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Cozying up to memories of the Park Lane

Where does one begin with the Park Lane?

* That we held my father's 70th birthday brunch there in 1979?

* That I've been to countless weddings and bar mitzvahs there?

* That as a general assignment reporter 3 1/2 decades ago, I covered one of Jack Kemp's first toe-dippings into politics there and, when it was over, sat alone at a table with him while the future vice presidential candidate lectured me in economics (and drew a Laffer Curve on a cocktail napkin for me -- a standard Kemp ploy at the time)?

* That its then-proprietor Peter Gust Economou would stroll among the tables schmoozing the clientele and inquiring after the state of everyone's contentment?

* That, after the rebuilding in its second-most recent incarnation, a friend and I got addicted to its oyster bar? And that every time we walked into the place I'd see it jammed with fellow News folk, whether lifelong Buffalo residents or relatively recent arrivals?

It has been that kind of place for more than half a century -- not just a restaurant but an integral part of Buffalo lives. (It's literally true that in all this time and no matter who was in charge, it has never disappointed me.) And now, says owner William Koessler, it will close its doors at the end of the year after one final New Year's Eve bash.

You don't want to get too maudlin or foolish here. Nothing is easier -- and cheaper sometimes -- than sentimentality. And nothing is harder than actually keeping a great and/or beloved restaurant afloat in our city. We've seen all kinds of favorites fold for all kinds of reasons -- Kuni's sushi bar on Elmwood, the Rich Family's Saki's downtown in the Guaranty Building, the Place on Breckenridge, Zuzon's in Williamsville.

Business is business. Numbers have to add up, no matter what sentimental associations and proprietary passions are stirred up in the patrons. And, when push comes to shove, the choices are made by those tallying up the bottom line, which is always -- ALWAYS -- a much harder thing to do than just smiling through martinis and sumptuous plates full of oysters.

And, too, one of the reigning myths about current Buffalo among its emergent class is that nostalgia for past glory is its most damaging affliction -- that we are being kept from the brave new world possible in the 21st century by our constant maudlin hand-wringing over the past and allusions to former glories.

To all of that I'd offer a counter-possibility -- that, by far, the greatest tragedy of this city over the last half-century has, in fact, been its constant need to downgrade itself and its refusal to recognize and confront its own excellence, thus insuring that such excellence is transitory. If, among other things, we could look at what was truly great when it was right in front of us and vow to maintain it (or return to it when it ebbs away), we might begin to have a chance at fighting the blighting forces arrayed against us.

There's some talk now about razing the properties on Hans Mobius' land on Elmwood and Forest (a neighborhood in which I've spent most of my adult life) and erecting a small hotel, thus forever changing the intimately haphazard neighborhood from the kind that so often adjoins colleges into something a-boil with development. It goes without saying, I would think, that while it's an interesting notion, now is the time for those of us who know it best to say there is a good reason why Elmwood, at its recent best, had virtually become a new Main Street in Buffalo. It was, for a while, what a neighborhood's main drag should be.

My fantasy is this: that New Year's Eve will roll around and, just before 2007 chimes in, William Koessler will announce that response to the Park Lane's closing announcement was so huge that he just doesn't have the heart to close the place.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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