Friday, July 31, 2015

Papal Countdown: Spin-Room Edition

With 55 days before the arrival of Pope Francis, this week's unanswered questions have stepped aside for a blame-game between City Hall and the Secret Service, namely over who said SEPTA should be shunted and businesses should close. 

Well, at the moment nothing has been officially "said," at least regarding what 1.5M Philadelphians should do on September 25th. However, on Thursday, the Secret Service wanted to make it clear that they did not order businesses to close or suggest running limited rail service. 

With growing frustrations amongst residents, those in City Hall have become visibly frustrated themselves. It's understandable but also unacceptable. As leaders of the nation's fifth largest city, they should not only be versed in their own security protocol, but also in working seamlessly with Federal and Foreign security administrations. 

If the Secret Service's comments are any indication of how City Hall should have been behaving over the past 11 months, it seems City Hall should have stepped aside and let the professionals iron out the details. 

No thanks! I'll be in Rehoboth for a two-dude wedding celebrating America's definition of Family.

But we live in #becausePhiladelphia. Everyone has an "expert" opinion on our city's unique quirks, and not one of those opinions is unanimous. Like a 15 year-old who's sure he knows how to drive, City Hall snuck his dad's Cadillac out of the garage and made a mess all over town. 

Instead of being faced with 1.5 frustrated Philadelphians not knowing what we should do in two months, City Hall is now being scolded for running over the neighbor's petunias and leaving two 40s in the backseat of the Caddy, and the Secret Service is faced with the fallout of rogue speculation run amuck because City Hall failed to sit there and behave. 

Perhaps the Secret Service didn't know what it was getting into with #becausePhiladelphia.

With a shit-show imminent, we can at least be sure we won't be paying for it. At least not most of it. Because of a lawsuit that arose from the city's last Papal Visit, it appears the archdiocese will be covering the cost. Whether that cost is the projected $45M, or more, it still won't cover the collateral fallout of the city's ineptitude. And we only have Mayor Nutter and City Council to thank for that. 

With no firm word on road closures and uncertainty around how to purchase transpasses, cars will be unknowingly towed, hourly employees will lose pay, and residents will find themselves stranded. Ironically, the Vatican won't be covering the city's humanitarian toll. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Best Fictional Skylines

I've said it before, when it comes to Hollywood, sometimes architecture can be a character as unique and present as its cast. Whether it's Beetlejuice, A Christmas Story, or Moving Violations, these movies would be nothing without their homes. 

But architecture plays an even more prominent role when location is key. Romantic comedies aside, most movies can't be set in an arbitrary locale. Police procedurals typically tell the same stories over and over again, but could Cold Case been filmed anywhere but Philadelphia? It couldn't, which was proven when filming moved to Vancouver and the show was promptly cancelled. 

From Twelve Monkeys to Philadelphia to Philadelphia Story, our own city has served as the backdrop for stories that couldn't have been told anywhere else, stories where Philadelphia was its own unique character. 

Beyond the skylines that define some of our favorite dramas and action flicks are the even more exciting fictional locales, and those behind the scenes blessed with the architectural obligation to design cities that suspend our disbelief, cities as utterly unbelievable as the characters that live in them.

I'm talking, of course, about our superheroes. Whether it's Bruce Wayne in any incarnation of his fictional Gotham or Rick Deckard in Blade Runner's wildly overestimated Los Angeles of 2019, these movies would fail without their cities. Their cities are every bit as dynamic and influential as their heroes, villains, and damsels in distress, if not more so.

So what are your favorite fictional cities, past, present, or future? These are mine, in no particular order.

Caprica City, Battlestar Galactica

When it comes to science fiction and superheroes, especially on the small screen, Vancouver, BC is the go-to city. It's no surprise. While the city may not be significantly tall, an abundance of sleek and sexy towers built in the last 20 years make it look incredibly futuristic. If by "futuristic," you mean, "right now." Pair that with clean streets and the majestic backdrop in the Pacific Northwest, Vancouver doesn't look like any city most Americans experience every day. 

While the Battlestar reboot played into the old standard of using Vancouver to be otherworldly, they took the time to CGI the city's skyscrapers with some unusual adages. 

