Sunday, February 27, 2011

When on Earth will Sidebar Cafe Get It Right?

Neighborhoods such as our downtown historic districts need good cafes. This seems pretty obvious to me--when you have a good cafe, people go and hang out and spend money. Both of the neighborhoods I lived in in Pittsburgh had good cafes--Shadyside had several reasonably good ones along Walnut, and Highland Park had the exceptional Tazza d'Oro. (All of these are still thriving since my departure, I might add, despite the grim economy.)
When I arrived in Dayton, I was gratified to find what seemed like the Dayton version of Tazza d'Oro, a place called Pacchia's. The coffee was good, there was a fine selection of pastries and breads, there was an adjoining restaurant serving lunch and brunch, and it was clear everyone in the area went there. In the evening it also served beer and wine, so it was the perfect place to stop with friends after a movie at the Neon. It was not quite on the same level as Tazza d'Oro in terms of cafe food, but it was about as close as I could reasonably expect.
In January 2010, however, Pacchia's rather silently changed ownership. At first all that was noticeable was that the cafe closed for a week for some counter remodeling. The new counter was supposed to make things more convenient, although I thought it was less so than the original one.
Gradually, I became aware that the restaurant side--which had been quite a popular destination as well--was closed and that the cafe no longer served beer and wine in the evening. People coming in for brunch were sent away and told that they could get sandwiches at the deli down the street. The restaurant side gradually became off-limits to cafe patrons, meaning less seating in the morning hours, and there were usually people over there discussing remodeling plans. For a long time people didn't know what to call the place other than "the place that used to be Pacchia's," so finally staff began to tell us to call it the Sidebar, that it had been bought by a downtown bar by that name.
For the first few months, it wasn't all that different beyond the lack of brunch. I think people were fairly optimistic that the new management simply had to get things off the ground. The cafe began to serve some pretty good sandwiches.
Around the time I bought my house, the cafe closed for yet more remodeling. I can't remember whether this was at the same time as the restaurant side reopened--probably. At any rate, it reopened with a completely different wood floor (staff said they thought this one would be easier to clean than the previous one, which I thought pretty unlikely *I've just heard that the new floor is vinyl, so that's why*), a completely new and expensive-looking counter area, and a yellow-orange-green paint scheme. Now, I wouldn't say I dislike the new counter area visually, but the old one was much too nice to get rid of, and the old paint scheme was far better. (I heard a fair number of customers comment on how they disliked the new paint; I can only remember hearing one say he liked it.) The restaurant area was also remodeled, moving the bar from one corner to another for no discernible reason. Basically, the remodeling seemed like a major waste of time and money, done only to emphasize that this was Sidebar now and not Pacchia's.
One day when I was hauling stuff over to the new house, I had a craving for one of the nice new sandwiches the cafe had been serving. I've forgotten whether it was tuna or chicken salad. In any case, I stopped in, only to be told that if I wanted lunch I had to go to the restaurant side. Mildly embarrassed, I sat down. I was in work clothes, fairly grimy, and this was all sparkling white tablecloth, with nothing under $10 on the menu. The food was excellent, but the ambiance was hardly what I had in mind.
After the restaurant opened, people continued to come in on weekends hoping for brunch, but the restaurant wasn't serving. Nor is the cafe open in the evenings anymore. The cafe no longer served the sandwiches, and the pastry case was utterly gone, so that instead of a tempting array of lemon bars and muffins (the sunrise muffins had been excellent), you were lucky if you could get a bagel. Coffee customers ceased to have a choice among skim, regular milk, and half-and-half; fortunately I prefer half-and-half since that's all there is now. Honey and the shakers of chocolate and spices disappeared. The new layout also means that the employees often forget to put out napkins or jackets or the half-and-half; I still, months later, regularly hear them complain of not knowing where to find things.
Recently the cafe began serving breakfast items like breakfast sandwiches and waffles. I was delighted to notice this when I stopped in on my way to school, and decided I'd give this a try on Sunday when I'd have a stack of grading to do. I biked over with my quizzes and papers, heartily looking forward to the new menu, only to be told that they don't serve breakfast on the weekend. Supposedly "only about five people will ask for breakfast or lunch today" and to get more would require expensive advertising, so it wouldn't be worth it.
Stunned by this strange logic, I pointed out that most people who want something don't bother to ask if it looks like it's not available; they just get something else or leave entirely. (Usually I get a bagel, but I didn't see any, so I just got coffee instead of the planned breakfast.) Besides, in a neighborhood cafe there's no real need to spend any money advertising; all you need to do is put a sign on the door or a chalkboard on the sidewalk announcing you've got something new and exciting on the menu.
It's no surprise that fewer and fewer people go to the cafe. The groups I used to see nearly every time I came by rarely seem to meet in the space. I'm guessing that some of them may go over to Ohio Coffee Company now, which is the closest place I know of but not very close to my house nor, last I checked, open on weekends. I like Ohio Coffee Company quite a bit, it's just not all that convenient for me, being somewhat more downtown.
If I go down to the University of Dayton area, there are several options in the form of Panera, Starbuck's, and the relatively new cafe Butter. The two chains are pretty good, but I prefer to support local independents when possible. Butter has very good breakfasts--I really like their Paris Omelet--but for the price there ought to be potatoes with the omelets (you'd get that for the same price even in an expensive city like Berkeley), the coffee is marginal, and the waitstaff doesn't seem fully trained yet (often they forget to bring the coffee until well after the food arrives, and friends and I have encountered other such faux pas). But in any case the UD area isn't remarkably convenient for me, even though I can bike there so long as it's not snowy or raining.
In sum, I'd say the Oregon District, St. Anne's Hill, and northern South Park are thirsting for the ideal local cafe. In my opinion, that's a cafe with good coffee, teas, and free wifi, a nice selection of bagels and pastries, which ideally serves soups, salads, and to some extent sandwiches and egg-based things. It should be good both for take-out coffee and for lingering (those who linger reading or grading tend to end up buying more food and drink).
It's my understanding that the Sidebar restaurant is very good--and that's a fine thing--but while I might go to the restaurant once or twice a year (I haven't been yet other than the one lunch foray), I'd be spending a much more reliable stream of cash on bagels, muffins, sandwiches, soup, and the occasional omelet. I don't think I'm alone in this. Alas, it seems clear that Sidebar's owners are really only interested in running a relatively fancy restaurant and have no clue (or don't care) that they could earn quite a bit serving the community with a better cafe.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Regrettable Discoveries

