Thursday, September 13, 2007

Supper Clubs, Sinatra and Burger King


"Windsor was the template for Vegas." Those are the words of Sam Drakich, now the former owner of the Top Hat restaurant, describing the glory days of the Rose City during the supper club era of the 50s, 60s and 70s. It was "right out of a Frank Sinatra film. Top entertainment with big bands and colourful gala...Celebrities were all over the city and county." In the aftermath of an ugly battle between the Drakich family, the city of Windsor and a myriad of potential suitors for the former Top Hat restaurant, we, at SDW, wanted to know what killed the downtown core and, with it, the heart and soul of Windsor. In a candid interview with Sam Drakich we explored where Windsor came from, how we got there, and where we are headed.

"...Devonshire Mall hurt downtown [and] poor city management and planning helped speed up the decay" asserts Drakich. A review of the state of downtown Windsor certainly supports the claim that Windsor has done little to support the small business while doing everything within its' power to bring in big business. As already announced on this blog Windsor has lost another classic restaurant La Cuisine. A downtown business manager, who asked not to be named, indicated that in recent months three businesses have closed on his block alone and that they are making plans to close their doors in January. By that account, city hall is turning a blind eye to the devastation of the downtown core. While the city courts chain restaurants, fast food or otherwise, and lauds the development of the Walker Road commercial corridor as "smart development" our small business owners our fleeing the city like rats on a sinking ship.

The word among some administration officials, and business owners, is that Windsor is in trouble and, without a comprehensive plan to attract and keep business, we agree. The plan, according to Drakich, needs to include "a street mall in front of the Windsor Armouries...a plaza with open air concerts and dancing or a ... market". To bring back the American dollars, he continued, we need to re-discover our uniquely Canadian and British roots with stores that cater to a more sophisticated crowd including posh eateries and clothing stores that provide high quality service and merchandise.

Windsor certainly has its' priorities mixed up. The city is investing $65 million into a new arena to service a small percentage of the city while the average home owner faces increased taxes and utility charges to support infrastructure and an administration that is being neutered by council. This is a city built strong by the immigrant business owners who worked hard, played hard and, most importantly, lived, and spent their money, in Windsor with pride. We have an obligation to preserve and prosper their spirit of entrepreneurship. The Windsor that Sam remembers drew Americans and Canadians in droves and was often the talk of the Ed Sullivan Show, Light Night with Jack Parr and, later, Johnny Carson. Entertainment in Windsor was even covered in Billboard and Variety magazines; "Windsor was booming... that was the attraction" said Drakich.

If Windsor had gone from boom to bust over night we could (maybe) understand. Communities all across Canada have faced devastation when local industries have closed. Sudbury and the nickel mines, countless small prairie towns as the grain elevators closed and, most recently, Oshawa and demise of General Motors. Yet Windsor didn't bust overnight; we've been in a slow-motion collapse since the late 80s with business after business fleeing for, first, the suburbs, then the bedroom communities of Lasalle and Tecumseh and, now, they are even stretching out as far as Lakeshore. I remember doing the Mother's Pizza tour in public school, spending countless hours at Fast Eddies and frequenting the Palace theatre and the Cineplex in the old Best Western on the riverfront. Those businesses are gone, victims of commercial evolution, natural disasters and expropriation. Gone with them is an era that, in the minds of all who can, and care to, remember, was a better time.

Windsor needs to change, and change now. We asked Drakich who on counsel had the vision to pull Windsor from the current downward spiral. "Nobody" he responded "have (sic) a vision." We, at SWD, disagree that nobody on council has a vision though the visionaries are outnumbered and, at times, tend to hide their visionary ways. Halberstadt and, surprisingly, Marra have shown some incredibly insightful ideas at times, but they are fighting against councilors, and a Mayor, who live like we are blue-collar bumpkins. Windsor needs leadership, and needs to start making the hard choices. We keep trying to forge out on our own, trying to reinvent the wheel. When city planners present policies for counsel approval they are always asked to contrast and compare the proposed policy against that of other municipalities in Ontario. When it comes to land use and development, without fail, Windsor always takes the low road, preferring to serve us development gruel rather the gourmet plans served up by Guelph, Kitchener and even Toronto.

Windsor can change. At SDW we know that, and we can see it happening. Blogs like this, and others, are starting to mobilize citizens, cast lights on the dark corners of city administration, and ask the questions that need to be asked. Business owners like Sam Drakich and his family were once the lifeblood of Windsor and, now, are sacrificing family businesses to the highest bidder and deepest pockets. With so much invested in Windsor the Drakich family has brought us good times and good memories, unfortunately their legacy will be a Burger King. I wonder if Audrey Hepburn and Frank Sinatra like cheese on their Whoppers?