CW's Arrow

Let me start by saying this: the CW's Arrow has become as horrible as anything the CW offers. What started off as a dark anti-hero action story that only vaguely touched on its inspiration - DC Comic's Green Arrow - once rivaled some of Christopher Nolan's best Batmans.

But after its initial season, its best and most veteran actors began to vanish (Susanna Thompson in particular), and, like the CW tends to do, we were left with a cast of 20-somethings running a city no 20-something should be running. Seriously, would a city with a murder rate that would make Honduras blush really have a Queen Consolidated or Palmer Industries? And even if they did, would they be run by sexy Millennials who leave hiring up to their dicks? 


But the CW's pantheon of superhero serials isn't meant to be believable, or even echo their source material. They're romantic dramas aimed at teenagers who love discourse and want to "save" Oliver Queen and Clark Kent from themselves.

What does make Arrow unique, at least in its first two seasons, is how it addressed the fictional Starling City skyline. Between scenes, we wouldn't see CGIed images of Vancouver  or even one city. Instead, we'd see Boston, or Berlin, or Philadelphia. Without resorting to technological trickery, Arrow gave us a Starling skyline that nearly every viewer could identify with. 

Fifth Element's 23rd Century Manhattan

I lied, there should be some order to the list, because the Fifth Element's 23rd Century Manhattan isn't just the most cleverly thought-out fictional city in cinematic history, it hosts one of history's most unique sci-fi masterpieces. At the time of its release, it was Europe's most expensive film ever made. To date, it remains Europe's most profitable science fiction film. And to piggy back on that, the Fifth Element isn't a movie, it is a film.

Say what you will about George Lucas's invention of the "Space Opera," Luc Besson's Fifth Element is art, and one of its most artistic elements is its Manhattan. 

Unlike Star Wars and other science fiction franchises, the Fifth Element isn't a product, it's a story. Part humanitarian journey, part poetry, and part slapstick French camp, the Fifth Element is perhaps the most unique and eccentric science fiction film ever released. 

Unlike it colleagues in the genre, the Fifth Element's futurism isn't a plot point, it's simply incidental. You won't find Ruby Rhod and Diva Plavalaguna action figures because it was directed for fans of classic cinema, not science fiction geeks. 

But even so, its 23rd Century stage was so well set - the product of a 38 year journey that Besson began at 16 - that pieces of futurama entirely unrelated to any plot point find themselves in every single scene. From Manhattan's JFK Airport docking a transstellar cruise ship to street vendors hovering midair in Chinese fishing boats to an unexplained fog that lingers at the foot of the city, Luc Besson gave us the best fictional city by not explaining anything about it.

I, Robot's Chicago

Alex Proyas's adaptation of Isaac Asimov's stories of the same name is set in 2035, but with the exception of its sentient robots, is relatively realistic. Truth be told, I, Robot is a movie that could have been set anywhere. In fact, it probably should have been set in the Silicon Valley. But Proyas's attention to Chicago's skyline sets it apart from the muck. 

Whether the corporation is U.S. Robotics and Mechanical Men (USR) or Comcast, it's easy to envision 2035's Chicago looking exactly like it does in the movie. And like the Fifth Element, Proyas throws in a few pieces of unrelated information to prove he wants us to watch his movie from the mindset of another time. 

"Please tell me this doesn't run on gas!"

Blade Runner's Los Angeles - 2019

While Blade Runner's Los Angeles should have been set another century in the future, we have to keep in mind it was released in 1982, more than 30 years ago. But Ridley Scott's Los Angeles of 2019 was more than just arbitrary futurism. Like Besson's Manhattan, Scott's Los Angeles was a deeply considered city. 

We aren't entirely shown why this incarnation of Los Angeles exists, rather we're expected to view it from the mindset of someone 30 years removed from the movie's release. 

But even in its dystopic state, Scott's future Los Angeles still retains a very Los Angelean quality. A personality that even today, we can still envision as the fate of Los Angeles. A gritty, dirty, beat down city full of hovering traffic, digital signage, and Asian influence, surrounded by deserts home to the elite. 


So what are your favorite fictional skylines?

Philadelphia's City on the River

If you've walked around Philadelphia's Central Business District lately, you've likely noticed something: Cranes and Construction.

Comcast's Innovation and Technology Center is already a skyscraper of concrete, and around the corner, 1919 Market is starting to take shape. 

