Friday, December 24, 2010

Nick's Nest, 1597 Northampton St., Holyoke, MA

Food: Nick's Nest Nourishes

Holyoke landmark Nick's Nest serves up both history and dogs with relish.

Photo By Mark Roessler
The counter at Nick's Nest in Holyoke

A block from where Dwight Street crosses Route 5 in Holyoke, in a sea of huge, back-lit plastic signs promising cheap, fast food, an undistinguished house with colorful awnings has a small neon sign on its roof that blinks alternately, "Hot Dogs" and "Popcorn."

Its modest siren call has attracted many a wayfaring traveler wandering into and out of the Valley on a summertime holiday with the family. Up the hill from the eatery, four lanes of Interstate 91 scream by, but long before that major artery was thrust through the landscape in the '60s, travelers heading north through the Valley drove past Nick's Nest. Then, as today, it seemed like a good place to stop and stretch your legs.

"For some reason—I don't know what it is—people are happier when they've got dogs on their mind," said Kevin Chateauneuf, owner of Nick's Nest, on the appeal of his chief product.

Five years ago this spring, Chateauneuf and his wife bought the business from the original owners. "There's a lot of history in this place, and that's one of the major reasons we bought it," he explained. "We've worked in a lot of restaurants, but this place, it was a homerun."

Their dogs are made from the same special recipe used since the 1930s, and while the new owners have made a few enhancements to the menu, they've been careful to preserve the store front and interior.

"There's little things that they did that just attract people," Chateauneuf said of the Malfas family, the Nest's original owners. On the wall next to the popcorn machine are pictures of the evolution of the business, beginning with a cart Nick Malfas pushed on the streets of downtown Holyoke in 1921. The business settled into its current location in 1927, and its current incarnation was built in 1948.

The Wurlitzer jukeboxes that line the lunch bar along the windows don't work, but it's still fun to flip through the lists of albums Chateauneuf assures me are sitting in the basement, waiting for the day he can afford to get the needle dropping on them again.

Chateauneuf did get the small, metal, automaton jazz band above the counter working, though. When he flips a switch under the cash register, a curtain pulls back and reveals a big band of tin musicians who sway and stutter in front of palm trees and a moonlit surf, pretending they are playing whatever's on the juke box.

For customers who leave to eat on the road or picnic elsewhere, their arms full of dogs, beans, drinks and other sides, a hand pull has been installed above the counter that, when tugged by the staff, opens the door automatically for the encumbered dog consumer.

"People come home to Holyoke—they could live in Boston, or anywhere—when they come home to their parents, they come here. Thanksgiving, Christmas, even St. Patricks day—they'll come here four or five times in the few days they're back. Because they miss it. 'I can't get hot dogs anywhere like Nick's Nest,' they tell us," Chateauneuf said.

"So many older people will come in here and tell you, 'I had my first date here.' It's incredible. If you think back to the '40s and '50s, [the area] was booming. There was no McDonald's, no Burger King, no Wendy's, no Kentucky Fried Chicken. There was all just mom and pop places. And this place was a destination.

"I know: I grew up as a kid in South Hadley," Chateauneuf continued, "and we used to come over here very sparingly. Once or twice a year. It was a treat. Because back then, we didn't go out to eat. If we went out, it was once every two months. Today it's a whole other ball game. We're take-out people. It's crazy."

Still, he reflected, while he gets his share of fast, to-go traffic, Nick's Nest also attracts customers who travel at a slower pace. "You know, what's funny about this restaurant is we get a lot of people who come by themselves and just sit here. I've worked at a lot of restaurants, and people don't usually go by themselves. But in here, I think they feel comfortable. They come, get something to eat, read a book, and stay for a while."

While the menu basics are the same, the new management has introduced a seasonal soft-serve ice cream stand along with the dogs. They also now serve soups and fries in addition to the original fare, and after years of unexplained absence, sauerkraut is now available. But whatever the essence of Nick's Nest is, Chateauneuf is vigilant about protecting it.

