In 2014, I wrote a blog post about an abandoned and dilapidated New Deal era stadium in Paterson, N.J. At the time there were actual trees growing up through the cracks in the concrete stands and what was once the playing surface was a mix of dirt, broken glass and cracked pavement. Some Paterson high school kids had volunteered to paint the outside walls with paint donated by Valspar. That improved the eye sore but Hinchliffe Stadium had little going for it other than its history.
Built in 1932, Hinchliffe was home to two Negro League baseball teams, the New York Black Yankees and the New York Cubans. It had track meets, soccer, even auto racing. Abbott and Costello performed here. So did Sly and the Family Stone. It hosted numerous high school athletic events, most notably for many Patersonians, the annual Thanksgiving football games between the city’s two high schools, Central and Eastside.
The last Thanksgiving football game was played in 1996. In 1997, the stadium was condemned when part of the playing field collapsed into a sinkhole. It sat unused for some 25 years.
But around the time of my blog post, Hinchliffe was designated a national historic landmark. Shortly thereafter an act of Congress redrew the boundaries of the adjacent Great Falls National Park to include the stadium. A couple decades later a $100+ million renovation got underway that included a parking garage, senior housing and a yet-to-be completed Negro League museum.
Now, 85 years after the NewYork Black Yankees played their last full baseball season in Paterson, the independent minor league New Jersey Jackals have begun their first Frontier League season here. There is even some talk of reviving the Thanksgiving Day football game between Eastside and Kennedy (the school that replaced Central).
Here’s a look at Hinchliffe reborn on Jackals game night.
Some before and after:
But however good the stadium renovation, this is what it looked like in the stands on a pleasently cool Thursday night. The Jackals would appear to have a massive marketing task ahead of them.
I grew up in a suburb about 15 miles west of New York City. For my family it might just as well have been 1500 miles. Neither of my parents commuted. Public transportation in the town I lived in was limited to a bus to Paterson.
To my father New York might have been the name of one of Dante’s circles. He may have passed through Manhattan on his way to a ballgame but that was about it. My mother would take me into the city occasionally, showing me things like the Museum of Natural History, the UN and Radio City. She also brought me to an eye specialist when I was a first grader for treatment of a lazy eye condition.
What do I remember about those trips to New York City with my mother? The automat. Every venture ended at one of them.
The automats were mostly in big open spaces with cafe tables. There would be at least one wall of glass fronted cubes, maybe 6X8 inches. You put coins in a slot, opened the glass door, and pulled out your food. Like a vending machine? Not quite because there was a kitchen on the other side of that wall and staff was filling and refilling each compartment with freshly prepared food, appropriately hot or cold.
What did I eat at the automat? I have no idea, although I remember my mom liked the coffee. For me, it was all about the process and as a kid, I wouldn’t dream of going anywhere else.
Older New Yorkers may be surprised to learn that the idea for the automat came from Germany. The first automat, named Quisisana, opened in Berlin in 1895. When Philadelphia restaurateur Joe Horn visited after the turn of the century, he bought into the technology and he and his partner Frank Hardart opened the first Horn & Hardart Automat in Philadelphia in 1902. Here’s how the Philadelphia Inquirer (June 10, 1902) described America’s first automat:
“Horn and Hardart have solved the rapid transit luncheon problem by opening a restaurant called the Automat, at 818-821 Chestnut Street. It is a mammoth nickel-in-the-slot scheme, and the only one of its kind in the United States. Heretofore, the man with one minute and thirty-seven seconds for lunch has fumed while a waiter has been getting his order. In the Automat all this is changed. If a patron’s lunch is not forthcoming speedily it will only be because he is unable to decide, oft hand, whether he wants one of a large assortment of sandwiches, pies, coffee, soup, ice cream and the unusual variety of quick lunch fare….
“There was a great rush at the Automat yesterday, and its success will doubtless continue as the service is as neat as it is rapid.”
The first New York automat opened in 1912. Eventually there would be 40 of them in the city. Despite being confined to Philadelphia and New York, it became America’s largest chain eatery. The New York Daily News (Sunday, May 15, 1921) offered this colorful description of the volume of food served up at the automats:
“Automats feed 100,000 people a day, enough to fill the Hippodrome, with a capacity of about 5,000, twenty times.
“Used 9,000 eggs a day. If placed in a line would reach 2,200 feet or 7 times as high as the Statue of Liberty.
“Use 18,000 pies a week — enough to cover the grass in City Hall Park.
