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The Road to Recovery

Project: New Hope Diner Project, Rhode Island Training School, Cranston, RI

Restoration Supervisor: Daniel Zilka, director, American Diner Museum, Providence, RI

By Eve M. Kahn

Abandoned portable buildings in desperate shape are being hauled to the doorsteps of teenagers in dire need of job experience and marketable skills. While rebuilding the humble structures, the kids are not only learning sound construction practices but also helping to sell products that fund the state-run training program itself. In this win-win-win situation, the portable buildings and the teens will leave the property better equipped to thrive in the mainstream, while costing the taxpayer nothing.

The program is based at the Rhode Island Training School, a juvenile corrections facility in Cranston, RI, just south of Providence. It holds about 100 boys and a dozen girls, ages 13 to 20, most of whom have committed nonviolent crimes and spend six- to nine-month stints there. The low brick complex would look like any other mid-20th-century school, if not for the high perimeter fence. The kids spend a day or so a week in a ground-floor carpentry classroom that opens onto a yard, where a decrepit diner is perched on wooden blocks.

At the moment, the overhaul of Hickey's diner, a 1947 relic from Taunton, MA, is underway. Supervised by Daniel Zilka, head of the American Diner Museum, and RITS vocational-tech instructors, the residents have already sandblasted and hot-riveted steel undercarriage sections and ripped out rotted lath and cabinetry while carefully labeling salvageable parts for eventual reassembly. In phases through the end of this year, they'll mill and drill new beams and floorboards, cut new glazing for the slit or porthole windows in Hickey's porcelain-enamel skin, re-tile the checkerboard floor, and insert plumbing and wiring. As they crawl around the peeled frame of the arched-roof building, their faces are eager and focused behind their protective eye goggles, and their banter with the teachers and each other is excited. They proudly pull drills and hand tools from professional-looking tool belts at their hips.

"They'll each get to take a belt home with them, along with a good-quality hammer, tape measure and chisels," says John Scott, RITS's Community Liaison. "These kids are engaged, looking forward to this class. They're learning how to work, while in a safe, nurturing environment. And 80% of them tell us they want to work with their hands like this when they get out, producing something tangible instead of being stuck at a desk."

Hickey's is one of four diners so far, dating from the 1920s through the 1950s, that have been trucked in from around New England for restoration at RITS. Three other early-20th-century diners are slated for overhauls at nearby high schools and job-training institutes. The mobile buildings' safe landings are part of the New Hope Diner Project, a two-year-old initiative of a public-private collaboration called the New Hope Alliance, an unlikely assortment of developers, preservationists, government officials, college students and coffee-bean importers.

John Scott, who took college-level cooking classes and worked in restaurants before becoming a corrections officer, dreamed up the project four years ago with RITS's culinary-arts instructor, Bill Tribelli. Both men rather enjoy the media limelight: Tribelli has published a cookbook, Jailhouse Cooking, and Scott has cooked on TV, as a contestant on the ABC show "The View's Next Celebrity Chef Contest." For RITS students, Scott explains, diners made sense as manageably sized yet potentially high-profile training demos, partly because diners are especially beloved in Rhode Island.

In fact they were born there: in 1872, an entrepreneur named Walter Scott set up the country's first easily movable restaurant, a horse-drawn food cart, outside a Providence newspaper headquarters. When RITS approached the American Diner Museum with the idea, Zilka realized it would help solve one of his institution's persistent problems: "We get calls all the time from people looking to unload a diner they can't maintain anymore," he says. Hauling the rescued structures to RITS, Zilka adds, "adds a whole new dimension to historic preservation, and gives a sense of accomplishment to people who need it badly."

Funding and in-kind support have come from a range of Rhode Island sources, including nonprofits (Preserve Rhode Island) and Providence construction companies. Students at Bryant University in Smithfield developed a pro bono marketing plan for Central American coffee sales that benefit the Diner Project – you can now buy bags of an organic, shade-grown blend named New Hope through New Harvest Coffee Roasters in Pawtucket (see A Providence restaurant, Angelo's Civita Farnese, is planning to adapt Hickey's into a mobile branch. A tech-training school in Warwick is restoring a snub-nosed 1954 Chevy truck that can transport Hickey's. The fates of the other half a dozen buildings in the Diner Project's care have not yet been decided, but one will probably stay near RITS, as a restaurant for local office workers, with RITS residents as apprentice cooks, servers and cashiers.

"The poetry of this project," says Scott, "is that a forgotten population, a population people are reluctant to take a chance on, is restoring something that Americans cherish. We've had the families of the original diner owners come here, and get all emotional to see the buildings being worked on, and the kids are amazed to find out they have connections to this older group and are very respectful. You'd be amazed at the conversations about history and construction and cooking that we're having now with these kids. And already one of our graduates has gone on to study building trades at a tech school."

Journalists keep stopping by, too, including reporters from the Boston Globe, NPR, and Fox TV so far. The residents are getting accustomed to being interviewed, yet they don't sound coached. When I asked a teenager named Fernando whether he liked the class, he answered, "It's great to see the progress, the big difference we've made." TB

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