Oh, those rotating pies. You know what I mean. Rotating pies. And sometimes cakes, too. Lemon meringue, chocolate cream, key lime. They make their way around and around inside glass display cases, bathed in a soft fluorescent glow and beckoning passers-by to sample some of their sweet goodness. In diners and roadside hangouts all across America, rotating pies light the way to a wonderland of cheap food and, usually, even cheaper service. Like neon signs proclaiming "all baking done on premises," they set diners apart from other restaurants. They welcome patrons by saying, "Look at me! I'm a diner. I have endless streams of coffee and offer inexpensive scrambled eggs. Come in and sample!" Oh yes, rotating pies are comforting. They're an essential element of the great American diner institution. And they do their job almost everywhere. Everywhere, that is, except here at Penn. Penn, you see, is just too good for rotating pies. When University real estate officials announced several months ago that a real, honest-to-God 24-hour diner would finally be coming to campus, I reacted to the news with a mix of anticipation and cynicism. Like many Penn students, I yearned for a place to grab a cheeseburger at 3 a.m. I longed for the bright shiny glow of the diner lights. And most importantly, I looked forward to a nearby joint where I could unwind after a long day amidst the company of good friends a bottomless cup 'o joe. But by then, I had already been here long enough to know that my retail dreams almost never come to fruition. Eat at Joe's was little more than a 1950s-ish corporate nightmare. Izzy and Zoe's brought New York bagels and New York prices -- but did it all in an Albuquerque pace. And what of those other recent retail arrivals? MaJolie? Steve Madden? Pod? The Ivy Grille? All either out of my price range or out of my gender range. While Penn has prospered both financially and academically over the past 10 years, the needs of the campus community have steadily grown in importance as the University takes its place among the nation's truly elite institutions. Harvard and Princeton, after all, offer their students world-class neighborhoods to match their world-class educations. And even Yale, situated in down-on-its-luck New Haven, has managed to take its surroundings and turn them into something special. Here in University City, meanwhile, Penn spent much of the 1990s struggling with an escalating crime rate and an irate coalition of students and parents. The only way University administrators could solve the mess -- and recapture some position in the U.S. News rankings -- was to get to work on the neighborhood. Enter the Penn-controlled University City District, in 1997. A new University Police station on Chestnut Street in 1998. And, perhaps most importantly, Penn's Home Ownership Incentive Program -- an extensive effort to lure high-income University staff and faculty to the area -- also in 1998. Add those efforts to the University's continual crunch to lure upper-crust retail establishments to the area, and you've got the makings of one serious community renewal. The problem, though, is that as the streets have become cleaner and the flowers brighter, the priorities have also gotten mixed up. Penn's real estate decision-makers have become forced to leverage the desires of its low-income student body with the preferences of the big-bucks professors it wants to bring to West Philadelphia. But attractive retail destinations -- a la Harvard Square and M Street in Georgetown -- don't come together by way of corporate synthesis. And they never include the less-than-spectacular greasy spoon that 97 percent of us asked for in a 1996 Undergraduate Assembly survey. The result? The rotating pies are hanging out somewhere else, probably with the curt waitresses and 30-page menus. Our movie theaters are designed for the "independent," intellectual crowd. Our grocery stores don't even pretend to be reasonably priced. The simple truth is that we are never going to have it exactly the way we want it. A greasy spoon would drive away the prospective homebuyers; another fast food joint might disrupt the corporate card image Penn is looking to bring to the area. But not all is lost. Even despite some shortcomings, the shops and restaurants around campus do generally respond to the needs and requests of the student body. Penn's latest "diner" arrival, to be certain, isn't a diner. But so far, it's provided us with exactly what we wanted -- reasonable fare at a reasonable price. And while the nuances of the genre are left behind to its cousins on Long Island and in New Jersey, the restaurant now stands as a testament to the new Penn and the new University City -- a meeting place for the both high-profile and the high-minded. But oh, if it just had those rotating pies.Comments powered by Disqus
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