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Another One Bites the Dust

by Lila Allen

November 9,2010

Tonight I did my usual walk: up Pecan, right on Commonwealth, stopping in for a Cheerwine at my local bodega. It's a path I follow nearly every day. Today was different though – for the first time, I walked home without the comforting hum of muffled shouts and jukebox and the buzzing neon of the Penguin Drive-In.

What's left is a ghost.

The Penguin as we know it closed October 24. Brian Rowe and Jimmy King, two of the three operators of the Charlotte icon, will be moving to The Diamond next door, while The Penguin will fall back under management of the Ballentine family (kin of the original founder). In the works are plans to franchise the business under the advisory of Martin Sprock, the founder of Raving Brands. I can hear Freddie Mercury on that jukebox now: another one bites the dust.

As a resident of Plaza Midwood, I feel that the subject of the Penguin's recent change in management, not to mention the political and monetary motivations behind the shift, have been talked nearly to death (but bear with me!). Why is Charlotte crying over spilt pickles?

We cry because we've seen it before, and we know we'll see it again: Charlotte has thrown away another piece of its history. "Penguingate" isn't a controversy over one restaurant, but over a mentality that "new" and "improved" are synonymous, that more money always equals good business, and that success is measured only in dollars and cents.

In the past two years alone we've watched the former coliseum tumble to bulldozers, Eastland Mall vacated and grown over. Independence Boulevard, once a promising and flourishing strip of businesses and venues, is now an extended corridor of abandoned storefronts, their faded and cracked signs the tombstones. The occasional strip waves an S.O.S. "Open" banner as a sign of life. But at one time, Independence was the city's shiny penny. What's scary is that it wasn't long ago – what made us change our minds? More importantly, how can we make the best of what's left?

The ability to authentically tie together history and the present day should not be underestimated. Perceiving one's place in a timeline is romantic – it gives residents a sense of a city's energy, and of being a part of something larger and dynamic and real. Cities may evolve, but it's worthwhile to learn to love the vestigial elements from years past. With a little integrity to legacy and creative thinking, the buildings that we may now consider burdens or eyesores hold incredible potential for city flavor – just look at what Rowe, King, and Auten did with that seedy, shut-down biker bar on Thomas Avenue. Charlotte's greatest flaw in recent decades is hubris: believing that current thinking is greater than the past, and not knowing when to let the buck stop driving the business.

These places – Eastland, the Penguin, Andersons', Athens, the old coliseum – feel as if they are a part of us, both in our individual and collective memories. When we see them close or change, it's as if a part of ourselves has been removed without our permission. It's business as usual, but also worth recognizing that there is value in maintaining the places that are uniquely "Charlotte." What's unique about a simulacrum of The Penguin in cities across the Southeast?

So before we tear down these strip malls on Independence, or demolish the emptied shell of Eastland Mall, let's ensure that we've thoroughly examined all possibilities for their use. What may be tired to us today could hold significance for our children or grandchildren – just look at the Music Factory: what was a rundown industrial sector in a gritty borough now holds venues and events that inspire, entertain, and educate while never betraying the site's legacy.

The Penguin is coming back. Not only that, it's multiplying, and undergoing hundreds of thousands of dollars in renovation. I could celebrate that the business is moving to the "next level," that the Penguin will be loved by many more, that bright days lie ahead. But isn't that like getting excited about hearing The Ramones in a Big Mac commercial? Thanks, but I'll stick with my small block.

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