I’ve developed a love affair with the Nittany Valley, but I’m not from there—I’m from Bucks County, near Philadelphia. The two places share some similar characteristics: historic in their own ways, filled with farms and woodlands and rivers. But Bucks County has changed dramatically since I was a child. Its population has exploded in a suburbanized, sub-division way at the expense of many beauty places. Today in Bucks County there are 1,034 people per square mile. In Centre County there are 138 people per square mile.
When I wrote Conserving Mount Nittany, one lesson was that conservation only works if people are prepared mentally and financially and communally to protect what they love. It’s why we protected Mount Nittany, but lost Hort Woods.
Too many of the farms, fields, and quiet places of the Bucks County of my youth have gone missing. I’m glad that, even as Centre County’s population grows, it remains a comparatively homelike place to capture some of the spirit of a different time among the old farms north of Philadelphia.
Since Sunday was our rest day at Notre Dame, during an otherwise intensive Vita Institute, I left my room at Ryan Hall and hopped onto a nearby Limebike for a ride down to Eddy Commons for lunch.
I’ve been to Eddy Commons a number of times before; it’s a compact “downtown” in miniature adjacent to Notre Dame’s campus that was built something like a decade ago. But on this bike ride, I pushed past that compact downtown area and discovered an incredible, growing neighborhood behind it. I rode through it for about an hour taking the photos below, and generally admiring the aesthetics, the walkability, and just how pre-World War II and traditional the entire neighborhood is.
At one point I rode past a guy who had pulled over to retrieve his mail from the neighborhood’s mailboxes, and he explained that the whole neighborhood had been transformed starting about a decade ago into what it is now: a place with intentionally and appropriately narrow streets, a place made for walking or biking just as much as driving, a place where mail is delivered not to each house but to one set of mailboxes, a place where (as a result) neighbors have the chance to bump into one another and catch up, a place where every home has a porch of some size to encourage community feeling and create spaces for gathering and resting, a place where garages are accessible only by alleys running behind the homes rather than facing the primary streets, etc.
The Northeast Neighborhood (NEN) of South Bend is located immediately south of campus at the University’s “front door.” While the NEN historically offered both desirable housing and a variety of commercial businesses, the neighborhood deteriorated badly over a period of decades. Family homes were converted to student rental properties as families moved out and there were no buyers to take their place; the housing stock deteriorated and housing values declined, and commercial businesses closed down or moved away.
In 2000, the University of Notre Dame joined with four other area institutions – the City of South Bend, Memorial Hospital, St. Joseph Regional Medical Center, and (later) the South Bend Clinic – to form the Northeast Neighborhood Revitalization Organization (NNRO). Working collaboratively with the Northeast Neighborhood Council (NENC) and area residents, the NNRO organized and funded a comprehensive redevelopment plan featuring five residential and two commercial zones, and created a set of comprehensive redevelopment guidelines. This plan laid the foundation for Eddy Street Commons, the Notre Dame Avenue Housing Program (NDAHP), and The Triangle Residential District.
The Northeast Neighborhood Revitalization Organization (NNRO) is the sponsor of The Triangle Residential District in the area bounded by Eddy Street Commons on the north, Eddy Street on the west, and South Bend Avenue on the south and east. The Triangle offers buildable lots for owner-occupied, single-family detached residences, with 70% of the lots available to market-rate buyers and 30% of the lots reserved for Affordable Housing buyers. The homes must be designed and constructed according to guidelines established by the NNRO. While these guidelines require that new homes honor traditional architectural principles, they still allow for a great deal of individuality.
Aren’t the benefits of a neighborhood like this clear? Why aren’t we building more of these, everywhere? These are the sorts of suburbs worth having, where there is space for everyone, but not so much distance that encountering your neighbors (or even family members) becomes basically the exception rather than the norm. These are the sorts of neighborhoods that continue to make places just outside of Philadelphia across the historic Main Line communities like Narberth and Ardmore and Wynnewood and Bryn Mawr still so desirable.
