Tag Archives: downtown

John Durham, the Bell Building, and A New Era

There’s a lot of talk these days about downtown revitalization and the future of Montgomery. The city government has pushed its chips almost entirely onto the square betting that downtown economic development will lift the rest of the city. There are plenty of people eager to talk to you about the future of downtown, and they’ve got architectural sketches and demographic surveys to back up their sales pitch.

But not as many people want to talk about the past. I don’t mean the fact that there were slave markets there. And I don’t mean the type of nostalgia that drives people to want to have a street fair or a downtown soap box derby race.

Diane McWhorter hinted at what I mean in her op-ed in the New York Times a few days ago. Writing with great insight about her native Birmingham, she wrote

Yet the evil segregationist archetype is fixed in the popular mind as the villainous housewife of “The Help” or the cretinous mob of “Django Unchained” — nobody we’d ever know, or certainly ever be.

But the disquieting reality is that the conflict was between not good and evil, but good and normal. The brute racism that today seems like mass social insanity was a “way of life” practiced by ordinary “good” people.

But in my particular reflections on the recent history of downtown Montgomery, I’m not thinking about the ethical judgment necessitated by civil rights. I’m just thinking about how regular folks, overlooked folks, did keep businesses downtown, even though the surrounding shops were shuttered, leaving entire blocks looking like a bomb had gone off.

One such merchant was John Durham.

Until January 1, 2013, Durham ran a watch repair shop in the Bell Building on Montgomery Street. Today, when walking by, I noticed that his shop was empty. Mr. Durham was inside, making one last sweep of the place before closing the door behind him for good.

I didn’t know he was closing. I stopped in to let him know that we’d miss seeing him in there, peering through a jeweler’s loupe into a beautiful set of meticulously arranged gears.

He offered me a jug of hydrochloric acid, not knowing how tempted I was to take him up on it and cart around the dangerous liquid that he had used for some process related to gold plating.

I didn’t tell him that we had briefly blogged about his shop, encouraging people to take their watches there. I didn’t tell him that, although I had never used his services (and don’t even wear a watch), that it warmed my heart to see him at work. I didn’t talk about how I was sad that cell phones had reduced watches to luxury status symbols for the rich, nor did I express admiration for the details and focus that an artisan must have to work with tiny machines that measure our lives in such discrete increments.

No, instead I told him that we’d all miss him and wished him the best in his retirement. He is, after all, in his 90s and he said that he had plenty of housework to catch up on.

I don’t honestly know if Durham is a nice guy or not. I never heard anything negative about him. But it’s interesting how my mind valorized Durham’s longevity, his commitment to his work, the generational and technological divide that he represented. I would love to be so passionate about my craft that I continue to work on it into my life’s ninth decade.

Alvin Benn, himself an elderly icon of Montgomery, wrote an indispensable story about Durham for the Montgomery Advertiser on July 25, 2010. For the moment, it is online at this Sidney Lanier website. But if the operators of the site take it down, it’ll disappear in the impenetrable archives of the corporation that owns the Advertiser. The article is good, as most of Benn’s feature stories and profiles are. It’s the reason I didn’t try to interview Durham before. It contains plenty of info about his 65-year career fixing watches, his 70 years in Montgomery, his 40 years in the Bell Building.

At the Bell Building today, I felt lucky to have run into Durham before he left for the last time. I held the door for him as he carted the hydrochloric acid to his minivan, saying that he thought some auto parts people might could use it — something about car batteries.

“Arched Victory” by Sunny Paulk

I looked in at his empty shop, where he used to have some really cool pocket watches, and little velvet cases, and a set of intricate tools. I looked at the Bell Building, which is over 100 years old and currently for sale. I thought about the old guy around the corner that runs the engraving shop, which may also be an endangered business as people just order plaques and trophies off the Internet.

There’s something both sad and beautiful about the sole proprietorship run by a single person with no successor. When the person ceases to engage in commerce, the business goes away. People get old. People stop wearing watches.

Durham Watch Service didn’t have a website. It didn’t have a Facebook page. It almost never advertised. But it had a loyal customer base who respected the craft of someone who was incredibly skilled. And now there’s an empty place on the ground floor of the Bell Building on Montgomery Street.

Downtown Montgomery will carry on, with minor league baseball, some hotels, a ton of bars and over-priced restaurants serving mid-grade food to convention attendees and tourists looking to tweet photos of themselves standing next to something or other about civil rights or the Civil War. But hopefully, people will take a minute and look up at the Bell Building and think about how small merchants used to make things and provide services to folks.

