What this neighborhood needs is a good old-timey Chinese restaurant. I mean one where the whole atmosphere smells like hot grease, where the staff warbles in a Chinese dialect. Our lack of a Chinese restaurant reflects my general feeling of unease about the way the campus is developing. We’re becoming too gentrified, too homogenized. A university district needs a lot of smallish, snug spaces. We need spots where people gather in little groups, absorb calories or liquid refreshment, and jawbone about anarchy or anthrophobia. We need places that seem semi-bohemian, a little steamy, maybe even a little sweaty.
When I first moved onto the campus, things seemed homier, more intimate. We had a nice little video store in the Park Blocks. We had another, the Soho, up on 10th and Jefferson, across from Safeway. Just beyond 11th, on Jefferson a block from Soho, there was a little Japanese video store. I remember going in there and having a pretty lady ask me if I wanted regular or X-rated. Somehow, that seemed congenial. All those little nooks are gone now. In their places, we have a gleaming new Blockbuster up on 12th and Clay. So we have more videos to choose from. I preferred the intimacy of the little shops.
The Park Blocks video shop gave way, temporarily, to a Middle East store. Men lounged at sidewalk tables, chatting and smoking hookahs. I’ve always been fascinated by hookahs since reading Alice’s adventures where she encountered a hookah-smoking caterpillar. This nostalgia became reinforced for me by the hookah-smoking character Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane sang about. In her tune “White Rabbit” you became 10 feet tall. I tried smoking through a hookah. I didn’t become 10 feet tall, and it didn’t calm that burn in my lungs, but I counted it an experience.
So what’s in the Park Blocks area now? Common denominator stuff. There’s the inevitable Starbucks, where you can count on sameness. There’s Il Pizziolo, your standard pizza joint and Quizno’s, your usual sub sandwich spot. When I see this creeping homogenization, I understand why many old-line tenants along Northeast Alberta Street feel a sense of despair as gentrification creeps in.
While I’m wishing for a good old Chinese restaurant, I could also wish for a Mexican restaurant. If I want to hear Spanish spoken in the kitchen, I go to McDonald’s, of all places.
I haven’t yet tried the new Baan Thai, but I have slurped a few bowls of excellent soup at Thanh Long. Still, I kind of long for its predecessor at that location, Viking Burger. The place had a mix of Asian and American food. The spot reflected just enough of a kinky approach to fit my yearning for anti-homogenization. The late Pokey Allen, PSU’s much-loved football coach, chowed down regularly at Viking Burger. When Viking Burger moved out, another memory died.
We do have some small gathering spaces on campus. One is Broadway Coffee, but it seems to be undergoing another of its endless renovations. Another is Annie’s in the basement of the Campus Ministry. There are other world cuisines located in small spaces. The Sahara Deli at Southwest Fourth Ave. and Lincoln Street qualifies. The new student-generated project, Food for Thought, may add to this mix.
I have mentioned my admiration for Hot Lips Pizza. I like its pizza and also the offbeat atmosphere. But, if there’s one category where we’re overdeveloped, it’s pizza. Unfortunately, we have a shortage of real coffee houses, where people can sit and chat and watch the passing parade. The closest thing on campus, the Meetro, occupies a corner of the King Albert ground floor. The Meetro offers varied and interesting spaces and a cool atmosphere but has the drawback of running on shorter hours Friday through Sunday. A properly non-gentrified coffee house needs to let people argue and read poetry and have poetry slams and raise a minor uproar if they feel the need. A real coffee house can get you drunk on the atmosphere and the caffeine, with no need of alcohol or ganja.
The major problem is we now exist in a high rent district. Burt Ewart, architect with the facilities department, has told me this whole area once housed numerous small businesses. Then came megabuild and soaring property values, and idling customers became a curse.
One place where crowded confusion still reigns comfortably can be the convenience store. We have a prototypical one in the Ione Plaza, another on Broadway and one up near Safeway. But commodification threatens even this category.
The campus boasts one traditional eat and drink spot, the Ione Plaza Cafe and back room bar. A comfortable non-trendy familiarity prevails in the standardized restaurant menu. The back bar resounds with a good-humored, sometimes raucous, cheeriness. The crescendo builds high on Thursday nights when students descend for dollar drink night. Even if it’s not always couth, it’s not gentrified either. It’s the kind of atmosphere our university can use more of: tight spaces, loose feelings.