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Where Is Your Community Gathering Place?

Just another diner (NYT 5/15/22, Eric Striffler)

“Every community or neighborhood has a gathering place.” So Bill Sauers, President of the Greece Historical Society in upstate New York, begins his May newsletter under that title. He devotes the column to the Dutch Mill founded in 1928 as a hot dog stand that grew over time.

Dutch Mill, 1935 (Greece Historian)

As the years rolled by the restaurant became more and more involved with community events. The Dutch Mill was “our town’s gathering or meeting place.” Then in 2021, the Dutch Mill was sold to the plaza owner next door. It closed its doors on April 16, 2022, its future unknown. Bill, whom and I know and see at in-person state conferences back when we had them, concludes his column with:

Currently there has been no announcement about the future of the old place. It is not a designated landmark, so the new owners can do whatever zoning laws allow. We can only surmise its future.

So what should be done about places that are not historic in the traditional sense but which were the heart of the community?

ICONIC DINERS

The story appeal of the local dinner is deeply entrenched in the fabric of the American culture. One reporter refers to them “super-American” and claims the nostalgia for them is palpable in popular culture (“As American as Deconstructed Potpie, 8/25/2019, NYT). According to Richard Gutman, author of American Diner Then and Now, “You feel at home in the diner whether you’ve been there dozens of times or it’s your first time.” Kristopher Schram who redid the West Taghkanic Diner said, “People walk through the door of this diner and they’re already snapping pictures, or their mood has changed because they are in a space where they feel so comfortable.”

It really exists. It’s not just a cop and kid posed on bar stools.

The image of the boy and the cop at the still-in-operation Joe’s Diner (where I have eaten on multiple occasions) remains iconic. If a picture is worth a thousand words, here is one diner where those words ring true.

Where would the movie Groundhog Day be without the diner? Every day was a rewind and saw Bill Murray in the diner again and again. Apparently the whole community in this obviously small town ate there, too! After being there day-after-the-same-day for who knows how long, Murray got to know everyone there. If he had been an anthropologist conducting a field expedition, he could have focused on this watering hole and sooner or later, everybody would have come there to drink. In effect, that is what he did. True these scenes are not exactly real life. But the odds are you have eaten at your crowded neighborhood diner at some point in your life and seen people you know there.

Sometimes the Hollywood diner scenes are a little more difficult to imagine in real life. However, there are times when people seek to recreate the classic moment from When Harry Met Sally in another real diner (deli) still in operation and where I have eaten.

I do not know if anyone has compiled a record of all the diner scenes in Hollywood history including movies and TV shows, but I dare say it would be an impressive list. But while a movie or TV show might last forever digitally, in the real world, diners suffer from the same forces that have buffeted many local places throughout the country just as the column in “The Corinthian” describes for Greece, New York.

DINER RETROSPECTIVE

Over the years I have clipped articles from the newspapers I receive about the comings and often goings of the community diner. What follows is a sample of those articles.

DINERS TO THE RESCUE

The Town that Would Not Let Its Diner Go (12/14/13, NYT).

Dot’s Restaurant in Wilmington, Vermont, occupies a building dating to 1832. Its claim to fame is often being the only place along Main Street where one could get a cup of coffee and one of the few such places on the Green Mountain roadway linking Bennington and Brattleboro. Everybody went to this diner perched over the river until August 28, 2011, when Hurricane Irene decided to “visit” the eatery itself. To the rescue came (among others) the Preservation Trust of Vermont which apparently recognized the historical significance of the diner. Lo and behold, the diner did reopen. According to its website, it is still in business.

Even Without Its Bar, Catskill Tavern Still Serves Flood-Bruised Town (9/22/11, NYT).

I mention this tavern (not classic diner) in Prattsville in Greene County, New York, because it was in the aftermath of Irene that I began to blog. (Yes, it has been awhile). My blogs were simpler then. I had just led a teacherhostel along the Mohawk River. Some of the locations or sites seen no longer existed. One of the teachers was from Prattsville. The community rallied to save the tavern and it helped feed to people while they rebuilt there devastated town.

DINERS AS CONSTANTS AND CHANGE WITH THE TIMES

Dining on Roast Beef, lemonade and Nostalgia: Regulars Flock to Roll-N-Roaster in Brooklyn, Where not much Has Changed Over 4 Decades (7/5/2012, NYT)

Here is a diner that has remained true to its diner origins. I will say, that sometimes when I enter a diner, I do feel as if I have travelled back in time … until I see the prices!