That’s My Dog

Nobody wants to feel like optimism is a mistake.

Yet, walking back from the new downtown hot dog cart, that’s exactly how we felt. The problem, we felt, in the classic act of victim blaming, was not that the hot dog cart didn’t “get it.” The problem was that we don’t belong here, vegetarians in a state that resents vegetarians. And our botched lunch plans were not the fault of the hot dog cart. They were our fault for expecting any better.

We were cautious at first. We heard that there was a new hot dog cart downtown and thought about big cities, where carts and food trucks are viable sources of tasty lunches. We thought about the massive number of trucks in Washington D.C. that line up outside government offices, forking over delicious pizza and Chinese food and felafel to workers conscious of time and money. Those other cities have taco trucks and cupcake wagons and vans that cook empanadas with solar powered ovens. Here, we would be content to start our journey to mobile food sales with the humble hot dog stand — no New Orleans Lucky Dog, to be sure, but a start.

Still, we knew, being Montgomery, that our cart might not be likely friendly to our radical fringe vegetarian beliefs. But when a friend assured us on Twitter that she had inquired as to the status of veggie dogs, we were reassured when she told us that they would begin serving them. She contacted us later to confirm the news: The hot dog cart had veggie dogs.

Today was the day. We walked over, confirming the location on the cart’s Facebook page. There it was! State workers were in line, lanyards dangling around their necks! And there, on the menu, veggie dogs! Two dollars! I wanted to order four of them.

I settled for two, my dining companion for a solitary veggie dog. We were disappointed when the vendors told us that the City of Montgomery had forced them to stop selling cans of soda for some reason related to the fact that they were doing it out of a cooler. Thanks City! Looking out for small business!

But when we received and paid for our dogs, excited to sit down and consume them, even without a beverage, my dining companion poked through her hot dog bun and asked if they had forgotten the veggie dog – you know, the thing that the food product is named after?

No, it turns out that this hot dog bun full of toppings – cole slaw, relish, some shredded cheddar – was what they called a veggie dog. This was what they had added to their menu after a request they had received from some other poor Montgomery vegetarian.

We explained that we had expected a soy based cylinder there in the bun, nestled underneath the condiments, and they seemed curious but receptive to the idea, as if we were explaining that hot dogs could also be constructed from sonic energy and distillations of human love.

Oh, Montgomery. On a day when we in Alabama have elected Roy Moore to return to the office from which he was humiliatingly expelled, our greatest disappointment is a misunderstanding by a start-up small business. Because in the latter case, we made the mistake of expecting better.

Update: Based on the discussion in the comments below, we did a follow-up at Midtown Montgomery Living.

R.I.P. Jubilee Festival

We wrote a while back about the month of May, our plans, and how we hadn’t been to the Jubilee Fest. And now, we’ll never go. Because it was cancelled.

If Jubilee is to be mourned, it must be mourned for what it was at its peak. The shuffling zombie quasi-festival that it had become was a casino-sponsored money-losing albatross, bringing second-rate acts to town at absurd prices, eventually, in its death spasm, throwing in a beer festival to go along with the music and road race. It was originally an arts and crafts festival, founded in 1976, growing (as we have noted) into a quality event that drew people from all parts of the state (and from other states). Ultimately, it died as one of those “city services” that we just can’t afford anymore, like curbside recycling. Capital un-cool.

A few points:

Many cities have figured out that music festivals are winning economic development opportunities.

If music festivals didn’t make money, Atlanta wouldn’t still hold the Midtown Music Festival, which just drew tens of thousands of people to their downtown. People that attended that event got to hear Pearl Jam cover The Clash. Also, the Hang Out Fest has been a massive success and has exploded in recent years, drawing people from around the country to Alabama’s coast. If music festivals couldn’t work, they wouldn’t have just started one in Gulf Shores and pumped millions of dollars into their local economy. Finally, Bama Jam was also a big success, drawing people to the backwater wastelands of a cow pasture near Ozark. Although Bama Jam’s organizer is heading to jail, the festival may carry on and appears to be making money.

The death of Birmingham’s City Stages should have been a huge opportunity for Montgomery to solidify the dominance of Jubilee.