When I was young, I had a recurring dream. I’d be walking home from grade school—it was a walk of only a few blocks—and I’d pass the house that sat next-door to mine on the school side. I expected to see my home beyond the neighbors’ tall hedge, but it wasn’t there. My home had ceased to exist.
It was only a dream. But as I think about places in which I’ve spent periods of my life, I do sense a disturbing trend. The hospital outside Sacramento where I was born is gone, replaced by a tidy subdivision. My elementary school is no longer an elementary school, and my junior high school is no longer a junior high school. In a few years, my high school will move to a new location. My college dorms and classrooms have been torn down and rebuilt.
The small newspaper chain at which I held my first real job was bought out by its daily metro competitor, and the office in which I worked is now an auto-parts store. Even that metro paper has moved to a new, less expensive location. Another paper for which I worked has since closed, and its building, celebrated as technologically advanced when it was built in the 1960s, was torn down—ostensibly for a grander development, which has yet to appear more than a decade later. A Fortune 500 company for which I later worked, a company with a long and proud American lineage, has since been taken over by foreign interests that swept in, ransacked, and restructured the office and its culture. Only the governmental offices that employed me, such as the State Capitol, seem resistant to change—for good or for ill.
Our throwaway culture has come to include entire buildings. Everywhere one looks, one senses the impermanence of place. …
When one thinks of monks or nuns, the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience come to mind. But many also take a vow of stability. In The Sign of Jonas, the journal that traces the time around his ordination as a Trappist priest, Thomas Merton describes that vow: “By making a vow of stability the monk renounces the vain hope of wandering off to find a ‘perfect monastery.’”
St. Benedict had little respect for monks who lacked stability, and he applied to them the perfectly fitting term “gyrovague.” His Rule states: “These spend their whole lives tramping from province to province, staying as guests in different monasteries for three or four days at a time. Always on the move, with no stability, they indulge their own wills and succumb to the allurements of gluttony.”
We all need to learn that “perfect” doesn’t exist on earth; the greener grass is probably artificial turf. Stability is a commitment to life as it is now: the relationships, the places, the joys, and even the sorrows we deal with each day. It is a refusal of the temptation to run away from our lives when they get dark or uncomfortable. And it is a recognition that the places we know will change. …
The maps of our lives beckon us to explore new places while urging us to take along those things that have shaped us and made us who we are: the memories, the people, the ideas, the beliefs, the virtues and values we hold most dear. Stability keeps all this intact when the world of matter outside wants to make us think it is more important than it really is.
A few years ago I wrote that nostalgia lives in places that, in the context of what we do have in our daily lives, tell us what we no longer have (or never had) but recognize as good and worth pursuing. Stability is the foundation for special places like so many of America’s college towns, places that seem to stand outside of time, to some degree, and offer aged alums as much as first time visitors a sense that, “Yes, this place is enough.”
Tonight I was thinking back through all of the places I’ve lived, correlating the physical form of the places to the size of my circle of friends. While completely an anecdote of a sample size of one, I noticed that when I lived in more walkable locations, I certainly had a much more engaged urban tribe. Just out of university, I moved into a flat on High Street. Most every morning, I’d go for a run with a friend, then meet up at the coffee shop with three or four friends before work. Saturday mornings at the farmers’ market with a larger circle were a weekly standard. Some of those friends are still close today, despite the long distances between us. I had more social capital paid in before 8 a.m. than I did all day that time I lived in the suburbs, where I only lasted two and a quarter years.
Another chapter of life was in a small town, a five minute walk to the town square. We frequently had dinner on the front porch, where friends would meander by and stop awhile. Gardening in my front yard, a complete stranger stopped on the sidewalk to chat, and she soon became one of my closest friends in town.
