In a rapidly homogenizing nation of chain restaurants, big box stores, and utterly characterless office buildings, one woman is fighting to keep the country interesting.
Retro Roadmap isn't just a site that leads you to cool vintage places. Although she does give shout outs to locations her readers suggest—these are indicated as “Retro Roadmap Reader Recommendations”—Lennon personally vets every locale she blogs about and gives it her stamp of approval. Beyond that, she pins her Retro Roadworthy spots on the interactive map she’s created that’s not only fun and easy to use; it’s the central nervous system of her site.
Driving through a part of the country you've never been and you’re hungry? Don’t stop at the first famous burger joint you see; click on the map and discover that there’s an awesome family-owned diner right down the road! You get to experience something new and fun—not to mention probably delicious—and your dollars are actually keeping the place in business. Plus, Lennon says, it helps you learn your geography!
First of all, she’s always loved to drive around and photograph the cool places she stumbles upon. As an art history major and photography minor at the University of Massachusetts, Lennon’s first big project was creating a book of photographs she took of defunct drive-in movie theatres.
Second, Lennon loves to share her finds, and the internet provided the perfect outlet to reach the largest audience possible. She recalls being disappointed that there was no resource for locating authentic vintage places while traveling to parts unknown several years ago. Lennon found that niche and filled it.
Third, and perhaps most important, is the big picture of preservation. Lennon’s trying to save these places from being bought out by yet another chain store or leveled for new luxury condos.
Frankly, I got tired of hearing people online bitch and moan about vintage places going out of business, but then they admitted they had not gone to the place in years. To me that was bull, because maybe they closed because everyone was too lazy to go! So I decided to make Retro Roadmap so there would be no excuses. Here's the info of where the place is, here's why you should go. Here's me going there! So while I do lament when cool old places close, I also know that if someone asked me, ‘Well, did you do anything to try and prevent that?’ I could say yes! I go to places like that, I spend my money there, and I do my best to encourage, inform, push, meet up, and get other people to do the same. If you're not a part of the solution, you're part of the problem."
We began our dreary January Saturday with a hearty breakfast at Daddypops diner in Hatboro, PA. This is precisely the kind of place that Lennon features on Retro Roadmap: a small, stainless steel diner built in the ‘50s, complete with vintage barbershop stools. No trendy, faux-retro menu here; this is the real deal and the low prices and utter lack of pretension reflects that.
Lennon doesn’t just talk the retro talk; she walks the retro walk…and dances the retro dance. She takes classes to learn the Chez Vous, the South Street, the Wagner Walk, and other ‘60s line dances that are alive and well at the parties Blavat (the Geator with the Heater!) continues to host. (Full disclosure: Lennon talked me into joining the line dancing classes with her and they really are a lot of fun!)
Phoenixville itself is Retro Roadmap-worthy: it’s home to the historic Colonial Theatre, where the 1958 Steve McQueen cult classic The Blob was filmed. Every year, the Colonial celebrates the film with the very popular Blobfest, a three-day extravaganza which includes screenings of The Blob and a re-enactment of the famous scene of moviegoers running out of the theatre in fear.
But it was a long road to get here. It included taking a leap of faith to move from Boston to a sleepy beach town in southern Delaware (they call it “Slower Lower” for a reason) to be closer to her future husband. “Yeah, why don’t I move to a beach in a state that I really don’t know and date a dubious musician? That sounds brilliant!” To be clear, there is actually NOTHING dubious about Hillis. Regardless, Lennon notes for the record: “Mom, we didn't move in together. I had my own place!”
After a few years, however, Lennon felt restless with a string of unfulfilling jobs and no outlet for her creativity, pre-Retro Roadmap.
“My sister and I used to talk about the concept of ‘blooming where you’re planted,’ and we fully believe in that. However, the thing is it’s really hard to bloom when you’re planted in sand."
Lennon and Hillis took another leap of faith when they followed their instincts and moved to Phoenixville, a community in which they are now thoroughly entrenched. They support the town by patronizing its many shops and restaurants (“Every Friday is ‘Foresta’s Friday.’ I shop at the local market instead of Acme or Wegman’s. They won’t miss my 30 bucks,” says Lennon); Hillis often plays gigs at Steel City Coffeehouse; and Lennon has scheduled events for her readers at places like the Colonial Theatre. She’s organized several events for her readers on her site and has recently begun using the Meetup app to facilitate the process, which has been very successful.
In fact, remember how I said there’d be more on the tiki bar? Well, Lennon has created and will host a Vintage Tiki Weekend at the fabulous Caribbean Motel in Wildwood, NJ in May. She pitched the idea to the owners of the mid-century modern motel, and they loved it.
Her readers agree. All 30 rooms blocked out for this weekend sold out in just 10 days.
Lennon’s latest project is her Kickstarter-funded videos. She’s just completed her 7th episode and her subjects include a root beer stand, a drive-in movie theatre, and New York City’s Donohue’s Steak House, family-owned-and-operated since 1950. Lennon also wrote about Donahue’s for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, an organization fighting the good fight and for whom she is a frequent contributor.
With the help of friend and filmmaker Rob Waters and his production company, W Films, Retro Roadmap has reached a wider audience. Lennon sees the purpose of these videos as providing education, entertainment, and the importance of preservation. She dubs it edutainment.
I want it to be entertaining, but I also want it to be motivating. I just don’t want people to be on their Barcalounger flipping through channels and going, ‘Okay, that place is great… LIKE!’ And they think they've actually done something. I’m trying to get people to realize two things: One - yes - these places are great, and two - they’re not going to survive if all you do is hit ‘like’ on Facebook. You need to go out there and you need to spend some time and money there. I want to empower the individual to feel like they can do something to effect change, and realize they can have fun doing it!"
Although I’m not sure Lennon adores beating egg whites, she definitely adores whipping life’s problems; especially those relating to the blandification of America. One of Lennon’s life goals is to travel the entire country to see what all 50 have to offer and stick at least one Retro Roadmap pin in every state.
“Why bother traveling if every place looks the same?" Lennon muses. "People go to Rome to see the coliseum. People will come from around the world to see America if there’s something worth seeing.”