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The Way We Were

A Brief History

The Nearby Café grew out of a simple personal/professional home page that I initiated in the spring of 1995 at the urging of Peter C. Guagenti, the webmaster for that home page and also for the first incarnation of the Café. That home page listed my current activities, offered samples of recent writings and interviews, and included a small gallery space for portfolios by some invited guests.

The World Wide Web had just emerged out of the Internet when that personal home page -- titled C: The Speed of Light -- made its debut. I didn't know quite what to make of it, or the Web, or even the 'Net (with the latter of which this was my first experiment; up till then I hadn't even tried email). But, as a writer, and the offspring of publishers, the simple fact that I could publish and distribute anything I wanted to present, at low cost, without anyone's editorial oversight save my own, had immediate appeal.

I serve on the boards of several non-profit organizations, and support others in less formal ways. As I fulfilled my board duties over the next few months, and traveled once again to Prague to teach that summer of '95, I communicated my excitement over this new medium to friends and colleagues at Artists Talk on Art in New York City, The Photo Review in Philadelphia, and the Prague House of Photography in the Czech Republic. Few of them had much experience with the 'Net, none with the Web, but all expressed interest -- and asked if I coud help them get online.

Those requests, and what I now realize were my own lurking impulses to work as an editor and publisher, coalesced by the end of the summer of '95 into a proposal for a site in which numerous content providers came together under one roof. When I got home from eastern Europe, I asked Peter if he could help me construct an expanded site in which relatively autonomous subsections -- each the equivalent of a substantial home page for these three non-profit organizations -- could co-exist with my own newsletter and perhaps some other features, providing a much broader menu for visitors.

When Peter said that he could, so long as we changed ISPs and rented enough cyberspace to house the material, I offered to launch those three organizations -- Artists Talk on Art, The Photo Review, and the Prague House of Photography -- on the 'Net, pro bono, as components of a new website that I would maintain financially, manage, and edit. They accepted, and the Café as an idea was born.

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The concept of a multi-subject environment -- a cross between the rich complexity of a fine café on a good night, with intricate conversations on varied subjects going at different tables, and a first-rate magazine or weekly arts & culture newspaper, with its diverse features and columns -- served as the model. We launched it in October of 1995.

That original version of the Café I titled The B.Y.O. Café, for "bring your own," a familiar U.S. phrase for low-budget parties for which guests have to provide their own liquor. That seemed appropriate, since I couldn't actually serve up any coffee -- just a cyberspace version of a good place in which to drink it. It appeared at (Note: I let that domain name's registration lapse in '97, so we had no connection to a subsequent short-lived ESL message-board site that appeared online under the same name from 2002-2004.)

Shortly after we opened the site, Peter -- at the time a nineteen-year-old whiz kid -- was hired away from me (by Paper magazine, to create its first website), and the site lost its webmaster. I knew nothing about website management. For a spell, Ralph Mastrangelo replaced Peter, helping to post some new content and refine the site's basic design. But in mid-'96 other commitments pulled him away too, and the site went stagnant.

It remained that way for the next year, though I continued to identify and gather content for the existing sections and even to plan new ones. In the summer of 1997 I confronted the decision as to whether I should continue with the Café as I'd envisioned it or instead retrench, falling back to the more manageable project of a much smaller home page devoted simply to my own activities and work.

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By then one of our original content providers, The Photo Review, had left the nest to establish its own separate website under its own domain name. My arrangements with the other two could have concluded at that juncture. Yet that enticing vision of a many-faceted, polyvocal context tugged at me. The main obstacle remained the absence of an effective webmaster.

I couldn't afford the services of anyone who could handle the amount of content I wanted to include for what little I could budget for posting it. The solution at which I arrived, reluctantly, was that I had to learn to do it myself. So, over the summer of '97, I studied the basics of html and website structure and design, elementary Photoshop, and acquired some other necessary skills. Using them, I put the Café through its first major overhaul, revising every section thereof, updating and deepening the content level of existing subsections, adding new ones (such as Extra Anchovies! and the Museum of Find Arts, as well as our Op-Ed Page), and working on its graphic design as well -- the last with the assistance of Nina Sederholm.

I also renamed it The Nearby Café -- partly because I thought it was more memorable and more evocative, but also because our traffic at the site had become surprisingly international and I discovered, to my consternation, that the phrase B.Y.O. doesn't translate. (Europeans seemed to assume that it had some health-food reference, as in the prefix bio.) This new, improved version of the site emerged in the fall of 1997. Our traffic took a noticeable jump as a result.

