The Dinkytown McDonald's has closed, and from the sound of the lamentations you'd think they'd razed a beloved historical landmark.
No. It's a squat, ugly building, a remnant of the worst era of commercial architecture. It still has the garish ketchup-and-mustard color scheme of bygone Mickey D's, which makes it look more like a crematorium for clowns than a restaurant. It sits on a lot that's below the grade of SE. 4th Street, so it appears to be sinking, like a poorly footed piazza in Venice.
No one's nostalgic for the Dinkytown McD's. But some of us are nostalgic for who they were when they went there.
For college students scraping by on loans and service jobs to pay for those sky-high tuition bills (in 1978, we're talking almost $800 a year) the golden arches were a blessing. You could fill up on bread and meat divots and sear the roof of your mouth with an apple pie. If you'd been pounding pitchers of 3.2 beer in the Dinkytown pubs, you could stop at McD's to soak up the suds.
Would the food be fresh? Maybe. Would the seats be sticky? Probably. Would you like fries with that? Oh, yes.
The Dinkytown McDonald's was built in 1963. A newspaper ad trumpeting this new boon to Gopher cuisine shows a building different from the current structure. It's a clean, bright, modern structure that could be a bank, if you shaved off the arches.
I'm not sure when it was ruined in the name of progress, but when I got to the U in 1976, they'd added a second floor. This was something that impressed hicks like me, still brushing off hay from the trip on the turnip truck to the Cities: a McDonald's with a second floor. Because of the sunken site, the second-floor windows looked out on ground level. Somehow that seemed depressingly apt for the '70s. You had to climb just to get to normal.
It was in Dinkytown, but it was not of Dinkytown.
The location put it on the outskirts of the four-block core. Its corporate identity also made it an outsider, almost an interloper. Dinkytown was coffee shops and independent stores, mostly. You had Fanny Farmer for chocolates, the Best Steak House for edible leather, but those were exceptions. The identity of Dinkytown was local and unique, and that made McD's an outlier.
Put it this way: There were people you knew from class, and people you knew from Dinkytown. The latter were the bookstore clerks, waiters, haircutters, record-store clerks, movie-theater ushers. If you ran into any of them at McDonald's, you'd both feel a little twinge of shame, as if you'd been caught walking out of the naughty-book section of Shinder's.
The arrival of that first fast-food chain unsettled something in the community spirit, perhaps. In 1970, plans were announced to clear out some old buildings on 4th Street and build a Red Barn burger joint. Students and residents protested and occupied the site, forcing the planners to give up.
But then the protesters graduated or got busy with their lives or lost the zest for sticking it to the Man. The construction of a Burger King on 14th Avenue SE. a few years later raised no ruckus. There was no lamenting when it closed, either.
In a way, McDonald's never really integrated into the Dinkytown community. It was an embassy from the world you'd join after college, a world of brands and logos and ad campaigns and Millions Served and Happy Meals.
You liked to think you belonged to a better place. Perhaps you did. Still, you couldn't stay away from those golden arches for long.
Until you left the U. Once you graduated, did you miss the Dinkytown Mickey D's?
Probably not. If you thought about it at all, you remembered the drab brown hues of the interior, the slight wet squeak of the Big Mac Styrofoam clamshell, the lousy wobbly seats. Maybe you recalled friends from that time, and wondered where they went. You looked for them on Facebook a few years ago. Maybe the news that the McD's was closing will make you look again.
Unlike many who called it "Drunkdonald's" for its role in their collegiate revelries, I remember exactly when I visited last.
My father had come down from Fargo to see the NDSU Bison beat the Gophers. We parked far away, by where Ralph & Jerry's and Positively 4th Street used to be. (These days, most everything in Dinkytown is something that used to be something else.) We hoofed it. My dad was a year away from turning 90, but still had the spring of a freshman on his way to the homecoming game.
When we got to McDonald's, I suggested we stop and have a cup of coffee. It was nicer inside than I'd remembered. The upstairs was closed, or I'd have taken him up there to look out on the passing game day pageant.
We chatted for a bit. I probably told tales of old Dinkytown. I certainly hoped I thanked him for college. The coffee was hot and good. We drank it and went to the game.
I never went back, and now I can't. For countless people who passed through Dinkytown over the decades, that's reason enough to feel a twinge when the wrecking ball swings.
There are plans to build a housing project on the site: good. Oh, you can lament the end of homey, small-scale, tumbledown Dinkytown housing, but that ship sailed long ago. A McD's might open in the new building, but c'mon, it wouldn't be the same.
The one true Dinkytown McDonald's is gone. To paraphrase "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" author Douglas Adams: So long, and thanks for all the Filet-O-Fish.