Birmingham blew it by letting City Stages die. Years of mismanagement contributed to the death of that world class gathering, with considerable grumbling about how the city had (for tax purposes) overstated the “cultural” significance of the event. If there was going to be a silver lining to the death of a once-great Alabama institution, we hoped that it would be that Montgomery could learn from the financial issues of our neighbor to the north. Evidently not.

Instead, we are taking the easy way out and saying that a music festival is just an expense we can’t afford. And when you’re doing something similar to what they’re doing in Birmingham and Jefferson County, odds are, you’re doing it wrong.

Music festivals provide something for everyone. They can help to grow a local music scene.

Festivals, when properly booked, draw diverse audiences. A little bit of country, a little bit of rock and roll, and some hip-hop – it ain’t rocket science. People get exposed to new bands because they pay admission to see their favorites. You have to be careful not to traffic too heavily into the washed up acts that frequent Mississippi casinos. You can get some nostalgia dollars, but don’t want to rely on them. You want the kids to come and have a place to hang out away from parental supervision. You want some food, some arts and crafts, some vendors, some shade and some benches, and you’re pretty much good. If you’re humane, you give away water because it’s hot and we live in the south and we’re not monsters.

Also, you make sure to book local acts, growing the music scene. It’s one thing to give tax breaks to downtown bars, hoping that they’ll book musicians. It’s another to get people to step up their game because they’re playing on the same stage as one of their heroes. Festivals let low-visibility bands play in high-visibility settings, with (in theory) good sound technicians and a chance to sell some merchandise. The digital era has impacted these facts without rendering them false. There’s not a single local band that we’d go out of our way to hear, but that might change if some hungry band spent the year practicing to get on stage before an A-List act on a downtown stage.

City budgets show priorities.

Evidently, dragon boat races are good, especially if you control the concessions contract. And road races good because you can charge people money to run on your public streets, while claiming that you promote fitness. But music festivals require dealing with musicians and booking talent and setting up stages and keeping streets closed for long periods of time. People will get drunk and might get into fights, and there’s tons of trash to clean up afterwards.

But the bottom line is that other cities have figured out how to make festivals work. Even lowly Birmingham replaced City Stages with the Crawfish Boil. What will we replace Jubilee with? A third-tier college football all-star game?

Jubilee was spun off into its own 501(c)3 in 1992 as a non-profit organization with a volunteer board of directors and a full time executive director. The city still put up money and any other number of kinds of support. Here’s a look at what the festival was like shortly after that time, when it cost $9 per day, or $12 for a weekend pass.

Musical highlights of that Memorial Day weekend in 1995 included Dr. John, Junior Walker (who died later that year), B.B. King, Drivin-N-Cryin, Maceo Parker, Peter Rowan, and Col. Bruce Hampton and the Fiji Mariners. Again, let me emphasize, these world class legendary acts were all present in Montgomery at the same time.

A map!

A sense of sponsorship and scheduling.

A welcome from the mayor

Picture of the Week, 12/9/11-12/16/11

I'm gonna' break. I'm gonna' break this. I'm gonna' break this rusty cage and run.

Comes now that most sacred time of year, when the City of Montgomery erects a shrine to Baby Jesus, and hides it behind chicken wire so the thieves don’t make off with the plaster cherub. And lo, all who look upon it may gaze with wonder that this beautiful moment in human mythology history is represented today as a city’s rural municipal downtown tribute to humble origins, an infant savior, and a fear of vandalism. Let no knee remain unbowed to this annual monument to tasteful beauty.

Downtown Smoke Monster

We don’t watch a ton of TV.

But one of the shows we did plow through (thanks to Netflix) was the popular ABC show “Lost.” If you’re unfamiliar with the show, we commend you. If you’ve seen the show, you understand how mass produced popular entertainment can pollute your mind to the point that when you are walking around downtown and you see a giant column of smoke, you think of the mysterious smoke monster.

This is the first view, taken August 2nd, from near downtown Troy State:

Then, I got a bit closer and this is the view from over by the Post Office:

Turns out, it’s some old abandoned apartments (housing projects?) that are on fire. I get a little closer, but it’s a bit dicey back there with broken glass and weeds and, well, a giant inferno. Firefighters have closed off several of the roads and there are hoses connected to hydrants and it’s overall quite a big scene:

Cruising the news the next day, I learn that the fires were actually intentionally set by the Montgomery Fire Department as a training exercise. They were/are called the Caroline Street Apartments and I certainly support our city’s first responders having the very best training possible, with realistic simulations and everything. But there’s also something sort of sad about these apartments downtown, owned now by the city, being torched. The article says they were/are an “eyesore” and that’s certainly true. I’d honestly be afraid to go up there and poke around too much. It’s not like the surrounding neighborhood is all that much better. But there was a time when people lived there, and the city didn’t own it, and it was nice to be downtown, by the river.

