In a booth at Red Hot’s, I think about the mechanics of a non-profit solar provider and eat what’s becoming my regular breakfast: eggs, bacon, home fries, coffee, and wheat toast. Jut once, I tried to order breakfast past 11am and have never lived it down. Red Hot’s is a family-owned restaurant; Carol takes your order, Rich works the grill, and while you eat they bicker, gossip, discuss their city, and catch up with their customers. This is why my breach of conduct, my post 10:59 breakfast order, will live in a small circle of infamy for the foreseeable future. The world of Highland Park is full of uncertainty, scarcity, and emergency financial managers, but Red Hot’s is somehow separate – a stable port in a storm.
Red Hot’s opened in 1923 – 10 years after the doors of the Highland Park Ford plant opened for the first time, 5 years after Highland Park was incorporated as a city, and 2 years before Chrysler would be founded and build it’s 150 acre production facility. Carol and Rich are the 4th generation of family ownership. Rich bought the place from his uncle in the 50’s and has been grilling sliders, frying fries, and adorning hot dogs with chili. Back in the day, they’d start making Coneys as soon as they heard the shift change horn, and continually cook them for the endless stream of tired, dirty assembly line workers that would flow through their restaurant. They still do good business in 2013 – a mix of dedicated regulars, local construction workers, and a small sect of newcomers, myself among them, make for an interesting cast. The diner is an evolving drama reflecting a city that’s seen the top and bottom rungs of the ladder and has stories from both. Meals there are both anthropological and culinary. The walls are posted with Coca-Cola adds featuring entire paragraphs of text, pictures of Fisher bodies, tally counts of Coney Dog eating contests through the years, and the business cards of customers, family, and friends. You can’t leave without some degree of sympathy for a city built for a purpose it no longer serves, living in the past for lack of a clear future.
This Christmas, I’ve had a unique challenge: explaining what we’re doing and why it matters to people who don’t live here. There are certain sorts of social entrepreneurship and non-profit work that don’t suffer from this challenge. Wikipedia, for instance, is a globally available resource, free, and based on a universally agreeable idea: that access to knowledge is a fundamental human right. To sell Soulardarity, the case must be made for the What, the Why, and the Why Here. To some, Highland Park doesn’t deserve their support. It had it’s fifteen minutes in the heyday of automobile manufacture, it had subsidized housing and police and firemen (Ford also paid the water bills, according to some). They’ve been left in a lurch they were headed for from the start. What about the other dozen cities that can’t afford streetlights? The question isn’t if Highland Park needs streetlights – it’s why Highland Park, of all places, deserves them.
Having grown up in the world of cars, it’s hard to imagine just how transformative they were. Suddenly, you could travel where you wanted, when you wanted. The word neighbor expanded in scope. Our culture took a strong turn towards the individualistic. We built an extensive, elaborate, brilliant system of roads and highways to facilitate usage of this invention, allow travel from one end of the country to the other relying on no deadlines but your own. Since then, the degree of autonomy a car provides is expected. Rather than a freedom-granting luxury, it has become yet another necessity for life, particularly in a place like Detroit that lacks reliable public transit.
Solar is a similarly transformative technology, but with a different long-term effect. While the purchase of a car creates a new expense, new demand, and the need for extensive infrastructure, solar does the opposite. It reduces electrical bills, makes extensive electrical infrastructure obsolete, and grants people a more lasting, genuine autonomy. Of course, this was the way the car seemed at the beginning. Perhaps, years down the road, solar will be deadweight holding down our next innovation. But right now, it’s the next big thing. It’s our next step towards autonomy, towards what we think of as freedom. Highland Park has a powerful story, a meteoric rise and fall that makes it an ideal case study, a place of historic innovation where innovation can continue. When I sit in Red Hot’s, I see the future of Highland Park extend from it’s past, I see how it’s story continues. No one likes to see their town in a slump.
Perhaps the question of Highland Park can best be answered by Leslie Knope, fictional director of the parks and recreation department of the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. Here town is not particularly special, except for its notable obesity rates and raccoon invasions. And yet, in her fictional book about this fictional town, she explains what it is that makes her town, and anyone else’s, so special.
“I know Pawnee isn’t Paris or London or Chicago, but it’s a great place to live and work and serving the goofballs in this town is an honor and a privilege. And yes, every town claims its diner’s waffles are the best in the world. But somewhere, in some town, there really are the best waffles in the world. So delicious and rich and golden brown that anyone who tasted them would decide never to leave that town. Somewhere, those waffles exist. Why can’t it be here?”
As far as I know, Red Hot’s never has and never will serve waffles. But I truly love the eggs, bacon, homefries, coffee, and wheat toast I get here. I’ve spent a lot of time unwinding in this restaurant, wondering about the future along with the other patrons. The history of Highland Park doesn’t make it special – the people here deserve better, but so does everyone else. It’s not entitled to anything. It’s just a place that needs streetlights. So, from now on, when people ask “Why here?”, I will take them to Red Hot’s, buy them the best breakfast on the face of the earth, and ask them in return; “Why not?”
Note: I will surely write a more detailed, historical account of this fascinating place sometime soon. But for now, let it simply be said that a city needs a diner like a boat needs an anchor, Red Hot’s is a wonderful place, and I hope it never goes out of business or out of style.