Ian’s torn open backside signaled the beginning of the end. If there are places I frequent, there are also places I infrequent: places I hit a few times a year. Ian’s Cafe was named after its owner, Ian Turner. Ian Turner was a warm, friendly and joyous man. It shared a two-storey building with a small florist and a corner store, named Turner’s. Upstairs, the building housed nurses who were training at the hospital. Turner’s bright red neon belonged to a decade before my time; it was a welcoming icon. In the Fall of 2013, a harsh wind storm tore off a good section of the back of the building, exposing one of the suites inside. It crossed the border from dilapidated to post-apocalyptic.
Around 2003, I noticed Ian’s was closed. Places around here will close for a while-- extended vacations, renovations, family squabbles, et cetera. I wasn’t privy to the inner workings of Ian’s, so I didn’t know why it had closed and when it would re-open. Ian’s and Turner’s continued to be vacant. The Ian’s sign sagged a little over its front door. Graffiti defiled the grey stucco walls. Windows were slowly replaced with plywood boards. But the Turner’s neon still shone out as if the re-opening was imminent. Six years later, the sign was turned off and shortly thereafter the neon sign disappeared altogether. The little building slid further into disrepair. Despite the super high property prices, our city hangs onto ruined buildings like a hobo keeps old jackets. I watched a stately old Janion building downtown sit vacant for my whole life. Ian’s and Turner’s seemed destined to the same fate of protracted rot. With the tear in the building, city bureaucrats issued an order to have the building torn down were it not remediated. To emphasize their point, they put a wide cordon around it as though it were more radioactive than moldy.
Our town’s dilapidated buildings sit and rot because they are tied to dysfunctional families or intransigent owners . A hundred years ago, a parcel of land cost a couple hundred dollars or less. The same property fetches now well over a million dollars. People with money snapped up land in the region. They held onto it as the property values climbed. Loved ones inherited the land and in a number of cases, and they did nothing with it. Changing the building would be a betrayal to the departed loved one. Selling it would likewise be a violation. This emotional impasse had led to a large number of dilapidated properties rotting in the background of our preening little tourist bait town.
When I was a kid, diners dotted the local landscape-- a place where I could have a burger, a plate of fries or just a good bowl of soup. I would order a Coke and it would arrive in a plastic cup. The effervescent bubbles would rise from the dark soda and explode like tiny sugary fireworks. Nana would drink coffee not by the venti or even the grande, but by the little cup with refill after refill.
In the 2000s, every time I drove by the old Ian’s location, I saw it a little more crumpled than the last time. It gnawed at me. A building isn’t like a person who will become decrepit, frail and eventually pass on: a building can be repaired, refaced and shored up. In our urban setting, our landscape of mountains and trees is replaced by buildings and streetlamps. They form up our landmarks and waypoints. I remember the restaurant table where my wife and I figured each other out on our second date. That restaurant is gone: replaced by two smaller businesses. Our special spot is now a desk at a doggy day care and the rest of the restaurant is a 7-11. Like the mountains, buildings are not mortal-- they can outlive us: when they fall apart it takes away a reassuring landmark. We live so much of our lives tied into the digital world where our digital photos can wink out with a power surge; our contact list of friends can get whacked with a database glitch. The digital world is so prominent but so intangible. Our dividing border of imaginary and tangible is marked by the physical artifacts and when they go away, we’re left to ask, “did that ever exist?” I form memories with all of the five senses combined: those sensory cues trigger good memories. When the buildings go away, so do the touch points. It becomes easier to lose our way to those memories. It becomes easier to be malleable because you’re not rooted of the good times from the past. I didn’t want to see one more artifact of my past to get knocked down and replaced by a glassy cube full of offices.