"People say, why don't you expand?" he said. "Because this place has been here forever. You ever hear about someone going in and buying something that's successful and changing it? This family business has been here over 80-something years; I'm going to change what they did? I want it to be here for 80-something more years. I want to say to my daughter, you want to run Nick's Nest? Here's Nick's Nest."

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Holyoke Public Library

I've always loved the Holyoke Public Library. The architecture, the smell of old books. Libraries in general just feel relaxing to me. But how many people actually visit a library in this day of the internet? Do you know the history of this beautiful institution?

The Holyoke Public Library Corporation was established in 1870, three years before the city of Holyoke was incorporated. At the time, Holyoke was a town of 10,000 people. The first home of the library was a room in the old Appleton Street School where it remained for six years. In 1876, the library was moved to a large central room on the main floor of City Hall, where it remained for twenty-five years until its quarters became so congested that development into a modern public library was not possible.

In 1897, the Holyoke WaterPower Company offered the Library Corporation the gift of a city block bound by Maple, Essex, Chestnut, and Cabot Streets, on condition that a sum of money sufficient to erect a suitable building be raised in three years. More than $95,000 was raised, including $10,000 from financier J. P. Morgan. In February 1902 the library moved into its present home. The building is an exact reproduction of classic Greek architecture with Ionic columns and is built of Indiana limestone and glazed white brick with a roof of red tiles. By 1970 the library had achieved a collection of some 150,000 volumes, an annual circulation of 250,000 and four small but active branches.

When the Library moved into its new home, it opened a museum of mainly Natural History and Ethnology on the second floor in 1928. Art was added when a collection of twenty-nine paintings was purchased by subscription. Eventually, the collection outgrew its quarters and in the 1950's was moved to the city-owned Wistariahurst Museum, an historic home located not far from the library. In the mid-1970's, the museum was returned to the Library.

After falling into a state of disrepair over the years, the Library building was slowly restored during the 1980’s with the help of over $750,000 in grants obtained by the Library Director, Mrs. Mary E. Kates.

In June 1989, the city experienced a multi-million dollar budget shortfall. When voters rejected an override of Proposition 2 ½, Mayor M. Dunn cut the city's appropriation to the library by 75%, reducing it well below the level of local funding required for state aid, which was therefore also lost. Library operations were essentially shut down during the month of July with only the Reading Room open from 9am to 12pm Monday through Friday. There was no circulation of library materials. The Children's Room and the only remaining branch library were closed.

In August 1989, the Library's Executive Committee voted to hire back two full-time employees, the Children's librarian and the Cataloger-Hispanic Liaison, along with four part-time employees and to pay these employees using the income from the library's $1.5 million endowment fund. The library opened during the second week of August on a thirty hours a week schedule and began circulating materials once again. The Library Director recruited thirty volunteers to assist in the non-technical aspects of library operations...most of them are still a part of our library team.

In fiscal year 1990-1991, Mayor Dunn increased the municipal appropriation by $20,473 that was earmarked specifically for reopening the Elmwood branch Library. The total municipal appropriation, $97,682, was still too small to enable the library to qualify for state aid.

In June 1991, Holyoke voters rejected a Proposition 2 ½ override that would appropriate $100,000 for the library. The city thereupon appropriated only $12,300 to the library, designated for sick leaves and vacation buy-backs. All remaining library employees, including the Director, became private, part-time employees of the Library Corporation. The library's schedule was reduced to twenty hours a week, all standing book orders and subscriptions were canceled and both the museum and the Elmwood Branch were closed.

In July 1991, the library's Board of Directors voted to sell the Library's entire fine arts collection and to close the museum permanently. The sale of art generated much adverse publicity for the library throughout New England creating a painful, tension-filled year for the Officers, Board of Directors and staff.

The financial situation has slowly improved since 1991. The municipal appropriation for 1992-93 was $62,400, which was sufficient to restore state aid. Since then it has increased each year, reaching $265,010 for the fiscal year 2000-2001. However, the library has continued to operate on a slender budget, with the result that salaries are lower than those for most other libraries, and the library has lagged far behind most others in terms of computer accessibility and usage.