Excavation is well underway for Chestnut Street's W Hotel, a luxurious companion to the Ritz Residences. Closer to Rittenhouse Square, the former site of the historic Boyd Theater will - like it or not - host its own tower. And just recently, Brandywine Realty Trust announced they'd be expanding 2100 Market - the Stock Exchange Building - for more offices and apartments. 

Once sparsely littered with the city's skyline defining skyscrapers, Philadelphia's Central Business District - our "downtown" if we had one - was the northeast's answer to downtown Los Angeles. It graced our postcards, but shut down promptly at 5pm on Friday.

New residents are changing that and they're bringing with them restaurants. Even more residents will spur shopping and entertainment venues that will make Philadelphia's "downtown" a true downtown, even if it took six decades to terraform the land. 

The wildest proposal is one that's been dreamt about since the demolition of Broad Street Station and its "Chinese Wall," one that would help bridge the gaps created by the station's remaining rail structures. 

Heading west along JFK Boulevard is a grand experience leading you towards our fabulous Art Deco 30th Street Station, or at least it should be. Unfortunately the experience abruptly ends when JFK turns into a highway at the corner of the Kennedy House. Developers and Philly-philes have long fantasized about capping the last remains of the Chinese Wall, rail lines that carry commuters between Suburban Station and 30th Street.

Philadelphia River City was one of the most ambitious proposals. However its 80s-era design was proposed in 2006, and all but the most hopeful were pretty certain it wouldn't go anywhere. In all likelihood it's good it didn't. We didn't need the space (and still don't, yet), and it's unusually isolated and dated design would have only served to further segregate the Central Business District by providing Philadelphia with it's own Detroit Renaissance Center.

Since 2006, no one has dared to propose bridging Logan and JFK with skyscrapers by straddling the SEPTA lines, but plans for something never died. About a year ago, PMC Property Group proposed a high-rise apartment building hugging JFK at the river, and two mid-rises on the other side of the tracks. 

While the proposal doesn't hide the rail lines, it does dilute the barrier and promise foot traffic on JFK. It also visually eliminates the disconnect between Logan and JFK by making the tracks incidental, and not the focus, at least at the river.

It's a good thing, and it might just happen. Earlier this month, PMC Property Group completed the purchase of four blocks between 20th Street and the river, four blocks that - if developed - would fill in part of the gaps between "downtown" and the river, and thusly 30th Street Station. 

With PMC's River Walk and other projects inching their way towards the Schuylkill from Center City, as well as University City's own booming skyline, Philadelphia is well on its way to being an architecturally dynamic city on the banks of the nation's #1 urban trail.

The Divine Lorraine Collection

Just as Converse released its first ever redesign of the iconic Chuck Taylor All Star in 85 years, artist Najeeb Sheikh took it a step further, locally speaking. The Gayborhood's posh new lifestyle store, Lapstone & Hammer (I really want to call it a clothing store, but look at it. It's clothing is more than just clothing) is offering Sheikh's redesigned Chuck's subtly embroidered with the Divine Lorraine's iconic signage. 

If Chuck's aren't your thing, you can also get t-shirts or caps, even key rings, towels, and sheets modeled after the hotel's originals.

The Divine Lorraine Collection is understated and simple, and rightfully so. If you know anything about the Divine Lorraine, you know that it needs no embellishment. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Amazon's Poaching Comcast's Talent

Philadelphians have a love-hate relationship with Comcast. Like most cable customers, we depend on our service as we do any utility. Whether it's our cell phone service, cable internet, or our electricity, when it does down, we bitch. It's the end of the world. 

But we're also obligated to love our homegrown Comcast because our economy relies on it. Frustrating as it may be at times, we want them to win. 

A lot has been said about Comcast's intentions for its new Comcast Innovation and Technology Center, its vertical information and technology campus allegedly intended to give a few behemoths in the Silicon Valley a run for their money. 

But despite speculation in the Wired-centric blogosphere, Comcast itself has been relatively quiet about its intentions. How does a telecom giant intend to enter the IT market? 

For now, no one seems to know. But it wouldn't be unheard-of for a massive company to expand into new markets. Google is branching out into Comcast's territory with Google Fiber, and is even tiptoeing into the automotive industry with its conceptual driverless car. 