In a moment of obsessiveness, I thought perhaps it would be a good plan to get up to date on exactly which dissertations I had downloaded (over the past couple of years or so) for future reading. After all, most of them have file titles made up solely of numbers, which is not very informative at first glance.
The danger inherent in a project like this, of course, is that one can't resist starting to read, and it would be better to read and grade student papers, or read something for fun. But when I saw that one of these dissertations had a chapter on Devětsil, I didn't see how there could be any harm in reading just that one chapter, in case I learned something new and exciting.
Yet I am feeling unhappy rather than excited. While overall the chapter has reasonable things to say--it deals with Devětsil as a precursor to the main topic of the dissertation, which I will refrain from mentioning here as a courtesy to the author--it is riddled with unfortunate factual errors.
First off, the author calls surrealism a late phase of Devětsil. This is either backwards or just wrong, depending on how you think Prague surrealism came to be. While the original Prague surrealist group did more or less emerge from the ashes of Devětsil, the two groups were not the same. Nezval liked to claim that Devětsil was an embryonic stage of Prague surrealism, as when in 1934 he told Jindřich Chalupecký that Poetism (an aspect of Devětsil thought) was "latent surrealism." Very few members of Devětsil, however, became surrealists. Devětsil was over and disbanded by the time the Prague surrealist group formed.
Next, the author calls Josef Váchal a Devětsil poet. This startled me considerably. Váchal was a writer as well as an artist, but he was pretty independent and for that matter really the wrong generation to belong to Devětsil. Váchal was born in 1884 and the vast majority of Devětsil members were born around 1900. Váchal was more of a Symbolist or Decadent. It is possible that the dissertation author's source on Váchal was misleading (there is plenty of incorrect information published in English on Czech modernists), but it would not have been difficult to look up a well-known figure like Váchal, especially if one reads Czech, which apparently the author does.
The next unfortunate moment involved the author's failure to pick up on 1920s popular culture references. Namely, that the Jiří Voskovec picture poem Skyscraped Doug refers to Douglas Fairbanks. I don't think that this would have bothered me unduly had it been a lone bit of ignorance; I certainly don't claim to know what everything in Skyscraped Doug is all about either. But Douglas Fairbanks was an honorary Devětsil member and the photo in the lower right corner is definitely of him, never mind that I couldn't say what the precise source of the photo was or if the work refers to a specific Fairbanks film. The author was puzzled why "Doug" would appear, and this is something that shouldn't have been hard to track down.
Alas, the muddling goes on. Jan Mukařovský is identified as a poet as well as a member of the Prague Linguistic Circle. Reading that, I thought "Did I somehow fail to notice that Mukařovský was a poet?" However, a quick jaunt around the internet suggested that if Mukařovský ever wrote a line of poetry, it was probably during his teens. Oh well. The author then confuses Jan Neruda with Pablo Neruda by stating that Mukařovský's quotation of F.X. Šalda's words about Jan Neruda at the beginning of "Poetic language as a Functional Language and as a material" was Mukařovský's praise of Pablo Neruda's poetry. I'm sorry to say this, but we both read the same page in English in the volume On Poetic Language (1976) and even if it might be all right to naively confuse the dead Czech writer (subject of Mukařovský's academic thesis) with Mukařovský Chilean contemporary, it's pretty sloppy to take the Šalda quote, which Mukařovský uses in discussing poetic use of unlovely language, for Mukařovský praising anyone.
I didn't notice any other errors in the Devětsil chapter, fortunately. I hope the author was more careful in checking the bulk of the dissertation, because it's on a topic I'd like to learn more about.
And I certainly hope that no one reading my own dissertation is finding any lamentable obvious errors of fact there. I daresay there are probably a few, but I hope they are few and forgivable.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

And We Go to CAA...

