Where the Sidewalk Funding Ends

Published in CityLab, August, 2016

sidewalk lead largeI love sidewalks. For those of us steeped in sustainable development, the humble concrete walkway is the symbol of our cause—it protects us from traffic, connects us to neighbors, and proclaims our commitment to a healthier lifestyle. It’s what makes a walkable community walkable.

Then, I had to pay $3,000 to fix mine.

My wife and I live in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania—a borough north of Philadelphia with easy train access, a good school, and sidewalks along every street. In April, 2015, we received a letter from the borough stating that several concrete blocks in front of our houses needed to be fixed, “for the safety of the general public.” And it was our responsibility to get it done.

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More Retro Diner: Introduction

Introduction to the book More Retro Diner, published by Collectors Press, Inc., Randy Garbin and Teri Dunn, authors.

In most parts of the country, the word "diner" practically means breakfast. Any diner that can't serve up a decent breakfast should just turn off the lights, lock the doors, and call it a day. To some, a diner that doesn't serve breakfast all day hardly even qualifies as a true diner. We don't subscribe to that standard as it would exclude dozens of smaller diners that must clear space on their grills for more savory lunch and dinner items. Given the hardships of the business, we can't find fault in a diner that attempts to maintain a schedule.

Breakfast remains the most popular meal in diners these days. In New England, where most din-ers only serve breakfast and lunch, the good diner often generates the bulk of its revenues from its weekend mornings. People skip the hearty breakfast on weekdays, but they look forward to a nice big plate of pancakes or French toast, or a three-egg omelet hot off the grill.

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Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Diners

Story published at Hidden City Philadelphia.

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.

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Of Dogs and Fishes

Can the cheesesteak capital make a hot dog to rival the nation's best?

Why isn't Philadelphia known for its hot dogs? As I complete my tenth year living in this city, my exhaustive search for an exemplary hot dog joint had so far come up empty. Yes, most neighborhoods and many surrounding suburbs have hot dog stands, but I have yet to find one that could displace any number of wonderful places I've visited back in my New England stomping grounds.

Long-time readers of this site and of the magazine know of the high praise we bestow upon the Super Duper Weenie in Fairfield, Connecticut, and I continue to believe that Gary Zemola and partners John and Loren Pellegrino set the standard as they have for over twenty years. The food at the Super Duper is so good, you don't know if you should put it in your mouth or in your pants.

The entire series of articles are found on the RoadsideOnline.com site. Click here


Published in Roadside Magazine, 1998

When I was growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts, I remember facing the prospect of attending Classical High School in the midst of an on-going debate over its viability and future. Built in 1896, the structure's advanced age and lack of proper maintenance jeopardized the school's accreditation. To make matters more interesting, horror stories circulated about the building's failure to meet fire codes. The gymnasium could not accommodate regulation basketball games; the auditorium's broken seats and poor acoustics barely made it usable for anything but the occasional class assembly; it lacked a swimming pool and playing fields, and, well, let's face it -- the building looked like hell. I did not relish the prospect of advancing from a modern junior high school to a such a relic.

On my first day of my first year there in 1976, having yet to step inside the building, a reporter from the local paper polling the students asked me what I thought the city should do. The next day, my picture appeared at the top of page one with the caption, "...tear it down."

Read more: Preservation

Around the World in 88 Neighborhoods

Published in Roadside Magazine, 2001

Roadside Explores the Pittsburgh Pastiche

Several themes thread their way through any honest account of exploring Pittsburgh. First, anyone driving into the city for the first time will get lost. Pittsburgh presents one of the greatest urban navigational challenges of any city I know. Everyone complains about it, comments on it, and ultimately shrugs their shoulders over it. Build a city across three rivers, on hills and in hollows, and the resulting street pattern would baffle even the most skilled explorer.

Secondly, Pittsburgh lives on the fish sandwich. "You should be here at Lent," one native urged. Sure, you can get a fish sandwich everywhere, but in no other place will you find neon signs in the windows of scores of neighborhood pubs each claiming to have the "Best Fish Sandwich." Given Pittsburgh's strong Catholic community, the sandwich's ubiquity is rather easily explained, but what about the city's claim that it's the "inland seafood capital of the East Coast"? As a Massachusetts native, I take umbrage at the audacity. However, one visit to Wholey's Fish Market in the Strip District (no, not that kind of strip district), took me back to the Boston waterfront.

Read more: Around the World in 88 Neighborhoods

Book Review: In Sam We Trust

Published in Roadside Magazine, 1999

As a retailing behemoth, the size and power of Wal-Mart cannot be overstated. From its beginnings in 1962 as a low-rent, fumbling, but successful discount retailer, the expanding chain under the leadership of founder Sam Walton makes for a story that puts Horatio Alger to shame. Walton made mistakes, but never twice. Not the smartest guy in the business nor the most original, Walton adroitly utilized available resources and creatively borrowed ideas from his competition. Add to that his low-key, folksy manner, his persistence, and his ability to attract top talent, and you have the leanest and meanest retailing machine the country has ever known. Today, Wal-Mart's revenues exceed those of Sears, Penney's, and K-Mart's combined.

