by Ira Katz
by Ira Katz
I moved to Easton, PA about 4 years ago after living in several other cities around the country. I tell friends who have not been here that Easton is a scruffy little town, where "scruffy" is a term of endearment. It is scruffy because most of the old buildings in Easton were not replaced, and were not well maintained. But the fact that the old architecture survives makes Easton a unique town in the United States.
It is instructive to consider why a town that has not lost its architectural heritage is unique in this country. Perhaps the greatest observer of the American condition was Alexis de Tocqueville who toured here in 1831. In his famous book Democracy in America he writes about our national character that follows from our faith in progress.
It can hardly be believed how many facts naturally flow from the philosophical theory of the indefinite perfectibility of man or how strong an influence it exercises even on those who, living entirely for the purposes of action and not of thought, seem to conform their actions to it without knowing anything about it.
I accost an American sailor and inquire why the ships of his country are built so as to last for only a short time; he answers without hesitation that the art of navigation is every day making such rapid progress that the finest vessel would become almost useless if it lasted beyond a few years. In these words, which fell accidentally, and on a particular subject, from an uninstructed man, I recognize the general systematic idea upon which a great people direct all their concerns.
Thus we don't build structures with the expectation that they will last beyond a lifetime, we don't maintain them to last, and we knock them down when they show a bit of wear. I think this aspect of our national character is harmful for our society and culture. A positive effect of maintaining an architectural legacy is that a perception of history is sustained in the people because the reminders of the past are a part of everyday life. The American infatuation with the automobile has certainly hastened the demise of the older, human scale architecture. Thus, the nonhuman scale is that designed for automobiles. In England, for example, the old towns, actually just about everywhere, were designed for people to attend to their tasks on foot or horse. A high street with small shops selling staples, a bank, a post office, and two or three pubs are within walking distance of the vast majority of English homes. One can survive quite well there without a car. In America it is required that businesses provide parking, and large roads are built with tax dollars that in effect are subsidies for large businesses. Walking to attend to daily errands in most places in the United States is virtually impossible because of distance and impassable roads. Furthermore, our lives have lost much of the human regard for place because most of America looks alike, as the new construction is most likely to be for national chains. And because we get in our cars to shop at those large chain stores where we never know the shopkeepers, much of the daily social intercourse between people has been lost in our society.
But Easton is different and that is why I like it. The old architecture and the human scale, along with the natural beauty of rivers and hills make it a wonderful place for an urban hike (in spite of the blight running through it called US 22 that is a monument to the evil practice of eminent domain). Local historians must provide the story of how and why the architecture has survived over the decades. But I understand part of the story of the slow but steady rejuvenation of many of the buildings here over the last 15 years. This part of the story concerns my favorite place in Easton, the southwest corner of Northampton and 7th streets where Porters' Pub is located.
Some of you may remember the old Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney movies of the 30s where a group of kids decide to raise money by putting on a show. The next scene would depict an extravagant musical production. It beggared belief that a group of kids put on a show like that. I imagine the scene being much the same when the Porter brothers decided to undertake the project of restoring an old building, in a bad neighborhood of an economically depressed city, while furthermore starting a viable restaurant in that location, when most new restaurants fail even in good locations. Larry and Ken were in their early twenties and Jeff was still a teenager. It is still difficult to believe that such a young group was able to make a business like this succeed.
From the moment I first saw and then entered Porters' I felt it would be the place for me in Easton. The building dates from 1833, and is restored to reflect its age. The interior maintains the traditional ambiance with stone and brick walls, a wood floor, and is highlighted by a mahogany bar that beckons the thirsty traveler for a libation and a conversation. Another striking and unique feature of the interior is what at first glance appears to be a pewter ceiling, but in reality are the over 2000 mugs owned by patrons who have earned a mug by drinking 60 beers from around the world and from distinctive micro brews across the US.
The Porters, with their pub, and other buildings in Easton, have led the drive to restore instead of destroy the architectural legacy of Easton. The dictionary defines an institution as a significant practice, relationship, or organization in a society or culture. The pub opened in 1990; in the restaurant business this is an institution. There is another venerable pub in an old building in Easton that I know, Bachman's Public House. It is restored to its 18th century look and is now used for historical instruction. It is nice, but it would be infinitely better if one could actually drink a beer there.
For all of my adult life I have had a local joint, à la Cheers, that I call mine own. Perhaps it is scandalous to admit it, but I have met many of my best friends at a bar. A pub is one of the few places left in our culture where it is not considered weird to strike up a conversation with a stranger. And peculiarly, I find the pub the best place to read and write.
I believe a necessary, and most important condition for a great pub is an active owner who gives the place its personality. The Porter brothers each give a unique aspect to the personality of the bar, the staff and the clientele. But Ken's wife Stacey, who is a manager, is most influential in infusing the atmosphere with just plain fun, while maintaining the standards of a well-run restaurant. I suppose I should mention that the menu spans the range from pub food to fine dining. I have found the food always good and sometimes excellent.
Perhaps my favorite pastime at the pub, in all of Easton, is to sit outside in my little corner of Europe, drinking Yeungling (the local brew), and reading. O.K., it is a stretch to call the three small tables on Northampton St. anything like Europe. In fact it seems a rough neighborhood to some, but as a true theater of life, along with the rough comes the nice, the interesting, and the humorous.
A version of this article appeared in a local magazine, The Elucidator.
January 4, 2006
Ira Katz [send him mail] teaches mechanical engineering at Lafayette College. He is the co-author of Handling Mr. Hyde: Questions and Answers about Manic Depression and Introduction to Fluid Mechanics.
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