Is That All, Folks?

No Parking zone: St. Paul's last Fifties-era drive-in depends on classic-car enthusiasts
Michael Dvorak

By day Porky's looks almost like any other fast-food restaurant on University Avenue in St. Paul--except, perhaps, for the hundreds of flashing light bulbs that decorate the entrance, the brassy neon pig on its sign and the slanted carport that shades diners as they munch on French fries in their vehicles. But on summer evenings, the burgers-and-shakes drive-in is alive with relics of the past--Mustangs, Thunderbirds, GTOs--circling the block and vying for a space to park.

"It's beautiful," says one car enthusiast, 50-year-old Grover Cleveland. "It's like walking into another world."

"It's like walking back into American Graffiti," adds fellow auto aficionado Floyd Olson, also 50.

"Yes, that's it," Cleveland coos, with a grin. "That's exactly it."

Cruising--the popular summer weekend pastime of driving restored hot rods and classic cars along the mainly commercial strip where Porky's sits--is at the heart of a dispute between nostalgic car enthusiasts, local residents and the St. Paul Police Department. And the fight, some worry, threatens to shut down the last 1950s drive-in in the city.

"They're targeting car enthusiasts," exclaims Olson, a longtime car hobbyist who for years has driven along University Avenue on weekend nights during the summer. It's a place for car lovers--those with street rods, street machines, and muscle cars--to show off their restorations, to talk about old cars with kindred spirits, to relive memories of days gone by. But that simple pleasure seems to be at risk, he says, as St. Paul police push the hot-rodders out.

Over the past couple of summers, Olson says, the police have been cracking down on violations--many seemingly minor ones--along the strip on weekend evenings. Across the street from Porky's, for example, signs are posted prohibiting parking from 8:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. Squads of police officers, Olson says, begin ticketing at 8:01 p.m. Because the Porky's parking lot is so small (it has only about 30 spaces), the lack of street parking creates a problem. So some of the hobbyists will park their cars in empty parking lots further down the street, only to be shooed away by police, he contends.

"If you just want to go out there and park and enjoy the evening, you're hassled," Olson says. "A lot of people won't go out there anymore. They're just sick and tired of being harassed."

Now that the summer cruising season is almost over--once cool weather hits, most of these classic-car owners tenderly put their toys in the garage to protect them--Cleveland and Olson are trying to rally support for their cause, hoping to improve the situation before next summer. Cleveland has circulated a petition explaining that the "overzealous police officers" are threatening to put the restaurant out of business and destroy a St. Paul tradition. Thus far, Cleveland says, he's gotten almost 2,000 signatures and has sent copies of the petition to the governor, the mayor of St. Paul, and the St. Paul City Council.

Tryg Truelson, who owns Porky's with his mother Nora, says he doesn't understand the police crackdown. He says classic-car owners generally aren't out revving their engines or squealing their tires, if only because the cars themselves are major investments. "Car people are really well-behaved," he explains. "They put a lot of time and heartache into their cars."

Besides, Truelson continues, he has worked with neighbors to address their concerns about noise and litter due to the car enthusiasts. "We've done a lot to keep that down," he says, adding that Porky's employees do their best to curtail loud noises and volunteer to pick up trash around the neighborhood.

But Michael Jordan, public information coordinator for the St. Paul Police Department, disagrees. "As I recollect, they proved to be undependable," he says. "They said they'd clean up and didn't clean up. The problem doesn't exist anymore because of our actions--we don't let people congregate." If people speed or make excessive noise--or even if their cars have a burnt-out license-plate bulb or expired tabs--police will ticket them. "I don't think that's harassment," he says.

But Truelson says Porky's has started to suffer as a result. "Summer is our busiest season," he says. "That's how we survive." He believes the police are trying to get classic-car owners to skip Porky's and go to a city-sponsored car show on Friday nights in downtown St. Paul. "They're very gung ho to drive people down there, and in the process they're making it very difficult for us to do our business."

The downtown event, "Cars Under the Stars," began a few years ago along Kellogg Boulevard, says Jordan. It's easier to accommodate the cars in the downtown setting, which is less residential than the Merriam Park neighborhood along University Avenue, he explains. "You can't block up the street so other people can't move up and down," Jordan says, adding that residents and business owners near Porky's have complained about the noise, the speeding, and the garbage. "There are people who live there who don't like it. The people who live there have rights too."

Some neighbors do complain about it, but others really like it, says Glenn Norstrem, a representative of the Merriam Park Community Council. "It seems to be a lot of young people who like to squeal their tires up and down the street," he says. "The people with the fancy cars aren't a problem.

"I don't really know how to resolve such a thing," Norstrem continues. "There are a lot of neighbors who get upset about it. But I can see that some people like this. It sure would be nice if they could go someplace else."

But to go someplace else would miss the point, Olson says, since the draw of Porky's is as much the memories of youthful days at the drive-in as it is the community of car lovers. That's why he would like to sit down with city and police officials to work out a compromise. "Porky's is where it all started," Olson says. "They don't have the right to put him out of business. They don't have the right to cut out a piece of St. Paul car history."

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