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Counter Arguments

State of the Arts


Published May 25, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

Who knew there was a dark side to diner preservation? I sure didn't when I wrote a story two weeks ago about a "Diner-A-Round" event featuring expert Daniel Zilka.

Formerly of Burlington, Zilka came up from Providence, Rhode Island -- the birthplace of the moveable feast -- to give a lecture on diner history in conjunction with an exhibit he curated at Burlington's Truex, Cullins & Partners Architects. Organized by the Chittenden County Historical Society, his talk turned into a tasty tour of area eateries.

You would never have known from the mood on the bus -- it was light as lemon meringue pie -- that the event's organizers had been directed to a website that describes Zilka as "the pariah of the diner industry." Randy Garbin, author of Diners of New England, had sent an email north, suggesting, "Having Daniel Zilka give a lecture on diner preservation is like asking Sam Walton to talk about his methods for reviving Main Street."

A Google search for "Daniel Zilka" turns up numerous articles by Garbin accusing him of unorthodox practices, from selling donated diners for profit, to stealing and tax fraud. Garbin's online vanity pub, Roadside, has been the vehicle for a five-year crusade to discredit Zilka and his organization, the American Diner Museum -- a "virtual nonprofit," as Zilka describes it, that has yet to find a permanent home. "My beef has been there is no museum," Garbin says. "To call yourself executive director confers a credential that is just not warranted."

Zilka has never responded publicly to Garbin's claims. But he recently sent a cease-and-desist letter -- it's posted on Garbin's website -- that suggests he's had enough. No doubt about it: The Internet age facilitates the flow of info, but also, potentially, slander. "If you read between the lines, you can see he has a personal vendetta against me. No one else is making negative comments about what I do," Zilka says.

Garbin was actually on the board of the American Diner Museum before he opted "to disassociate myself and resign." But he was there long enough to note there was no catalogue for Zilka's extensive collection -- a no-no for nonprofit museums that accept donations. He says he's reported Zilka to both the Rhode Island Attorney General's office and the IRS. Neither has taken action.

Asked if there's any merit to Garbin's claims, Zilka calmly replies, "Not really, not really. There's an explanation for both sides of things. As I mentioned before, if you read between the lines, the way he describes me as a person, you can really see there's a lot of jealousy involved. It's character assassination." In the small world of diner devotees, the ongoing feud has left a bad taste. Sometimes it's best not to know what's being slung in the kitchen.

The St. Albans Historical Society has a great exhibit on the second floor of the city's old elementary school. But local elders don't get up there much. The building doesn't have an elevator. Such "cultural facilities" will likely have access to a larger chunk of change next year for financing ramps and handicap bathrooms, as well as furnaces, lighting, insulation and wiring. The Vermont Legislature is on track to free up $200,000 in matching grants to save and upgrade historic, oft-ailing opera houses, one-room schoolhouses and town halls around the state. That's a $150,000 increase over last year.

The appropriation would quadruple the annual funding capacity of the Cultural Facilities Grant Program, which is administered by the Vermont Arts Council. "With this increase in funding, we're going to be able to help a lot more communities," says VAC's Andrea Stander. She cites Vergennes, Barre, Randolph, Bellows Falls and Brandon for their dramatic comebacks. "When these places have been revitalized, the community finally has a place to gather."

At last, policy wonks are making the connection between cultural vitality and economic health. The Vermont Council on Rural Development made it official last October with a report entitled "Advancing Vermont's Creative Economy." It urges investment in culture and innovation as a community-development strategy. One recommendation calls for increased fix-up funding for old facilities that offer cultural activities to the public. Rebuild it and they will come.

"In advocating for this increase, based on the recommendation of the Creative Economy Report, the desire was to make it possible to fund projects with higher price tags," Stander explains. She notes that past grants have never exceeded $5000.

That's good news for arts aficionados installing a heating system in the Hardwick Townhouse. Ditto the group resurrecting Morrisville's Lamoille Grange. Stander predicts, "Those are two towns that are 'arriving.'" St. Albans, too, may find there's help to be had on the way ... up.