As American as Deconstructed Potpie: New owners tweak diner menus (8/25/2019, NYT)

Oakhurst Diner (Dutchess Tourism)

The Oakhurst Diner is in Millertown, Dutchess County, New York. It is called a “hipsterfied diner.” The term is in reference to people from the city who have moved upstate or who are weekend visitors. Similar such diners exist in the Silver Lining in East Hampton (NY), the Rosebud in Somerville (MA), the West Taghkanic Diner (NY) where I have eaten pre-Covid and pre-transformation, Grazin’ Hudson (NY) and the Phoenicia Diner in the Catskills (NY).

Physically, the Oakhurst Diner “screams classic diner.” According to one of the owners, “It’s the centerpiece of the town.” Tourists from overseas come there and people are always taking pictures.

DINERS AND THE AMERICAN DREAM

Down-Home American, Korean Style (1/6/2013, NYT).

Main Street Cafe, Minot, North Dakota

This diner is located in Minot, North Dakota. The opening of the article goes to the heart of the diner in this story of the heartland.

Main Street Café in the heart of downtown here is a monument to small-town Americana. The menu offers down-home favorites…Framed black-and-white photos from generations past adorn the walls…It is a gathering place for local leaders, and for residents to catch up on gossip…This well could be a haunt on any idyllic street corner. But Charlie’s is a bit different.

What made this diner different was that this classic part of Americana in the American heartland was owned by a South Korean immigrant who has fully embraced the land of her husband. Once upon a time this would have been a feel-good story about the American Dream at work. The restaurant still operates but the health of the dream and supporting it are at risk.

DINERS AND THE AMERICAN NIGHTMARE

Jane’s Diner, Conklin, NY

After the recent terrorist act in Buffalo, USAToday columnist Mary Chao travelled to Conklin, NY, the hometown of the white racist shooter. There she went to the heart of the community. She stopped at Jane’s Diner. Her article’s opening (In Buffalo suspect’s hometown, a tragic history, 5/17/22) is: “Nestled by a set of train tracks, a red-white-and-blue banner hanging outside, Jane’s Diner evokes an American charm…It’s the type of place where friends are family.” According to diner owner, Jane Lazaros, shooter Payton Gendron had been a regular there. Now the topic of discussion in the “Mayberry”-like town of 5000 people, 90% white, is where did his hate come from.

DINERS DISAPPEAR

Throwback in Capital Will Serve Last Meal (2/10/12, NYT)
Another Classic Diner Turns Off the Grill, A Victim of Rising Rents [Cup & Saucer, Lower Manhattan] (7/17/2017, NYT)

DINERS IN DECLINE

The Diners Fade Away: As New York’s coffee shops disappear, so does a piece of the urban culture (11/27/16 NYT).

According to this article, which mentions a host of coffee shops and diners that have bit the dust, between1996-2016, New York City lost half its diners.

A Last Cup of Coffee, to Go: Rising Costs, changing tastes and increased development are putting pressure on New York’s once ubiquitous diners (May 26, 2019, NYT)

The demise of diners is shown here in a slew of pictures and mentioning many names of diners which have bit the dust or probably soon will. Keep in mind this article is pre-Covid before the virus ripped through the small businesses of the country. I watched the diner in my own village struggle to remain afloat and stay in business. According to the article there are estimated 419 diners left in the city. That might seem like a lot but keep in mind a population of over 8 million. That averages out to roughly one diner per 20,000 residents which is more in keeping with the figures for the towns and villages throughout the country.

Scholars seeking to understand a culture sometimes focus on the foodways of the ordinary people. Not the kings or the elite but the 99%. In America, diners have been part of that story especially in the 20th century. They continue to exist in the 21st century but where would a remake of Seinfeld from the last century and millennium be filmed today … unless it was a retrospective about a distant era? When our foodways are studied by historians and anthropologists of the future, they will note the transformation of the American way of life which has occurred in our very lifetimes. Compare the image of someone alone at a table in Starbucks hooked into their devices or waiting in line for an order to go versus the family sit-down-meals in a diner or the sharing of space at the counter. Times have changed and the social fabric has paid the price.

What Are History Societies Doing and What Can the Regents and Governor Do to Help Them?

