We were startled awake at 5:30 AM by a loud rapping on the bedroom window with shouts of “tsunami…evacuate.” Stunned, we learned that a Pacific wide warning, following Chili’s catastrophic 27 February 2010 earthquake, had been issued. Throwing our clothes into the car, not knowing if we’d see the beautiful Japanese-style beach rental house again, we decided to drive the 40 minutes up the mountain into Volcano National Park.
Stopping first for gas, my wife, Jill, went into the store next door for bottled water while I waited in line. Hawaii’s beautiful pink dawn was breaking as I observed the locals in no particular rush, certainly no panic. Jill returned with water and a 12-pack of toilet paper. “Toilet paper?” “Everyone was buying toilet paper so…” her voice trailed off. Was she in shock? Laughter convulsed us both as relief replaced fright. At least if we had to camp …
Volcano National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii is home to one of Earth’s most active volcanoes – Kilauea – in an island chain born of volcanoes. We stood on an observation platform, in the middle of the devastating lava field caused by Kilauea’s most recent eruptions, with a sweeping view of the stunning coastline. Then it struck. No, not the waves, the realization we had fled to the safety of an active volcano to escape a possible tsunami.
Nine hours later, as the evacuation order was lifted, there was audible disappointment among the other tourists – no photo ops. Fortunately, Hawaii was spared that time, but that hasn’t always been the case.
Later in the week we drove into Hilo for a day at its famous market. A substantial swath of land forms a buffer between the historic commercial center and the Pacific Ocean. It makes for attractive park land and athletic fields but that’s not the reason for its existence.
For nearly a century before 1946 that same swath of land had been Japan Town, a warren of immigrant shanties. It lives on in Hawaii’s superb Asian fusion cuisine. Yet in a brief time frame on April Fool’s Day 1946, Japan Town and many of its residents were swept into the sea by a tsunami created by another catastrophic earthquake thousands of miles distance in Chile.
The Pacific Tsunami Museum is a short walk from the Market. Staffed mostly by volunteers – many who survived the devastating 1946 tsunami – they showed no sympathy for the tourists that lost photo ops a few days before.
As long as the carbon dioxide and sulphur gas levels from Kilauea’s simmering crater do not force its closure, Volcano National Park is open 24 hours. We drove one night to the observation area that’s closest to the caldera. There in the pitch blackness of an overcast Hawaii night, we looked in awe at the vast, blood-red glowing cauldron of Halemaumau, the eternal home of Pele, goddess of volcanoes. The fragility of paradise, Pele is indeed home, prepared to remodel the land at her pleasure.
You are reading that correctly: “…every effort to appear civilized.” The author was Aleko E. Lilus and the article, “The Old Seaport of the Sulu Pirates,” appreared in the highly popular monthly magazine Travel, October 1931 (Robert M. McBride & Co., Camden, NJ). I did not seek out this magazine. This classic of Western mores illustrated through travel was a recent gift knowing full well my interest in antiques and popular culture through the ages.
Travel (1902-2003) “…was reflective of the world at the time…” (Contextualization, Clay Dillon) and let’s remember the time. 1931: the depth of the greatest world economic depression ever, Fascism was flourishing in Italy with many European and American supporters, the Nazi Party was gaining ground in Germany, the Western empires controlled most of Asia, Africa and South America. In the USA the Klu Klux Klan was terrorizing and murdering African Americans, Jews and Catholics – and not just in the south – and the United States shut the immigration door to all but white Christian Western Europeans.
Yet for the affluent who could travel, and the majority that could only dream through films and lavishly illustrated magazines, this was the “Golden Age” of Aryan dominance – the opportunity for the “savage” to rise above his station. Travel writers could transport minds from a three room Hoboken apartment to exotic lands, “educating” their audience that there were people that had it “far worse” than you had it at home.
The articles run the gamut from the cathedrals of Mexico, the American Southwest, the vineyards of France, a once great Medieval European city to the wilds of Australia. Yet the language used to describe non-Western cultures was far different than those used for lands closer to home.
“The sultan’s niece…became a co-ed of the University of Illinois. She was thoroughly Westernized, but on her return…she promptly forgot her pretty American ways…and went native…As an educational and social experiment she must be considered a complete failure.” (p.25).
“Some of them…have bought Fords…but in the back country they still shoot bows and arrows and have never heard they belong to a vanishing race…” (p.28 “Exploring the Southwest in Your Own Motor” by Harry Fergusson).
