Goodbye to Porky's Happy Daze

[Horses were the transportation option at University & Prior, c. 1902]

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.

["Streetsweepers" on University Avenue used to be dudes with brooms, c. 1915.]

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?)

[The place where Porky's is, the corner of University and Fairview, c. 1918.]

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.

[People hanging out on the wide sidewalks at the corner of University and Snelling, c. 1922.]

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.

[Getting off the streetcar in the middle of University near Hamline, c. 1930.]

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.

[Looking west up at the KSTP tower from the streetcar pedestrian stop on University, c. 1948.]

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.

[Wide sidewalks and medians at University and Rice, c. 1932.]

[Construction projects "destroying the avenue", c. 1949.]

[The streetcar / parking / auto traffic balance along University Avenue, c. 1951.]


David Levinson said...

I will miss Porky's onion rings, and most importantly the auto-phagic (if not cannibalistic) pig. But in fairness to the complaint about loss of parking, on Friday and Saturday nights in the Spring and Summer, there was a huge amount of spillover from the Porky's lot onto University Avenue when all the classic car collectors and wannabe's showed up.

Bill Lindeke said...

Yeah, I wonder if that's going to keep happening now?

Nathaniel said...

First of all, great post and use of historic photos. I really enjoyed it!

Porky's will definitely be missed. But, unfortunately it is true that it was merely the first in a wave of auto-centric development to hit the urban core. It has the same typology that would become the development status quo and ultimately deteriorate the desirability of the street.

The difference between Porky's and the rest is simple. There are 1,000s of McDonald's, hundreds of chain auto-part stores and dozens upon dozen's of Wendy's. There was 1 Porky's.

Your connection to bar owners complaining the smoking ban would hurt business is a spot-on observation that deserves to be repeated.

Furthermore, I'm glad you brought to line the absurdity of the comment: "The Central Corridor light-rail line "is going to ruin the avenue, and I'm sure there isn't going to be any parking" ...

I was under the impression that the automobile helped destroyed that University Avenue once was? I fail to see how light rail will "ruin" the street?

Mulad said...

Excellent writing, Bill. I wish they'd have kept it open or sold it. Porky's would have been a great contrast and would have had pretty tremendous kitsch value. I could easily imagine the neon colors reflected in the shiny black finish of the light rail cars...

I think they would have eventually had to remodel and make their building more pedestrian-friendly. Oddly, I walked into their building most of the times I visited. I only did the drive-thru once (it was never operating as a true "drive-in" whenever I visited).

Alex said...

Of course the University location was not the only Porky's - just the only one left, their Central Ave location having closed after a few years, and with it closed the business model of the non-chain fast food in a standalone building. When I fuck up, I try to find things to blame it on, too.

Not that people like Nora Truelson care, but the bus on University has been the victim of its own success for decades, and something should have been done a long time ago. Just like Nora would have a meltdown if she had to deal with stop-and-go traffic on 94 any time of day, 7 days a week, bus riders should have rioted years ago for having to deal with the unreliability and crush-loading on the 16 line due to ridership way above capacity.

Anonymous said...

(Quick thought: Why complain about parking? Doesn’t Porky’s have a giant parking lot? Isn’t that the premise of the entire restaurant?)

Did you actually go by there and see that they blocked off one driveway with cement barricades and a chain link fence? It is real hard to operate a drive in without being able to drive in and out. I'm sure that the pavement grinder and No Trespassing signs on the fence helped business also.
Slimmest of connections to the light rail line?

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