th Ave S,E,

Dinkytown Memories

After quitting my fraternity, I lived for a year (1961)in the College Inn Hotel while completing my sophomore year at the U. The Hotel was a rooming house for those of us who couldn't afford living anywhere else (my roommate and I paid $38/month for a single room with bath down the hall. Half the residents were not students but rather colorful locals, e.g., the cook who worked at the Toddle House west on 4th Street. I learned more about life living in Dinkytown than I did going to class. When my father and sister came to get me at the end of the school year, I overheard him say to my sister: "Don't you dare tell your mother about this place!"