Rally Around Local Businesses The Same Way You Do For Taco Bell
During the last week, plenty of students have mourned the closing of the College Ave. Taco Bell. Many have voiced their disappointment on social media, including one rather poetic Onward State writer. More than 700 people RSVPed to a vigil for the chain location — a good amount of which turned out on Sunday night to hold candles in memory of what once was. And about as many people have signed a petition to save the location.
For many, Taco Bell was a centerpiece of their college experience and where many “memorable” nights ended with only a few dollars in their pockets and a Crunch Wrap Supreme in hand. I’ve enjoyed seeing the way students have rallied around a cause this week, but I can’t help but wonder why this is the business closure that has spurred them to action.
During my four years at Penn State, it has seemed as if every month, if not every week, another thought-to-be beloved or iconic downtown business has closed. If you look at the State College that I arrived at as a freshman and the one that I am about to leave in a few short months, the landscape is vastly different in many ways…for better and for worse.
Along with the ongoing construction, the most noticeable change is in the businesses that dot College Ave. Ye Ole College Diner’s folksy tin facade has been replaced by Hello Bistro’s posh green and gray corporate branding. Walk in either direction and come across the former storefronts of Old Main Frame Shop, Spats Cafe, Crunchee Munchees, and now Taco Bell, which all sit vacant or are under some type of construction.
Although so many long-running businesses have closed, the only response that I’ve seen that compares to this week is when the All-American Rathskeller, once Pennsylvania’s longest continually-operating bar and as authentically State College as grilled stickies, announced it was closing in 2017 due to lease complications.
After news broke, #SaveTheSkeller quickly spread across social media. Nearly 10,000 people signed a petition to prevent the bar from shutting its doors. Alumni flocked to State College for the famed “Last Call” a month after the announcement. And one-star reviews on the product page of the famous mustard produced by the Herlocher family, who owned the building and were initially scapegoated for the closure, piled up like empty bottles of Rolling Rock during a case race.
Today, a different version of the Skeller lives on in the form of Doggie’s Pub, and its legacy has been preserved perhaps as well as it could have been, in part thanks to this month-long uproar. The success of this grassroots effort in communicating what Penn Staters want and value gives me hope that we can replicate similar movements in the future.
But besides the Skeller, there hasn’t been so much as a whimper over various other long-running, iconic downtown businesses like the Diner, Herwig’s, and Fraser Street Deli closing.
A chain location like Taco Bell closing feels like a bit of an anomaly, as it seems like corporate-run giants are the only ones that can make it in this cut-throat real-estate market. But if rumors that a $2-billion corporation’s location closed due to jacked-up rent prices, what does that mean for the rest of the community?
Are the Tavern and Irving’s just one major rent hike away from closing their doors and being replaced by a Ruth’s Chris and an Einstein Bros. Bagels?
We need to protect the places that make State College what it is by demonstrating our steadfast support to decision-makers. These places serve as conversation starters connecting alumni of all ages.
But more importantly, they’re run by people like Hitham Hiyajneh (Yallah, Pita Cabana, Underground Burgers), the Dimakopoulos family (Waffle Shop), the Lucchesi family (Champs, Phyrst, Local Whiskey, Happy Valley Brewing Company), the Schoenholtz family (Irving’s, Fiddlehead, Sauly Boys) and the Zangrilli family (Hi-Way Pizza, the Deli) who are all actually part of this community and making their living here. These are people who thank you for giving them business and who you can get to know over the course of four years. They’re as integral to the community as the food and drinks they serve and students and alumni who enjoy them.
Sure, the Diner had its issues. It seemed to be rarely open, and when it was, barely anyone was ever there. But run into any Penn Stater anywhere in the world, and there’s a strong chance that grilled stickies and stories about hanging out in one of those red booths after long nights of drinking or studying will come up in conversation.
Herwig’s, a traditional Austrian restaurant that I will never forgive myself for only making it to once, may not have been a student favorite, but it brought something truly unique to an otherwise pedestrian food scene. Now, it’s been replaced by a pizza chain that somehow is in conversation for the best slice in State College.
And while the Fraser Street Deli may’ve been nothing more than just a deli, in my limited trips there as a freshman, I was fascinated with the idea of ordering a sandwich named the LaVar Arrington or the Evan Pugh. It’s what I had always imagined college town food being: not necessarily five stars, but distinct to the community and an experience you couldn’t find anywhere else.
These businesses are just a few examples of what we’ve lost during the last four years. There’s been plenty more, and surely, there will be more to come. But we all have something we could be doing about these changes to take more control of our own community.
I want to emphasize that I’m happy to see the many ways State College has evolved during my four years and is continuing to grow. By no means am I someone who wants this community to remain stagnant. My hope is that it one day rivals Ann Arbor as a college town that’s more of a thriving hub of economic growth, innovation, and diversity than just a few cheap bars and t-shirt stores. I think doing so would be beneficial for our community, Penn State as a university, and the world.
Obviously, some change is necessary for that to happen, and initiatives like Summers on Allen and construction of the Invent Penn State building could help get us there. And while the many high rises might make the skyline look a bit different, they’re all part of the growth and aren’t necessarily what will cause State College to lose its charm.
The high rises are a lot like the concrete with which College Ave. is paved. When you’re walking along College Ave. and cross McAllister Street, there’s a break in the street’s pavement. Within that pothole, you’re able to see the brick that once lined State College’s roads. Obviously, as time went on, brick wasn’t the most suitable material for the streets of a growing small town, so concrete was layered on top. However, in these small breaks that pop up throughout downtown, you’re reminded of State College’s history and roots.
The brick is still there as a reminder of the past, but in order for State College to progress, it needed to be modernized, and I get that. The same way I get the need for more student housing. I’m okay with State College growing and changing, but I do think State College is at risk of very quickly becoming something that it’s not. And it’s on students, as well as Penn Staters of all ages, to take action and show support when they feel things are changing for the worse and taking an element away from that quintessential experience.
That can come in the form of both supporting and being an advocate for your favorite mom-and-pop restaurants, bars, and stores that remain. Or it can entail taking a more active role in the community by speaking up at Borough Council and UPUA meetings or joining different committees. Or even by being the person who starts the petition or Facebook group that shows local decision-makers what the people of State College want.
When addressing the crowd at the Taco Bell vigil last night, organizer Prajesh Patel said he originally created the event as a meme and people actually came out. That’s the power this community has, and it’s capable of some pretty incredible movements.
When the Skeller closed, students and alumni demonstrated a demand for some version of that lovably dingy, old-fashioned bar in State College. Today, Doggie’s is among the most popular hangouts in town. The current petition to save Taco Bell has the potential to do the same — albeit in a bit of a more commercialized way.
Either way, regardless of what we’re standing up for, it’s our responsibility as individuals and as a collective to make State College what we want it to be and preserve what we believe to be the Penn State experience.
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About the Author
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