“They love their children but they are inclined to spoil them for discipline comes hard to the southern mind..” (p.17 “Malta – Stronghold of the Sea King” by Francis Mc Dermott).
“The Spanish Colonials…upon this land they called “New Spain” … lavished their genius, endowing it with…civilization…” (p.7 “The Glory of Mexico’s Cathedrals” by James Jenkins).
Travel was a gorgeous magazine, especially its stunning black and white photography and its advertising illustrations. In researching the history of Travel, it was second only to The National Geographic in readership for an audience interested in the world outside the United States. Indeed the last article in the October 1931 issue was on Australia’s unique animal life, “Nature’s Side Show in Australia” by Georgia Maxwell.
Naturally, for any modern traveler, 1931 prices for hotels and steam ships seem absurdly inexpensive until one factors what a 1931 dollar purchased compared to today – $16.00 for what $1.00 was worth during the Great Depression.
The queen of Philadelphia’s hotels, the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, had rooms as low as $4/day in the depth of the Depression – cheap but these were teaser rates especially if you didn’t have a job. A 12-day cruise to the Bahamas started at $125 ($2,000 in 2011 dollars) and the French Railways campaign that “Everybody’s back” speaks to today’s ads urging the weary to travel once more.
I well remember this anticipated magazine that arrived at my home every month as a child. I also believed for many years that Mark Twain was correct, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” but life has taught me that even the great Twain was a victim of wishful thinking.
As a travel journalist I’ll be the first to praise the work I’m fortunate enough to enjoy, yet I’m well aware of the fine line that separates being the eyes of the reader from the human that may color the picture with their own cultural prejudices.
My photos of southern Nevada illustrating the musings of Edward Abbey, – the “Thoreau of the American West” – from his collection of essays, Desert Solitaire (copyright 1968).
“There are no vacant lots in nature.”
“Alone in the silence, I understand for a moment the dread which many feel in the presence of primeval desert, the unconscious fear which compels them to tame, alter or destroy what they cannot understand…”
“How difficult to imagine this place without a human presence…”
Petroglyphs, Valley of Fire, Nevada, 4000+ years old
“Strolling on, it seems to me that the strangeness and wonder of existence are emphasized here, in the desert, by the comparative sparsity of the flora and fauna: life not crowded upon life as in other places but scattered abroad in spareness and simplicity, with a generous gift of space for each herb and bush and tree, each stem of grass, so that the living organism stands out bold and brave and vivid against the lifeless sand and barren rock. The extreme clarity of the desert light is equaled by the extreme individuation of desert life-forms. Love flowers best in openness and freedom.”
“One more expression of human vanity. The finest quality of this stone, these plants and animals, this desert landscape is the indifference manifest to our presence, our absence, our coming, our staying or our going. Whether we live or die is a matter of absolutely no concern whatsoever to the desert.”
“Light. Space. Light and space without time, I think, for this is a country with only the slightest traces of human history…from the mortally human point of view the landscape of the Colorado is like a section of eternity—timeless.”
“Water, water, water…. There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, of water to sand, insuring that wide, free, open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here, unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.”
“You can’t fight the desert… you have to ride with it.” ~ Louis L’Amour
It was the pinball machines that always grabbed me first with their loud clang, high clings, lights, bells and the clank of coins at the Trevose Roller Rink. The soda fountain’s compressed gas added to the cacophony. The smell of baking pizza cut through my allergy-stuffed nose. Wrapped in plastic, this slice of frozen wonder cooked in a first generation micro wave, and only half the partially melted plastic needed to be peeled off the cheese.
The fries, burgers, dogs, cheese steaks and grease were the aromas of fun for a ten-year-old’s sensibilities. The carney music concussed ears, the vision of whirling skaters circling the rink like an undulating snake, all added to the heat of innocent sin.
I sat with my buddies, hot, sweaty, exhilarated, and drank cold water from cone shaped paper cups. Billy said, “One day will have to pay for a cup of water.”“What!! Never. Dumb…why?” the rest of use were stupefied. Being a ten-year-old at the Trevose Roller Rink, with the noise of music, cling of the pinball machines, smell of the cheap food and sweaty smiles, my innocence suffered its first doubt as to the future.