I had plenty of time to think through this today as we completed a favourite holiday ritual of baking cookies for 31 of our closest neighbours. This is something we never did while living in a suburban environment, even though we had a small child, who is more likely to connect us to others. While I’m sure that that there are just as many lovable people in the auto-oriented suburbs as there are in walkable, complete communities, livable places connect people, and make social bonds more likely. …
I realize there are significant stage-of-life factors that figure in to how connected we are to others. Most people tend to have significantly stronger social bonds just out of college than later in life. And having a young child strengthens those bonds as our kids open doors to community.
… as Charles Montgomery writes in The Happy City, social isolation has much to do with the form of our built environment. Those connections that are essential for well-being are particularly difficult to come by in the auto-centric dispersed city, and are more likely in walkable, connected neighbourhoods. Charles points to happiness economist John Helliwell at UBC, who found that in Canadian cities, trust in neighbors was the key for life satisfaction, not income or wealth. He also cites Elizabeth Dunn, who found even superficial contact with strangers generates a “social-tie density” that supports wellness and productivity.
It’s good to live in a place where you can walk to all of the places you really need to get to, or at minimum hop in a subway/train or reasonably-priced Uber/etc.
If the bank has its way—and who’s to stop it?—workers will soon take acetylene torches to the 700-foot, 57-year-old building at 270 Park Avenue, razing and then replacing it with a 1,200-foot-high hyper-headquarters ample enough for 15,000 people. Union Carbide will become the tallest structure ever demolished by peaceful means…
The tower at 270 Park Avenue was designed for Union Carbide largely by Natalie Griffin de Blois, a crack designer at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s New York office. As the rare woman in the testosterone-dominated world of midcentury architecture, she was (and remains) overshadowed by Gordon Bunshaft, the magus of modernist architects. …
Together, Bunshaft and de Blois helped create the look of 1960s America, the cocktail of luxe and simplicity that defined the big corporation. They amplified the power of straightforward geometries. Taut planes, gridded frames, and straight lines so beguiled architects that even today their successors haven’t shaken off the wonder of those feats. Before the 1950s, builders could hide approximations and errors with ornament or tolerant stone. De Blois and her cohort produced designs that exposed every imperfection and didn’t forgive. …
Modernism’s newness thrilled the critic Ada Louise Huxtable. In 1957 she voiced the hope that, if good enough architects did a good enough job, the new style would “deliver us from the present anarchy and return us to this perennial ideal” of “serenity, harmony, and repose.” It didn’t work out that way. In order to celebrate her new 20th century Renaissance, Huxtable had to write off what she saw as the over-ornamented masonry hodgepodge of apartment buildings and hotels that the new Park Avenue declared obsolete. The architectural historian Vincent Scully could not abide such deliberate slate-wiping. Glass buildings, he wrote, derived their meaning from contrast with their chunkier predecessors, the pleasing contrast of a crystal and stone. The new towers pulled back from the sidewalk to create plazas, lining up in a parade of quasi-military uniformity. For Scully, they destroyed the street.
Glass buildings soon destroyed entire cities, too, as efficiency muscled out elegance. A style predicated on mass production has kept on grinding out widget-like skyscrapers that are equally at home, or equally alien, in downtowns from Düsseldorf to Jakarta to Santiago de Chile. It’s a fair bet that, whoever designs the next iteration of 270 Park, it will belong in the lineage that began with Mies van der Rohe, Bunshaft, and de Blois.
The Union Carbide Building deserves to continue existing, not because it was in the vanguard of a movement with a dubious urban legacy, but because it’s among the finest of its kind. The clear glass membrane, stainless steel fins, and slender bones combine to give it a texture and personality that so many imitators lack. It achieves regularity without monotony, the rhythm of its façade marked by syncopations: the low street level and double-height lobby above, the two bands of blackness that segment the tower and frame the illuminated grid of offices. While at the Seagram Building a few blocks away, Mies bordered the façade in bronze I-beams, here de Blois has the columns stand back from the corners so that the walls seem to meet in the lightest of pencil lines. …
And so the destruction of 270 Park Avenue will act out a ruthless architectural Darwinism, which treats buildings as mere financial tools, to be discarded when they become a burden or a constraint. Modernist architects helped formulate that philosophy. Their style can have little claim to reverence, when it cleansed away so much history without sentimentality or nostalgia, and when it fetishized the use of technology that was more easily discarded than repaired. And yet a great building is more than just an envoy from a particular architectural past; it’s a statement that aspiration is worthwhile, that quality has value, that urban life is not just a matter of metrics. If New York can’t distinguish standouts from knockoffs, it doesn’t deserve the next generation of architecture. And then it becomes a disposable city.
