Friday, January 19, 2018

Amazon's HQ2 Pageant

When Amazon released the "short list" for its second headquarters, I was expecting a list that was, well, short. Instead, Amazon released something that looks more like a BuzzFeed listicle of America's twenty most popular cities. And that's probably exactly what it was.

Whether Amazon knew it going into this campaign, it's clearly become a lucrative contest, one that has every major newspaper in North America singing praise of the trillion dollar beast. Of course it's not a decision to be made lightly, but considering Amazon's reputable speed of service, it's one that certainly could have been made by now, and maybe already has. Yet by drawing it out for another year, memberships will continue to surge out of cities that hope to be chosen, the press will continue to freely advertise Amazon with puff pieces careful not to damage their cities' odds, and maybe Bezos can squeeze a few more incentives out of the few cities unaware that they're already top contenders. 

Whatever is going on in downtown Seattle's hive mind, I think that Philadelphia is a top choice for Amazon's HQ2. I say that with no bias, because personally I don't want them here. Philadelphia's place in the race is evident to anyone who lives here, but not so much beyond the northeast corridor. Our public transportation is as expansive as any city between D.C., New York, and Chicago, in many cases more so. 30th Street Station's access to other cities is second only to Manhattan. Our universities are keeping more and more graduates in town, which will only grow with Amazon's career opportunities and internships. And above all, our housing stock is considerably cheap.

Sure, statisticians loves to run means and averages that show property values are on the rise, and that's great, But with Detroit out of the race, few cities of our size, if any, can offer a habitable home for $50,000 or a decent one for $150,000. Normally slums aren't an upside, and that was the fallible conclusion for much of the 20th Century. But when adventurous Gen Xers began working their way back into our cities, paving the way for Millennials to return in hoards, slums have merely become opportunity. To developers, neighborhoods like Kensington and Harrowgate are only as bad as the people who live there. To 50,000 new Amazon employees who know nothing of the city's baggage, or simply don't care, these places are real estate goldmines along the trendy Market-Frankford line. 

Many have speculated that the D.C. suburbs, namely Northern Virginia, will likely emerge as the ultimate winner of Miss Amazon's crown. The Dulles Corridor has been tech heavy since the early days of AOL and MCI, and Metro's new Silver Line connects it to downtown D.C. through the semi-urban enclaves of Arlington and Tysons Corner's growing skyline. While that might sell a location to a tech company like Oracle, Amazon isn't one of many. When AOL moved into an old Boeing office at the end of the Dulles toll road, it was surrounded by farmland. At the time, it ruled the tech sector like Google and Amazon do today, and it defined the region the way Microsoft defined Redmond, WA.

Amazon undoubtedly wants a location with talent, but short of technology vacuums like West Virginia or Northern Alaska, today's tech talent isn't hard to find. What Northern Virginia provides are established applicants with lengthy resumes, and if I know one thing as a fifteen year veteran of the industry, it's that tech companies are willing to pay threefold for inexperienced college graduates that can be groomed into a company's unique corporate culture. 

Considering we're talking about an industry that boomed a short twenty years ago, what's an established technology region even mean to a company like Amazon anyway? They could plop HQ2 down in the worst part of Camden, NJ or the middle of the Ozarks, and they're going to define that place exactly how they want.

In that regard, Philadelphia has what all cities easy access to an ocean that's warm enough to swim in. Compared to other areas on the list - costly Northern Virginia, New York, and Boston, isolated southern cities, and Denver's redundancy - Philadelphia has more pros than cons. Our only real cons are our unions and historic reputation for fucking things up. If Amazon is willing to weather our notoriously frustrating unions throughout construction, the only thing it has to look past is what few ever do: recognizing that "Philadelphia isn't as bad as Philadelphians say it is." Considering Amazon decided to set up shop in an iffy part of downtown Seattle instead of taking the traditional route out to Redmond, I think they're savvy, and unique, enough to see Philadelphia for what it actually has to offer.

All that said, I'd rather Amazon go anywhere but Philadelphia. Sure, it would be exciting to see what they build and how the city evolves. But the incentives Amazon receives will set a precedent for kickbacks that is already painfully apparent to corporations dancing around Philadelphia. I wonder how many developers have shelved plans for Philadelphia, waiting to see how Amazon's decision plays out, waiting to see how many more handouts they'll be able to demand in its wake. 

