Archive for December, 2008

Au revoir, Samson

I had the good fortune a couple of Fridays  ago (Dec. 12) to shop at Samson Hardware on what was certainly its last day in its current location, and what may be its last day ever.  I witnessed the end of 104 years of Fairbanks history.

Samson's on December 12, 2008

Samson's on December 12, 2008

My visit there was entirely accidental: I needed something super-powerful to de-clog my drains, and Samson’s had some in stock.  But what a happy accident!  When I walked in just before five o’clock, someone was taking a group photo of the employees.  The staff were bantering happily with each other and with the customers, and groups of customers were chatting among themselves.  Food and drink were out on one of the counters, free for the taking.  Everybody seemed relaxed and festive.

As most of you (in Fairbanks) know, the building Samson’s occupies is slated for demolition.  It is being displaced by the “Illinois Street Project“, a decades-old plan to extend Illinois street through the property, build a bridge across the Chena River, and connect with Barnette Street, turning the route from College Road (at the north end of Illinois) to Airport Road into a pretty strait shot.

A reader e-mailed me to ask what I thought of the Samson’s closure and demolition.  The short answer is: I don’t know.  I have mixed feelings.

Let me start with this: my visit to Samson’s was not actually accidental.  Yes, it was an accident of timing that the drains clogged when they did.  But Samson’s was my neighborhood hardware store.  After hopping off the bus on the way home, I was able to walk there in about three minutes (discounting my long wait for a break in traffic to cross Illinois).  The walk home took just over ten minutes — and, as I’ve probably said before, ten minutes is as far as the average person is willing to walk before deciding to drive or not to go at all.  Since I moved downtown five years ago, Samson’s was always, always, always my first choice for hardware.

That said, it was not always the best choice.  Too often, Samson’s didn’t have what I was looking for — and I don’t consider myself someone with extravagant needs.  Perhaps it’s that I was often looking for things with some aesthetic component, while Samson’s was not a hardware store that focused much on the aesthetic.  As one friend described it, stepping into Samson’s was like stepping into the past: besides carrying builder’s hardware, it sold trapping gear, wood stoves, and washboards.  Its housewares seemed dedicated to those living off the grid: no toaster ovens or Kitchen Aid mixers, but plenty of cast iron cookware and lamp oil.  It sometimes lacked things like key blanks for my imported car model or curtain rods to match the ones already in my house.  For these, I often had to trudge on to the Ace Hardware / OK Lumber shop — or hop a bus to AIH or one of the national box-store hardware chains.

It’s ironic that the best hardware stores for those of more urban sensibility are now located on Fairbanks’s periphery, while (until recently) the best place to supply yourself for backwoods living was in the center of town.

The building itself, frankly, was no great shakes.  It appeared to have been built entirely of cinder blocks, whose shape was echoed in the architecture of the building itself: rectangular and boring.  It seems like an earlier era’s version of today’s big-box store.  This makes me a little un-persuaded by the “historical preservation” argument against demolition.  It’s true that the store has been in that location for almost all the history of Fairbanks — but does the building really represent the architecture of 1904 (or some other period when it was renovated)?  My own feeling is that the Samson’s building is neither beautiful (being a cinder block rectangle) nor useful (representing no particular period’s architecture) — so there’s little reason to want to preserve it.

I think that many of us from western states are inclined to think of a hundred years as a long time — thus, any building managing to stand that long must be historical and worthy of preservation.  Let’s keep in mind the absolute blink of an eye that a hundred years is in the life of a town.  When we start talking about demolishing our history, let’s recall that we’ve only barely begun to write that history.  A hundred years is not so much that we’ll have a hard time surpassing our architecture and civic design to date.

Still, I don’t care in principle for the demolition of buildings — especially ones housing useful enterprises — for the sake of new streets.  While part of me is excited for the Illinois Street extension and the Barnette Street bridge, and the (anticipated) new ease with which people will be able to come downtown, it disheartens me that this is seen as the way to do it.

I know that the Vision Fairbanks plan provides for increased housing density downtown, and mixing people’s living with their shopping is one way (my favorite) for a commercial area to prosper.  But I would also like to see a major investment by the local, state, and federal governments in public transit — may I dream about light rail? — so that parking downtown would be unnecessary and undesirable in order to spend time there.  I would rather see our old buildings renovated and beautified than see them torn down so that motorized traffic can pass more swiftly.  And I would rather see our city center so full of useful, interesting, and beautiful places that the ease of speeding through in a car was the last thing on anyone’s mind.

The clerk who sold me the drain de-clogger told me that they had hopes to re-build on the land just behind their current location — which will be untouched by the Illinois Street Project.  I share that hope.  Samson’s is a Fairbanks institution, and a useful one.  Having more useful businesses will only make downtown Fairbanks an easier, more exciting place to live.

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I don’t do restaurant reviews, per se: they’re usually largely focused on the quality of the food, and this is not a “food” blog.  However, this is a “public space” blog, so I may, from time to time, review retail establishments (including food service) to discuss how they do at creating good meeting places.

Big Daddy’s BBQ and Banquet Hall sits downtown on Wickersham Street, between First and Second Avenues.  It’s between five and ten minutes’ walk from my house, which makes it a candidate for what sociologist Ray Oldenburg would call my “third place”.  Third places are hangouts — places outside of home (your first place) and work (your second) where you’re likely to spend a lot of your free time.  They invite casual conversation: in fact, besides the establishments’ anchoring purposes (e.g., groceries, eating, haircutting, coffee, books, beer), there is little to do there but talk.