Over the course of the next year I added several new components: the Café's travel journal, Motion; the New York Photography Calendar (in collaboration with Tanya Murray); and En Foco Online, another pro bono base for another non-profit. Existing sections were variously enhanced. However, I'd reached the limits of both my own web-design and site-management skills and my own available time for the project. Other commitments -- teaching engagements, lectures and other professional responsibilities, several new books, and a whirlwind of travel -- forced me to put the site aside once again.

So, from early 1999 until the spring of 2001, the Café went virtually unchanged. Even the task of maintaining the monthly Photography Calendar with some assistance proved impossible. And I remained painfully aware of the site's static condition, of which occasional complaining visitors reminded me.

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However, at the tail end of 1999 John Alley, a teacher with web skills who'd heard me lecture in Richmond, Virginia a short time earlier, volunteered himself as the site's part-time webmaster. We spent the year 2000 exchanging emails about the site, his ideas for it, my long-term goals for it, and its reconfiguration. Early in 2001 John began to redesign the site's flagship component, my own newsletter, C: The Speed of Light.

Because John works with Adobe's GoLive! Cyberstudio, he recommended that I learn the same program. I've taken to it easily, and sharing the same software has both simplified our collaboration on the site and facilitated my own work on it. As a result, I've recommitted myself to its development. The Café is presently undergoing its second major overhaul. I expect this to take much of the next year to complete, but you can already see some of the results.

A few of the Café's previous components -- such as the Photography Calendar -- have undergone significant reconfiguration. En Foco, like The Photo Review before it, has moved to its own domain site elsewhere on the web, with my blessing. New subject areas and components have been added. Old ones have had, or will have, their content increased and, probably, their visual style and Web-tech bells-and-whistles levels raised. We'll achieve this as time and energy permits.

This is probably not an unusual narrative of the ups and downs of what's basically a one-person website run primarily by a self-taught web designer and site manager whose ambitions for the site outstrip his abilities, his time and energy, and his available funds. Perhaps the only unusual aspect of the story is this: Despite extended periods of partial and even complete inertia, some of it site-wide, traffic at this site has skyrocketed to an all-time high that now seems like just its first plateau.

When I returned my attention to the site in the late spring of 2001, I expected to find that its statistics had slumped. After all, little on it had changed for more than two years. The web, according to the conventional wisdom, demands continuous novelty or, at a bare minimum, frequent change. How can it be, then, that a site that's remained relatively home-made, with few technical frills, and whose content stayed the same for over two years, went from a yearly average of 500,000 hits from 60,000 visitors in 1999 to our present total of 820,000 hits from a quarter of a million visitors during the past year?

I have no answer to that question; and, unfortunately, we don't hear from enough of our visitors to extrapolate a dependable explanation from their responses. I have only this hypothesis to offer:

The premise of this site, from its elementary original form through the present, has been that durable websites require a foundation of solid content. As steersman of the Café, I have placed my emphasis on diversifying, expanding and deepening the project's content level whenever possible. That's necessitated choosing content that's not only worth posting in the first place but merits maintaining online, in archives or otherwise available permanently.

From the very beginning, we've posted very little here that I didn't believe deserved a long life online. That's reflected in the fact that the bulk of what we've posted since 1995 remains here at the site -- and that, according to our server's statistics program, visitors continue to access it. We've eschewed the trivial and ephemeral, and have wagered on the substantial. That bet seems to have paid off.

So that remains our policy: amplifying the Café's content level is always the first priority. The conventional wisdom has it that surfers' attention spans are limited, that they need graphics that bounce and skitter and texts no larger than bite-sized; we post lengthy essays, serious poetry and fiction, and images that invite quiet meditation and reward prolonged attention. That same conventional wisdom proposes that the most attractive sites will make use of the most cutting-edge web technologies; the Café stays determinedly several steps behind the curve in that regard. Those are deliberate choices I've made.

I'd be lying if I claimed to be producing this website purely, or even primarily, to please myself. With it I became a publisher, and I hope to attract an extremely wide audience. But I've striven to make it the kind of environment that I myself enjoy, whether in cyberspace or in a real neighborhood café. I'm gratified to learn that others like it as it is. I appreciate the patience of visitors whose favorite sections go unchanged for long spells. I do my best to improve it when my resources allow. But I make no apologies for it. You'll find all kinds of good stuff here. Take a good look around. Enjoy it. Come back regularly. We'll be here for a long, long time, and it'll always please us to have you with us again.

A. D. Coleman signature

-- A. D. Coleman

Executive Director

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