Along the road to Canyonland National Park, a ribbon of a river winds for miles through the surreal sandstone, wind and water sculpted canyons in hues of red, orange, green, tan and whites. A snake of invasive Cottonwood trees define the river. Water bubbles from an underground spring fed from rain that fell a thousand years ago on top of surrounding mesas and filtered through the limestone. Isolated ranches, images of the nineteenth century, conjure romantic notions of simpler times, but in this geography of awesome beauty, quiet and dryness, the fantasy evaporates as rapidly as a drought or gets washed away as quickly as a flash flood. Ten inches of annual rainfall create precarious conditions.
Pre-historic pictographs, wisely preserved by state and national parks, may have warned the unfortunate Mormon settlers, if anyone could have read them. To me they’re 4,000 year old graffiti – seriously humorous gripes of being an organism that’s 70% water living in a land lacking that most important element. The park gates display large signs detailing to hikers the necessity to carry a daily minimum of one gallon of drinkable water per person. At the entrance to most park information centers are vending machines. They only sell 16 oz. plastic bottles of spring water – at $2.00 each.
The truth of my friend’s prediction is in Las Vegas amidst the clings, clang, clanks, smells, tired smiles, perfume and shimmering air of innocent sin. Nearly two-million Clark County residents, forty-million annual tourists, computerized undulating fountains, artificial beaches with waves, pirate galleons in Caribbean lagoons, tropical jungle rivers, Venetian canals and two-hundred acre golf courses all suck water from the desert’s less than 10″ of annual moisture and the underground aquifer that remains from a three-hundred million year old ocean. It’s not free, and it may not be forever.
Mesa Verde, Colorado, is awesome. To generations of Native Americans it is sacred ground. Until the 13th century it was home to hundreds of people. The First Americans choose this, and other mesas, for a variety of practical reasons. They were easily defensible, were covered with trees, had fertile soil and due to altitude and wind currents, received the lion’s share of rainfall in this otherwise parched region. The soft limestone rock both filters and traps precious water supplies rather than allowing it to simply run off the cliff. This confluence of advantages created the environment for a flourishing agrarian society over a millennium ago. Walking through the ruins of interconnecting rooms that served as both warehouses for grain and ceremonial centers for the political and religious elite several hundred feet below the mesa summit on a blisteringly hot, dry day, it felt cool within these ancient walls. It wasn’t just shade. Many places on the interior cliff walls were moist and moss-covered. Small trickles of water emerged from these glistening patches dripping down the walls into thin channels carved into the rock floor (picture above: bottom right). At the end of each channel was a small three to four-inch diameter by six-inch deep collecting well carved into the rock. No source of water was too small to be ignored.
Yet the ingenuity of this culture could not prevent its demise. The success of agriculture allowed the population to exceed nature’s ability to sustain human activity. The trees on the mesa’s summit created a temperature differential in the atmosphere that encouraged the formation of life-giving thunder storms, but they also provided fuel and building material for the thriving agrarian economy. By 1150, the very success of that economy had denuded the mesa resulting in a precipitous drop in rainfall. Archaeological evidence tells a disastrous story of drought, increasing civil strife and, finally, abandonment. There is even evidence of defensive fortifications being the last building projects in the cliff towns. Within a century, human habitation on the mesa top and the cliffs came to an end.
Lake Mead – over 130 feet below original levels
Every day in the Southwest the newspapers print articles concerning water. Legal battles are fought over resource rights among farmers, ranchers and land developers. Political battles rage among municipalities, states and the Federal government over river allocations and who’s going to pay for the projects. Environmentalist and economic growth interests ask Courts to rule on the advantages or damages caused by past and future dam projects.
The national and state park services not only take vigilant preservation seriously but make scientific research of these complex ecosystems a high priority. Practical applications from this research are evident in both water conservation technology used in Park facilities and eradication of water sucking invasive plants, such as Cottonwood trees, that were introduced to the environment in the last century by well-intentioned economic interests.
On the outskirts of Taos, New Mexico, is the elegantEl Monte Sagrado Resort. It’s a modern hacienda with artistically appointed guest rooms, expensive spa and stunning dining facilities. Everything surrounds an oasis of native and tropical plants complete with a wide meandering creek crossed by bridges and punctuated with fountains and waterfalls. But appearances can deceive. Among the magnificent vegetation are odd, sculpted metal “trees” whose “flowers” are photo electric cells. The collected energy operates the pumps and the extensive decorative lighting. The hotel has its own on-site treatment facility that purifies and recycles all waste water. It’s used to irrigate the garden and create all its water features. Brochures explaining the green philosophy of management are conspicuously placed for guests to read. Yet resorts like this are the exception. Las Vegas’ Bellagio with its massive water fountain display within an artificial lake are more the norm.
