Thursday, January 22, 2015

Manspreading: A Very Real Problem

Thanks to New York's taskmasters and stealth photographers, the subway epidemic of "manspreading" has finally been brought to light. Of course, I'm not referring to those who need an extra seat for a purse or bums urinating on the platforms. I'm talking about a real issue: tall men with long legs letting their nuts breath.
What are women, or more respectful men to do? Ask a stranger to scooch down a bit? This is New York we're talking about. You don't talk to people, you save that for Jezebel or Gawker. And if you are going to talk to anyone, you bring a camera.
Knowing how trends spiral on the internet, I grew concerned that the plague had "spread" to Philadelphia. Worse, was I myself part of the problem? After all, I'm six feet tall, I have long legs, and depending on how cold it is outside, I usually have a pair of descended testicles. After pondering this, and cupping my genitals to make sure they were still there, I immediately decided to stand up during that fateful Broad Street subway ride. 
It's like chlamydia.
I was afraid. Someone might have a camera pointed at me just waiting for me to mess up. But then I wondered, "What else could I possibly be doing wrong?" Was I "manhovering?" I looked at the passengers below me, face to face with the faint scent of Axe body spray emanating from my junk...all holding phones just begging to be Twet.
Quickly, I exited and headed for the street, above ground where it was sunny and safe. Then I remembered, I recently posted my own blog about "siewalkspreading," a crisis that our trusty watchdogs from the north have renamed "manslamming." Was I guilty of committing a crime that I myself find so annoying? Was I...a manslammer?
Right then I wondered how my broad shoulders might be threatening, even misogynistic. As I traversed the crowded sidewalks, I looked at the Starbucks cups in the hands of harried commuters, both of my shoulders eager to spill coffee in those Kate Spade bags headed straight for me. I was a magnet for disaster. 
I tried hugging the walls of buildings like a kid clinging to the carpeted walls of Skatetown USA. "Be invisible," I whispered to myself.
Scaling the bricks and concrete along Arch Street, I was smacked in the face with a glass door at the Wawa. "How dare you?!" yelled a woman walking a dog in a raincoat and four little shoes...I was "manblocking!"
Manspreaders: PLEASE, think of the kittens!
I tried to get off the streets as fast as possible.
Climbing a fire escape, I leaped from rooftop-to-rooftop across Chinatown and beyond, constantly aware of the loathsome manhood dangling between my thighs. Those on the sidewalks below pointed and stared, filming and Tumblring, "Look! It's a bird! It's a plane! No, he's MANFLEEING!" 
And manflee I did!
When I found myself perched high above the streets, watching my fellow Philadelphians smoothly return to strides free from my disease, I realized I was no innocent resident, I was the villain, the Joker's syphilitic half-brother. A blight amongst the better.
How was I so blind to the chaos? I had no idea that, without my cojones, Philadelphia and New York were utopian ideals of pleases and thank yous, SEPTA and MTA sparkling trains brimming with courteous etiquette. I should have known better, it's not like anything bad ever happened on a subway before the outbreak of manspreading.
Defeated, I slid down a storm drain behind my small house, I "manbroke" into my rear window, "manstumbled" down my staircase, where I "manhid" with my "mancat."
Six weeks later, unshaven and living off "manhoarded" canned tuna, I sunk into a dark despair of evil undoing. I began to accept my fate, my gonads. This house, this "mancave," is now a reclusive lair for me to plot my next move on the good people of this city. A place for me to sit and "manwonder" how can my balls can next make this world grieve? 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Market East: Done With the Disney Hole

Ten years ago, Market East wasn't great. Strawbridge and Clothier, Gap, Guess, and a few mundane retailers managed to keep the Gallery afloat. The Disney Hole sat at 8th and Market reminding us of a more hopeful - albeit unrealistic - time. 

But things went from bad to worse. In 2005, the May Company consolidated with Federated Department Stores, resulting in two of its own stores competing for shoppers within a few blocks. May closed the historic Strawbridge and Clothier, sold its Lord & Taylor brand, and opened a Macy's at the Wanamaker Building.

The few reasons to visit the Gallery followed Strawbridge's. At best, it became an unofficial outlet mall, a bad one. What were once the worst of the Gallery's stores, low-end retailers expanded into vacant spaces while knock-offs and cell phone stores filled in the rest. 

