"It is almost as if you were frantically constructing another world while the world that you live in dissolves beneath your feet" - Tennessee Williams
Are you wondering why the big deal about the massive effort to remake the west side of downtown around Pioneer Park - the Gateway district? Think it's just a bunch of bureaucrats doing what bureaucrats do?Then this story's for you.
The Pignanelli family, owner of The Club, a run-down bar at 200 South and 500 West, was tired.
Even though Grandfather had opened up the place in the late 1930s after emigrating from Italy, and even though the bar had acquired much sentimental value over the years, family members were tired of the drug dealers, tired of the prostitutes, tired of the grime and dirt and dilapidation. They were tired of being the landmark of an intersection where bad things happened, like the time former Utah congressman Allan Howe was arrested for solicitation in 1976.
In short, they were tired of grappling with urban decay and its myriad concomitants.
And so, as of last week, The Club ceased to exist. It was the business that Grandfather had named the "Railroad Club" because of its proximity to the tracks; where he had chased away hoodlums with a broom or, failing that, a baseball bat. It was the business one son had named "Leo's Club" after Grandfather's death in 1955. Last week it met the wrecking ball and in a very few minutes was nothing but rubble.
Son Frank Pignanelli, a witness to the destruction, admitted to shedding a few tears as he watched the old place go.
"It obviously had a lot of sentimental value, but it got run down," said grandson Frank, named after his father. "I certainly didn't tolerate nefarious activities by others, and I didn't want that on my family's property."
And so an era ended.
But that is not the end of this story.
Frank Pignanelli (senior) had grown away from the family business, eventually becoming a pharmacist at a local grocery store. But as he approached retirement he started thinking about something he had wanted to do for a long time.
"One of the passions of all Italian families, and my family, is food," his son said. "It has always been his dream to open up a small deli or something like that."
Grandfather's Railroad Club is gone forever, but its demise has helped fulfill his son's dream. Next year, a clean, light, friendly Italian restaurant/deli serving soda and sandwiches and spaghetti and meatballs will rise from its ashes.
The transformation of the Pignanelli's business is a microcosm of the Gateway's slow and painful, but real, renaissance.
"There's a great new infusion of life in that area," grandson Frank said. "People aren't just writing it off."
The restaurant will be part of the "Bridges" development being undertaken on the corner by the non-profit company Artspace. The project will include apartments, space for cottage industries, a Buddhist temple, KRCL Radio's new headquarters, a child-care facility, art exhibition space, a dispute resolution center and offices for the National Conference, a religious organization.
"There's a lot of healing about this project," said Artspace President Stephen Goldsmith. "We want to tap into the deep roots of this community."
You can't get much deeper than the Pignanelli family. Grandmother lived in the same house on Jeremy Street for more than 70 years, and when she died recently she left "an unbelievable collection of everyday stuff," grandson Frank said - 1920s taxicab receipts, World War II ration coupon books, clippings, pictures. He plans to make wall displays and put them up in the restaurant.
"When people walk in it will be a family deal," he said. "My cousins, my father and me, we'll all be in there cutting lettuce and cooking sauce."