It’s sort of like those weed-covered lots, where there are brick retaining walls and sometimes even steps … that lead up to nothing. Downtown revitalization is a popular phrase, and progress has been undeniable. We love everything from the Biscuits Stadium to the Train Shed to the Urban Farm and the proposed Cypress Pond Park project. But there are also places like the Caroline Street Apartments and all of the mansions (and shacks) there on the hill — some hurting areas and neighborhoods that could use a grocery store and a park and some bike lanes. And we don’t see a lot of promise for the Chamber of Commerce slogan, “Montgomery: Come See Our City-Owned, City-Torched Downtown Abandoned Housing Project Fires.” And it’s not like the place is gone now, burned into ash that drifted away on the river breeze. It’s still there, still abandoned — just with scorch marks on parts of it now.

Somebody somewhere will be a better historian of the Caroline Street Apartments than me. Nobody is going to be living there again, although the property might get redeveloped into something good, provided the city can find a buyer with some money and a vision for downtown living.

For now, we can just drive by and wonder if they ever freed Mike White, over there on Mildred Street.

Olive Room Lunch

There’s an old saying about wanting something so much that you wish it into reality.

Unfortunately, I can’t remember that old saying right now, although I have the vague feeling that it may be Eastern European. But I’m not about to sit here and Google, “Old Saying About Wishing For Stuff.”

Needless to say, that old saying wouldn’t apply here because, as much as we wish that a decent place for lunch would open up downtown, we’re still stuck with the likes of the greasy and slow Flames (142 Montgomery St.) and the country-fried meat-laced veggies of the Farmers Market Cafe (315 N. McDonough).

Sure, we know Cool Beans has recently re-opened, but we have yet to return to their newest incarnation for a lunch. Here’s hoping their prices have come down a bit. And yes, Saza is really good. But we still need more decent lunch places downtown.

Our hopes were exceedingly high when we heard that the Olive Room was going to start serving lunch. It’s a nice venue. We’ve never had dinner there because entrees run between 20 and 30 bucks, but we’ve heard the food at night is among the best in town. But lunch? At $9 (including chips and a drink)? Sounds awesome!

Yet, again with the wishing.

We wished so hard that I even went twice to see if it would be better the second time. That’s because the first time I went, I was puzzled that the menu seemed to consist of only five things. You have to go in and walk up to the bar in the back to order. And you’ve got five options. And if you’re vegetarian, you’ve got one: the pine nut salad.

I explained to the guy that I didn’t want a pine nut salad and he said his chef could “do me up” a Caprese Panini. It turned out to be sort of a Cuban with, well, tomato, cheese, and maybe a tiny green ribbon of basil in there somewhere. It was greasy and pretty good, as would be any decent cheese that had been pressed into bread in some mass market sandwich pressing machine. Also greasy and pretty good (in that order) were the homemade chips it came with. Yet, at the end of the meal, I reflected on the fact that I had just spent $9 on a grilled cheese sandwich.

Sure, the tomatoes were good. And sure, it’s a hip, funky, sort of dark place, with couches and a weird ancient elevator in which they have placed a tiny table (think about a romantic date that edges closer to creepy due to the tiny size of the elevator). But a $9 lunch is supposed to be a bargain, not an investment in atmosphere. And when they’ve cranked 70s glam rock so loud that you have to yell to be heard, we left less than thrilled with our lunch, although we were coated in a nice shimmering reflective glaze of grease from the homemade chips.

But like those theater performances of Peter Pan, where they get the lady to play Peter Pan and the fast-moving spotlight to play Tinkerbell, the kids in the audience have to clap to bring Tinkerbell back to life after she is pierced by Captain Hook. You have to clap really loud to show that you believe, because, kids, the power of belief can conquer death. Note to self: Peter Pan is a damned filthy liar.

