by Jaimie Julia Winters
You could say he’s the last man standing.
While tenant after tenant has left the Lackawanna Plaza mall, and vandals and vagrants are more commonplace than stores, Mike Carrino has etched a little bit of paradise in the midst of an urban development that lay fallow for years.
Last Friday during happy hour, owner Carrino welcomed guests around an almost-full bar at the Pig & Prince located in the historic 1913 Lackawanna Station. Outside the restaurant sits the mall, built over the train waiting platforms in the 1980s, mostly abandoned by merchants in 2013.
In the parking lot, the horse trough, used by the horses who brought riders to the station in buggies before automobiles, sits graffittied. Carrino says it is just the newest in a series of graffiti art that hits the plaza too often.
Anyone who lives in Montclair knows the saga of Lackawanna Plaza. For many residents, the plaza represented a transit link to New York City, until the trains stopped coming to the station in the 1970s. To others, it’s where they got their groceries until the Pathmark shut its doors in 2013.
For years, proposed plans for the historic Lackawanna railroad station property to be converted into a 154-unit, multi-use development including a supermarket by Pinnacle and Hampshire, have been stalled before the township planning board.
Although most of the historic structure would be repurposed into the design, including the old station waiting room which houses the Pig & Prince, historic preservationists seek to also save the train platforms that developers claim need to be razed to make way for supermarket parking. Anyway you look at it, Lackawanna now represents a promise of resurgence for this part of Montclair.
In 2012, when Carinno moved in, the 90,000-square foot mall was 100 percent occupied with shoe, jewelry and toy stores, a Radio Shack, a hair salon, the Pathmark grocery and more. But within 18 months of his opening, the Pig & Prince, Popeyes and a pizza joint were all that was left.
“From the beginning, I loved the urban vibe here. It was alive with stores,” he said.
Now, Carinno says even the skateboarders who once frequented the corner are gone.
Years of abandonment and non-movement on the redevelopment have taken a toll.
“There’s a bad perception here,” he said.
But inside the Pig & Prince, guests dine amidst the original vaulted terracotta ceilings and brick arched walls, and tiled floors that were revealed after Carinno lifted the purple rugs left from the previous tenant, Blockbuster Video.
Removed drop ceilings revealed original chandeliers that hang from soaring heights. The station’s original water fountain and paper cup shelves are tucked between two tables. One of the benches used by travelers for almost a century is against a wall in the back room, and the bar footrest is a re-purposed rail line stamped with “Lackawanna 1912.” Carinno was able to locate both items from an antique store and a train museum as he was renovating the place.
Carinno’s pride and joy hangs on the wall: the original proclamation presented by Montclair Mayor Ernest Hinck to the president of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad Co., William Truesdale, in 1913 at the opening of the Lackawanna train terminal. The document, with its gold leaf, was done by Ames & Rollinson, the oldest calligraphy studio in the nation.
There’s a lot of history to the building, said Carinno, who prides himself on knowing that history. He points out the building was constructed at an angle that follows the axis of the sun’s movement allowing for the vast room to be fully lit most of the day. He explains the architect who designed the station, William Hull Botsford, died in 1912 on the Titanic at age 28. He seems to know the history of every nook and cranny.
Fully invested, Carinno waits for what’s next for the old station. He attends to his restaurant and guests, quietly attends planning board meetings and tends to his newest venture — a 30-square-foot victory garden located outside the restaurant, growing in contrast to the graffiti-ridden horse trough across the parking lot and abandoned mall. The produce and herbs cultivated by Carinno and his staff will be used for specials dishes and signature cocktails. The staff helps water and weed it as well. Not only is it a chef’s dream, he said, but by being connected to earth together, it gives the staff hope.
As Carinno wanders through the garden with nine-foot sunflowers as a backdrop giving guests a tour, he plucks ears of corn, tomatoes, broccoli and peppers, offering a taste of the fruits of the staff’s labor.
“It’s our little corner that has a lot to offer,” he said.
It seems no one has more at stake with Lackawanna Plaza’s future than Carinno, as he hangs on to bits of the plaza’s past and present in his part of the plaza.
For now, Carinno is dealing with being an island in the mostly abandoned plaza, serving up meals, drinks and a little bit of history to those in the know.
The future will bring new challenges, potentially leaving the restaurant with no parking and possibly no electricity once construction gets underway.
But, Carinno said, he’s in it for the long haul.