“Use 11,000 loaves of bread a week for sandwiches alone — placed in a line would be twice as long as Brooklyn Bridge.”
It is not just the food or the technology that automat patrons remember fondly. It is also celebrated as a place for everyone. Race, mother tongue and social status mattered little. The same Daily News article cited above noted: “At the Automat restaurant at 1241 Broadway I saw a theatrical gentleman, evidently in reduced circumstances, lunching on a cinnamon bun and a cup of coffee.” It was also kind of a predecessor to the modern coffee shop. You could buy a cup of coffee and sit there with it for hours. That is, perhaps what Edward Hopper was thinking when he created his famous “Automat” painting.
What happened to the automat? Ultimately it was replaced by a different sort of fast food restaurant, the McDonald’s and Burger Kings. (I can’t imagine that decades from now anyone is going to wax nostalgic about a Burger King.) There are many other reasons offered to explain the decline. One is the much despised decision in 1950 to raise the price of a cup of coffee from five cents to ten cents, though it is also noted that before that increase Horn and Hardart was losing money on every cup of coffee they sold. Inflation in general made the “nickel-in-the-slot” approach impractical. (How many rolls of nickels would it take to buy a meal in a New York City restaurant today.) Hard economic times in the 1970’s may have taken their toll and it has been suggested that cost-cutting impacted the quality of the food.
The last automat closed in New York City in 1991. There have been and continue to be attempts to revive them, most only lasting a couple of years. There is a website by a company calling itself Horn and Hardart that sells “automat” coffee.
I am hardly alone in fondly remembering the automat of my childhood. A recent documentary “The Automat,” which is currently streaming on HBO Max, offers up the similarly fond reflections of Mel Brooks, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Colin Powell and former Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode, among others.
A review. “A Refugee’s American Dream: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the U.S. Secret Service,” by Leth Oun with Joe Samuel Starnes
In 1976, Leth Oun is a 10-year-old working in what amounted to a slave labor camp in the Killing Fields of Cambodia. In 2012, Leth Oun is part of the uniformed Secret Service detail traveling with President Obama on his visit to Cambodia. This book is about everything that happened in between. The title refers to an American Dream, but the subtitle could well have been about a Cambodian nightmare
It is unfathomable that a young boy could come of age going through what this man did and not only survive, but eventually thrive. He spent almost four years in the Killing Fields. His days went like this. A guard with a rifle would shout to wake up and head out to the rice paddie. Standing in a few inches of water, with leeches attaching themselves to his legs, he would plant rice seedlings or harvest the rice depending on the season. There would be a break for lunch which was always a watery rice soup in a dirty bowl. Then it was back to work until sundown when the armed guard would send him back exhausted to sleep on the ground. And, since he survived, that was a good day.
When the Vietnamese overran the Khmer Rouge, Leth and his mother found their way across the Thai border and into a series of refugee camp’s run by the U.N. In 1983 they were flown to America and settled in Maryland where they had a family connection. It is there where the Horacio Alger part of the story begins. It starts with Leth riding his bike through dangerous Washington traffic to work every shift he can get at a Tenleytown convenience store, a place where he would first encounter Secret Service agents who would come in for a sandwich or a coffee.
There is a lot more to the story of Leth’s life in America but for me the power of this book is the amazing first hand account of the Killing Fields. No historical tract or news report could come close to capturing the Khmer Rouge era the way this personal memoir does. Leth and his co-author Joe Samuel Starnes describe his experiences in such a straightforward manner that it almost belies the cruelty and degradation that was inflicted upon his family and so many of his countrymen.
There are heartwarming parts of the story as well. Despite being separated and shepherded about, his family continued to find and support each other. And there are well-meaning folks, in Cambodia, in Thailand and in America, who help make Leth’s story turn out the way it does.
As I read this book, I thought about the xenophobes in America who want to put a padlock on the border. I thought about the people responsible for the wave of Asian-American hatred that reared its ugly head. If only they could read or hear this story or meet this man. For me, Leth Oun is a lot more of what America is about than any of them are.
Today is the last day of the 2023 Savannah Music Festival. The 17-day event, now in its 34th year, took place at a half-dozen venues, both indoor and out, in Savannah’s Historic District. While maybe not as well known outside the Savannah area as some other festivals, all the performances I attended drew large and enthusiastic crowds. The short clips below give you some idea of the diversity of live music that was booked for this festival.
Who knew there were white guys from Alabama who played soul music like this?