monument at Hoover Dam to workers who died on construction – 1931-35
Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico is one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in North America and sacred ground to the Puebloan culture. Only a limited number of outsiders are allowed to visit the mesa and must be accompanied by a native guide who conducts a well-disciplined tour. Because of the sacred nature of the site, visitors must adhere to strict rules governing photography and following the directions of the tour guide. Only in modern times has electricity been available and a road built allowing cars and trucks access to the top of the mesa. In previous centuries, the plains that surround the mesa were farmed providing food for the Pueblo. Now the food comes from grocery stores on the reservation. Coal fueled electricity, in this land of perpetual sun that could generate both solar and wind energy, run the air conditioners in the adobe dwellings. The Mesa is devoid of all vegetation. It’s hot, dusty and crowded. Blue plastic port-o-potties dot the village. In ancient days, farm fields were fertilized with both animal and human waste. Port-o-potties use chemicals that without proper treatment contaminate ground water. The Mesa of Acoma is sacred, photography of most sites, as well as lingering after the tour, is forbidden, but port-o-potties are a fact of modern Native American life.
Hoover Dam – a Great Depression make-work government project
Hoover Dam is a modern cathedral radiating energy in a most tangible form. Throngs of visitors make a pilgrimage to this art deco monument to 20th century engineering. Graceful angels are poised on the very rim of the dam in testimony to the beauty and power that silences the crowds as they stare, transfixed, at the silver glint on the blue water of Lake Mead. Like the trees of Mesa Verde, this dam is the economic engine of a culture. This tax-payer built Federal Depression-era make-work project was a resounding success for Sin City’s boom and is the artery through which Las Vegas lives today. It’s sacred ground. Yet water levels in Lake Mead have been declining since 2000 and are nearly at historic lows. In a 2008 report on the status of Lake Mead, scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography predict there is a 50% probability that Lake Mead will be completely dry by 2021 due to climate change, population growth and unsustainable overuse of Colorado River water. The report concluded “Today, we are at or beyond the sustainable limit of the Colorado system. The alternative to reasoned solutions to this coming water crisis are a major societal and economic disruption in the desert southwest; something that will affect each of us living in the region”.
The clings, clang, clanks, smells, tired smiles, perfume and innocent sin still clung to the hot air in the Las Vegas airport as I watched both arriving and departing passengers drop seemingly endless quarters into the slot machines. It all made sense. Whether it’s two bucks for a pint of water, wave machines in a desert, Court battles over water rights, port-o-potties on sacred land, a dam to sustain a city or villages built a thousand feet into the sky, we humans like to gamble. We’ll continue to take a chance at beating the odds.
Nestled in the Coachella Valley, 110 miles east of Los Angeles, Palm Springs has been a favorite spot for winter living for at least 500 years. Sheltered by the San Bernardino Mountains (11,500′ elevation) to the north, the Santa Rosa Mountains to the south (8,700′ elevation), the Little San Bernardino Mountains (3,700′ elevation) to the east and the San Jacinto Mountains to the West (10,800′ elevation), the Coachella Valley sits on top of, for the time being, a still sustainable aquifer. Winter daytime temperatures (October through March) average 80 (F)/25 (C).
It’s true that day time temperatures April through September average over 100 (F)/33 (C), and I know it does little to mention that the humidity is near zero. Yet, like lizards in a desert, why would anyone want to go out in the mid-day sun? There are other hours of the day – the cool of a summer evening when a dry 80 (F) does feel wonderful, or the equally pleasant morning hours, and then there are always the mountains and lakes within 30 minutes to an hour drive where temperatures average 20 to 30 (F) lower !
Village Fest is any street fair anywhere – musicians, horse rides for the kids, activities such as the rock wall climb, street performers, shops open until 10:00 pm and food!! Naturally, the restaurants along Palm Canyon Drive are open, but remember this is a street fair in an agricultural region that has abundant access to farms using natural methods (organic, chemical-free). Available at stalls is a wide variety of produce, flowers, grains, fruits (fresh and dried) along with fresh-baked products, arts and crafts. Being a street fair, you’ll also find cotton candy, Philly cheese steaks (no, I didn’t have one…diet…), grilled brats and fresh caramel popcorn prepared in an improvised gas cooker made with a Hobart commercial dough mixer bowl ( resourceful). The fair stretches for blocks.