It being February, it's College Art Association time again. The agony (sometimes) of choosing among sessions, and all that.
For the opening set, I was torn between a panel on Pre-Columbian art (after all, I don't know much about it, and CAA is a good opportunity to sample the less-known-to-me) and a panel on The Afterlife of Cubism. I was less interested in hearing about cubism given that I already know a fair amount about it, but last quarter I taught a course on cubism and other heavily abstracted or nonobjective movements, and it went well enough that I think I'll repeat it, so I felt this was a panel that would directly benefit my teaching.
My reaction to the lineup of papers was that it looked rather francocentric, but the first paper, by David Cottington, introduced the audience to cubism from Central and Eastern Europe, focusing on Czech and Polish cubism. As introductory papers go, it was well done, and posed some interesting questions about how we should theorize cubism in its various forms and locations. Still, it didn't really tell me much of anything new. I've read most of the English-language literature on Central and Eastern European cubism, after all, as well as a certain amount in other languages.
Papers on Gris and Léger went into much more depth, and I particularly enjoyed the exploration of Gris, but when we reached Sonia Delaunay-Terk, suddenly we were back to the introductory. At that point I began to get angry. Why is it that in a standing-room only panel on the Afterlife of Cubism, canonical artists like Gris and Léger get (naturally) the in-depth, subtle analysis while we're still on ground floor with cubism outside France and with a fairly canonical female artist like Delaunay-Terk (or Terk-Delaunay)? Delaunay-Terk is an artist whose obscurity ended thirty years ago, for heaven's sake. There should be no need to present introductory papers on her at CAA, where all of the modern specialists and a large percentage of the other attendees ought to be familiar already with everything that was said about her Wednesday. We should have gotten as in-depth a look at her work as we got at that of Gris and Léger and Miró. As for the Central and Eastern European cubists, it is true that they are not as well known as ought to be the case, but modern specialists ought to be aware by this time of at least the major names, particularly those of the Czech cubists, who are the best represented in English-language scholarship.
There was, unfortunately, time for only one audience question, but several of us did comment to David Cottington that it was time for a panel focused on the Central/Eastern European side. As my roommate commented later in the day, the art-historical literature in English is still fairly introductory and it's time to start dealing with some of the issues broached by Cottington.

Saturday, February 5, 2011


Long ago, well before the advent of digital cameras, I owned a couple of very nice manual cameras. (No tedious batteries or anything!) One was a Brownie box camera that used 620 film, and the other was a Praktiflex FX. While neither was really intended for flash photography, and in fact I never attempted to use flash on either one, each was an excellent camera in its own way. But alas, just as I was getting serious about photography and experimenting with printing black-and-white, both cameras were, to all intents and purposes, destroyed. (Let's not talk about that any further.)
Eventually I bought a decent-quality Yashica, but I never became very fond of it. I didn't get the same quality of candid shots looking straight through the Yashica as I had looking down into the Praktiflex, and while I enjoyed having flash, I disliked relying on batteries and being lured into using the automated point-and-shoot mode. Around the time I bought my digital camera, the Yashica developed an ailment of some sort and it has been awaiting a trip to the repair shop ever since.
It eventually dawned on me that while I had never seen another Praktiflex anywhere, all manner of things surface on E-Bay. And indeed, Praktiflex cameras do show up on E-Bay with some regularity, although not always whole or in good condition. I decided to get another one. This was easier said than done, since I don't really monitor E-Bay and almost never buy anything that way, but eventually I put in a bid on one.
I might add that I was feeling some urgency about getting one, as the digital camera had (as far as I can tell) given up the ghost while I was visiting Chicago recently.
Now, this weekend I have generally been feeling miserable, as I had papers to finish grading, a large batch of exams to grade as well, and I was beginning to feel as though I was an extremely incompetent lecturer after seeing how few students managed to identify any of the exam works fully (or even to follow my verbal instructions to place the IDs before the essay portions). It is not a good thing when you have a student who writes "Donatello" for every work whether it is Sainte-Chapelle, a page from the Très Riches Heures, Giotto's Madonna Enthroned, or a Jan van Eyck. (Why this student is obsessed with Donatello, I cannot imagine. If she likes Donatello so much, she should be able to tell that he had nothing to do with any of these other works.)
All that in mind, imagine my joy at discovering a box on my (very snowy) doorstep, in which resided the new-to-me Praktiflex!
It is not strictly identical to my former one. I knew before buying it that it has a different lens. The old one was a Zeiss and this one says Westenar. However, lenses can be swapped, and this lens may be quite satisfactory. The thing now is to get some film into it. And, of course, these days the question is where one buys film. Since there are two professors of photography in my department, learning where to buy film will not be a problem.