Dinkytown: A Living History
Dinkytown was a crossroads, a meeting ground, a place of social and cultural ferment that would have a profound effect on life in Minnesota and the nation that continues today. Beginning in the late 1950s, with great numbers of servicemen enrolling in the University thanks to the GI bill, and continuing through the ’60s and ‘70s when the University’s student population was one of the largest in the U.S., Dinkytown was a seminal place for a cultural flowering in literature, music, and dance, as well as a transformational social and political ethic.
Visionary ideas and dreams were ignited in conversations, meetings, and performances in the coffee houses, book and record shops, the studios, and the lunch counters of Dinkytown. This small, human-scale commercial district adjoining the University’s historic east bank campus played a highly significant role in the revival and evolution of American folk music, substantial moves towards class and racial integration, the creation of community food coops, the introduction of eastern philosophies to America’s heartland, and the emergence of grassroots political initiatives.
The origins of these important cultural movements are located in specific places: a stretch of sidewalk, an intersection, shop fronts, and particular buildings—even particular rooms in buildings that are still pointed out by passersby today.
Writers, musicians, and intellectuals of international stature wandered from bookstore to coffee shop to classroom. At a coffee house called the Ten O’clock Scholar on 14th Street a young Bob Dylan found his voice as a folksinger. The nationally renowned University Film Society got its start in Dinkytown, as did The Loft Literary Center, which began in a bookstore on 4th Street, and a pioneering modern dance school above a drycleaners also on 4th Street.
Dinkytown is a living place and has naturally undergone physical changes since the 1970s. However, many of the original buildings remain behind the altered facades. Most importantly, the scale of the core of Dinkytown is still intact, though it could be threatened by multi-story, large-scale development.
While historians begin to interpret the history and 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 erase the memory of this seminal time and place and preempt the opportunity for its interpretation and appreciation by present and future generations.
“Dinkytown”, now that is an interesting name…
There has been a long-winded debate and confusion over where the origin of the name “Dinkytown” originated. It has at least been in use since 1948 when the Dinkytown Business Association (DBA) was created.
In the 2006 Bob Dylan exhibit at the Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota students who researched and created the Dinkytown portion of the exhibit may have found the correct answer.
Dinkytown named after a trolley?
After the talks with long-time tenants of the Dinkytown community the students discovered a recurring theme. Many people shared the same popular theory as Skott Johnson (President of the Dinkytown Business Association and owner of Autographics Printing). He believes that the name “Dinkytown” stems from the days when trolleys and rail cars were a common sight in the area. The little vehicles were referred to as “Dinkys.”
It's named Dinkytown because it's Dinky?
The students unearthed 3 other theories explaining the name “Dinkytown.” One comes from the fact that Dinkytown has always been a small, unique, and self-contained community within the city. Since it is small, the name makes sense.
Yet another theory is that there used to be a small theater made up of only four rows, as a result it was called “The Dinky.”
Identity of Dinkytown
Part of the ‘art’ of Dinkytown was then, and still is, the opportunity to create one’s own identity.
The freedom of association and self-definition that has characterized Dinkytown throughout its history are key themes in the recollection of individuals and groups. These stories consistently claim Dinkytown as the site of life-changing encounters and experiences, with which Dinkytown is thereafter associated – no matter how long or short the time spent there. Dylan’s experience was exemplary, but far from unique.
The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Culture and Intellectual History entry for Dylan summarizes Dinkytown’s influence this way:
“In …1959-1960, he absorbed the social and music subcultures of Minneapolis; worked on the harmonica, guitar, and piano; and honed his vocal timing and style.”
Dylan’s autobiographical Chronicles: Volume One (Simon and Schuster, 2004) elaborate how his experience in Dinkytown, exposure to the folk music scene, holdings of old recordings, venues, and to Koerner, Whitaker and others – shaped who he was to become.
Dinkytown was both a microcosm and influence in the movements of the ‘50s-‘70s. Out of the permissiveness and enormous diversity of the 1950s- 1970s “Dinkytown scene,” came self-styled notables like Diamond Dave Whitaker, Dave “Mountain” Morton, and others featured in Bob Zeller’s “Our Journeys,” a series of interviews and reflections on the American counterculture.
To help launch Preserve Historic Dinkytown, Zeller recruited an advisory group of counterculture figures with Dinkytown roots from across the U.S. and created a preliminary piece of documentation entitled “Gauging Dinkytown’s Placement in American History” to address the City of Minneapolis’ Historic Resource Criteria (1) and (2):
- The property is associated with significant events or with periods that exemplify broad patterns of cultural, political, economic or social history.
- The property is associated with the lives of significant persons or groups. (Minneapolis City Ordinance 599.210)
Most of this document has addressed the significant events and periods showing broad patterns of cultural, political, and social history, as well as describing significant persons and groups. This section will enumerate other noteworthy persons who have been touched by Dinkytown and discuss the significance of the electic architecture of the buildings.
Says Zeller, “Many Dinkytown 1950s- 1970s characters were typically nomadic, migrating ceaselessly between Dinkytown and beatnik, hippie and other counter-cultural bohemian communities across the country – their world-view(s) and lifestyle(s) spread far 'n wide.”
Two of the most influential 1950s-'70s American counter-cultural personalities were Bob Dylan and Diamond Dave Whitaker. Dylan historians record that it was indeed Diamond Dave who urged Bobby's move to New York – where he became the most significant American songwriter of the 20th Century.
Dinkytown beat denizen and 1961 Mississippi Freedom Rider jailed in the state prison at Parchman, Marv Davidov is a widely acclaimed figure in American counter-cultural history who also was influential – across 60 years of vigorous, non-violent societal impact.