I don’t think the Union Carbide Building is a beautiful building, but I can see the value of its preservation in light of Justin Davidson’s context. But as he pointed out, a key part of the modernist architectural movement was to instill an attitude of disposability into architecture.
It’s certainly the case that the post World War II international order, and the globalization of commerce and markets that it helped foster, has resulted in less distinctive places. That makes sense. A more culturally integrated world would naturally be a more architecturally integrated world, wouldn’t it?
Rome and London are two huge, sluggish beasts of cities that have outlived millennia of eager reformers. They share a world where half the people already live in cities and another couple billion are on their way into town. The population is aging quickly, the current infrastructure must crumble and be replaced by its very nature, and climate disaster is taking the place of the past’s great urban fires, wars, and epidemics. Those are the truly important, dull but worthy urban issues.
The digital techniques that smart-city fans adore are flimsy and flashy—and some are even actively pernicious—but they absolutely will be used in cities. They already have an urban heritage. When you bury fiber-optic under the curbs around the town, then you get internet. When you have towers and smartphones, then you get portable ubiquity. When you break up a smartphone into its separate sensors, switches, and little radios, then you get the internet of things.These tedious yet important digital transformations have been creeping into town for a couple of generations. At this point, they’re pretty much all that urban populations can remember how to do. Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent—these are the true industrial titans of our era. That’s how people make money, that’s how they make war, so of course, it will be how they make cities.
However, the cities of the future won’t be “smart,” or well-engineered, cleverly designed, just, clean, fair, green, sustainable, safe, healthy, affordable, or resilient. They won’t have any particularly higher ethical values of liberty, equality, or fraternity, either. The future smart city will be the internet, the mobile cloud, and a lot of weird paste-on gadgetry, deployed by City Hall, mostly for the sake of making towns more attractive to capital.
Whenever that’s done right, it will increase the soft power of the more alert and ambitious towns and make the mayors look more electable. When it’s done wrong, it’ll much resemble the ragged downsides of the previous waves of urban innovation, such as railways, electrification, freeways, and oil pipelines. There will also be a host of boozy side effects and toxic blowback that even the wisest urban planner could never possibly expect. …
If you look at where the money goes (always a good idea), it’s not clear that the “smart city” is really about digitizing cities. Smart cities are a generational civil war within an urban world that’s already digitized. … It’s a land grab for the command and control systems that were mostly already there. …
“Smart cities” merely want to be perceived as smart, when what they actually need is quite different. Cities need to be rich, powerful, and culturally persuasive, with the means, motive, and opportunity to manage their own affairs. That’s not at all a novel situation for a city. “Smartness” is just today’s means to this well-established end.
The future prospects of city life may seem strange or dreadful, but they’re surely not so dreadful as traditional rural life. All over the planet, villagers and farmers are rushing headlong into cities. Even nations so placid, calm, and prosperous as the old Axis allies of Germany, Japan, and Italy have strange, depopulated rural landscapes now. People outside the cities vote with their feet; they check in, and they don’t leave. The lure of cities is that powerful. They may be dumb, blind, thorny, crooked, congested, filthy, and seething with social injustice, but boy are they strong.
What we continue to need are qualities like vision, courage, and the boldness to act in pursuit of better, specific places. The building out of the physical infrastructure of a place seems to be what makes it “smart,” and at a minimum building out the right sort of infrastructure, with the right models for its conservation and permanence, will make a place resilient to the shocks that the future inevitably brings.