No matter how much you want to believe, lunch at the Olive Room is not, in fact, good. We went back another time for a $9 special and I decided to try something else: a tomato-basil “pita.” I asked about the nature of this “pita” and the guy behind the counter (who had just been bragging about being a big supporter of off-the-deep end Tea Party Congressperson Martha Roby), explained that it was more of a “pizza” than a “pita.” Maybe they just thought those two words sounded enough alike that they were likely synonyms.

Well, it was either that or the damned pine nut salad. And it may be an odd thing for a vegetarian to say, but a salad ain’t a lunch. Maybe you can trick it out with some boiled egg and artichoke hearts, like some kind of mutant concoction at Jason’s Deli. But most places, I don’t want your salad as my entree.

The pita? Sure enough, it’s got tomato. And cheese. And basil. Where have I seen these ingredients before? Oh right, on the grilled cheese I paid $9 for last week. This time around, they’re all laid flat on a crusty piece of dough cut into four pieces. And some chips. And a drink. Sigh. Nine dollars. Salt cheese salt coma.

My dining partner had no complaints about his chicken sandwich, although noted that it was “nothing exceptional.” He was far more impressed by the atmosphere and hoped to return for a dinner sometime.

And I guess I’m willing to do that too. The dinner may well be spectacular. The lunches certainly were not. But it’s not their fault they saw an opening in the totally crappy current downtown lunch market. And the $9 lunch seems like a bargain when you factor in chips and a drink. And yet, you leave feeling greasy and light in the wallet. No wonder it has been pretty empty both times I went.

Sorry Tinkerbell. I just can’t keep clapping.

Picture of the Week: 3/21/11-3/27/11

The iconic Court Square Fountain runs red with the blood of its many enemies.

 

The Deli at Alley Station

Dear friends, readers, and Internet search-bots,

We realize that posting here at LiM has dwindled to a meager trickle of late. We know. We get it. You are starved for content from our fertile minds. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on who you are), we have been busy with other antics, including our other blog about Montgomery — Midtown Montgomery Living. No, we have not left this blog to wither and die as the mainstream media would suggest. Rather, we have waited, biding our time, to return to LiM with a vengeance. We plan to be updating it much more frequently from here on out. Thanks for bearing with us (if, in fact, you have). We love you.

Here’s the setup: Historic American city trying to get back on its feet after years of neglecting its downtown takes bold new strides to re-zone and re-develop its urban core. A big fancy hotel is built with convention space! The (heterosexual) river is turned into something people might like to walk alongside and have lunch near! There’s a new bar with a surprisingly good happy hour, even though it’s stupidly closed for daytime football! And a new Italian restaurant that, despite being prone to bouts of extremely sketchy service, offers some damn fine food (including an outrageously tasty pizza with eggs on it)! And baseball! And oysters!

Even as the exclamation points pile up, redevelopment isn’t without its hitches. Lofts are built and occupied at a trickle. Others see construction slowed or completely abandoned when the economy collapses. Ultimately, everyone knows that if downtown is really going to thrive, people are going to have to live there. To get people to live downtown, there needs to be food available for purchase. Food that goes beyond ribs, pizza and vile “Chinese” food. Bigger cities than Montgomery have struggled with this very same issue. Los Angeles’ downtown residential prospects snagged for years on the “no grocery store” issue.

Functioning high density urban neighborhoods are full of delis, bodegas and other corner stores – residents need to run out and get food, diapers, cat litter and other city living essentials. Also they want to be able to eat delicious and reasonably priced food before and after attending the many urban cultural functions that make downtown living worthwhile.

That’s why we were so enthusiastic about the Deli at Alley Station. It seemed like a first step toward sustainable downtown living in Montgomery. Sure, there may never be a Winn-Dixie downtown, but that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be a nice market (milk, eggs, toilet paper, wine) that also sells tasty sandwiches. Alas, despite the various efforts of ex-mayor (and one-term Congressman) Bobby Bright and various other economic development types neither possibility has yet come to pass.

The Deli at Alley Station is an exercise in disappointment. First, you’ll be disappointed in the food. Maybe their Reuben is good – we’ll never know for sure. But the things we ate on a recent visit were truly terrible. One of us had the “Deli Salad Sampler” with pimento cheese, tuna salad and egg salad. Each salad came ice cream scooped onto a longboat-style lettuce leaf destined to ferry them into infamy. For those of us who have suffered the many indignities of repulsive office meals catered by Chappy’s Deli, this meal was the S.S. Minnow to Chappy’s Kon-Tiki. A total of four crackers accompanied this festival of objectionable goo.

