Thursday, January 19, 2012

Kiva Han Countdown: 31 days

I've been sitting here at that nice table in the front for well over an hour. People have come and gone. A friend of mine was sitting in the other room and saw me here, so he came over and we chatted for a long time about anything and everything: the new Apple iBooks app and the iTunes university iPad app (that's a lot of s), the fact that almost all carousels in the United States rotate counter-clockwise (a.k.a. widdershins) except for one at Great Adventure in New Jersey, the fact that my former high school is one of only three locations in the United States where one can play Fives, the fact that some names are awesome (Pablo Bravo, Gunther Grass) and some are weird (William Williams), the ding ding dong song, and the following story I'm about to tell which is what I was thinking about on my walk over here from campus.

One time last summer, I was sitting in Kiva Han after teaching class. My headphones were plugged into my laptop and I was munching on a delicious Hangover Cure, KH's concoction of eggs, salsa, cheese, and hash browns in a burrito, smothered in hot sauce. It is scrumptious, and I've even tried making some homemade versions in my kitchen, with varying degrees of success. (Try it yourself!) A family of mother/father/daughter walked in and sat down with some cups of coffee and an order of food of some kind, I forget what. They looked very much, to me, like a high-schooler looking at colleges with her parents. (BTW when I told this story, my friend heard "daughter looking ecologists" instead of "daughter looking at colleges" and expressed confusion. Weird.) They kept looking over at me, and I assumed it was because I struck a sight with my long hair and beard scarfing down a breakfast burrito, but it was frequent enough that I eventually slipped off my headphones when I caught the mother looking at me. She smiled and said, "Sorry to bother you, but we're wondering what it is you're eating." I said "Oh, it's called a 'hangover cure'" and kinda chuckled along with them, then stated matter-of-factly, "…and it works!" They gave me a polit smile and laugh at that, and I slipped my headphones back on and that was that. I'm not sure what they thought of me after that, and I had intended it to be funny at the time, but in retrospect, I realize it might have sounded rather gruff or dismissive. So, sorry, random parents and daughter looking ecologists. I was just trying to be funny. I hope you got that.

What this got me thinking about, though, is a more general idea of what Kiva Han represents about Pittsburgh. Imagine you're a visitor to this city, perhaps looking for a school to attend for four years. You drive into the student section of Oakland, heading down Forbes Ave. through the U. Pitt area. What do you see? The looming Cathedral of Learning, of course, but what do you see on the street? Students bustling back and forth. Buses driving by. And some shops and restaurants. Panera. Dunkin Donuts. Caribou Coffee. The O. Primanti's. A brand name shoe store. A gas station. And so on. How many of those are local shops, Pittsburgh institutions, long-standing family businesses? Not many. Then you keep driving, navigate the one-way intersection properly (I once saw a lady drive into the middle of it the wrong way and try to back up instead of just turning, strangely), and head down Craig St. There's Quiznos. Subway. Starbucks. It deeply saddens me to think that across Pitt and CMU's stretch, the coffee shop selection is entirely populated by "big name" shops. Starbucks, Dunkin, Caribou, maybe a Crazy Mocha. That is not a fair representation of this city. One of the things I've grown to love about Pittsburgh is that a Beehive or a Quiet Storm or a Voluto or a Jitters can exist and succeed and thrive amongst some heavy-hitters, so to speak, that it represents something about the people who live here, that people are proud of what they do and what others do and want to support them in their ventures, that we won't just succumb and have cookie-cutter shopping plazas everywhere and pepper the city grid with equally-spaced out clones of the same big name store/shop/restaurant so that someone can satisfy that Starbucks/Subway/KFC/McD's fix no matter where they find themselves during the day. That's one of the things I find myself hating about other cities; not to say that this phenomenon is widespread everywhere else, but when I see that kind of trend, I get upset. Where is it all headed? Hegemony of choices, force-feeding the public the same crap everywhere and all the time. I'm getting a little too ranty now, but I hope you see my point: Pittsburgh is different. Pittsburgh is special to me. I don't want to see that happen here, not even a little bit, because it will be too hard to stop once it starts. Do we really want visitors to this high-traffic university area to see only brand name coffee shops and think that this is a microcosm of the city, that they'd find this everywhere else? I don't. I hate to think that visitors leave thinking that this city is just like every other city because it's not. Kudos to CMU for employing only local coffee shops in their academic buildings (Tazza D'Oro in Gates, La Prima in Wean, maybe others) but that only goes so far. I really hope something special moves in here in Kiva Han's absence, that some other local business can thrive and keep going with the understandably high rent for this major area of foot and auto traffic. Come on Pittsburgh. We can do this.

Alright, time for more coffee.

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