I wish Porky’s hadn’t closed. I liked Porky’s. I went there once. The neon winking pig sign was really superlatively great. The dingy red and white buildings with the colored fluorescent lighting perfectly symbolized postwar consumerist ennui. The place was surreality authentic to the period. I wish it didn’t close.
That said, the closing of Porky’s has only the slimmest of connections to the light rail line, and anyone who says otherwise has their head stuck in their gas tank. For example, the owner’s claim that the light rail forced her to close her doors reminds me quite a bit about how bar owners complained when the smoking ban was instituted. If you recall, back then, people running divey marginal joints all through the city gleefully used the ban as a scapegoat for economic doldrums that were rooted in far larger social and global problems, things like the demise of working class neighborhoods or the escalating cost of fossil fuels.
Here’s the relevant light rail quote from the Strib’s article on Porky’s closure:
While Porky's, at 1890 University Av. in St. Paul, "has always been doing OK [and] was not losing money, it's just a business decision," said Nora Truelson, who began at Porky's as a carhop in 1957, then as the owner's girlfriend and eventually his wife and business partner until Ray Truelson died in 1994.
The Central Corridor light-rail line "is going to ruin the avenue, and I'm sure there isn't going to be any parking," she said, adding that high taxes and disruption from the line's construction were also factors.
(Quick thought: Why complain about parking? Doesn’t Porky’s have a giant parking lot? Isn’t that the premise of the entire restaurant?)
More lengthy thought: I am actually pretty sympathetic to Nora and her reaction to the light rail. If Nora began working as a carhop in '57, she's got to be in her 70s by now. I’m going to hazard a guess that she's been thinking about selling the diner for some time.
Not only that, but its hard to blame her very much for not understanding what is happening on University. She’s a part of the generation that has grown up and thrived during the auto age, during the years when gas prices were always under a dollar, when there was no limit to how many roads you could build or how much you could drive, where the costs of car culture were well-nigh invisible.
Actually, the more I think about it, the more that the parallel with the smoking ban parallel fits the situation perfectly. Just as the problem with the smoking ban wasn’t government regulation, but the obvious public health problem of cancer and smoke, the real “problem” of the light rail is auto dependency, which is every bit as pernicious and deadly as a pack-a-day smoking habit. Trying to get Saint Paul to wean off its addiction to cars is a lot like convincing your aging aunt Patty to give up her lifelong penchant for Virginia Slims.
And Porky’s was the mecca of Saint Paul’s car-culture. Imagining that culture peacefully co-existing with the light rail train (as the planners themselves visualized in their CGI animation from a few years back) was always an unlikely stretch. In a way, Porky’s was the harbinger of the real culprit that "ruined the avenue": the proliferation of drive-in everything’s. University Avenue, just like every older city in the USA, became a place filled with drive-thrus, the leading edge of a process that paved as much of Saint Paul as possible.
Let’s be honest: eating in your car kind of sucks. The idea might have seemed like a cute gimmick back when Porky’s was new (and today it seems like a moment of cute nostalgia), but for way too many people eating in your car is an everyday occurrence. We do everything in our car. We rarely leave it in between our office parking lot and our three-car garage. What cities like Saint Paul and Minneapolis need to do to keep economically vibrant is to provide an alternative to the drive-in culture, not re-create it.
I'm nostalgic about Porky's too, and I wish someone had bought it and kept it open. But I’m not sure I’ll miss the exhaust community that formed around cars on weekends along University Avenue, where people who spend their weekends polishing chrome and tuning mufflers sat around in chairs in the dark and looked up each others’ hoods while their buddies revved their engines and “cruised” in circles up and down the street.
So, next time you start to get nostalgic about the loss of 50s car culture in Saint Paul or Minneapolis, think again. There are a million 50s suburban strips (like West Saint Paul's Robert Street) where people can gather together and drool on their hoods.
But University Avenue should be more than that. Privileging the street's car-centric period (1960s to the present) is to ignore the rich history of streetcars, street life, theaters, churches, and diverse communities that lived along the avenue. A great deal of the appeal University comes from the remnants of those old buildings left over from before they started building drive-thrus and big boxes and huge car dealerships all up and down the heart of the city.
While the smoking ban may have hurt a few bar owners, in the end it made the city healthier and more social for most everyone. My hope is that light rail is going to do the same, and open up University Avenue to a larger public, to more ways of life than could be found in Porky’s parking lot. While I’d gladly have kept Porky’s around as a curious remnant of the ‘eat in your car’ era, I’ll take light rail pedestrian-centered transit over all the McDonalds’s and Wendy’s and gas stations and auto dealers and NAPA Auto Parts stores and Enterprise Rent-a-cars and U-Haul places and giant parking lots. I just wish Porky’s wasn’t the first to go.