A major step by the Holyoke Public library was the establishment of the Friends of the Library group in 1983. This group, which started with a steering Committee of eighteen, now has some 400 members. This organization of dedicated volunteers served as the library's liaison with the community, as a public relations vehicle and as advocate. From its beginning in 1983 until the present, the Friends have raised and donated over $71,000 to the library. In addition to their public relations and fund-raising activities, the Friends group provides opportunities to socialize through educational and cultural luncheon, trips to museums and historical houses, and guest lecturers on a variety of topics.

According to data collected by the state agency, MBLC, in fiscal year 2001 less than one percent (0.23%) of the total municipal budget for Holyoke was allocated for the library. This is a library per capita expenditure of $6.65. The average library percent of total municipal expenditure of the 48 municipalities in the same population size (group 6: 25,000-49,999) is 1.39%, for an average library per capita expenditure of $27.10. Holyoke is low in its financial support when compared to its population group. The average for the state’s 350 municipalities reporting total municipal expenditures for library services is 1.36%, or an average library per capita expenditure of $26.71. Therefore, in terms of both state and demographic groups, Holyoke’s library expenditures are below average.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Old News- But Still Cool...

..., if you haven't already heard.

Former Holyoke mill scene of film shoot for National Geographic Channel special

HOLYOKE - Massachusetts Institute of Technology physics professor Max Tegmark fills the frame of a video monitor as a 50mm prime lens throws the decay of a city’s industrial past into soft focus.

“You can’t even see the peeling paint,” says Malcolm Clark, creative director of London-based Twister Films.

Behind Tegmark, October light seeps through dusty, arched windows to illuminate the whitewashed brick walls and precarious floorboards in a cathedral from the Paper City’s golden age of industry. A floor below, deep in the old mill’s guts, a giant turbine sleeps in a red cast-iron shell.

It’s Tuesday morning, and Clark’s crew is setting up a temporary studio in the former Albion Co. mill on Water Street. Here, they’ll shoot segments for a one-hour special for the National Geographic Channel. No air date has been set, and the episode’s exact topic is under wraps during production.

“We’re doing a show about new ideas in theoretical physics,” Clark says as two members of his four-person production team carry in key lights and tripods.

Some of the ideas presented in the show are “very strange,” Clark explains; enter Tegmark, an expert in the field of precision cosmology (translation: he explores issues such as the age of the universe) whose website invites readers to “share my fascination for both respectable and crazy science.”

In order to help illustrate such mysterious concepts - and to place the academics and theoretical physicists serving as interview subjects in more visually compelling environments - Clark says, “We wanted to find strange, unfamiliar looking locations, including industrial spaces.”

“We wanted to find strange, unfamiliar looking locations, including industrial spaces.”
- Malcolm Clark, creative director, Twister Films

The process of bringing a film crew from the United Kingdom to produce shows for National Geographic, the Discover Channel and PBS’s NOVA to Holyoke involves a kind of delicate matchmaking that is driving Massachusetts’ burgeoning film industry. Agencies like the Berkshire Film and Media Commission are playing Cupid to production companies and property owners.

The Albion Co. mill is one of the surviving structures on 16 acres between Holyoke’s third-level canal and the Connecticut River. Quantum Properties, a limited liability corporation, acquired the land in a series of four transactions earlier this year totaling $620,000.

Quantum is an industrial commercial developer with a focus on distressed mill projects, said manager Glenn E. Shealey in an interview on the morning of the Twister Films shoot. Some of the company’s largest projects include the redevelopment of the 9.5-million-square-foot Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia, as well as rehabs of the Sunbeam Appliances Facility in Chicago and the American Woolen Co. mills in the eastern Massachusetts city of Andover.

A few years ago, while looking for new development opportunities, Quantum Properties surveyed all of Massachusetts’ “Gateway cities” - former industrial centers such as Haverhill, Fall River, Lawrence, Fitchburg - and Holyoke.