One of the key features of third places is that they are local.  While restaurants and bars that require a special trip by transit or car can be excellent, they fail as third places for two reasons.  First, true third places give neighbors a chance to interact.  When an establishment is out of walking range of a neighborhood, the neighbors cannot easily spend time there.  Every trip there must be planned (and probably driven), which automatically cuts down the number of visits.  Second, the more an establishment draws in business from outside the neighborhood, the lower will be the proportion of familiar faces.  Familiarity with their fellow patrons inclines people to frequent a place, whereas a constant stream of strangers inclines them to think another place would be just as good.  Third places are about the people you find there.

How does Big Daddy’s do as a third place?

My wife and I went a few weeks ago.  We needed a date, some time away from the kids just to talk, and fancy food was not important.  In fact, I can’t remember what we ate — probably a plate of nachos, or a dish of greasy-fried-whatever.  The food was adequate, and, more importantly for a third place, reasonably cheap.  (For eateries, food must be cheap enough that neighbors of all classes can afford to go there.)  The beer, on the other hand, was more average-priced, a little costlier than the beer I get at the UAF Pub.  And the cocktails sent our tab through the roof; I’d have expected such prices at Lavelle’s, but not at Big Daddy’s.  (This is not necessarily a strike against Big Daddy’s.  I don’t think it’s necessary for every one of a third place’s offerings to be cheap.  There should just be enough cheap items available that everybody in the neighborhood can afford to come often.)

The space is large, but that seemed appropriate for the crowd.  It was a Friday night, and they were hosting a banquet — so it was full.  We ran into a couple of other families who run in our (mostly white-collar) social circles, and there also people who looked a little more working class.  (Though one of the joys of Fairbanks is that you really can’t tell people’s station by their dress.)

I think age-mixing in public places is a good thing: people are more likely to behave in a civilized and respectful way than if they only spend time in homogeneous groups.  There was certainly good age mixing at Big Daddy’s that night: not only did younger and older adults show up, but couples with babes-in-arms and groups of teenagers, too.  A few people that night brought toddlers and other young children.  These youngsters were allowed to roam freely, and any running or other dangerous behavior was reined in by whatever adults happened to be close.

Overall, I was pleased enough with the casual, sociable, low-cost environment of Big Daddy’s to overlook its failings.

I returned there about two weeks ago, having left work early and hoping to see what Big Daddy’s might be like as a neighborhood tavern — the kind you stop at for a beer after work.  This time, I was more impressed by the failings.

To start with, it was loud — not from the raised voices of the crowd within, but from the televisions.  Televisions are kind of a no-no for third places (although I won’t be dogmatic and say that they can never have a role), since they create non-human distraction from the flesh-and-blood company present.  As I said, there’s little to do in ideal third places but talk — visual and auditory distractions only take away from the chance to interact.  And if the noise is too much, it discourages talking between, or across, tables, so it ends up isolating groups of customers.  This is why “sports bars” are unlikely to be genuine hangouts, as wonderful as they might be for watching the World Series.

Not only was the sports programming visually unappealing, but there was something about the decor that also turned me off.  It’s not that the curtains didn’t match the carpets, or the trim was done in orchid rather than in heliotrope.  I’m no esthete.  The problem with the decor of Big Daddy’s is that it all looks so contrived.  Everywhere on the walls were sports paraphernelia (including team T-shirts and souvenir pennants) and barbecue-themed paraphernelia (including cook-off awards and symbolic pigs).

There’s nothing wrong with a sports pennant or a stylized hog’s head as a decoration.  But such a density of decorations with exactly the same theme bespeaks an establishment’s desperate attempt to create a theme ex nihilo.  “Hey, look!” it shouts.  “This is a sports bar!  With barbecue stuff!”  If sports are really what the regulars like to talk about, then the newcomer will detect that, and choose to come (or avoid) for that reason, without any visual cues at all.  The over-emphasis on themed decor suggests that Big Daddy’s lacks a distinct character of its own.

(If you remember Hogg Bros. Café in Anchorage when it was on Spenard near Fireweed, think of how little conspicuous decoration it needed to convince you it was a rough, seedy joint where a Hell’s Angel or a trucker could get steak, eggs, and a bloody Mary for breakfast.  Contrast it with its later incarnation on Northern Lights, whose atmosphere is sanitized and contrived: a Denny’s, but with piggy stuff.)

That’s not to say that Big Daddy’s can’t grow some authentic character.  But it will take some time.  They need to cut out the forced “theme-ishness” and the over-loud noise of television and music, so that its human character can grow.  I hope so, since it’s the nearest bar to my house, and it may be the best thing I’ve got.

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Just a week ago, I got my first radio interview: I talked for 20 minutes with Marielle Smith, the producer of Energy-Wise.  The short segment played Monday morning on Newsradio 970 KFBX (and perhaps the other local Clear Channel stations).  We covered:

  • Our denied pedestrian right;
  • The social aspects of pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods and cities;
  • The need for and convenience of destination-rich, mixed-use neighborhoods;
  • The benefits and challenges of bus ridership in Fairbanks;
  • Problems with, and suggestions for, Fairbanks’s city planning; and
  • Reasons to prefer light rail to buses.

The interview is broken up into Part 1 and Part 2.  If those links don’t work, go to KFBX’s podcasts page and scroll down to Energy-Wise, episode 13.

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