For a few years it was unclear how the mall would ever survive. Worse, many wondered what would happen if it were forced to close. Would it be a vacant eyesore home to squatters atop a transportation hub? Would it become a playground for graffiti artists? Would it become a massive parking lot spitting distance from City Hall and some of the nation's greatest historic monuments? 

One thing's for sure, despite it's reputation, had the Gallery officially died Market East would have gone down with the ship.

Luckily, perhaps miraculously, the Gallery seems poised to rebound. Century 21, a company that has redefined the concept of the discount reseller, has sent thousands to Market East. New rules at the Pennsylvania Convention Center have attracted attention from the events industry, and it's filling nearby hotel rooms. Most exciting is the massive project under development on the Girard Trust Block.

In a few years, Philadelphia's once-hub of consumerism may look like the modern-day counterpart it should be. Dazzling lights now crown the Lit Brothers building echoing the neon and incandescent signage that once advertised shoe repairs and alterations. And more is coming to the Gallery and East Market.

These changes will likely increase the value of the remaining properties. While little has been said of the remaining blocks or the Barbarella-esque Robinson's Department Store, improvements underway will only challenge property owners to up their game.

Disney Hole: We're done with you!

There is, however, one unfortunate hole in the unheard of changes taking place on Market East: The Disney Hole. When themed restaurants were all the rage in the 1990s - think Hard Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood, Rainforest Cafe - Disney decided to get in on the action. But Disney wanted more than a chain of restaurants, it wanted to bring its successful theme parks to America's inner cities. 

In all fairness, it wasn't a bad idea. Although indoor amusement parks are a largely untested concept, DisneyQuest would have brought more entertainment to our inner cities than Dave and Busters or pop-culture restaurant museums. And Market East is a good location for entertainment, especially twenty years later. 

Unfortunately the concept flopped, at least in terms of the broad scope of the overall plan. We never got a DisneyQuest at 8th and Market, just a vacant lot where Gimbel's once stood. And today, multiple variables make the land a hostile ass ache for potential developers. For one, it's owned and managed by some of the city's most notorious land hoarders, property managers that understand just how profitable the city allows surface parking lots to be. 

It's also a massive lot. Of late, the most realistic proposal was for the Market8 Casino. Although it was always unlikely it would have ever been built, an entertainment venue on par with the scale of a casino complex (or DisneyQuest) is likely the lot's best hope. Sadly, in Philadelphia it seems more profitable to demolish and then build than to build on cleared land, apparent by NREA's choice to clear the Girard Trust Block themselves to make way for East Market, rather than drop it on the Disney Hole. 

So what will happen to the Disney Hole? Will Market East become so valuable that its owners and managers will have no choice but to cooperate just long enough to cash a bloated check? Or will they make so much money parking Market East's upcoming flock of shoppers that they'll never let it go? 

Interestingly, in all the hype surrounding Market East's improvements, little has been said of the street's oozing cold sore. 

For a while it was rumored that the Sixers might be moving to New Jersey. Granted, Camden could use the boost, but I would hate to lose the only sport I can stomach to another state. 

But relocating the Sixers (and everything that comes with the Wells Fargo Center) might not be such a bad idea. And here's why: 8th and Market is the perfect location. As much as I like the fact that our professional athletics have fostered a unique "Stadium District," the Wells Fargo Center isn't just a seasonal arena. It's also a concert venue. 

When someone wants to see Madonna in New York, they head to Midtown. And that's how it is in most cities. In Philadelphia, we have to hop on the train and head towards the edge of Mordor. I'm not much of a concert goer, evident in the fact that the last time I saw an arena concert it was at the MCI Center in DC. And had it been in that (much smaller) city's end-of-the-line, I never would have gone. I love venues like the Trocadero and the Electric Factory, but were the Wells Fargo Center downtown and around the corner, I'd be much more likely to check out a concert. 

But 8th and Market isn't just downtown, it's perhaps downtown's most underrated parcels. It's not just on Market Street, it's atop a transportation hub, the largest in the city: PATCo, and SEPTA's regional rails and subways, and it's right off the Vine Street Expressway. You literally can't find a better transportation accessible location in the city without running Amtrak all the way to Jefferson Station.

