Dickson Street, 1970. Old rock buildings with narrow profiles and high pressed-tin ceilings. An abandoned railroad depot that trembled when freight trains thundered past. A declining backwash between campus and the downtown square of a town still embracing its provincialism.
The university drew them, intense intellectuals seeking knowledge, misfits seeking community, young men determined not to die in Asian jungles. In between time in class and demonstrating against war, they settled into the street’s cheap real estate to paint murals and make free love. Abandoned warehouses and decrepit brick structures a hundred years old became head shops, bars, and art galleries. Downscale restaurants heaped alfalfa sprouts on whole wheat bread sandwiches—radical. Cooperatives sold tobacco and honey in bulk, locally made tofu—far out.
Sweet smoke hung in the air. Street festivals celebrated music of hope and rebellion. People wore crazy hats and stood on the corners laughing and hugging. Dickson Street crackled with excitement.
All this made it a place people wanted to be. Straight people, women wearing hosiery and high heels, men in suits—they loved the experience of freedom, even if they themselves couldn’t be free. They dared to step out of their establishment lives and feel the beat, smell the smoke they didn’t inhale. Well, maybe they inhaled—who would know? On the street, they became part of a separate world, joined a conspiracy in which all participants shared the secrets.
Not everyone loved the street where long-hairs had carved out a world of their own. What on earth went on down there, they lamented—police, city fathers, wives of husbands who slipped out for a drink at one of the dive bars and ogled the braless young women. Owners of real estate along the street stopped repairing the roof and the plumbing, inflated the prices so that the restaurants couldn’t own it for themselves, so the art galleries couldn’t afford the rent. The hippies needed to go.
By 1990, value created by the alternative culture gave the establishment reason to retake the street. There was money to be made. People wanted to eat there, shop there. The street was cool. Never mind that the coolness had been bestowed by starving artists, by inventive bohemians, by fledgling entrepreneurs selling worn-out blue jeans for respectable profits.
The rich bought the street. They demolished landmark gathering places to put in shops selling diamonds and art from back east. They came dressed in their finery to eat at chain restaurants and watch traveling Broadway shows.
The street is now a shell of its former raunchy self, an extravagant display of fakery in expensive plastic packaging—a back to the land scene where the joyful family piles out of their brand new SUV to view nature, a credit card ad with Beatles music playing in the background. There’s no getting it back. They don’t even understand what’s been lost.