Throughout its 125-year history, Dinkytown has been a training ground, a laboratory, an entrepreneurial incubator, a “hometown away from home” and “a university of the streets” for students, businesspeople, faculty, alumni, bohemians, neighborhood residents and visitors from all over the world.
Dinkytown’s strong sense of place is built upon a familiar landscape of buildings and streets that bind generations of engaged Minnesotans who have benefited from this local proliferation of vision and energy.
I am writing to provide my perspective on the historic and cultural significance of Dinkytown for this week’s decision by the Minneapolis City Council on whether or not to designate it as a commercial historic district.
Importantly, people who spent time in Dinkytown have had a major impact on the social conscience and political history of America. From the the 1950s to the 1970s, with its proximity to the university, its affordable spaces and quirky culture, Dinkytown was fertile ground for new creative movements in dance, theater, poetry, publishing and music.
The transformative political and social movements of those times took root in challenging conversations at my old friend, Melvin McCosh’s bookstore, at the Ten O’Clock Scholar coffeehouse, at the Bridgeman’s and Gray’s Drug lunch counters. The bus carrying civil-rights activists to Mississippi picked up in Dinkytown in 1964. And Bob Dylan’s ringing anthems were positively rooted on 4th Street.
The protests for which Dinkytown is so well known addressed more than civil rights and the Vietnam War. The Red Barn protests, in which many hundreds participated, were about the right of a community to self-determination, and about the defense of the small-business community that was, and still is, such a key part of the heart of Dinkytown.
As historians begin to interpret the significance of this period in our nation’s history, it is essential that the city of Minneapolis protect the physical structures and scale of Dinkytown from the kind of redevelopment that would utterly erase the memory of a seminal time and place.
I especially want to share what Dinkytown has meant to me since those days, so long ago, when I was an undergraduate, and during those law school years. My connections with Dinkytown have only deepened as the years have gone by. I often go there for lunch, and have for many years, to meet with friends, tell old stories and reconnect with the university.
I am reminded that the visions of social justice tested in Dinkytown and the university community were carried forward by the likes of Hubert Humphrey, Don and Arvonne Fraser, Bob Dylan and, if I may say so, by myself. I am now deep into my 80s, but those memories of what this remarkable little community has meant to all of us remain a deep influence in my life.
Dinkytown always has been life sized — indeed dinky — and I am very afraid that if we destroy the small-scale buildings themselves, it will erase those memories and the meaning and, therefore, the history could be seriously impaired.
We know that there is a building boom in the area fueled in part by student renters. As we look at these challenges we should ask whether the pell-mell rate of new buildings is sustainable and whether the housing will be safe and appropriate for the area.
Perhaps these concerns will cause us to be more cautious, and perhaps we could find more opportunity to protect Dinkytown’s remarkable history and culture. I hope we will.
Walter F. Mondale is former vice president of the United States. A version of these remarks was submitted in the public comment process before the Heritage Preservation Commission.