George Bailey Contemplating an Alternative Reality

Courtesy of Wikipedia

If a tree falls in the woods and no one sees it, has anything happened? If an historical society does something and no other history society knows about it, has anything happened? I am not referring to the lectures, tours, and exhibits which history museums and societies routinely do. Instead I am referring to something a little out of the ordinary, the kind of item one might present at an APHNYS or MANY conference.

The dissemination of ideas is difficult. There is no easy way to accomplish the task. Certainly notices can be published and distributed. The reality is many municipal historians are not members of APHNYS and APHNYS does not have a way of advising its members of best practices or innovative ideas. The same is true for history organizations and MANY. Even if one does present at the annual conference, only some of the members attend and even fewer attend an individual session because there are concurrent sessions. So there is no easy way to share original ideas or actions that go above and beyond the call.

Since I read New York History Blog, I read about many events in the state including ones I cannot possibly attend. For me to go to upstate for a single lecture, tour, or exhibit is a misuse of my time. However, I do attend various conferences and will be reporting on some of them.  Since I distribute my own blog, I also am the recipient of newsletters from history organizations. Sometimes they arrive as enewsletters, sometimes as emails, sometimes as Word or PDF attachments, and sometimes by mail. By no means do these notices cover the state, but they do provide a window into what’s going on out there.  In this post, I would like to share some items that I consider to be a bit unusual and worthy of attention. This is not a scientific survey nor is it comprehensive. It’s just some excerpts from the random notices I have come across.

Greece Historical Society

The annual report for 2016 of the society states:

The all volunteer Society’s purpose is to collect, preserve, research and share local history with the community. We strive to provide the community with an awareness of the past, an appreciation of the present, and a vision for the future, giving a sense of “roots” and a greater feeling of belonging.

Clearly this society operates under the Tonko vision of local history and not the Cuomo one. I suspect pretty much every local society has in its mission statement and/or annual report something similar to what the Greece Historical Society has.  If that’s the mission, then shouldn’t tax dollars be aimed at helping it fulfill that mission rather than to call for the Greece Historical Society to become a tourist destination site for busloads of Chinese?

The Society reports that it held eight monthly Tuesday evening lectures featuring local historians, authors, and humanities scholars in 2016 averaging 85 guests per evening. While no individual lecture deserves mention in this post the cumulative effect of lecture programs does. These numbers mean a total of 680 people participated in the lecture programs of this one society. What would the state-wide total be? Does anyone have any idea how many residents and visitors from nearby communities both individually and through repeat attendance are connecting to local history through lecture programs?  I recall one dark and cold February night attending a lecture at the Mabee Farm location of the Schenectady Historical Society where I could just barely find a parking space since well over 100 people were there (I was on my to a conference starting the next day so I was able to attend. I did not drive from Westchester just for it!). Did I mention it was a dark cold night in February? With snow on the ground? At a site not on a main well-lit road but on a narrow dark one? It’s not quite, if you offer it they will come, but overall I would say there is little appreciation or even awareness for the numbers of people who collectively attend lectures through their local history societies. Remember the Lyceums? There still are buildings with that name in many communities. Remember Chautauqua and the circuit Chautauquas that barnstormed the country like baseball teams and circuses use to do. Not everyone is trapped by their electronic devices. Sometimes people like to be with other people in a social and intellectually stimulating setting that reaffirms community identity.

Lock 52 Historical Society of Port Byron

In response to the post New Approaches for Historical Societies and History Museums by Bruce Dearstyne on March 21, 2017 for New York History Blog, Mike Riley, the president of the Lock 52 Historical Society of Port Byron, expressed the concerns of history societies throughout the state.  He specifically referred to suggestions made in the post about what history societies can do.

(T)here is the realization that with 8 volunteers who average in age of 75 to 90, it is unlikely that any (of the suggestions in the post) will be adopted. We are in a slow death spiral to the day when we close the doors for good. We can look back and say that all these good folks started helping the society when they were in their 30’s to 50’s, and they remain as the foundation for anything we do. There are no new 30, 40 or 50 year old’s taking their place. And as the folks age and pass, the open hours get cut, or the displays don’t get changed. It becomes a fight for life, attracting visitors almost becomes secondary, which of course harms us greatly, I really don’t know if there is an answer. As a society we just don’t value these civic engagement activities as we use to. I know I am not alone. I am in a race to digitize photos and get them out there on the web so at least if the Society closes, some of the history will be saved and available to people. 