Read more: Book Review: In Sam We Trust

Book Review: Diners

Published in Roadside Magazine, 1995


by John Baeder

(Harry Abrams, first published in 1977, updated and reissued in 1995)

By most measures, the subculture of diner fanatics is still a small one. While it is true that the whole country is turning on to the impeccable esthetics and good food of diners, only a few people endeavor to learn everything there is to learn about diners. They are an intense bunch, to be sure, and every once in a while, you might spot them in your local diner. They're the people with a camera on the table, pointing at the vintage clock, and asking questions of the hapless waitress concerning every aspect of the diner other than the food it serves. And if they don't actually have it on hand, a copy of John Baeder's Diners is probably out in the car, or at the very least at home.

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Killing Children

I keep a personal blog where I opine on issues pertaining to politics, life, and the general madness that lurks in the world. See this link and this link

Like everyone else, I grieve over today's events in Newtown. Unlike too many I see, especially on Facebook (because where else do we vent these days?), I resist the knee-jerk, sanctimonious response.

I have an eight-year-old. I just walked her back from her school grateful that I could do that today, unlike those devastated parents in Connecticut, who will not have anything close to a joyous Christmas this year or for years to come.

I have to admit that I first heard the news about Newtown a few hours before I grasped its gravity. Thanks to the recent shooting in Oregon and those previous senseless shootings in general, a numbness had set in, and I didn't respond with any emotion to it until my wife texted me about it. A quick jump to the New York Times website and the headline declaring eighteen children dead left me dumbstruck.


Steve and Me

Published in Roadside Magazine, 1997

The last thing Steve Turner needs is to see his name in print again. Certainly Charlie's Diner, where you'll find him tending grill, deserves any exposure it receives, and anyone looking for a good source of stories and diner lore would do best to speak to the man for whom the diner is named, Steve's father Charlie Turner. Even Steve's sister Kristine, the one who toils (though not in silence) in the back kitchen deserves her 15 minutes of fame. But for better or worse, Steve Turner is the face of Charlie's Diner. Whenever a TV crew visits or a reporter from the local paper chooses to feature this wonderful 1947 Worcester, Steve's mug gets in the way of the camera. Somehow, business hasn't seemed to suffer.

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New York State Encyclopedia: Roadside Attractions

Published 2001

The rapidly spreading popularity of the automobile in America spawned the development of a new kind of roadside commerce in the first half of the twentieth century. As a major center of American commercial activity and a northeastern crossroads, New York State saw the rise of many homespun efforts to pull motorists curbside to spend money. As roads improved and speeds increased, many of those efforts took outsized and fanciful forms.

In New York, some prime examples of these attractions still exist, and have survived despite the development of the limited-access interstate highway system. One of New York’s more notable roadside amusements capitalized on the newfound interest in dinosaurs in the 1930s. Petrified Creatures Museum, a primitive kind of “Jurassic Park,” opened in Richfield Springs along Route 20 in 1938, and still operates, despite the death of its founder John Mlecz in 1997.

Read more: New York State Encyclopedia: Roadside Attractions

On the Loose #15

Published in Worcester Magazine, 2001

With the country now officially in a recession, and the Commonwealth tightening the purse strings, I await the inevitable cuts in arts funding and elimination of arts and music programs in school districts. Those of us in the creative field have already grown accustomed to our roles as canaries in the economic coal mine. I've lived through three recessions in my adult life, and each time, both public and private sectors condemn the creative types for the first wave of sacrifices into the budget cut volcano.

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More Retro Diner — Introduction to the chapter on soups and stews

Never underestimate the power of soup. Its fabled ability to cure colds, its seductive lure on a cold winter day, and its general ubiquity stand testament to the honored place it holds on our ta-bles. A hot soup, thick with ingredients and made from a homemade stock warms us just think-ing about it. Its power is evident in a story we heard of one diner owner whose customer broke into his diner after hours and filched a pint of the famous cream of mushroom.

For some, a great soup is a meal in and of itself. Some soups already come with all the prerequi-site courses in a well-seasoned broth. Chowders and bisques, start off a plunge into a seafood feast. Sitting in a small town diner on a snowy day draws a Rockwellian scene made complete only with a hot bowl of tomato served with a grilled cheese sandwich.

Read more: More Retro Diner — Introduction to the chapter on soups and stews

When I'm King


Our "Recipe for an American Renaissance" is slowly working its way into the public eye. In fact, we know of at least one restaurant that has begun to use it on their menus (though without our permission), and we look forward to the day we hear a politician use it in a stump speech. Yet, I grow impatient, and would like to see its practical application made while I'm still young enough to enjoy it.

I now realize that I may have to take drastic measures and proclaim myself King in order to make the Recipe a reality. Perhaps this dream of mine may never rise from the mists of fantasy, but if enthroned, I promise to rule wisely and not abuse the Bill of Rights.

As your King, I must tell you that these edicts will not be subject to debate. Please send your comments, but be nice or it's off with your head. As derived from our recipe, which reads "Eat in diners. Ride trains. Shop on Main Street. Put a porch on your house. Live in a walkable community," I hereby make the following proclamations:

Read more: When I'm King