So why hasn't this been formally, or even informally proposed? Well, like all things in Philadelphia, development and ideas move slowly. What's unique about the changes taking place on Market East are also unique to Philadelphians, City Hall, and national developers who occasionally check in on their local investments to make sure we're still begging for the status quo. 

Well, things are starting to change a little more quickly whether we want them to or not. And with national developers finally investing in the last frontier of Center City, we better get used to it. 

Surface parking lots are disappearing, and so with them are the land hoarders and slumlords that have plagued Center City for too long. If we can get rid of the Disney Hole, we can be sure a new era has arrived. 

And while locals may be able to turn a blind eye to a massive parking lot along our soon-to-be Corridor of Commercialism, national retailers and investors will not. 

So bring it on. Let's enhance the exciting changes along Market East with something even more exciting, and let's drop it right on top of the Disney Hole.

Philadelphia is #1...Again

Philadelphia just keeps getting better, at least that's what the national press is saying. In less than four months, Forbes, the New York Times, and Conde Nast put Philadelphia atop some pretty outstanding global lists.

It's not over. 

Travel + Leisure, the magazine that once dubbed Philadelphians some the nation's "least attractive" people, they couldn't help but deliver the news with a caveat. When their list found us to be less than attractive, they went on to rave about our art scene and restaurants.

They're back this month, and once again on our side. Travel + Leisure has ranked Philadelphia #3 on its list of cities for the Best New Restaurants, #1 in the United States. 

Just for a little perspective, that means we beat New York, London, and Hong Kong.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Is Old City Lost?

With NREA's East Market steadily demolishing the Snellenberg stump for its exciting mixed use project, and the Gallery at Market East booting tenants for its upcoming renovation, urbania is rolling towards Old City for a 7-10 split.

But what about Old City? At the height of the building boom, riding the coattails of Sex and the City, this neighborhood was the "it" place to live, work, and be seen. Once Philadelphia's "downtown," Old City was ripe with the walkups, warehouses, and refined urban grit that defined the American City.

With our collective attention transitioning its fix towards neighborhoods like Midtown Village, Market East, and University City; Old City is starting to feel like a has-been. It's Sex and the City, and Philadelphia is busy binge-watching Friends on Netflix.

Please, stop. We're done. Friends is on Netflix. We want to know how to get Monica's apartment on a caterer's salary, not splurge on a pair of Manolos for a night Bleu Martini. McGlinchey's and flannel are back. 
"So it's a show about three hookers and their mom?" -Brian Griffin, on Sex and the City.

Despite the fact that Old City was once the hub of Philadelphia's commerce and industry, it is now one of those neighborhoods on the fringe of our city's core. And like many of those neighborhoods - Society Hill, Fitler Square, Logan Square - it comes with its own built-in identity crisis.

While Midtown Village and Market East are focused on enhancing the "downtown" experience with mixed used projects, some of the largest since Liberty Place redefined our skyline, Old City seems stuck in the 90s. Or at best, it's focused on competing as if it were plunked down in Northern Liberties or Passyunk Square.

Unlike Society Hill, or at least unlike what Society Hill has become, Old City has never been a next-door-neighbor neighborhood. It is the city's last vestige of our oldest urbanism. It was mixed use 300 years before mixed use was cool.

This isn't Center City thinking.
But with several row-homes under construction on the 200 blocks of Arch and Race, Old City's rigid desire to embrace a quaintness it never had may soon come back to bite it in the ass. When is the last time a single-family row-home was built in Old City? Aside from Elfreth's Alley, the Betsy Ross House may be its last notable example. 

Investing in residential land in a neighborhood that is primarily condo may be both a wise and poor investment. If Center City continues to grow and develop at its current pace, Old City will truly become Philadelphia's East Village equivalent. These row-homes will surely escalate in value, but will anyone be willing to pay the price for a home built in 2015 a decade from now, especially when they could get an historic mansion in Society Hill for the same price? 

Old City is a dense neighborhood, but their rigid stance against added density and love of parking is going to be a thorn when its residents are forced to face the fact that they live in a very urban neighborhood. While developers are just kowtowing to the neighborhood's demands, those demands aren't thinking of the neighborhood's future. A future where these now-sleek row-homes are subdivided into apartments with useless curb-cut sidewalks facing gerrymandered studios.