It was probably for the best that we were unable to obtain more crackers. The egg salad may be the worst we’ve ever had (and the genre isn’t replete with luminaries). If you had told us in advance that it was actually a scoop of a flavorless mush called root marm, we probably would have believed you. Immediately after tasting, we were filled by regret. As it turns out, the consumption of emptiness is less glamorous than French philosophers have led us to believe. It is more like the feeling after watching Rhianna’s NBA All-Star halftime show, which is to say that you will need at least a shower and possibly a box of Girl Scout Thin Mints to rid yourself of its aftertaste.

Speaking of aftertaste, there was the tuna salad. Let us speak no more of it except to say that it is not good when your customers are unfavorably comparing it to the tuna salad at Subway (also served with a depressing ice cream scoop, and also the color and consistency of our coming nanotechnology Armageddon).

Finally, and with fleeting shreds of hope for a decent lunch, we dutifully sampled the pimento cheese. Which was served in a scoop-sized portion probably large enough to employ a small army of cardiologists. Now, we know from pimento cheese, and we can honestly say that this stuff was, um, edible. It wasn’t good (that honor is reserved for the edgier kinds of cheese spread that come with small amounts of diced jalapenos), but it was edible. But not in the bucket size. And not with four crackers. And really, not as a stand-alone entree for a lunch (which, where we come from, is a meal). We must emphasize that it was not good. But it did at least taste like the thing it was supposed to taste like.

On the other side of the table we had a cup of soup and the Alley Station Special Grilled Cheese Panini. This is a tarted-up grilled cheese, but it was heavily sold on the online menu, as well as the giant wall-sized menu in the store. This was no obstacle to our cashier’s total ignorance of the item’s presence on the menu. Which seemed odd since it was one of three items flagged with a fork to signify a “signature” item.

We assume, in this culture at least, that a “signature” appellation means that the item is one of the best on the menu – that it stands above the crowd of mundane club sandwiches and turkey wraps as something the chef stakes his or her name to, that it is therefore worthy of flourishes and the word “special” and the little hearts over the “i”s, or what have you. Not for nothing is John Hancock still associated with the politics of personal endorsement. If this is the case, then the Deli at Alley Station is in big trouble. This sad disaster of a sandwich was chewy and cheesy in all the wrong ways. Yes, Virginia, grilled cheese sandwiches can be gross. It was even gross dipped generously in the cup of mushroom bisque. Which soup was edible in the same way as the pimento cheese. Its cook, alas, had made the decision to replace flavor with extra cream. In the age of Rhianna, we all settle for simulacra.

The day we were there we felt it was almost certainly drawing lunch diners off of Sa Za. Which is too bad, if only because this meant more people were eating mediocre sandwiches when they could have been eating delicious egg pizza. It was the allure of the new, we are almost certain – the same reason you couldn’t get a table at Wintzell’s when it opened, but now can walk in and sit basically anywhere.

After you finish being disappointed in the food, you can start being disappointed in the place. The Deli at Alley Station misunderstands the problem with downtown living. The problem wasn’t that people couldn’t get lunch. Sure, maybe they couldn’t get much breakfast outside of the Renaissance’s restaurant (and certainly not “all day” breakfast – let’s see how long that lasts). But is a turkey club (or even a good Reuben) really a revolutionary addition to the downtown foodscape?

The problem was the lack of “grab and go,” of actual deli food (meats, cheeses, breads, the stuff a market offers) and the lack of market offerings. The DAS has decided, in the latter area, to opt for the Rhianna solution and substitute simulacrum for reality. They have a refrigerator case full of candy and dubious health waters up front. On the side there are moon pies and Cracker Jacks well out of reach of any adult (let alone child) who might like to purchase them. There’s a weird display of cans of dog and cat food next to Chef Boyardee ravioli on the other side of the freezer cases. It looks like it’s for show, but is “reachable” by sliding ladder (along with several six packs of beer that are seriously more than eight feet off the ground). Is this really going to be the thing (or a thing) that convinces folks that downtown is now livable?

The DAS could possibly appeal to people who think it’s a treat to go to Panera Bread. This might also eventually serve as an acceptable eatery for people that work downtown. Unfortunately, since the state is broke and probably due to fire all of the state workers soon, there will be fewer of those in the times to come.

