New York Times
July 14, 2008
Youthful Offenders Restoring Luster to Diners of Old
By PAM BELLUCK
CRANSTON, R.I. — Classic American diners are dinosaurs these days. Many of them, anyway.
Take Sherwood’s Diner, once so popular in Worcester, Mass., that patrons who were firefighters rigged a fire bell to ring inside the diner.
Or Hickey’s Diner, hooked to a 1954 Chevy truck on the town green in Taunton, Mass.
Or the gigantic Louis’ Diner in Concord, N.H., with stained-glass windows, basket-weave tile, and a colorful history, including having an owner who was convicted of rum-running during Prohibition.
These were places where Americans dawdled, debated and dated, kibitzing over sliders (sausage patties), sinkers (donuts), and Adam and Eve on a raft (poached eggs on toast).
Now, some defunct diners are getting a new lease on life from an unlikely source: young people in jail.
Behind the razor wire at Rhode Island’s juvenile detention center, teenage offenders are restoring four vintage diners that have been brought there by preservationists for the New Hope Diner Project.
This fall, the first restored diner, Hickey’s, should open in Rhode Island, with some of the teenagers working the griddles and the cash register, and even preparing to manage the restaurant someday.
“The whole poetry behind it is that these are kids who have been pretty much cast away emotionally and criminally, getting a chance to restore beloved eateries that have been cast off from society, too,” said Daniel Zilka, the acting director of the American Diner Museum, who rescues decrepit diners and helps run the project. “If they continue on the path that they’ve been moving upon they would end up in an adult correctional facility. This is probably their last opportunity.”
The offenders at the detention center, some as young as 13, have been convicted of crimes like sexual assault, armed robbery, breaking and entering, and drug offenses, and sentenced to serve 6 to 18 months. The center, the Rhode Island Training School, also has maximum security for offenders including murderers, but offenders qualify for the project only if they behave well enough to move to the regular detention population. They must also have, or nearly have, a high school equivalency diploma.
Rob, 16, convicted of assault with a deadly weapon for striking his sister’s former boyfriend with a bat, rendering him deaf in one ear, is one of 16 youths reconstructing Hickey’s — its mahogany subfloor, porcelain panels, and a 1954 Chevy truck that Mr. Zilka bought on eBay.
“It keeps my mind off the negative,” said Rob (state officials withheld last names because juvenile offenders’ records are not public). “I can say, ‘Yeah I helped make that.’ ”
Rob, who said he had “been in detention a million times,” said he preferred the diner work over some other training programs, like the poetry and rapping workshop, which he said censored some language.
“You can’t express what you want — nothing about drugs, violence, sex,” said Rob, who plans to record a rap album and call it “In Harm’s Way, Volume 1: Talk Is Cheap.” “They just want us to rap positive. But I can’t just be talking about sunshine and flowers and how colorful they are. That’s not my life experience.”
Devin, 18, with a 10-year history of armed robbery and lesser crimes, said he also values the diner program, especially taking apart the stove and refrigerator because, “I always want to break things.”
“I’ve been doing the carpentry class my whole bid, but before the diner I was doing little boxes and plaques that you send home,” he said. “That really don’t teach you nothing.”
Now he is thinking of a carpentry job or diner work after he is released.
Fueling such ambitions is the point, said John Scott, the community liaison for the school who had the idea for the project, including the tool belts that offenders get when they are released.
“Building birdhouses like a traditional high school program is not what these kids need,” Mr. Scott said. “We’re actually preparing them for all kinds of skills: there’s ceramic tile in these diners, sheet metal work, plumbing, electrical. You always meet people who want these kids to be locked away, and I respect their ill-informed opinion. But I look at the training school as kind of like Home Depot of the correctional system. We give them the tools, and when they’re ready to use it, they’ll use it.”
Other offenders here take culinary arts classes, receiving food-handling certificates.
Bill Tribelli, the culinary arts instructor, will help devise the diner menus, featuring some old standbys like corned beef and cabbage and “hot wieners,” but also recipes from his cookbook, “Jailhouse Cooking.” Those dishes include Jailhouse Chicken, Jailhouse-Style Macaroni and Cheese (made with WisPride or Velveeta), or Strawberry Mousse (Cool Whip and instant strawberry pudding).
“We need to have jailhouse things,” Mr. Tribelli said. “Most of the people in the jail clientele like their food hot, spicy and full of cheese.”
Mr. Zilka envisions contemporary updates like tiramisù pancakes.
“Who goes to diners now and has tapioca pudding or liver and onions?” he said.
To keep the cash-strapped state from paying $25,000 to $200,000 to restore each diner, Mr. Scott and Mr. Zilka found partners in Rhode Island. New Harvest Coffee Roasters in Pawtucket concocted New Hope coffee (organic, fair trade, shade grown), and about $4 of each $11 bag supports the project.
Students at Bryant University in Smithfield are creating business plans for each diner. Angelo’s, an 84-year-old landmark restaurant in Providence, will operate the diners, employing offenders once they are released.
“Hopefully, one of them will be able to own one,” said Robert Antignano, the president of Angelo’s.
Norm Lambert, the carpentry teacher, said he had initially questioned giving offenders access to dangerous tools. “When I first started working here, I thought how foolish is this?” Mr. Lambert said. “You get a little bit of behavior problems. But it’s kind of like a carrot you hang over their head. If they act up and I have to discipline them, they’re not going to come back.”
Julian, 18, who said his offenses included grand larceny and beating up his father, knows that “if you assault anybody with tools it’s an extra two years.” He wants to put his juvenile record behind him, attend a college like Brown University and go to law school. Then, he said, “I want to be a state governor, actually.”
Families who owned the diners laud the restorations and do not mind the connection to convicted criminals.
“My father was one of the biggest juvenile delinquents there was till the day he died,” said Virginia Ryan, whose father, Ernest, operated Sherwood’s. He did not commit crimes, she said, but practical jokes, like resting a spoon on the stove before giving it to a customer who complained the soup was too cold. “The guy burned his lip.”
Joyce Hickey, whose father, John, ran Hickey’s, said having juvenile offenders restore diners is “fitting almost in some ways.”
“A wide variety of people frequented the diner, the continuum of life,” Ms. Hickey said. “My father was a fair man. He always did see the good in people without being blinded by the bad.”
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American Diner Museum
- New Hope Diner Project
- P.O.Box 6022 Providence, Rhode Island 02940, United States
- WWW.AMERICANDINERMUSEUM.ORG - American Diner Museum a member of the New Hope Alliance is a Federally recognized 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation and all donations may be tax deductible. The Museum will provide the necessary documentation for tax purposes. However, an appraisal of non monetary gifts will be the responsibility of the donor.