We're a big city. New row-homes belong above Vine and below South. In Center City, we need to be looking up.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Farewell, Old Friend

As Philadelphians, we've all enjoyed watching University City transform into Center City's towering sister. Ugly midcentury disasters have made way for their modern equivalent, architecture that will likely be just as abhorred by future generations. Some may even remember a time when West Philadelphia's universities proposed building a wall to separate students from once-dangerous neighborhoods now adorned by preserved mansions, renovated condos, and Victorian twins. 

Architecturally, it's been great. And University City and its West Philadelphia neighbors have managed to evolve without accommodating the suburban ills that tend to play out in isolated college towns. The University of Pennsylvania, Drexel, even Temple don't just cater to their students, they embrace the city of Philadelphia by indulging our rigid adherence to urbanism and sustained walkability. 

Universities are no stranger to change. They exert enormous political influence and have the cash to build what they want, where they want. Historic preservationists have abandoned all but the most historically significant of colleges. And even in those instances - William and Mary, Harvard, Penn - those charged with protecting urban heritage largely assign the task to the universities themselves. 

We've see buildings fall in University City - the good, the bad, and the meh. But there's more to a building's legacy than bricks and mortar, be it Colonial or academia's wild fascination with Brutalism. These places also hold a significance for a vast portion of the public who experienced the most poignant piece of personal history within these buildings. 

Just today, an old college friend of mine posted a link on my Facebook page. The link? An offer to buy a piece of my college dorm, recently demolished to make way for a new Student Union. Now, I know this is a blog about Philadelphia, but it's also about architecture and history. Plus, it's my blog, so I'm going to stray from my adoptive city for a moment or two.

Everyone has their college stories, or stories from a pivotal point in their life when they start their next act. I might think mine are unique, but no matter how hard I try, I know they're not. But sometimes good stories are those most relatable. And that's exactly what I experienced living on the third floor of South Cunningham for the bulk of my college career.

The building was dated. The architecture has been replicated across Longwood College's (now University's) campus. There was nothing significant about the Cunninghams other than our own personal experiences, and that's why it was so sad to see it go.

This is the building where I (sorry, Mom) lost my virginity. This is where I spent countless nights crying with friends in the laundry room, coming to terms with my sexual orientation. It's where I spent even more nights crying in that same laundry room with friends - still some of my best to this day - struggling with the same.

It's where we somehow managed to cram forty students and a DJ booth into a dorm room for an epic Christmas party, one graced with performances by my then-drag persona, Empress Savannah of the Fourteenth Shue. 

It's where we would strut down to the hall perfecting our "Model Walk" to the Sugar Cubes. It's where we watched the O.J. verdict. It's where we sang Seasons of Love at the top of our lungs. It's where we watched Kimberly Shaw blow up Melrose Place. It's where we realized that Murder She Wrote's Cabot Cove had a murder rate higher than Honduras.

It was more than a dorm or a was a friend. 

Anyone who's been to college knows what it's like to sit outside their dorm until 3am deconstructing the nature of existence, solve all of the world's problems, and declare that we'll own this world by the time we're thirty. This is where we did that.

But most of all, this was the place where we laughed, cried, smoked, drank, and looked to the new millennium, clad in flannel, with relentless optimism. It's where we fostered friendships that have endured marriage and pregnancy, distance and divorce, and substance abuse and recovery. 

The Cunninghams created the people we are today. And while I think it's fantastic that the campus of my alma mater finally resembles, well, a campus, I am sad to see the Cunninghams go. But their legacy will live on through the people its inhabitants have become, the stories we tell, the stories I continue to tell throughout my thirties and will continue to tell well into my forties and beyond. 

Farewell, old friend. 

With that said, enjoy a little 90s awesomeness...

Friday, January 16, 2015

Delaware Station Hotel

Developer, Bart Blatstein, ever the optimistic visionary behind Northern Liberties' Piazza and a grand proposal for Broad and Washington, isn't afraid of diving in headfirst. If you thought his proposed casino in the old Inquirer Building was outlandish, the next stop on Blatstein's Philadelphia Dreamin' tour won't disappoint you.

Along with Joseph Volpe, Blatstein has agreed to purchase the Delaware Station power plant from Exelon. The plant is just north of Penn Treaty Park in Fishtown.

