Saturday, February 19, 2011

There was a greenhouse at the college I attended. In the dead of New England winter I used to sit there in its wicker chairs, soaking up the jungle air. From that warm perch I could look out across the snowy campus at the traffic navigating the icy highway. Percolate has lulled me into such nostalgia. It too is a perch, something very rare in Ashland. Once, before Percolate, it was even rarer. There are those few businesses in the Plaza with second or third-floor windows and patios. And there are the nine floors of The Mark Anthony, as I call it, trying to be cool by clinging to the name of the building rather than its most recent hotel, which sadly seems to be here to stay.

Anyway, this place makes me nostalgic not only because it reminds me of a greenhouse in winter, but because the landscape of Ashland has changed with the erection of this building. It is a monument to Ashland’s vanity and represents a culmination of cynicism about its tourists. It was built to put tourists in the shoes of Ashlanders as they gaze upon themselves. When this building was dreamed up, it crystalized a mostly unacknowledged facet of the city’s tourism: that it’s not about the Shakespeare festival, or the landscape, or Mount Ashland, or any of that; it is about aestheticism. From Percolate’s vantage we see the unity that sign regulations, self-conscious city planning, and the economy of storefronts has brought about. Here is not Ashland with a view, but Ashland as a view.

To locals, Percolate is charged with an air of unwholesomeness because many remember the saga of its inception, funding, and construction as it unfolded in the Daily Tidings and by hearsay. Tom and Lisa Beam were once the idyllic couple of Pasta Piatti and Sesame. It is the latter which ultimately birthed Percolate and killed their marriage. When Tom was charged with sexual harassment by one of the Sesame employees, the Beams had been discussing starting a new restaurant. Their key idea came of acknowledging that Sesame’s success was largely due to its view. They wanted not just to start a restaurant, but to solicit the City to foster building something entirely new that would house multiple businesses. Though the harassment charges went nowhere, the City, wanting to distance itself from the headlines, decided to instead fund a very similar proposal from another party. Oddly, this other proposal took the Beams’ idea of a view even further. There would not be a shop-studded five-floor building with generous windows. No, there would be a stubby Space Needle with a coffee shop and bar at the top made almost entirely of glass.

The heat is not as needful here as it is in Maine, but it is still welcome. And the cold outside is also welcome because it means there are not that many people here. In the summer it’s a bit like a theme park, everyone rushing about with cameras. But now, as the sun sets in that colorless way, I am in a welcoming gloom of leaves. The floor is studded with potted plants. In an inspired design, the view is not brutally displayed everywhere, but obscured by hanging vines and banana-like tropical plants. For all of its grim economy, it is rife with incongruities. Coffee and relaxation is a common enough combination, but here it becomes absurd. Myself and other locals come up to this glamorous class cage just to sit by themselves and work. We come to reflect, but also to get hyped up on coffee. We come as if we couldn’t care less where we were, yet the coffee costs $3 a cup.