I wrote last month about the All-American Rathskeller in State College. Herlocher’s, the new owners of the Foster Building (in which the Skeller is located) failed to come to agreement on a lease renewal with Duke Gastinger, the Skeller’s owner. The Skeller, opened 1933, was the oldest bar in State College and one of the oldest in Pennylvania. It closed last night for the final time, and something new (but hopefully in its spirit) will open there on 116 Pugh Street later this year.
As sorry as I am to see this place closed, it was great to celebrate the Skeller and raise a glass this weekend with friends like Kevin Horne, Gavin Keirans, Paul Clifford, Maggie Quinn, Anthony Christina, and so many others. Scenes from the final hours:
I hope whatever comes next retains its character and spirit of times past.
I spent some time visiting Bellefonte, and paying a visit to Evan and Rebecca Valentine Pugh’s gravesite in Union Cemetery, while in Centre County. Bellefonte is a beautiful Victorian-style community. It gave rise to many governors in the 19th century, and at one time was a contender to become Pennsylvania’s capital city. I’ll share some scenes from Union Cemetery next week. In the meantime, check out Bellefonte:
A couple of months ago, I was leaving the store about 8:30 at night when I noticed an elderly woman pushing her shopping cart into the vast expanse of empty parking lot. The scene struck me as odd because, it being winter in Minnesota, the sun was well beyond set, the weather was nippy, and she appeared to be going in the direction of nowhere with no identifiable car in her line of sight. I shrugged it off and got in my car to head home. A few hundred yards later, as I was exiting the lot, there was the woman again except now she was waving at me. I slowed down and paused a moment wondering what to do. Did she need my help? Was I about to get myself into a situation with a “crazy” lady? I uttered a quick prayer for wisdom and rolled down my window.
She politely asked if I was going in the direction of Western Avenue, which was along my route home. When I confirmed I was, she asked if I might be willing to drive her home. Though I knew better than to really be concerned that she might harm me, I ran through a quick mental checklist anyway of the ways one might avoid being murdered by a stranger. “Establish a personal connection”was one counsel that came to mind, so I asked her name and inquired how she had been planning to get home.
“My name is Miss Mackenzie,” she answered. She explained she had been planning to take the bus, but it had gotten late, and the bus was so complicated anyway. Then she added, “And, it’s just so much nicer to have somebody to talk to.” I was sold. I made room in my backseat for her groceries and we began our drive home. I learned about her years as a flight attendant, what she studied in college, the places she had lived, the languages she spoke… She was a fountain of words. Arriving at her senior living facility, she thanked me and promised that whether it mattered to me, she would pray for me. The truth is, it mattered so much to me.
Sara Joy’s essay below is simple and beautiful, and it highlights a tremendously important topic: the impact of our auto-oriented cities on senior citizens. There’s a popular trend in the media right now of talking about how traditional downtowns and urban cores are the “playgrounds of the rich” where young people flock so that they can walk to breweries and restaurants and live in trendy converted warehouses… In fact, walkable neighborhoods are attractive to and needed for people of all ages. Seniors in particular benefit from neighborhoods where they can safely run errands, visit friends, and go about their days without needing a vehicle, since many of them cannot drive.
Unfortunately, most of our cities are designed in a way that makes life nearly impossible for people who don’t drive. And the dangers of un-walkable neighborhoods where cars speed through and pedestrians must contend with crumbling or nonexistent sidewalks, unsafe intersections, and so on… well they’re actually most harmful to the most vulnerable members of our communities: kids and seniors. A simple moment in a grocery store parking lot brought that home for Sara Joy…
I was very sad to hear that the All-American Rathskeller in State College is being forced to close its doors. The Skeller is one of those places that feels like it’s been around forever, with a gritty yet lived-in, distinctive, and welcoming feeling with worn cement floors that tell the stories of generations whose paths have met there, and wooden rafters, bars, and booths that have an age and weight and even wetness whose physical aroma conveys the place’s character in a way that few establishments ever allow to develop.