Unlike many street fairs, Village Fest is always in the evening which adds to the festive air as twilight colors the sky, the mountains darken in shadow and the lights of Palm Canyon Drive and Village Fest sparkle. Palm Springs may be the land of the Bentley (more per capita than Saudi Arabia) but it’s home to many average cars as well. All their owners seem to enjoy the timeless pleasure of a simple village fair.
No, the frog has not become the mascot of Reading, Pennsylvania. They are two of four outdoor sculptures from the annual June Arts of the Avenue Festival. They grace the grounds of the four businesses on Penn Avenue in West Reading that commissioned them for the 2009 festival.
Once a coal choked industrial city in the hills of Berks County, Reading is reinventing itself as a center for arts, education, restaurants and natural food. On the subject of food, it helps that Berks County farms are part of the Pennsylvania Dutch agriculture region famous for their all-natural farming methods.
Founded in the 1740’s, along the Schuylkill River, by two of William Penn’s sons, Reading quickly became an important link for access into Pennsylvania’s interior and a center for the growing iron industry during the Revolution. Reading boomed until the 1930s, when its population reached nearly 120,000. Coal from Pennsylvania’s mountains flowed through Reading like a black river fueling the city and the nation’s industrial might. The city not only was a center for heavy manufacturing but its proximity to New York and Philadelphia retail markets created a vibrant textile and clothing manufacturing sector. The Reading Glove and Mitten Manufacturing Company founded in 1899 changed its name to Vanity Fair in 1911 and is now the major clothing manufacturer VF Corp. In the early 1970s, the original factories were developed to create the VF Outlet Village, the first outlet mall in the United States. The mall is so successful that it draws hundreds of thousands of tourists to Reading every year.
From the 1940s to the 1990s, however, the city saw a sharp downturn in prosperity and population (80,000 in 2008) largely owing to the decline of heavy industry and railroads on whose wealth Reading had been built. Yet even as the city struggled with urban blight and a deteriorating downtown, by the 1990’s a certain stability had been reached. The revitalizing Penn Avenue commercial center – from Mount Penn to tony Wyomissing – played heavily in the December 2007 NBC’s Today show featuring Reading as one of the top four “Up and Coming Neighborhoods” in the United States.
A great example of adaptive reuse is the Goggle Works. Founded in 1871, the Wilson Co. manufactured industrial goggles and glasses until 2002. The idea of the 145,000 square-foot brick complex deteriorating just blocks from Penn Avenue stirred strong interest in local leaders. Extensive restoration to the factory resulted in the 2005 opening of the Goggle Works Center for the Arts. Included in the Center are performing arts spaces, galleries, studios and workshops encompassing a wide selection of the arts.
Just across the bridge from the Goggle Works is West Reading where walking along plant bedecked Penn Avenue is a nice shopping stroll past locally owned small shops, restaurants and cafes. I did not see a single national chain store among the lot. The profusion of plants exist, according to the post-office women I stopped to ask, due to the persistance and persuasion of one businessman – the owner of Curious Antiques and Secret Garden, 605 Penn Ave, which is well worth a visit. A branch of the Young Chef’s Academy, 703 Penn Avenue, is in an attractive space. It was filled with eager kids taking cooking classes. The shop carries a line of kid-friendly kitchen tools and uniforms for the budding chef. Visit the West Reading Main Street site for a list of special events, festivals and shops.
I’ve had numerous reasons to visit Reading over the decades but not for interesting restaurants. The good German stock of Berks County consume high quality meats, vegetables and baked goods from the local farms but there was never much variation in preparation – generous portions of simple hardy food. Yet change has come to Reading and great ingredients are being imaginatively prepared by a new generation of chefs and restaurant owners. Once more, Penn Avenue in West Reading seems to dominate the cafe scene for five blocks from the classic West Reading Diner, 411 Penn Avenue, where you can still get that hardy food, to Go Fishi Seafood Market & Sushi Bar, 622 Penn Avenue. At Go Fishi you can dine in an attractive front room, or purchase an extensive selection of fresh fish, seafood and salads from the market in back.
Breakfast at Good Eatz Green Cafe, 701 Penn Avenue, is not only imaginative and healthy but good for the environment.