Howard Zinn, author of The People's History of the United States, describes:
"Marv Davidov has always left me in awe. I know of no American who has for so long, in so many ways, on so many fronts, exemplified the happy activist, the tireless protester, the apostle of non-violent direct action ... [Davidov] has been the dauntless scourge of generals, industrialists, and politicians, using his imagination and his courage to baffle those in power."
Other folks whose lives dramatically intersected with Marv – Daniel Ellsberg, Garrison Keillor, Martin Sheen, Noam Chomsky, Dave Dellinger, Clyde Bellecourt, Spider John Koerner, Dave Ray, Willie Murphy, Daniel Berrigan, Carol Connelly, Bill Tilton, Claire O’Connor, Dave Whitaker, Dave Morton, Bruce Rubenstein, Tom Olson, Paul Davies.
Observers from circa 1960 remember that it was mid-1950s to early-1960s Dinkytown beatnik “Mountain Man” Dave Morton who became one of the first American hippies – a 1961 civil rights Freedom Rider jailed in the Mississippi‘s Parchman State Prison, along with companion Marv Davidov.
Dinkytown and East Hennepin Seven Corners hanger outer Cindy Palmer brought into the world movie actress Winona Ryder, while closely befriending LSD-advocate Dr. Timothy Leary. Cindy and her spouse High Times magazine's Michael Horowitz became published authorities on ceremonial uses of mind-altering substances in indigenous tribal cultures.
Dinkytown's Marshall – University High School stood as the germination nest for many early American counterculture characters. The National Office of the American Indian Movement (AIM) was for a while, says AIM National Executive Director Clyde Bellecourt, located in the old school building converted to a business incubator, with a large number of non-profit offices.
Other significant figures of that time include:
☮ Bonnie Beecher who has been an actress in Paramount's Star Trek TV series while married to Woodstock 1969 and The Hog Farm's Wavy Gravy.
☮ Elektra Records' John Koerner and Dave Ray and their close friend Warner Brothers Records musician Bonnie Raitt.
☮ Movie actress Winona Ryder family member John Palmer who is also associated with LSD-advocate Dr. Timothy Leary
☮ Steve Jambeck, series producer of the Hevy Gunz hippie anarchist drama troupe who earned a prime-time Emmy for work on NBC TV's Saturday Night Live
☮ University of Minnesota Emeritus Professor of American Studies David W. Noble who authored 10 books from a counterculture perspective
☮ University of Minnesota’s KUOM Radio and Minnesota Public Radio Prairie Home Companion's Garrison Keillor
☮ KUOM and National Public Radio's Connie Goldman
☮ 1960s underground film director Bruce Rubenstein
☮ 1960s underground newspaper Hundred Flowers editor Ed Felien, who later served on Minneapolis City Council and is today publishing Minneapolis community newspapers
☮ Minnesota Zen Center co-founder (now University of Minnesota faculty) Erik Fraser Storlie, who authored two well-received memoirs relating to counterculture, Dinkytown, and Minneapolis, and who has been influential in America’s Zen meditation movement.
DInkytown’s identity is embedded in the lives of tens of thousands of students and alumnae, in the culture makers and artists, the characters and clubs that have lit up its sidewalks, basement venues, and cheap rooms and upper floor apartments.
Each of these has a story to tell, and each of the contributing buildings in the Dinkytown historic district under consideration has its own story – most of it as yet untold.
Dinkytown’s distinctive architectural style -- its eclectic, ‘funky’, character – is an embodiment of the history of the iconic intersection at 4th Street and 4th Avenue, which is one of Minneapolis’ oldest commercial nodes.
Dinkytown’s distinctive style is actually an artful amalgam of traditional urban forms of the different eras of its evolution. Said a young volunteer for Preserve Historic Dinkytown, who just moved from Austin, Texas “where there are no old buildings,” to Minneapolis:
“I saw the sign near The Book House asking for stories about Dinkytown and I had to come up. I have been wandering around Dinkytown these last two weeks since I moved here. I am fascinated by all the old buildings. I can just feel it, all the memories they hold, and I have to know their stories.”
Andy Sturtevant in his article “Dinkytown Has a Clear Sense of its History” in the Minnesota Post (March 13, 2013) says,
“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. Most fascinating is a marker commemorating Sarah Fagan, “pioneer Southeast resident and entrepreneur, who died in 1989.
“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 [Dime]. 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.
“Oddly, it’s that transitory nature of students coming and 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’s 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 [Grodnik’]s 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.”
We wish to acknowledge all those who contributed to the research, writing, design, photography, and compilation of this document.
Our deepest appreciation goes to Cecily Marcus, University of Minnesota Archives and Pat Coleman and Lori Williams, Minnesota Historical Society Archives for providing access to historical information about Dinkytown; to Dr. Nor Hall, Jeri Reilly, Kristen Eide-Tollefson, Barbara Camm, and Jacqueline Kilmer for conception, writing and compilation of Dinkytown: A Living History; David Duggan for detailed information about Marshall-U High graduates and photographs from his online collection; and Don Olson, Bill Huntzicker, Andy Sturdevant, Ossian Orr, Darwin Thorbeck, Joe and Nancy Paddock, Bruce Rubenstein, Michael Robins, Bill Savran, Marly Russof, and The Book House. Special thanks to those too numerous to mention who have provided testimonies and fact checking on dates and addresses. Finally, we extend our gratitude to Robert Zeller, without whose inspiration Preserve Historic Dinkytown would not exist.