Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Sonic Boom in Connecticut

I mentioned the other day that errands took me to the area surrounding Wallingford, CT. I’m always up for a new adventure and I was pretty sure I had not previously explored that part of the state.

Sometimes I do actually look at maps or do small amounts of research when I head into a new place and this was one of those times. While there are several notable homes (of both architectural and historical significance) lining the main and side streets, Wallingford was not what I expected. Don’t misunderstand that I was disappointed in the town itself, that’s not it at all. I simply had a clear picture in my mind of what I hoped/wanted to find and I wasn’t finding it.  Here’s the REST of the story…

The news last week all over Connecticut was that the first of several planned locations of the very popular Sonic Drive-In chain was preparing for their grand opening—in Wallingford. A very big deal in these parts to be sure. Yes, there are Sonics in both New York and Massachusetts, but this one is in Connecticut.  And Connecticut has some great burger history—Louis Lunch in New Haven claims the invention of the modern hamburger sandwich and Ted’s in Meriden has incredibly unique steamed burgers—so we appreciate a good burger in these parts. And I appreciate a well-executed burger—Five Guys or Red Robin, Steak and Shake in Indiana, and my all time favorite, a Shack Burger from Shake Shack in NYC—far be it from me to begrudge a new burger spot a few acres of Connecticut turf.

This is where it all gets a little awkward. I realized, as the news reporters were leading up to the big opening day that the parcel of land where Sonic was building was once the home to a local landmark, The Yankee Silversmith Inn.  Normally, that would mean I was fixing to have a rant about preservation, about long-term value, about urban sprawl…my usual bug-a-boos. But not this time.

First of all, The Yankee Silversmith was damaged (apparently beyond repair) in a fire a couple of years ago, so it is a bit of a moot point.  Also to be noted, the folks who have bought and built this franchise are the old owners of the Yankee Silversmith so it isn’t the usual case of just off-loading land to developers. The circa 1890s railway car that was also part of the dining area was not damaged (or at least not severely) and was sent to a new home at a railroad museum here in Connecticut. I knew all this before I left home, but I was still prepared to stomp my foot in protest, to lament the loss of this structure and more important, the loss of what places like it once stood for. Those instincts of indignation and disappointment at the loss of important or unique sites are hard to suppress, so even armed with the information above, I had this almost innate sense of rising disapproval.

 But as I drove out of Wallingford proper, on North Colony Road (Hwy 5) all I saw was the usual strip mall sprawl. Home Depots, grocery stores, a few bank branches, some little mom and pop pizza shops—the things most of us see on a daily basis while driving to work or running errands. There were also a number of empty storefronts, surely a nod to our dismal economic situation, on both sides of the highway. And even though deep-down I knew better, I still half-expected to see the large shady grove of trees that had once surrounded the bucolic Yankee Silversmith Inn. That was not to be.

As I neared the Sonic Drive-In site, the traffic crush became more noticeable—they actually were turning customers away because the parking area was too full of cars waiting for the drive-thru window and drive-in bays. I pulled into the parking lot of an IHOP across the street to just observe the scene and survey the landscape a little.

What I found myself feeling though, was not indignation, not disapproval, but a weird disappointment that now, Sonic was more at home in this spot in 2010 than the Yankee Silversmith Inn would have been. Looking around at the ubiquitous chains that line the road—literally for miles—Sonic belonged here in a way the old inn could not. Encroaching new development and changes in road and traffic patterns must have made the inn a kind of an oasis of nostalgia (or even kitsch) in a sea of cookie-cutter chain sameness. I was a little wistful, but no matter, the truth was just too obvious to ignore: time, identity, and sprawl had outrun The Yankee Silversmith, that’s all there was to it.

I didn’t stay long, but did snap a quick photo as I was leaving the IHOP lot. The picture doesn’t do justice to the traffic levels that were buzzing around Sonic, but you get an idea of the landscape, or lack thereof. (I fully realize they will be doing more and more finishing of the surrounding grounds, so don’t take this as a slam at Sonic, more of a lament that so many trees had to be lost for parking.) Below my dreary pic is a much sunnier postcard from The Yankee Silversmith Inn.

And no, I didn’t even try to eat there that day, it just seemed the wrong thing to do, feeling how I felt, with the slightly sour taste of disappointment lingering on my palate. 


sid fernando said...

Suburban strip mall sprawl, once it surrounds you, will squeeze like a boa; you're right, it was no place for that inn anymore, which would have died an excruciating death in that environment.

The Paper Tyger said...

Always surprising how accustomed we become to the scourge of sprawl but every now and then the contrast of "then and now" is so clear. Thanks as always for reading!