There are too few tables for it to be a “hangout,” and we have outlined its total failure as any sort of grocery store, despite the hilarious prop cereal boxes that seem to suggest that someone once listened to an audiobook about urban redevelopment in their SUV as they sped off to their Eastside Hellscape McMansion.

Just because the Deli at Alley Station fails as a deli doesn’t mean it’s bad. We like Dr. Dre despite the fact that he’s not an actual physician. The problem is really with its failure as a restaurant. It will be interesting to see whether Montgomery consumers reward the DAS’ abject mediocrity, and whether downtown ever gets the necessities for the real urban living it claims to want.

Free Magazine Review: RSVP (Sept/Oct 2010)

It has indeed been a while. So many free magazines piled up around the house. Time to get to reviewing them again! It’s Lost in Montgomery’s only semi-regular feature, Free Magazine Review! Click here for past editions. Today, we just couldn’t pass up reviewing another issue of the local mag that is our go-to source for rich white people comedy.

What’s it called? Montgomery RSVP. As you may recall, RSVP is actually an acronym, standing for “Rental Space Vogue Parties.” They have a website.

Giant furries promote loyalty to higher education

What is it? Well, they claim in their subtitle to be “The River Region Guide for All Things Social,” but that obviously depends on your social scene. If you’re younger than 30, make less than $50,000 a year, or you don’t resemble Bob Costas or Martha Stewart, you may well decide that there are some “things social” that aren’t covered by the sweeping umbrella of RSVP’s claim.

Where’d we find it? Likely at one of the businesses featured in the many advertisements within the pages of the magazine. Our best guess after digging this issue out of one of our stacks of unread detritus is that this issue was grabbed at a local salon.

What’s the deal? We’ve reviewed RSVP twice before. First we looked at their March/April 2009 issue. Then we examined their July/August issue of the same year. Both were hilarious editions, but we took some time off to see if RSVP could get it together. But like awful adult contemporary singer Richard Marx sang, we just “keep coming back.”

RSVP is, after all, clearly the leading publication in the field of Montgomery’s vast and competitive free magazine landscape. You might say that it stands astride the world of free magazines like a Colossus towering over a giant pile of wasted paper.

RSVP appears to be plugging themselves into the municipal scene in a way that the somewhat-harder-to-find Montgomery Living is failing to do. Maybe it’s RSVP’s snazzy party planning business, or maybe they’ve simply got better connections. Maybe it’s because RSVP’s magazine is free, while Montgomery Living has a cover price (though we’ve never paid for one). RSVP is hooked into the young urban professional network in a way that has caused it to cross our paths several times over the past year.

What sections do they have? RSVP seems to have settled into a fairly regular set of features. They’ve got two stories under “Singled OUT,” which, we guess is about dating or something. There’s a feature story; the “socially SEEN” section; “Look, Listen, Lounge;” and the usual bunch. There’s no real reason why the sections are distinguishable. Music info could be under “Look, Listen, Lounge,” or maybe under “Now Hear This,” or as a “reason to gather” or “friends, trends, odds & ends,” or perhaps the catch-all category, “when? what? where?” Either way, the whole thing is advertising, so it’s not like there are firm editorial categories here.

Obviously, the most important section here is “the list,” which features several pages of photos and biographical information about “young leaders.” And trust us, if you have a job and are under 50, RSVP’s list considers you a “young leader.” One featured leader has been in the Air Force for 22 years.

Who advertises? The usual suspects. We’ve been through this in our previous two reviews of the mag. The first ad after the inside cover is for the Alley Bar, touting the fact that you can watch football there. Well, it says, “Game on!” and has a picture of an offensive line about to snap the ball. Wouldn’t that lead you to think you could watch Saturday morning college football games at the Alley Bar? Yet, do they show games there?

We went on a Saturday during October and they were closed. Do you think they’re open for the NFL on Sundays? Nope.

Game on!

In fact, if you’ll entertain a brief sidebar about the Alley Bar, we called their phone number on a Sunday morning and not only were they closed, they didn’t even have an outgoing voicemail explaining their hours. You get get a recorded message: “Memory full. Enter access code.”

Huh. OK. Maybe there’s info on their blog. Nope. Instead of info from the bar itself, you get posts from customers complaining about being overcharged on their credit cards.

Ah, downtown revitalization.

What’s interesting in this issue? Football! Like, totally, uh muh Gah!