The 30 month-old cafe (almost at the magic 3-year survival mark) serves meticulous, mostly vegetarian/vegan dishes but wisely offer items for carnivorous. Besides being green and natural, an atmosphere of “old town cafe” pervades as a couple of low-key business conversations are carried out over coffee, a few people at single tables read the paper, backgammon games and books are in a bookshelf and customers walk-in for take-out (natural beverages, prepared sandwiches & salads).
My wife had Green Eggs and Ham, an omelet with prosciutto, tomato, basil pesto and provolone served with three perfect corn cakes – crisp exterior, soft fresh corn interior ($9.00). I enjoyed Eggs Sardou, a variation of Eggs Benedict with spinach and artichoke hearts (no Canadian Bacon) topped with two perfectly poached eggs and real homemade Hollandaise Sauce. They were accompanied by Yukon Gold hash browns ($8.00). The presentations were attractive and the dishes carefully prepared. The Good Eatz Green Cafe is not for customers looking for a quick sitdown breakfast but, as mentioned, talk-out is available.
Even that once venerable bastion of old-school dining, Stokesay Castle, 141 Stokesay Castle Lane, has changed ownership after many decades and entered the world of modern fine dining, sensible portions and artistic presentations. Set in a sprawling 1920’s English stone manor just outside Reading on Mount Penn, the view from the covered bar patio is bucolic and the interior dining space understated, elegant and spacious. The Tuesday and Thursday four-course prix fixe dinner menu is an excellent choice.
Many of the once well crafted urban row-house neighborhoods are in bad need of repair, as in many cities. Yet there is evidence of slow progress in renovating these blighted areas. Very positive is the determination of residents around Penn Avenue, Albright College, Berks County Park (spotless, safe restrooms) and the still beautiful 1920/30’s hill-side neighborhood of Hampden Heights to maintain the original architecture and landscape.
Driving into Reading, especially at night, a visitor can’t miss a large, brightly lite red Japanese Pagoda looming over the city 900 feet up Mount Penn. Built in 1908 by a Reading quarry millionaire, plans to open it as a hotel/club/restaurant quickly fell through. It was purchased in 1910 by another Reading millionaire who promptly gave it to the city. Like all “white elephants” it’s useless and beloved. Having gone through a number of restorations over the years, the Pagoda is in beautiful condition, and the city has recently constructed nature walks in that area of Mount Penn. It seems only open on the weekends, contains a small gallery and an oriental themed cafe. There is talk that perhaps the city will restore the Pagoda to its original purpose as a hotel and fine-dining restaurant. Perhaps it will reinvent itself yet again. In which case, the Pagoda is a fitting mascot for the city it oversees.
The great organ surges with power. The behemoth American-made 1908 Robert Hope-Jones pipe organ easily fills the 100-year-old, 6,000 seat Great Auditorium with body vibrating sound waves. The National Anthem plays and at the last chorus, the large wooden American flag over the broad stage lights up in a carnival display of patriotism. The show commences: Michael Feinstein and Linda Eder enter the stage and enthrall the audience of the sold-out concert for the next 2 1/2 hours.
The Reverend William B. Osborn may not have approved even this mainstream entertainment when he founded the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting of the United Methodist Church in 1867. The Rev. Osborn was following a well established tradition along the Jersey Shore, starting in the late 18th century, of creating havens of calm in the barrens along the ocean, far from the bustle and temptations of urban life in Camden and Philadelphia. Although Cape May, Ocean City, Vineland and many other shore towns that started as Protestant camp meetings morphed into resorts, Ocean Grove remained true to its original mission.
That mission in the 1860’s included open support for racial and women’s civil rights, education reform and prohibition. Ocean Grove is still a dry town (Asbury Park and Bradley Beach are right next door) but its relaxed fundamentalism encouraged non-camp followers to settle. Today the Rainbow Flag flies from nearly as many houses as the United Methodist Church banner.
The houses of Ocean Grove are stunning. The one square mile has national historic designation with the largest concentration of original late 19th and early 20th century architecture in the country. Rarely will anyone find real estate that exemplifies the ultimate in wood craftsmanship, and this exuberance for decoration keeps many 21st century craftsmen employed by the demands of constant maintenance.
Ocean Grove, a mere 90 minute drive from Philadelphia, is still a glimpse of what the Jersey Shore used to be like. The boardwalk is a walkway – no food vendors, no video arcades. Pedestrians rule and with most streets narrow, driving faster than 25 mph is difficult.