But software companies are a bit of an anomaly in the world of Wall Street. Companies like Google, Apple, even Microsoft and IBM, don't exclusively think in terms of immediate profit. Companies reared from a geek mentality invest heavily in conceptual research and development never intended to go anywhere.

They take risks, sometimes misguided. Google was banking on Glass being more than a joke. While it's a groundbreaking piece of technology, they underestimated the vanity of a world beyond the Silicon Valley, one in which wearable technology simply can't be fashionable.

Apple took similar risks with its Watch. Although more successful than Google Glass, and seemingly more thought out, it appears to be finding a niche market nowhere near as robust as its iPhones and iPads. 

What is unheard-of in Comcast's realm - and thus Philadelphia's - is that a profit-driven corporate entity unversed in conceptual technologies - even geek-speak- is trying to nudge its way into that world. 

As it stands, Comcast's relationship with NBC-Universal is only vaguely integrated. NBC-Universal is a Comcast brand in stock-only, yet almost entirely autonomous. Comcast is parading NBC-Universal around in much the same way that AOL touted its TimeWarner acquisition. But in both case, a Wall Street alfa is touting a household brand to prove its worth. 

While NBC-Universal can't divorce itself in the same way that TimeWarner split from AOL, if Comcast flounders in the face if new technology, NBC-Universal will prove itself the alfa of the pair. 

For now, Comcast has proven that it can compete with innovative streaming companies on a very high level. Xfinity Stream was recently released as either a rival or companion to numerous streaming content providers. 

Whether this says anything about Comcast's abilities as an innovator, it at least shows that it recognizes an immediate market for those who've opted out of cable. 

But technology can change in the blink of an eye. And whether its mobile content provision of something we haven't seen yet, something else will come along. If Comcast doesn't get out in front of that, or innovate that technology themselves, they're reduced to being what they are with Xfinity Stream: a follower.

Whatever Comcast has in store, whether it has a plan for the IT market or it's still researching its options, others have taken note. And they've taken note from a prominent place: Seattle. Synonymous with technology and the ability to offer absolutely everything with the click of a button, Amazon will be at the Loews Hotel in Philadelphia for a three day event specifically designed to poach Comcast's tech-talent. 

If you ever thought Comcast wasn't paying attention, they'll be there doing exactly the same thing. 

If you think it's a bad sign for Philadelphia's information technology market, don't. In fact, it's just the opposite. In the past year, Tesla has been poaching Apple's talent. Why? Because Tesla is innovative, and wants a piece of Apple's equally innovative talent pool.

The fact that Amazon is targeting Comcast's talent - likely because they're both streaming content - says a lot about Comcast's relevance in the streaming content marketplace. Amazon Prime has grown in popularity on par with Netflix and Hulu. In fact, it's the third best way to watch television without a cable provider. Amazon - a tech savvy West Coast company - wouldn't be targeting Comcast if Philadelphia wasn't a threat. 

What Comcast decides to do with this unofficial clout remains to be seen. But Amazon's career fair at the Loews Hotel will relay a message back to the West Coast that the job market is shifting, and that there are geeks Back East that mean business. 

How Much Does it Cost to Host the Pope?

It's a tricky question. It cost the U.S. $2B to host the country's last Olympics in Salt Lake City. National Conventions, like the upcoming Democratic National Convention to be held in Philadelphia this year, are expected to cost around $60M. 

Whether you're going international with the World Cup or regional with a corporate convention, the cost of hosting public events usually comes with a precedent, and the potential profit typically exceeds the cost.

But Papal visits don't come with the same expectations. In fact, the rarity of such events provides no expectations whatsoever. If you want to know how much it will cost Philadelphia to host Pope Francis in September, you're going to have to wait until he's long gone. 

As it stands, no one knows for sure what will happen. Mayor Nutter said that details will be provided next week, but hasn't he been saying that for months? The Secret Service is less optimistic, stating we may not have final details until September, three weeks prior to the event. 

Mayor Nutter, proving that he's likely done with public office of any kind, was blunt, stating, "I'm not planning to give every nut case in the universe...advance information." Remember when Mayor Nutter seemed like a friendly lame duck and didn't sound so much like a belligerent Mayor Street? 

