Lileks: Development puts an end to Dinkytown's small-town feel

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 24, 2013 - 11:04 PM

About once a year I scold someone in a neighborhood I don't live in because they don't want something that wouldn't affect me at all. About time for another. This time the location is Dinkytown, the compact community by the U of M's East Bank, but the issue is the same everywhere: development vs. the residents.

A developer wants to put in a big block of apartments on a corner occupied now by a tired old '70s-style brick building. It has the House of Hanson, a rather baronial name for a convenience store. The Book House, whose owner, Kristen Eide-Tollefson, says holds 60,000 used tomes. And the venerable Podium, a stringed-instrument shop -- just the sort of thing that gets razed for some new Big Thing, and just the sort of place we say we want cities to have.

I lived in Dtown for nine years and have great affection for what it used to be: a small town in the middle of the big city.

We had a florist, an ice cream parlor, a greasy joint that sold shoe-leather steaks. Gray's Drug had a lunch counter where you could get a cherry Coke and tell yourself Bob Dylan sat here and had to repeat his order three times because of the mumbling. The movie theater showed "Casablanca" and other rites-of-passage college films. A men's clothier where you'd buy the suit for the job you'd get after graduation, unless you were an English major, in which case you worked there after graduation.

A stationery store from the quaint era of letter writing; Fanny Farmer chocolates; a bakery where you could pick up a fresh glazed doughnut on the way to class; Tonto's Taco Shoppe, selling a green chili burrito that would make an Easter Island statue sweat. Tom the Tailor and the rest of the little businesses up in the Grodnik building; Eddie the Cobbler in the Dinkydale Mall in the Old College Inn. Three Italian restaurants, one of which was open 24/7 -- its booths at 3 a.m. usually had a few cramming students jacked up on bottomless institutional java, as well as U of M janitors done with their shifts. I worked there and waited on Prince at table C-1. He asked for pigs in a blanket. Somehow that sounded naughty.

Dinkytown USA! said the keychains for sale at Gray's. "Where It's At!" So it was, until it wasn't. One by one everything that made it unique closed up ... except for the House of Hanson, the Book House and a few others.

What happened? I don't know. If you put a gun to my head and demanded speculation, I would say, "I can't think with a gun at my head," and later mutter something about serving a commuter population instead of a resident population. If people sleep elsewhere, Dtown is for lunch and a cup of coffee. If they live there, they want more, and perhaps the very thing that makes residents worry -- lots of big new housing complexes -- is the thing that will eventually make the neighborhood more interesting.

Oh, who am I kidding. More Starbucks, that's what it means.

As for objections over the size of the project: Hulking at the edge of Dtown is the brutal cement leviathan called the Chateau -- from the side, the 22-story apartment building looks like Optimus Prime's tombstone -- and its chief virtue for its residents is that you cannot see it when you look out the window. Compared with the Chateau, the Cedar-Riverside complexes look like a delicate work of Baroque intricacy. If that didn't ruin Dinkytown, the new apartment building won't.

And it's not alone: In the past few years, huge new apartment blocks already have remade the neighborhood, and for anyone who lived at the U, in some carved-up fire trap with a sodden sofa on the sagging porch, the style and luxury of these structures is amusing. This is college. You should be cold and eating ramen. Everything should be like it was in my time, in other words.

Well, no. Dense cities are thriving cities. More people in Dtown means more people spending money, and perhaps a more interesting mix, like the old days. If they knock down some history and displace some good, quirky stores, they'd be smart to rent the ground floor to cluttered bookstores and guitar shops. If they're typical, they'll rent it to The Interchangeable Pretentious Sandwich Company or some such chain.

But ... if they lay one finger on Al's Breakfast, I'll be at the barricades. There's progress, and then there's madness.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858

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