On summer weekends parking is impossible. Most people arriving Thursday or Friday for a weekend never move their cars until leaving. Ocean Grove is a perfect walking town where Main Avenue is never farther than a ten-minute walk from your B & B, and kids are safe riding bikes and skateboards.
An evening’s biggest treat is catching a concert in either the Great auditorium, Wednesdays and Saturdays, or the boardwalk’s pavilion and always having ice cream at Nagles or Day’s – very partisan as to which one is the best!
The center of Ocean Grove is the Great Auditorium with its magnificent pipe organ. This all wood, barrel-vaulted 6,000 seat structure is an engineering marvel with acclaimed acoustics making it a sought after summer concert venue by A-list performers. Besides concerts, the auditorium is the focal point for the Camp Meeting’s summer religious activities including an active youth program. All are invited to participate in Camp Meeting activities.
Surrounding the Great Auditorium is an oddity to all new visitors. Dozens of white tented structures in close formation are what remain of the original tent city that was the camp meeting. As affluence allowed for the building of the Victorian houses, the number of tents diminished. The remaining 142 half tent/half wood cottages are on long-term lease to Camp members and frequently passed down to the generations.
Spreading majestically for at least a 1/4 mile from the Great Auditorium to the beach is the wide, landscaped Great Lawn. Closer to the building itself, numerous antique and craft markets are held from July through October.
The commercial district is small, occupying the better part of six blocks along Main Avenue and a few blocks off Main. Being northern New Jersey, Ocean Grove is not a winter ghost town. With direct train links to New York, half the population is permanent, providing a base for shops and restaurants that are not all post cards and cotton candy.
Dozens of bed & breakfast and hotels, all historic structures, are either on the beach or within three blocks. Some of the best, such as the Laingdon Hotel, 8 Ocean Ave, remain open year-round with a glassed-in porch. The Shawmont Hotel, 17 Ocean Ave, provides well-appointed rooms with private bath, a continental breakfast, a beautiful porch with rocking chairs and a full view of the ocean. Bath Avenue House, 37 Bath Ave, a beautifully restored 80-year-old prior rooming house. The 30 rooms are on the small side but individually decorated, air-conditioned and with a sink. All rooms but one (on the first floor) share bathrooms located on each of the three floors. There are so many repeat guests, that sharing a bath seems no more odd than having house guests for the weekend. A full breakfast is included, and filling. The Carriage House B & B, 18 Heck Avenue, an elegant eight room inn, provides an equally elegant breakfast making it an excellent choice for food lovers.
Ocean Grove is a dry town, but Asbury Park and Bradley Beach are within walking distance along the boardwalk. Many Ocean Grove restaurants are discretely byob, but inquire first. I would not say that the restaurants are outstanding but neither will a customer feel they have had a bad meal in any establishment. In summer, all seem to take advantage of New Jersey’s abundant summer produce.
Among my recommendations are:Bia at the Majestic Hotel, 19 Main Ave., for imaginative presentations and an eating porch with an ocean view.
Sea Grass, 68 Main Ave, serves generous salads and sandwiches including a killer BLT – but this is bacon, lobster and tomato – on a large toasted soft bun with sweet potato fries. Nagles Apothecary Cafe, 43 Main Ave, complete with soda fountain, has been an Ocean Grove institution for over a century – first as an apothecary and now a popular restaurant serving generous portions of classics for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The outside walk-up ice cream window dishes up dozens of rich creations and along with Day’s Ice Cream, 48 Pittman Ave, have loyal partisans who line up every day. On weekend evenings, the lines at both places can be blocks long. The Starving Artist at Day’stries to focus on healthier ingredients and serves a good breakfast with interesting omelet fillings and pancakes.
The charm of Ocean Grove: a place where all you want to do is wait patiently and let calm take over.
2007 did not start well for Kristen Coyle, Susan Bailey and Karen Dooley. The three sisters faced a bitter-sweet crossroad. Their beloved parents passed away too soon to enjoy retirement and for these three daughters to share those years. Now the nest egg their parents had saved became an unexpected inheritance for the three sisters. It was the decision of the women to use the money in a way that would both benefit all three and, privately, memorialize their parents. They would open a business, a produce business. In my opinion after 30 plus years in the food industry, I’d say opening a small produce shop ranks very high on the risky scale in an industry that already is a big risk. It took brains, passion and a sense of humor to turn sorrow into Peas In A Pod.
