Twenty two years ago this month, I had just completed an exploration of Oakland, California in preparation for an article planned for issue 32 of Roadside. Why Oakland? The story is serendipitous.
Two-plus-years before, I sat on a four-stop Southwest flight to Seattle from Providence. On the leg between Los Angeles and Oakland, an attractive woman sat down next to me and asked me if the book I happened to be reading was any good. I was not reading the latest Grisham or Stephen King. It was another book about urban planning.
Her name was Darlene Rios-Drapkin (pictured above), and she was a Main Street manager for the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, which was where she disembarked. The plane ride was the start of a cross-country road trip and hers was the first meeting of many I had on that trip back from the west coast. I jotted a mental note to put Oakland on Roadside’s radar as another potential urban exploration feature in the magazine. Then a little over a year later, NPR featured Darlene and her efforts to revive Fruitvale. Now, I made it a priority to get out there, especially in 2000, the year we had a real budget.
At the time, San Francisco was the epicenter of the tech boom and I wondered if long-suffering Oakland might enjoy some spillover from all the cash pouring into the city. Using Fruitvale as a launching point, I would finally write my story exploring all the little nooks and crannies of the city’s culture in much the same way we did with Syracuse, Cleveland, Portland, Oregon, and Pittsburgh. I spent ten days soaking it all in, and came away hopeful that Oakland — and Fruitvale which would soon see the development of a new transit village around its BART station — would exemplify the concept of urban revival.
I returned in 2006 for a quick drive-through. Fruitvale got its transit village and all seemed well. I haven’t been back since.
Most of us know about the crisis affecting San Francisco these days. For the past several years, it has experienced a growing epidemic of homelessness and crime coexisting with an outrageous cost-of-living. It’s so bad that you can find online maps marking the concentrations of human feces on the sidewalks.
While I’m sure most of the city remains a pleasant experience, the fact that matters descended so precipitously in its core has completely eroded the optimism I once felt for the prospect of revival in our great cities. If it has become that bad in the jewel of the west coast, what hope is there for Baltimore or Cleveland or Buffalo? Or even Philadelphia?
But what about Oakland?
I regret to say that I’m almost glad we never published my story about Oakland. This video, which tours many of the same streets I did, shows why and it breaks my heart.
Growing regulations, hikes in the minimum wage, and a dearth of ambitious talent is going to wipe the landscape of the mom and pop restaurant.
Instead, Semmelhack was just looking at his staff — people he hangs out with on weekends, people whose livelihoods he supplies, some of his closest friends — and all he could see was the money each one of them was costing him, flashing in front of him like a video-game score. “I knew right then,” he says, “we had to shut it all down.”
Now the Silver Top becomes the latest diner purchased that breaks our cardinal rule for such things: Don’t buy a diner unless you have a location for it. While the Silver Top itself shows that the rule is no absolute, the tale this diner has spun since its removal from a still-empty lot in Providence in 2002 continues with its new owners, the Cerrone family.
First, I congratulate the Cerrone family, but not with the joy I’d typically express with this transition. The Silver Top saga, which could fill a good size book, involves characters and issues on both sides that all failed to properly steward this historic structure. At the end of the day, I have always sided with the interests of preservation, and between the Cities of Providence and Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and Pat Brown, the tug of war has almost wrecked this fine building, and I see plenty of blame to go around.
It all started with the late Mayor Buddy Cianci’s plan to turn the industrial area around the Silver Top’s home into Providence’s version of Boston’s Back Bay, and the diner did not fit into this scheme. The diner’s actual owner at that time, Bernie Buoncevello told Roadside he sat in on a meeting with the mayor, his development people, and Daniel Zilka, who at that time had already begun his tax-receipt-creation scheme of building a diner graveyard by pawning off phony tax receipts to unsuspecting donors using self-created appraisals.
Luckily for Bernie and Pat, who ran the diner for him, the city of Pawtucket offered of a piece of land (albeit in remote neighborhood) for Pat to install the diner. To help out, renown restaurant architect Morris Nathanson offered his services, and the city would put up money to get Pat started. When Buoncevello gifted the diner, everything seemed to fall into place.
Things soon went south from there. At the first neighborhood meeting after the diner moved which I attended (no one from Dan’s Diner Salvage bothered to show up in support), the residents clearly rejected the idea of a diner in their midst operating the late-night shift, hours that the Silver Top famously plied and that Pat wanted to continue. Breakfast and lunch, fine, but no graveyard. No one would budge.