Skeller feels like it’s been around forever because, in a certain sense, it has. Few if any Penn Staters or Nittany Valley people are still alive remember a Happy Valley without the Rathskeller. It’s 84 years old, and Pennsylvania’s oldest continuously operating bar. The Foster Building, which houses the Skeller, is one of the oldest structures in State College. You can see it in this 1924 photo of State College:
Chuck and Neil Herlocher — yes, those Herlochers — bought the property, which houses Spat’s Café, The Clothesline, The Apple Tree, Old Main Frame Shop, Rathskeller and Sadie’s, in June. None of the other businesses have yet announced their closing, so the fate of the property is still unclear.
“My father and I are happy to be purchasing this historic area,” Neil Herlocher told the Centre County Gazette in June. “Business there will continue as usual. There are no plans to make drastic changes to the properties, although we will do some renovations and improvements.
Herlochers Save Rathskeller Location From Wrecking Ball
In July 2017 our company Cornelius LLC concluded an investment in downtown State College with a plan to buy the Foster Building. While other investors intended to raze the property, we were steadfast in our commitment to preserve the historic nature and location of this landmark building.
When we took over the property we became aware that the operators of the All American Rathskeller and Spats had been operating without a lease since 2011 and paying well below market rates. Attempts to resolve the issue were unsuccessful. Our offer to purchase the businesses were also turned down.
We understand the concern many Penn Staters and State College natives have expressed. We want to assure you that as State College residents and Penn Staters we fully understand the historic importance of that location and memories made there across decades. We are committed to maintaining the character of the location that was founded in 1933 by Pop Flood as the Rathskeller and Gardens until 1934 when Doggie Alexander named it The All-American Rathskeller.
Our goal in the coming weeks and years is that Penn Staters past and present will walk into this location and find their memories of great times past still living there. The new tenants will be the latest in a long line of owners who have maintained the proud tradition of good times and good friends meeting in this downtown State College landmark.
If it’s true that Duke and Monica Gastinger refused to sell the Rathskeller name/intellectual property after rent negotiations failed, that their out-of-lease rent was way below market etc., that’s a real shame. Not only will Happy Valley lose the oldest-bar-in-Pennsylvania distinction, but it will likely lose the physical place as an historically authentic gathering place.
If I had felt lonely and isolated in these hills it was not for long. I became part of the heart throb of Penn State, and it was a new, exciting world. I fell in love with this unique place.
The campus was, and is, something rather special. It houses the “Penn State spirit,” which is a difficult thing to define because it is composed of so many things.
Perhaps it can be called a feeling, a feeling that runs through Penn Staters when they’re away from this place and someone mentions “Penn State.” The farther we are away, in time and distance, the stronger the feeling grows.
It is a good feeling, a wanting-to-share feeling. It is full of a vision of Mount Nittany, which displays a personality of its own in all its seasonal colors, from green to gold to brown to white. It is the sound of chimes from Old Main’s clock, so surrounded by leaves that it’s hard to see; it is getting to class not by looking at the clock but by listening to it.
It is the smell of the turf at New Beaver Field after a game, and the memories of Len Krouse, Leon Gajecki, Rosey Grier, Lenny Moore, Mike Reid, Franco Harris, Lydell Mitchell, Todd Blackledge and Curt Warner helping to swell our fame … and the top of Mount Nittany as seen from the grandstands in autumn.
It is the quiet of Pattee Library, facing two rows of silent elms; sunlight falling gently through those elms on a misty morning; a casual chat under a white moon on the mall.
It is talk, too: a great deal of talk, here, there, all around … in fraternity and sorority bull sessions or over a hasty coffee in the Corner Room or Ye Olde College Diner, talk un-recalled except for the feeling of remembrance and the heart-tugging wanting some of youth. …
It is a dance in Rec Hall; a beer in the Rathskeller; a kiss in a secluded campus niche; the romance that bloomed into marriage; the smell of a theater; the laugh of a crowd; the blossoming of spring shrubs and the blend of maple, oak, birch and aspen colors in the fall; the ache of a night without sleep; and the sharing of a thousand other little things and incidents that honed our “Penn State spirit.”