My friends and I came together online under the banner of “Save Ian’s” to do something before the wrecking ball comes. Our town is full of stories that sort of get around, but are not widely circulated. Insider knowledge is a local currency. We tried to get in contact with the owner of the building but that was fraught with dead-ends. Their phones were unlisted. Friends of the family warned us off with “they’re a very private family!” While the original owner had passed on, his widow inherited the building and her children oversaw the property. We connected with friends of the children of the owner who didn’t warn us off. Those friends worked to get the family involved. I didn’t know what we could do. We didn’t have cash. We didn’t have a plan. Some people in the group didn’t want a replacement structure-- they wanted the thrashed out moldy and structurally unsound building to be refurbished. I was a lot more open-minded. You can replace most of the building materials and still keep the essence of the building intact. Intentions or wishes aside, we were a band of social media users, not architects, financiers or engineers. What we did bring to the table: we gave the family the sense that they were not alone. Ian held a cherished role in many people’s lives. They were teary at the prospect of the building’s demise. We had respected the family’s privacy for a decade and that let them quietly keep Ian’s Cafe in stasis wherein Ian’s was left to ravages of the elements to the heartbreak of many. We let them know what Ian and the cafe meant to us. That moved them from ignoring the topic to facing it head-on.
While we were novices trying to save Ian’s, real pros were on the case attacking from another front. We had heard developers were very interested but they kept a low profile. This little building was highly visible. Its neon sign had been a glowing fixture for more than fifty years-- even staying lit after the remainder of the building closed down. It was a prestige location. It was valuable real estate. Developers and realtors circled like sharks take to chum. One developer took his mom and a plate to cookies to the widow of the owner to try to win her over. Another tried to demoralize all involved and offer his expert opinion of “tear it down.” The property sat dormant for a decade, but the bureaucrat’s call to tear it down created an urgency like a duck hunter’s dog flushing the bushes. Our Save Ian’s group wanted to use our skills and connections to do something to save the building. When we met with the children of the owner, two realtors magically showed up and offered to serve as the realtors to help fend off the other professionals who were circling. They didn’t highlight that a sale would net them something like a six-digit payday in commissions and that was driving them more than compassion for the besieged family.
The family who owned the building rigged for silent running as a defensive move. When the bureaucrats put a deadline on the situation, the family asked for and obtained an extension. While we tried to get the family to surface as the deadline closed in, they engaged a realtor-- a different realtor from the previous meeting-- and he quickly closed a deal. The new owners pledged to build something reminiscent of the Ian’s and Turners building of old. There was a promise to put back a coffee shop and they may even call it Ian’s. In this town, developers will say anything to get a deal done: “we’ll offer low income suites” or “we’ll improve the adjoining roads” or “we’ll get it done on time.” The same bureaucrats who needed to knock down a little two storey building will roll over and give the developers anything they ask for. I met with the architect of the proposed construction, Alan Lowe. He showed me diagram and some elaborate plans. It's not the same as the original Ian's, but it's a good tribute to the original building. I feel that is what's needed-- the original sat in the last half of the 20th century,run lovingly by Ian Turner. He's gone. He's very fondly remembered and this construction will serve his memory. Unfortunately, the city has lots of plans for this space too. The road has a turn lane, a bike lane, and a decent side walk. The city wants to knock out the building to make a wider sidewalk and an additional bike lane. What good will a 100 foot bike lane do apart from giving some city staff a make-work project? The last chapters of Ian's still remain to be played out.
The buffalo used to blanket the plains, then they quickly went from commonplace to hens teeth almost overnight. Our palates capsized from comfortable to exotic in just as little time. Where before a greasy spoon with burgers and grilled cheese would satisfy their patrons, the locations now need to sport fast food; or Thai food; or a slurpee machine; or coffee in 20-oz cups with a promise of its single origin and ethical harvesting. Maybe we were so run amok with quantity for value, we trod over self control. Maybe our appetites moved to an obscure pretension in an arms race of novelty. It remains to be seen if there is an appetite for the return of simpler fare and unobtrusive little diners. I hold out hope for what happens next in that space and if there is room for the return of something like an Ian’s Cafe.
Save Ian's Facebook Group.
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