One should keep in mind that I-95 had carved up the neighborhood long ago. It hadn’t seen any real development in twenty to thirty years and in my opinion at the time, I believed a good, well-run late night diner would likely provide a stabilizing influence on the area. Pat had a reputation for toughness, and tolerated no shenanigans at the Providence location.
Before long, Nathanson bowed out citing intransigence on Pat’s part. Then depending on who you speak with, city either granted or loaned Pat money for development costs. Months turned to years with nothing happening. Pat objected to the plans provided by the city’s development office and still insisted on opening late night. The city eventually demanded its money back and the matter headed to court, where it festered for nearly ten years.
Sparing the reader the gory details of the court proceedings, where Pawtucket hardly seemed to act in good faith, and Rhode Island being Rhode Island, Pat never really stood a chance, especially since she had no money to fight this. She relied mostly on generous pro bono legal services. In the end, the diner ended up on the auction block.
Before auction, the city retained Richard Gutman to provide it with an appraisal, who valued the diner at about $25,000. When I saw this, it raised a red flag. Richard had recently retired from his position at the diner Johnson & Wales Culinary Museum, and hadn’t publicly involved himself in the restoration of any diner for the better part of a decade. In that decade, I’ve watched the market for vintage diners collapse.
Out across the landscape, one can now find a dozen or more failed diner projects, with some well-kept units sitting high on cribbing, going nowhere fast. In light of this and the fact that it has become nearly impossible to restore and profitably operate a small vintage diner — especially in the Northeast — a five-figure appraisal bespeaks of a certain ignorance of the market’s current realities.
In Hartford right now stands the Aetna Diner, which represents the most beautiful realization of diner design in the history of Paramount diners and probably of the entire industry. It closed over ten years ago, and the owner cannot give it away. He wants to tear it down, but in an unusual twist, the city won’t let him. As much as I would hate to see the Aetna demolished, the literal definition of worthlessness is something that no one wants.
If the magnificence of the Aetna has no value, then where does Gutman get off valuing the near-wreck of the Silver Top at $25,000? It naturally leads to the next question of who will lead the diner’s restoration?
Had Pawtucket come to me, someone who intimately followed and documented the diner market for nearly 30 years, I would have told them the diner was worth fifteen dollars, or whatever anyone happened to have in their wallet at the time they walked into City Hall. Get rid of it.
The Cerrones got fleeced, pure and simple. The Silver Top was a twenty-dollar flip job any way you cut it. The diner will likely be more of a liability than an asset for whatever restaurant type they have in mind. It will cost them close to $300,000 to complete a proper restoration. They could instead build a well-designed, code-compliant, modern restaurant space for about half that amount.
Pat fought the good fight. I know Pat and consider her a friend of Roadside. She’s currently laying claim to the Silver Top name, but my advice to her is to move on. It’s over. She’ll never be able to defend that claim anyway.
She probably should have stopped this fight long before this. I feel for her, mainly because I know how it feels to see your life’s dream get taken from you, but considering the ultimate cost of this battle, the hours lost, the money spent, and the diversion from other missed opportunities, just get on with life.
Façadism came to the fore in the 1980s, with the somewhat dubious intention of “preserving” the fronts of historic buildings as facades for newer construction that rose behind. I think of this when I remember that I became a preservationist in response to the fact that we rarely replace what we have with something better. Instead of retaining the facade of The National, why not try to make newer landmarks?
Assuming its full execution, reconstruction will likely leave the National in better shape. The PHC meeting minutes from October 10, 2014 describe the condition of the tiles as “very poor,” and it approved a “complete disassembly of the orange tile wall and its faithful reconstruction.”“The PHC approval [of demolition] and the building permit predicated on it require salvaging the signage, storefronts, and other stainless steel elements as well as the granite channels,” says Jon Farnham, PHC’s executive director. “The façade will be reconstructed with the salvaged pieces and new matching tile.”
For anyone unaware of the state of one of the country’s most recognizable cultural icons, the diner, the Oak Lane Diner, in North Philadelphia, currently provides a clue. The diner, one of the anchors of the neighborhood, remains boarded up. On June 6, the City posted a notice on the front door demanding its owners to either fix it or tear it down.
After its rise, fall, and rediscovery, the American diner may indeed serve up its last plate of meatloaf well within the lifetime of anyone born since 1980.
Contemporary Americans seem to prefer “fast-casual” chains (like Panera Bread) over diners, where you can get a pretty good meal for not a lot of money and you don’t have to bother with a server. Order, pickup, and go. We love this, especially in the suburbs.