Ahip scene in Fargo? You betcha.
fargo, n. d. » Some people say Fargo is in the middle of nowhere. Like that’s a bad thing.
The city, which sits on North Dakota’s eastern border, shone like a beacon on my GPS device this past summer as I drove west from the East Coast. Fargo may be out of the way, but I’d argue that remoteness is one of its charms. You don’t end up here by accident, and you don’t necessarily stay for convenience.
When I arrived, my needs were modest: a place to lay my weary head, stretch my legs and sate my appetite. But as soon as I pulled up to the Hotel Donaldson, I understood that the city is far more than a way station off Interstate 94.
Of course, it’s hard to consider Fargo without thinking of the Coen brothers’ 1996 dark comedy of the same name. Most Americans haven’t been there, yet thanks to the film, they think they know what they’d find: a frozen wasteland, roads hard-packed with snow as far as the eye can see.
Granted, I was there in August— and enjoyed myself enough to return in September— so the threat of tundra-like conditions was nil. But I’ll betcha the friendly, hip and quirky side of Fargo that I encountered doesn’t go into hibernation for the winter.
The Hotel Donaldson, known as HoDo, is a 17-room boutique hotel on the corner of Broadway and First Avenue, across the street from a restaurant called Vinyl Taco. A pioneer in the downtown resurgence over the past decade, the hotel is also home to a fine-dining restaurant, a lounge, a basement venue with a wine cellar, and a rooftop bar and hot tub space called Sky Prairie.
Each room at the HoDo features a local or regional artist, and some spaces look more like galleries than sleeping quarters. My spacious room featured Leo Kim, a Shanghai-born photographer who now lives in the region.
Before dinner, I walked around downtown and found a mix of old and new: A uniform retailer, VFW, fancy oil shop and yoga studio all shared a block near the restored art deco Fargo Theatre. If independent coffee shops are a key indicator of downtown vibrancy, Fargo gets the nod, with Red Raven Espresso Parlor, Twenty Below Coffee Co., Stumbeano’s Coffee Roasters and Atomic Coffee.
In a relatively short period of time, downtown restaurants have expanded from a few to several dozen. The Renaissance Zone program, which began in 1999 and exempts new developers from property and income taxes for five years, has spurred more than 180 projects. Fargo is also home to an emerging tech sector, and North Dakota State University brings a young energy to downtown.
When I returned a month later, I met up with the HoDo’s owner, Karen Stoker. Her passion for art and hospitality led to the creation of the hotel, which brought a level of service and warmth to town that perhaps even locals didn’t know was possible in Fargo.
The hotel was built in 1893 and owned by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. In the ’60s and ’70s, Fargo businesses abandoned downtown for the suburbs, leaving the area desolate. When Stoker bought the property in 2000, it was in disrepair, serving as a laborers’ hotel with weekly rates.
Stoker told me that she wanted it to be a place that would create memorable experiences by celebrating arts; she wanted to create a lightning rod for downtown.
Along the way, she had her fair share of doubters— she calls it geographic bigotry, a phrase I heard more than once from locals. People questioned whether she could find enough regional artists, hang a wall of raw steel in the lobby (an ode to the region’s agricultural machinery) and fill the rooms with guests. She never lost faith in Fargo and defends it fervently.
Unlike some residents, Stoker doesn’t consider “Fargo” a curse. She understands that the film put the city on the radar— no matter what folks say about Fargo, at least they know it exists.
“I’m just thrilled,” Stoker exclaimed, “that the Coen brothers didn’t name the movie ‘Brainerd.’ ”
The restored art deco Fargo Theatre sits on a downtown strip of old and new: a uniform store, VFW, fancy oil shop and yoga studio.