The sisters do not come from a food industry background. Kristen and Susan are both nurses and Karen is a teaching assistant. All were ready to try something different – but anyone can run a food business? Susan and Kristen freely admit that after three years they are still learning – a key ingredient for success. Their Dad, according to Kristen, had an adventurous spirit taking the family on roaming summer drives through the farms of south-eastern Pennsylvania – the famed Pennsylvania Dutch and Quaker farm counties: Lancaster, Chester, Berks, Montgomery and Bucks. The object was to find, and eat, the freshest in-season vegetables and fruits at local farms. “Eating a fresh tomato with salt…,” is a strong memory for Kristen. So is growing up in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia surrounded by the kitchen aromas of the many Italian households in the neighborhood and sitting down to a freshly made family dinner every night – a tradition these three busy, multi-career women still uphold.
I entered the small shop at the intersection of Keswick and Glenside Avenues in Glenside, PA – a leafy, older suburb a mere 10 miles from center city Philadelphia – through a plant framed door that sticks and agitates an old-fashioned bell announcing a customer. Peas In A Pod is in a typical nondescript twin house converted into mixed commercial/apartment space. Out in front of the shop is a covered stand with produce available on the honor system. Inside, Kristen was at the counter and Susan, with helper, niece Mary Kate, were in the kitchen. (Karen had the day off). Frequent customers, of which there are many, are greeted by name; perhaps they have a quart of soup reserved. Customers, now friends by association, linger and chat. The interior space of the shop is small, simple and functional.
80 South Keswick Avenue was chosen the end of March 2007, and the doors to the shop opened in June – record time for a food business…until the sisters tell me the space was the very small front room – maybe 8 x 10 – of the three rooms. From day one the object was to sell produce from local farms that used green-earth farming techniques from southeastern Pennsylvania counties.
For small shops, and any small food business to succeed, it’s necessary to build personal relationships with suppliers. Susan spent days driving through the countryside and was attracted to the corn fields ofTruck Patch Farms in Bucks County and developed the trust necessary to ensure high quality fresh vegetables, fruits and eggs. Truck Patch is their largest supplier. Heirloom tomatoes come from Herrcastle Farms and Jesse Hale of Everhart supplies the raw honey. Patterson Farm’s maple syrup is a personal favorite, and Four Seasons Farm in Lancaster County, as well as orchards in Loyola, PA, supply fruit, especially Pennsylvania’s wide variety of apples. What you will not find at Peas In A Pod are strawberries in January.
You also will not find most of their 21 soups during the months of June, July and August, but, fortunately, their incomparable Crab Bisque is available every Friday year round – otherwise there would be serious withdrawal issues. Susan’s responsible for the soup, according to Kristen. (Susan: “What were we going to sell in the winter? Soup!”) Susan wanted to bake breads, make soup and maybe expand into… (the curse of a new business – expand). Expansion is a decision often made too early. Sometimes bureaucracy is beneficial, especially considering the 2008 financial meltdown. Cheltenham Township made it clear that fire codes allowed a maximum of only two hot plates for cooking – no oven without excessive renovations – in the compact kitchen (complete with walk in-refrigerator) that was being constructed in the second room. A third small room became more produce and Cento brand packaged pastas and sauces. Susan had a stint, while being a nurse, at Flying Fish restaurant in Chestnut Hill and still has dreams of adding more in-house made products, but reality dictated that soups and salads were a marketable match. With the exception of crab bisque every Friday (300 quarts), the remaining 20 soups rotate with one or two available daily – lemon chicken, bean and potato leek are all favorites. I was allowed only the briefest glance at one of their proprietary recipes, some from their Mother. Fresh salads with in-house dressings are in a refrigerated section and range from garden to chicken to orzo. The two professional grade hot plates are doing just fine.
Peas In A Pod celebrated a milestone anniversary this past June 2010: they’re still in businessthree years after opening – nearly 65% of all food businesses are bankrupt within the first three years. Not that mistakes haven’t been made – the worst was an early over reliance on expensive certified organic produce. Customers preferred the chemical-free products from many local farms that result in “same as organic” at less cost. An obvious suggestion that future marketing of their soups, salads and dressings may be a good idea was met with a look in their eyes that it was already on the table.
The bell at the front door gently clanged as another customer entered the shop. Kristen said that sometimes the bell rings but no one enters. After a brief pause she adds, shyly, “We know its our parents. They would want to be here. I think they’d be proud.”
They certainly would.
Peas In A Pod
80 South Keswick Avenue Glenside, PA 19038-4607 (215) 887-2719