Look, we love college football. More importantly, most people around here love college football. Thus, it’s a good cover choice and a defensible theme for a fall issue. There’s good fodder for a featured cover story and it’s likely to be a popular issue.

That said, it helps to have some idea of what you’re talking about before you pick something to be your cover story. Take the six ladies on the title page, for example. Usually, this is where you get a note from the editor. This month, we get six notes from various white ladies, each talking about autumn and football. Kim, the publisher, likes to “get [her] booty back in the gym.” Amanda watches Grey’s Anatomy and loves Auburn football. Amanda says, “since retiring my pom-poms years ago,” she is mostly “an avid fan of shopping.” Chandler enjoys picking out the perfect game day dress, while Mallory applies football terms to her dating life, talking about “steering clear of yellow flags” and not “jumping offsides” by texting or calling too much. Shopping and fashion and dating! Football!

Pages 12-15 are light on text, heavy on fashion, mostly trying to tell you brand name college-themed crap to buy to wear to football games. No faded lucky t-shirts for these ladies. We’re talking semi off-the-shoulder tops for “flirty fun looks.” And for the dudes? Shut up and drink your embroidered flask.

Also, while it’s nice that they threw Alabama State and Troy State (yes, we still call it that) into the mix with Bama and Auburn, there’s no mention in the fashion spread of other in-state teams like Samford, UAB, or LOCAL team Huntingdon.

The Hawks do make it into the “spirit of the game” section, which consists of “facts about these colleges that we downloaded off the Internet.” In the section about Alabama State (p. 28), the editors/writers manage to misspell both “Pittsburgh” and “Steelers.” Yay, football!

But what can we really expect from a publication that on the front end says several times that “every Southern girl” waits year-round for football season and then towards the back of the magazine alongside the printing of SEC football schedules includes this fine image:

Ladies like football ... unless it is boring torture that they endure because men force them.

Cool Beans

Sometimes writing a restaurant review can break your heart. You want so very badly to say nice things. The person who owns the restaurant is wonderful. The place is lovely and conveniently located. There is fantastic art on the walls and the service is both personable and attentive.

And yet, if you’re being honest, you just can’t dash off a glowing review. You can praise and praise, but if the bottom line is that you don’t go to eat here very often, the proof is in the pudding and the money is where the mouth is. Or something like that.

Again, Cool Beans has everything that it should: tasty coffee fixed by nice people, making it a perfect “pop in for a cappuccino” sort of joint. The latest New York Times lies out for you to peruse if you should opt to sit and sip your coffee drink amid the fantastic art.

And yet, if you have gone if for a coffee drink (say, a mocha) and maybe a snack, you have paid $4 for your mocha and $1.50 for your thick and tasty cookie. Add in sales tax and you realize that you have dropped nearly 8 bucks for a mid-day caffeine boost and cookie. You, living amid a crippling economic recession depression, just can’t afford that kind of snack break.

And then there’s the food. Again, all looks to be right with the world. The food is healthy. There are a wide variety of interesting menu options that you can’t acquire anywhere else. Each item is named after a famous Hollywood personality (for some reason all except the Grace Kelly appear to be named after famous directors). There are tasty-looking salads and pastas, along with a daily rotating special. On a recent day, the special was some sort of tenderloin beef tips. Once we had a vegetarian muffaletta special that was one of the best foods we’ve ever been served in Montgomery. Seriously. And having had multiple meals there, it cannot be denied that each dish is individually prepared with attention and care by a real chef. None of the frozen, mass-produced microwave items that you might encounter at other, more standardized sit-down chains.

But again, when you end up looking at your bill at the end of the meal, you ask yourself whether it was really worth paying $20 for a lunch in which your salmon (the John Huston) was actually a little oily and soft. The lentil salad (the Francois Truffaut) is so delicious that you would eat it every day if you could. Seriously, it’s the kind of healthy food that might convince even the fries-and-chicken fingers set to eat something good for them, what with the orange zest in the organic yogurt and the delicacy of the salad. You think it won’t be filling enough for lunch, but it turns out to be awesome and just right.

Adding to the perception that an establishment must be “out of place” in order to be “artsy,” there’s no regular sweet tea, but some sort of sweetened peach tea concoction. And this stuff is like syrup. Not good.

Montgomery needs Cool Beans. It needs more local coffee houses and more galleries and more chill places for relaxing and eating good food prepared without huge chunks of pork in it. We just wish that it was more affordable to go.