He's obviously frustrated. But his frustrations are only exacerbating his failure to lead. With the Secret Service and the U.S. Military at the city's disposable, City Hall has been exclusively focused on the Papal visitors. As if Philadelphia is hosting the world's largest County Fair, complete with 142 square miles of clear land for hay-rides and tractor pulls, the city has completely ignored its 1.5M residents and a city that will need to operate in tandem with the event.

In order to function, Philadelphians need to know the very basic logistics of the event: What streets will be closed? Will there be checkpoints and where? And, if we need to get out of town, when will we need to leave? We needed to know this a year ago.

For many Philadelphians without the freedom to flee, there are thousands of service industry employees - waiters, bartenders, hotel staff - that will be expected to work overtime during the event. Many of these employees don't live in Center City, some in the suburbs. How will they get to work if roads are closed, SEPTA is shunted, and bridges are blocked? 

Will hotels be sacrificing valuable rooms for their employees living in Conshohocken and New Jersey, or will they be expected to crash in utility closets for the weekend? Hourly employees blocked by security will just have to eat a weekend's salary and hope their employers understand. It would be Christian of the Vatican to give them a Visa gift card. 

All of this on behalf of the State's decision to handsomely accommodate the Church. Where is the Vatican's input into all of this? If the Catholic Church is funding any of the Secret Service and Military details - resources reserved for matters of State - it hasn't been made apparent. 

As City Hall struggles with ensuring a safe visit for Pope Francis and his guests, they've essentially told 1.5M Philadelphians, and 6M Greater Philadelphians, "You're gonna have to deal with that when the time comes."

#popefence Bradley Wrenn 

One thing they've secured is an epic disaster, one that might easily rival Philadelphia's notoriously divisive Bicentennial Celebration. Poor planning forced thousands to cancel plans and avoid Philadelphia altogether in July of 1976. Like the Bicentennial Celebration's overestimation of 100 thousand visitors, our expectation of 2M pilgrims may be grossly misguided. 

Vistors have been planning for the Papal visit for over a year now. Hotel rooms booked twelve months ago were booked under the assumption that Philadelphia would be operating at some level of efficiency. But Philadelphia is a big city and an even larger region. Thousands of hotel reservations were made beyond Center City, in the suburbs, and New Jersey and Delaware. 

With complications looming and no final response from City Hall, will visitors that reserved rooms in the suburbs or at the airport be walking to Logan Square, or will they simply be canceling their reservations. 

The sad truth is, we don't need attitude from Mayor Nutter and City Hall, we need answers and guidance. 

Small shore towns in the Carolinas are accustomed to guests that book rooms and houses years in advance, did those presiding over the nation's fifth biggest city honestly fail to recognize the fact that City Hall needed to make plans before their visitors from Germany and Argentina? 

The biggest crime in all of this is City Hall's complete absent regard for its own citizens, the "deal with it" language from our own mayor, and a complete failure to offer a single inkling as to what the city's 1.5M residents are expected to do on Friday, September 25th. 

At this point, City Hall has already lost its credibility. "Next week" is a year too late. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

A Masterpiece Ahead of its Time

I bought my Volkswagen Corrado in 1999 at a shady used car lot in Portland, OR. At the time I didn't know what I was getting myself into. A recent college grad and a fan of Volkswagens, I was looking for something practical, something like a Golf or a Jetta. 

I didn't know much about the Corrado, but I knew it turned heads. At $6000, my Rado was cheaper than the reliable Golfs and Jettas I was finding. Sure, it was ragged out, but I was young, stupid, and had graduation money burning a hole in my pocket. 

Still, the Corrado eluded me. The son of a mechanic, I was no stranger to quirky cars. I'd dealt with glow plugs, a truck with "FARM USE" spray-painted on the tailgate, and Saab's unfortunately placed ignition. I'd even driven a stick on the column. 

But at the time, to me, the Corrado was just a successor to the Scirocco. A Golf that had been flattened and stretched. Like many others, even as a Volkswagen fanboy, I held the bias that Volkswagen didn't truly design performance sport cars from the ground up. 

I couldn't have been more wrong.

While purists may disagree (or maybe they will agree), the Corrado stands as Volkswagen's one and only true sports car. Yes, the GTI is fast, but it's always been a fast Golf or Rabbit. The Scirocco was a 2x2 available with performance engines, but it also came in varying degrees of bland. 

