RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
There was a time when people in Holyoke, Massachusetts spent their evenings downtown - shopping, seeing a movie, grabbing a bite to eat. The former industrial hub, a city famous for manufacturing paper, has declined so much in the past half century, it's now pretty much a ghost town. So as Jill Kaufman from member station WFCR reports, some residents have created a do-it-yourself restaurant in an effort to revive the city.
JILL KAUFMAN: It's almost dark. An abandoned gas station with a curb blocked by cement barriers is the meeting point tonight for a group of people who appear to be pulling chairs and tables from the trunks of their cars.
Unidentified Woman #1: If you want, we can go right there.
KAUFMAN: Some boxes are set out on the sidewalk. Linens and dishes and food are pulled out. And what moments ago was an eyesore has been transformed into a popular place to�eat. It's called BYOR. That�stands for bring your own restaurant. It's not quite an established venue, but the food is very good.
Unidentified Woman #2: (Unintelligible) scallops?
Unidentified Man #1: Yeah.
KAUFMAN: It's free to those who share. And the ambiance is unexpected, as the outdoor�location keeps changing. People learn where BYOR is going to be via Facebook. In the mild weather, it's open every other weekend. No reservations required, just an appetite and some extra chairs if you have them.
Unidentified Woman #3: Hi, good to see you.
KAUFMAN: This hybrid potluck began with a group of friends heading out to an art opening. They wanted to sit down to a nice dinner beforehand but weren't interested in the very few downtown restaurants open at night. So they temporarily opened one themselves. It was the first BYOR, along the canal opposite the gallery.�And it grew from there into something its founders never planned on.
Tonight, at the height of the dinner rush, 40 people are here, including Rachel Lawrence, one of the original BYOR diners. She grew up in a farm town�30 miles from Holyoke and moved downtown to be closer to work, her kids, and school. And she makes divine chocolate mocha cupcakes. They're at the center of the buffet table. Lawrence says BYOR is about the food, but in a way it's also art.
Ms. RACHEL LAWRENCE: It's kind of like we're making this place. This place isn't really anything during the day.
KAUFMAN: And Lawrence's cupcakes? They're actually bait. Sometime during a BYOR evening someone takes them out into the street and offers them to drivers stopped at lights, or to people walking by, with the idea that maybe they'll pull up a chair. That's sort of what happened with Robert Seto, who almost drove right by tonight. This was the second time he saw BYOR in action.
Mr. ROBERT SETO: Nice to meet you. Did you guys by any chance may have had similar events down Dwight and Ray Street, right at that little bridge corner there? OK. I think I've rolled by and I was kind of wondering, what are those people are doing there?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SETO: Not fast enough to...
Unidentified Man #2: James was standing out offering cupcakes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KAUFMAN: The reason Seto didn't stop the first time? Fear. The perception is that downtown Holyoke is dangerous. But BYOR - by being so public - might be changing that image. And clearly not everyone has fled for the suburbs.
Descendants of families who came here generations ago from Ireland are eating alongside Latinos, African Americans, and Asians. It's these people Ken Johnston came here to see tonight. He drove in from a suburban college town 15 miles away.
Mr. KEN JOHNSTON: They are looking at the community with fresh eyes, despite that Holyoke sometimes gets a bad knock. They're coming out and they're enjoying the city and they're revitalizing it.
KAUFMAN: And despite its problems, Johnston and his wife want to move to Holyoke before the end of the year.
Everyone is hungrily awaiting word on whether BYOR will go indoors this winter. Some diners hope maybe then more restaurant owners will see they have potential customers and be willing to stay open after dark.�
For NPR News, I'm Jill Kaufman.
MONTAGNE: And you are listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.