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From ruin to renewal: A State College hot spot

As part of my final project for a convergence journalism class at Penn State in the spring of 2009, I put together a multimedia piece about Chronic Town hookah lounge in State College. As it’s liable to disappear from the College of Communications’ site at any time, I have copied it here in full. The videos can be found below the text.

Chronic Town, located at 224 W. College Ave., always seemed like a bit of a tinderbox.

The hookah lounge, named for ‘90s alternative icon R.E.M.’s first record, plays with fire by virtue of the business it’s in.

But with candles and cloves and the coals of the hookahs constantly burning in the below-ground lounge – not to mention the people packed in wall to wall for concerts there – no one could have guessed that the first time catastrophe struck, it would be a malfunctioning HVAC system with no one even around to see it.

But that’s just what happened on December 27 of last year.

In the middle of the night, while both owners were out of town celebrating the holidays, the lounge’s ventilation unit caught fire. Sprinklers managed to contain the blaze, but the water managed to cause plenty of damage. Because no one was there to let them in, fire fighters had to break down the doors and windows to vent the smoke.

* * *

Two years earlier, Jeff VanFossan and Jesse Ruegg purchased what was then the Tall Shiva Hookah Lounge.

Quickly, they expanded the lounge’s scope, mostly by adding a stage.

“Our biggest improvement when we took over the lounge,” VanFossan says, “was the implementation of a concert venue.”

Over the next two years, the lounge regularly hosted all-ages concerts and became a popular hang out for smokers and non-smokers alike. Whether stopping by to see a band, smoke a hookah, eat some cereal, buy a record or two or just hang out, Chronic Town was a hub of activity in State College.

“It was definitely part of a lot of people’s daily routine,” Ruegg says. “Even if they didn’t spend hours here every day, they would still pop in to have a cup of coffee or just to meet people.”

* * *

Last winter, though, disaster struck. Though the fire was contained, both it and the water from the sprinklers inflicted to heavy damage to Chronic Town and two adjoining businesses, Viva Bella Salon and Five Guys, both of which have since reopened.

As a result, the Chronic Town owners have had to go through multiple insurance agencies to cover the costs. On top of that, Ruegg and VanFossan quibbled for months with their landlord as to who was liable for what.

“It’s been quite an eye-opener to see how that process goes, how difficult it is from a bureaucratic standpoint to make things happen,” VanFossan says. “Because of the complexity of the accident, it’s taken an extra long time to get the ball rolling.”

It has now been nearly four months since the fire, and the door to the hookah lounge remains closed. In fact, the door – boarded up after the fire company broke it down on that fateful December night – is now covered in the yearnings of wistful patrons, scrawled in marker and pencil.

“We want our hookah lounge!” says one.

“Bars and gentrified coffee houses aren’t enough,” says another.

Chronic Town’s absence has left a void in the State College community, one that has yet to be filled. Regulars have sought refuge in downtown hangouts like Webster’s Bookstore Café and Jamaica Junction. The Chronic Town employees who have been able to find work at all have found it in convenience stores and odd jobs. Almost all of them are anxiously awaiting the lounge’s reopening.

* * *

After months spent mired in a bureaucratic swamp, Chronic Town’s owners finally have the green light to rebuild, although they move forward with only the gossamer expectation of insurance money – they haven’t actually received anything yet.

“We just can’t afford to keep waiting around,” Ruegg says. “We have to move forward. If we get any money from the insurance company, great. If not, we’re still going to do it anyway. We’re not just going to keep sitting on our hands.”

With help from employees and volunteers around town, they’ll spend the next few weeks turning Chronic Town into something they think will be even better than it was before.

Though Ruegg and VanFossan are hesitant to give a target date with how many times they’ve been delayed so far, both expect to be open some time in the summer.

When it reopens, they say, it will still feature everything people loved about it. There will still be hookahs, food and drink, tobacco products and regular concerts that might become even more regular.

The redesigned lounge will embrace the arts more than it did in the past, VanFossan says. In addition to featuring music, Chronic Town will provide space for local arts in visual and other media to showcase their work.

* * *

VanFossan has ambitious plans for the motif of the new Chronic Town: He wants to construct a mythology around the gargoyle figure on the front of R.E.M’s “Chronic Town” EP. In addition to the mural of the creature already painted on the venue’s main archway, VanFossan will borrow from ancient Mayan, Egyptian, Easter Island and Atlantis cultures to build this civilization, and he envisions Chronic Town as the civilization’s catacombs.

Ambitious projects are regular fare for VanFossan. In addition to his responsibilities with Chronic Town, he also works for Penn State as a course developer, books shows regularly around town, plays in a band, and is about to earn his MFA in relational art. Some of his relational art works include Chain Gang, a completely non-digital social network he constructed with Polaroid pictures, and the Roustabout! Sweet 69, a concert he put together at the end of 2007 that featured 69 continuous hours of music.

Despite the tragedy that befell Chronic Town in December and all of the other things VanFossan has going on in his life, he is not bitter about what lies ahead for him and his hookah lounge. Ever the optimist, he views the fire and ensuing challenges simply as a chance for another art project.

“It was strange and a little bit surreal to get that news,” VanFossan says about first hearing about the accident. “But since we’re forced to be closed, it’s a chance to do some redesigning and some improvements on the space.”

Adam Clair
PSU College of Communications

Videos:

  • The Fall and Rise of Chronic Town
    The first part of a three-part series on State College’s favorite hookah lounge, this video examines the catastrophe that befell Chronic Town and the owner’s plan to revive it.
  • The Many Hats of Jeff VanFossan
    The second part of the Chronic Town series takes a look at what else owner Jeff VanFossan has on his plate, in addition to running the hookah lounge.
  • Since U Been Gone
    The final installment looks at the impact Chronic Town has on the local community and what kind of void it left after shutting down.
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