Clearly Riley belongs to the Tonko side of the vision of local history as an essential component of the social fabric on the community. Clearly also that fabric is fraying. There is a need to rethink the standard history society model especially as it relates to the large number of small municipalities throughout the state. It is time for some new thinking about the position of the municipal historian, the municipal history society, the local library, and teacher training and the school curriculum and their intertwining. Here is where the history community really needs leadership from the Regents and the Commissioner of Education. 

Putnam County Historian (technically not a history society)

The historian’s office held a free digital scanning initiative to secure military memories of the past for future generations. Local families with military memorabilia are invited to make appointments through the County Historian’s Office to have old letters, documents, photographs and assorted military memorabilia scanned and recorded on a memory device such as a USB or burned to a disk, free of charge. Being the repository for the memory of a community, doesn’t simply mean waiting around for people to dump things in your lap. It is legal to be proactive. In fact, if the regulations for municipal historians are ever rewritten, I would include a requirement to be proactive. How many people would want the job then?

Warwick Historical Society

Once upon a time back in 2013, a group of 4th graders were digging behind one of the historical houses of the Warwick Historical Society. This time besides the usual bits and pieces of commonplace objects, they struck paydirt, a decorated brick. As the work continued in 2014 with two ‘archaeologists,’ average age 76, unearthed the wall of home of “Rocking Chair Benny Sayre.” Sayre (1865 to 1940), the keeper of Baird’s Tavern across the street. George Knight, one of the excavators also was busy cleaning up his own grounds. One type of item frequently found was small bottles.  “Warwick back in the day was higher than a kite,” said Knight. So it seems. These little bottles were considered medicine that, not unlike today’s Oxycontin, turned out to have a serious drawback. “We had a substance abuse problem here over 100 years ago,” said Warwick town historian Richard Hull. “In the 1890s up until World War I, there’d be itinerant merchants who’d come into town to sell elixirs to relieve pain, headaches, relieve depression and so forth. They spiked these concoctions, so that when they sold them people became quite addicted in some cases,” he said. The Women’s Temperance League may have been a response not only to alcohol abuse, but also to these un-talked-of habits. Everyone likes to ogle the opium bottles. They’re scintillating in a way that stone walls just aren’t. That bugs Knight, although he’s good natured about it.

The historic society wasn’t always this go-go-go. “As you can imagine, it was very dry,” said President Mark Kurtz, who stopped by the dig. “There’s become excitement, with the kids that visit.” Every fourth grader in the Warwick school district takes a tour every year, and the middle school just launched a Sustainable Architecture class that will be taking a field trip to the historic society’s properties.  “We’re starting a bunch of brand new reach outs to the school district,” he said. “The point is to make this history become important to people, and that’s the time to reach them.” Lisa-Ann Weisbrod, the society’s new director, said, “It’s amazing how much is going on. It’s a historical society. How busy can it be? It’s crazy.”

This report from the society’s website entitled What’s under Warwick highlights several important developments

  1. the creation of a monthly enewsletter by the Orange County historian Johanna Yuan reporting on the activities in the county, something all county historians should have to do as part of the job.
  2. the outreach to the schools in a literally hands-on experience – which will not stop at 4th grade as the junior archaeologists track the project through the duration of their k-12 education (and then become members of the historical society as adults)
  3. the funding issues the Society experienced for support of the dig versus stabilizing a building
  4. the unusual nature of the Society which owns multiple buildings and is creating the equivalent of an historic district for the residents of the community to experience.

Chalk up another one for the Tonko vision over the Cuomo vision.

White Plains Historical Society

The society compiled a list of 20 streets named after American Revolution figures. I write about the importance of a sense of place as an essential component to the health of the community. One way to foster a connection between residents and their own municipality is to know not simply the name of the streets of the community but the reason for the name of the streets. While the naming of streets after military (and political) heroes might seem obvious, it also is true the residents of communities today don’t know the why streets and buildings have the names they have or why statues were erected (unless Confederate). History societies have the opportunity to engage the public in “Why that name?” Even numerically named streets or tree-named streets are cultural clues to the thinking of the people who named them. The grid in Manhattan is the most famous example but smaller versions exist in many communities. It is not just coincidence that there are a lot Maple, Elm, and Walnut streets either. We can learn about our past by understanding the names that were bequeathed to the organization of space.

 

As I mentioned at the onset, these examples aren’t meant to be comprehensive or inclusive. Nonetheless they represent a good cross section of the trials and tribulations on the history community at the grass roots level and the exemplary efforts by volunteers. A little help would be nice.