Volpe's Ceachaphe Event Group organizes lavish wedding receptions throughout Philadelphia, and the pair plan to capitalize on the power station's unique architecture, cavernous interior, and prime location. Housing two hotels, each with its own massive ballroom, the venue might even come with its own marina. 

It's a winning plan for both the historic building and the neighborhood, but its location on the Delaware River might be its most positive attribute. For decades, Philadelphia has struggled to embrace our rivers. Park improvements along the Schuylkill have transformed residents' relationship with our waters, and the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation is struggling to follow suit.

But unlike cities such as Chicago or Seattle, heavily developed along their shores with both parks and skyscrapers, Philadelphia's developers have largely shied away from marketing waterfront properties.

With the exception of Manayunk, the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers are parks, ports, or parking lots. Where the built environment does meet the shores, it's vastly suburban or abandoned. Perhaps the financial failure of Waterfront Square and the massive outpouring of resistance against SugarHouse Casino have discouraged developers from getting their feet wet.

Redeveloping, and rethinking the Delaware Station might signal the beginning of a new trend, one our rivers should be eager to receive. As the DRWC continues to improve the river's public space north and south, turning on the lights above Penn Treaty Park helps break the mental barrier between Center City and points north. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Not Your Father's Philadelphia

Five days ago, the New York Times declared Philadelphia the #3 place to go in 2015, just behind Cuba and Milan. It wasn't an isolated fluke. Conde Nast recently published a reader survey that elected Philadelphia the world's second shopping destination, only outranked by Barcelona. Late last year Forbes called Philadelphia one of three great cities for solo travel along with Boston and Milan.

The weight of this praise may be hard for some locals to comprehend. We live this city every day. Like a New Year's resolutionist staring at a scale, we don't always recognize the heaping improvements this city has made in relatively recent years. But the New York Times, Forbes, and Conde Nast have pointed out the apparent fact that, yes, Philadelphia's world class vitality has been resuscitated and we're charging headfirst at becoming the nation's premier city.

"The City of Brother Love is having a moment." - Forbes

Looking at Reading Terminal Market and Old City boutiques, even chains as unique as Uniqlo and Century 21 or as benign as Nordstrom Rack, Conde Nast explains why hardcore fashionistas are heading to Philadelphia's tax-free cash registers. And the Times and Forbes are telling them why they need to stick around.

Dated storefronts are being replaced with exciting window displays and an endless supply of local restaurants, pubs, and entertainment venues. Faster than you can say "beer garden," you could have your hand wrapped around a local lager on nearly any block in Center City.

But it doesn't end with a few listicles. If Philadelphia can earn high marks for shopping and travel, just imagine where we'll land when the most cynical amongst us are finally willing to admit we deserve it. Let's face it, we're a pessimistic bunch. Despite our fierce loyalty, we tend to take praise like a Greek yia yia at Easter. We hide our pride behind burden.

That doesn't matter. In fact, it's charming that our city has a collective personality. But the influx of travel, growing population, and new destinations are bringing more. Park improvements along both rivers are signaling neighborhoods to bring their A-game. Once a pipe dream, the proposed Reading Viaduct Park is no longer inching towards reality, it's actually happening.

And we're not just following in the successful footsteps of other cities. From BYOs to our universities and hospitals, Philadelphia is trailblazing emerging industries and ideas. 

CHoP will soon be rising above the South Street Bridge and University City's skyline is about to be home to the city's sixth tallest skyscraper. The Schuylkill Banks is on its way to Bartram's Garden on the west bank of the river. We're using smart urbanism to build tall and embrace pedestrians, connecting commuters and challenging what we consider "downtown." 

The Girard Trust Block is currently one of the largest redevelopment projects since Liberty Place gave our city a skyline, and it's begging the Gallery at Market East to get in line. And the Gallery has responded. 

We're pumped up like Danny Bonaduce, growing fast with a subtle hint of roid-rage.

Things are snowballing, not because national publications have decided to recognize us, but because we gave them something to look at. No longer the Oldsmobile of America, this is not your father's Philadelphia. So move over Chicago and San Francisco, there's another big player in town. And with thousands of acres of affordable, sustainable, urban real estate north, south, and west, we can house out-priced refugees from New York and D.C. for decades.