“Our analysis was that Holyoke had the best shot at a revitalization,” Shealey said.

“We’ve made a point of drawing attention to Holyoke and its assets - particularly to the film community - because this is a very unique city visually,” said Quantum representative Mark Duff.

About four months ago, Duff began compiling photographs of the property and developing marketing materials to target the film industry. He sent materials to 150 contacts, including 45 to 50 location scouts in Massachusetts.

One of those contacts was Diane Pearlman, executive director of the Berkshire Film and Media Commission.

“Mark Duff called me and said, ‘I have a space that would be good for film shooting,' ” Pearlman said.

Pearlman, who previously worked as a visual effects producer for the movies “Judge Dredd,” “Event Horizon” and “Die Hard: With a Vengeance” - and whose Lenox studio, Mass.Illusions, developed special effects technology for “The Matrix” and “What Dreams May Come” - visited Holyoke to assess the location’s viability.

When she received an e-mail inquiry from Abigail Williams, an assistant producer at Twister Films, Pearlman responded with a list of four suggested locations.

“They selected Holyoke, which I thought was great,” Pearlman said.

Twister’s final site selection involved a reconnaissance trip about a week-and-a-half before the shoot. Olivia Mausel, a member of Holyoke’s Historical Commission, gave Clark and Williams a tour of several sites in the city: the Victory Theatre, warehouses owned by Curran Construction and the building that houses the Paper City Brewing Co.

Twister chose Quantum’s site, according to Williams, because of its size, which gave the crew numerous options for filming, as well as the availability of equipment such as power generators.

101910 malcolm clark twister films10.19.2010 | HOLYOKE - Head shot of Twister Films creative director Malcolm Clark, of London, who is shooting a one-hour special for the National Geographic Channel. Clark chose the site of the former Albion mill to shoot several segments for the show.

Holyoke’s general receptiveness to the project helped lure Twister to the city as well, Clark said. Of the final sites that made the cut - which include a former railroad terminal in Buffalo, N.Y., and an abandoned theater in Fall River - Clark explained, “Those were the ones where you could see there was a real groundswell and the community was behind making something happen.”

Spurred by the Massachusetts Film Tax Credit, enacted in 2005, “Film is starting to make its way to the forefront of the cultural economy” in the Bay State, Pearlman said.

A study released by the University of Massachusetts at Boston earlier this year examined federal data and found that, between 2005 and 2008, Massachusetts saw a 117 percent increase in employment in the motion picture and video production industries and a 126 percent increase in employment in post-production industries.

While the trickle-down effect from Twister’s trip to Holyoke may have only amounted to a few drops - a round of morning coffee and doughnuts and lunch for the crew from nearby Amedeo’s restaurant - Pearlman believes even such small projects can serve as springboards to larger success.

“I would like it all to happen so quickly, but sometimes it takes small steps,” Pearlman said. “If someone shoots here and has a good experience, they tell other people. It’s a snowball effect. Even a small shoot is just the beginning of getting the word out that we can handle shoots out of Western Massachusetts, too.”

Those reputation-building exercises support Quantum’s interest in helping to foster what Shealey described as a “cohesive arts community” in Holyoke. Noting that “artists are just incredibly good at revitalizing communities,” Shealey said, “We honestly believe that anything that helps Holyoke helps us.”

And that supports Quantum’s long-term goals for the property: “We are looking for segment-leading industries to come into Holyoke. We’re looking to bring change agents,” Shealey said.

That spirit of redevelopment strikes a chord even with people like Abigail Williams, who only experience Holyoke through a few fleeting visits.

“It is a little bit sad seeing it run all kind of down like this, and you think, ‘What would the people who built it think now?’ But, it’s great that it’s being redeveloped, and it’s great to support the development of old industrial sites and bring new industry in,” she said. Clark agrees. “The guys here have been amazing, and you can tell that everyone’s keen to make sure the infrastructure is kept,” he said. “These buildings are partly what gives the place its identity. You lose these buildings, and the community doesn’t have the same sense of identity it used to have.”