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

GREAT ARTICLE!!!!

Entertaining, but I think that this article introduces many factors that need to be addressed in order for Windsor to see it's downtown become relevant again.

Mr. Drakich - Is there any hope? I have seen you answering many blog entries here, so I know you are also a regular reader. We need your guidance. This administration will be going away, probably not as quick as many of us would like, but there will be others lining up to take their jobs. Our lame-duck mayor will be the first to go.

What qualities should we demand in our want-to-be elected officials that would make "our" vision of a healthy and vibrant downtown a reality? What, specifically, are the municipal roadblocks that are in the way of a downtown business succeeding as opposed to a suburban chain-store-mentality business?

These are important questions that we need specific answers to if we are to address the deficiencies that encourage our local business people to fail. We need ammunition from someone who has been through it (as I have never operated a business) if we are to band together to fight for a more prosperous and vibrant local economy.

Please help us, Mr. Drakich. There is an undercurrent of support that is with you. The pendulum is swinging back away from the nameless, faceless corporations that run our economy towards a locally driven one that keeps more money in our community.

Plus - I want to live in a community that is identifiable as "Windsor". Plop anyone down in any of these stripmall laced big-box environments and they would be hard-pressed to even guess which country they're in, let alone which city.

I want a Windsor that people care about again.

adriano c. said...

This doesn't really apply to this post but I thought you might be interested in this article...less is more.

Simeon (Sam) George Drakich said...

The first steps have been taken by the bloggers that have brought those who are concerned together .
An activist approach must be adopted
with a convening of all on a regular basis to start a true grassroots movement .
Candidates must be sought out in person .Convincing the right person to run must be with a guarantee of financial and volunteer support .
Now let us meet to start the rebirth of Windsor.
Please contact me at simeon.drakich@gmail.com

Josh Biggley said...

Adriano:

Your article is actually highly relevant -- more so than you might know! I had always been concerned about mobility issues. That article in Wired was the impetus for me moving from a passive citizen to an active citizen. It is what compelled me to pursue, comment on, and ultimately help draft, the city's traffic calming policy. (Somewhat of a lameduck policy so far -- hopefully that will change soon.)

Thanks for reminding me about Monderman and his courage to change the world, one intersection at a time.

Andrew said...

All you have to do is look where King Eddie plopped the new arena to realize where the downtown core fits into his dictatorship's agenda.

King Eddie is the most clueless leader in a long time.

How's that Urban Village coming along?

Chris Holt said...

Sam - Thank you so much for not giving up on this city, no matter how the current administration has treated you and your family.

I started the SDW blog because Windsorites have a pretty lacklustre attitude about the city in which they live. Most have all but given up on the idea that there is a brighter future for us. We need to show them (and through them, our elected officials) that there is SO much that Windsor has going for it that we would be nuts to throw in the towel this early in the game. I am grateful to hear that you feel the same.

In my (poorly written) introduction to SDW, I note that the weak link for our moving towards a more progressive community is communications - or more precisely - lack thereof. There are so many communities out there that are putting all this theory into practise in spite of what the economists, marketing firms and news media tells us we should value, that it is crazy to believe that we are somehow "special" and the precedents set somehow do not apply to us.

The first thing we must do is mount an education campaign to sell these ideas to the average Windsorite, because without them in our corner, we will not be able to get anything done. We must prove to them that Windsor is capable of becoming a community that they value and want to spend time and money here. Why should we demand a pleasant place in which to vacation but settle for anything less in which to live?

So I see the best place to spend our time and money is on communicating these ideals better. Think of it as marketing our Urban Design Idea Factory. We are attempting to counter decades-old, multi-million dollar ad campaigns that have sold us the individualistic ideals which currently plague our community. We need to use todays communications tools to attempt to "deprogramme" Windsorites into believing that we have a future outside of the automotive and kiddie bar economies.

So let's join Sam in the rebirth of Windsor. We can use this blog as a communications tool, but nothing of any value will truly happen without face-to-face interaction. There needs to be a critical mass of citizen activists for this to happen, for without the numbers we will just be another special interest group.

Simeon (Sam) George Drakich said...

It is time to create our own municipal political party to field a slate of candidates that have Windsor in their best interest .

Anonymous said...

Where do I sign up!? It would be funny if it weren't so serious - having to witness this city's leadership driving it into the ground! Sprawl is bad! The car is dead! we've been living isolated lives in this city for too long! Where is the community building? Comaparable cities elsewhere are thriving! Windsor is floundering!
Out with the old! In with the new!