“A beer in the Rathskeller” amidst so many other great and small points of the mystic chords of Penn State identity may seem like a small thing, but that would be to miss the fact that the greatness of Penn State is in its innumerable little greatnesses, of which the Skeller has been a remarkable part for so many generations. It’s also remarkable that, in Ross Lehman’s tribute, every other specific placehe recollects remains a living part of campus and town life. It’s a testament to the fact that, as much as changes in so little time in a college town, so many of the great little things stay the same in the towns that earn legendary reputations.
Downtown State College is experiencing a once in a century (or more) “reset” of a lot of its built environment. Over the past century a general agglomeration of mostly local investors purchased downtown properties like old homes, low-slung storefronts, etc., and made little business empires of them. Now, as they die or their families re-assess their holdings, many are selling to national developers who are building what for a downtown like State College are much larger mega-developments of six or eight or twelve story mix-used structures. A great deal of local ownership is vanishing, and that’s a shame to the degree that it makes local businesspeople less accountable to local people, and to the extent that State College becomes aesthetically, architecturally, and culturally more derivative of other college towns due to the “cookie cutter” building mentality of taking what might have worked in College Station or Ann Arbor and plopping it on a piece of land, heedless of the harmony or complementarity of surrounding structures. What conservationists can do is add their voices to the choir singing for as much of the old, time-worn authentic characteristics of past places to be re-incarnated in the new skins of the new buildings to come as is possible.
All things considered, I’m cautiously optimistic that the Herlocher’s local purchase of the Foster Building will achieve some degree of good conservation, although it’s a tragedy for the distinctiveness of State College to lose the Skeller in the process.
When I walk down College Avenue and sit on that stone bench, I’m sitting in a place where my grandfather sat at one point nearly 70 years ago. I’m sitting in a place where my cousin sat nearly 20 years ago. And maybe my children or theirs will sit there at some point.
We’re so socially, economically, and physically mobile today that most of us don’t have fixed, solid places like this to root our experiences. Where is the family farm that’s been with us for generations? Where is the tree in the yard planted decades ago? Where is the room in the house where your great grandmother once softly sang as the leaves of that tree rustled in twilight?
We lack these things. We move. We die. And thousands of experiences and stories are fragmented as a result. It becomes difficult to remember what we’re doing here.
In the context of the reality of this daily life, college towns and the little places they contain like College Avenue’s stone bench tell us what we don’t have. We probably won’t recover most of the beautiful little experiences of yesterday’s America, but at least in our college towns we are often presented with some of the life we’ve lost and reminded we can have it again, even if just for a pleasant visit.
When I had lunch with Onward State’s David Abruzzese in May earlier this year, we sat in what might literally have been the same booth at the Skeller where my grandfather might have sat in 1946 when he arrived as a freshman, or in 1947 when he was struggling to memorize his Greek poetry, or in 1950 when he would have been celebrating commencement:
Pop looms large in my childhood memories as a source of wisdom and gentle love, and though he’s been dead nearly 17 years now, losing a place like the Skeller rips away one of the last physical places in the world where I can go and spend some time with memory of him, where I feel particularly connected, as if time might evaporate and his younger self might walk through those cellar doors to sit down with me for a bit, one more time.
And it rips away a physical place where I might bring my own son or daughter one day, sharing a similar experience, and looking into the twinkling eyes of uncertain youth to share the reassuring words that the sands of time and veil of death that covers ancestors, friends, and communities seemingly long separated isn’t always so thick in every place—that in certain places the sands of time pass ever more slowly, giving us a chance to savor what might otherwise be a quotidian moment in the most delicious and heartening way with someone we love, and with whom we’ll share a small place in the vast universe to return together in spirit.