To date, the Corrado is Volkswagen's only car that was designed with the sole purpose of being fast. It makes sense, even in Volkswagen's storied history of modular practicality, because the Corrado isn't a Volkswagen at all. Built by Karmann, the Corrado was designed as a successor to the Porsche 944, and that is exactly what it is.


I'll never forget where I was when I noticed the spoiler. Heading downtown on Highway 26, I glanced to a friend in the backseat when I saw it. "I didn't know I had a spoiler." When I got out, the spoiler was gone. Throughout the day it would be there on the highways. At the stop lights, nothing. 

Finally I dug out the manual and there it was, as was the inconspicuous switch under the steering wheel. While just a blip on what this beast was truly capable of, I knew I had found a very unique car, and I knew that this was more than "just a Volkswagen." 

The Corrado's history is a torrid one. Because of Volkswagen's reputation for practicality, when the Corrado was offered, no one wanted to shell out the kind of cash it was asking. Not when they could get a BMW for the same price, even if it was a boring 3-series. People didn't get it.

In 1999, five years after the last Corrado rolled off the assembly line in Osnabruck, people still didn't get it.

Even with its badged grill, people would pull up to me at stoplights and ask, "What is that thing?" When I replied, "a Volkswagen Corrado," I'd get a "No way that's a Volkswagen!" Those who knew better knew what to say, "Damn, man, that's a Corrado! Make the spoiler go up!" 

Fast as ****.

I've driven everything from classic Benz's to Turbo Saabs, and I've never felt as cool as I did at any moment in my G60. And at the time, I feel I never fully appreciated it. Maybe it's because I was a 22 year old idiot, or maybe it's because it was frustratingly unreliable. But 16 years later, I'd give anything to drive it again.

Not long after I bought the Corrado, I moved back to Virginia. My cross-country drive is where I discovered just how powerful she was. Even in its ragged condition, its 100,000+ miles, I got it up to 145MPH driving across Wyoming. She may have fought me through a bumper-to-bumper Hillsboro commute, but cruising above 90 on the Great Plains is where she loved to play, smooth as a brand new Boeing.

I don't think I would drive across country in anything else. 

But the Volkswagen Corrado was more than just a piece of my own humble history, it was also a part of Volkswagen's. Prior to 1989, the car company's history was painfully practical. For decades, the company offered its "Types," essentially varied flavors of the same car with few exceptions. 

When Volkswagen finally broke from its mold, it tried to reinvent itself, but it quickly fell back into bad habits. It found itself offering the same varying incarnations of one model, this time the less successful Rabbit: a truck, a convertible, the Fox, the Vanagon. Sure, they looked different, but Volkswagen was playing the same game. Your car might have come with a bed and a stove, but it was still a Volkswagen.

The Corrado was something new. It bridged the gap between what Volkswagen had been since its inception and the dynamic company it would become. While my G60 deserves its place in history, it was Corrado's VR6 SLC that would really change Volkswagen's game and carry the company into the '90s and beyond. 

The subtle changes between the G60 and the VR6, its wider face, its rounded hood, would ultimately find a more profitable place in Volkswagen's new era, its Golfs and Jettas of the 1990s that led to some of the most popular cars on the road today. 

Still, even as Volkswagen has grown into one of the most successful car companies in the world, they still carry around a stigma of practicality and suffer from a lack of diversity. Maybe some of that comes from the way Americans look at European car companies. While we readily distinguish between a Chevrolet and a Cadillac, we can't look at an Eos, a Phaeton, even a Corrado, without seeing a Beetle or a Jetta. 

That's unfortunate, because when Volkswagen isn't offering reliable predictability, they've managed to make some exceptional automotive masterpieces. 

Sure, a stock G60 might not beat a GTI in a street race, but everyones' eyes are gonna be on the Corrado. 25 years later, it's still got street cred. 

Lately, I've been perusing the pages of CraigsList and eBay for another Corrado. For now you can find a reliable one for around $3000 to $5000, or a mint one for $10,000, that is if you can find one.

Don't count on that lasting very long. With luxury and performance cars from the '70s and '80s finding their place in car shows and the history books, the Corrado - its unique features and short-lived production - is easily a future classic. If you find one, snag it. If you have one, don't let it go. I know I wish I had never parted ways with my fast and furious Corrado.