This city has been a whore in Colonial drag for the last forty years, and by handing out a few million here and there to developers who do nothing but demolish landmarks under the pretense that they might someday build something better than a parking lot, the pimps in City Hall aren't even trying to be discreet. What's the next developer or corporation going to want knowing Amazon got, say, $1B or more? 50,000 new jobs sounds great, and maybe the investment seems sound, but not if we're paying for those jobs and one company's tax breaks for the next ten or twenty years. Hell, by the time the first ordinary Philadelphian reaps the benefits of Amazon's theoretical HQ2, the Technological Revolution may have collapsed and it could be 1929 all over again.

But that's where things get really icky, not just in Philadelphia, but in all cities competing for a prize that could be as laboriously fruitless as winning the Olympics. Philadelphia hasn't even disclosed its offer to Amazon, and though it will likely come out at some point, it's being kept under wraps for one or two reasons: It's unrealistically expensive, and in the likely event that we aren't chosen, residents will begin questioning why even a fraction of such a bloated amount can't be put towards our existing infrastructure. How greedy we are to expect our elected officials take care of their own citizens' needs with found money apparently available to a trillion dollar conglomerate three thousand miles away? Speaking even more broadly, Amazon's corporate pageant has driven a rift in a once united country, pitting American cities against one another as if we are embroiled in an economic war. 

Historically, we're bribing a 19th Century robber baron to build a train station or a port, something that will never be appreciated by the masses until it's an architectural relic seventy years later, and a civics lesson in economic ethics. But that's exactly what this contest signals, and why it should be more disconcerting than it is. Whether Amazon winds up here or Northern Virginia, history is repeating itself. And between Amazon, Google, Tesla, Comcast, etc., etc., etc., we are all doomed to repeat it. But we're so caught up in the pageantry of it all, we can't see what awaits us.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Graffiti Pier Can't Last, and That's Exactly Why We Love It

Allie Volpe at Curbed wrote a wonderful piece about Graffiti Pier and the allure that may soon escape us. Of course, the fact that Graffiti Pier is being written about in the mainstream media is perhaps proof that its allure will not endure. The fate of the space, properly named Pier 18, has been mentioned in more than passing by the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation. It's included in the master plan for the riverfront and the Director of Communications, Emma Fried-Cassorla, has mentioned that the DRWC plans to incorporate the pier's popular namesake into that plan, in some way.

Creating a legal space for ongoing graffiti wouldn't be unheard of. The Writerz Blok in San Diego was the first park of its kind and there are other similar spaces throughout the country. Considering Philadelphia's proliferation of street art, it makes sense. In North Philadelphia, at 5th and Cecil B. Moore stands an ever changing wall of some of the city's most astounding graffiti. Passing by one afternoon to shoot photos, I ran into the wall's owner who was lamenting over the "shit job" an artist had done overnight. In the background, in broad daylight, a man kneeled down surrounded by paint cans, toiling away on something fresh. "I hope it's better than this shit," the owner said, pointing to a hackneyed series of silver smiley faces on a shiny, solid black background.

He was busy so he didn't linger long. His attitude towards the graffiti seemed more resignation than pride. If artists are going to continue to tag his wall day after day, it might as well look cool. After all, it's just a concrete wall. The owner is clearly more interested in the its physical purpose than what it looks like.

5th and Cecil B. Moore falls somewhere between what Graffiti Pier is and what it could become: a safe, publicly maintained, organized art space. But the graffiti at Pier 18 is only part of its allure, and what attracts photographers, explorers, and outsider tourism is what attracts graffiti artists. It is a brutal, crumbling hulk of an industrial past few can even remember. We're drawn to Graffiti Pier for the same reason we're attracted to the Reading Viaduct, the CSS tracks under Pennsylvania Avenue, and traipse through the woods to find the charred remains of The Cliffs Mansion in Fairmount Park.

Sure, there's something exciting about exploring what's off limits, telling weary friends and Instagram followers we climbed something we shouldn't. But there's more than that. Like wilderness voyagers who find solace in the forest, urban explorers find something the same in nature's reclamation of our greatest feats of engineering.

After Eastern State Penitentiary closed, numerous ideas were floated for its redevelopment, from parking to total restoration. What preservationists settled on was something unique, to preserve much of it in its decayed state and safely allow tourists to explore on their own. But Eastern State Penitentiary is as much a product of its era of preservation as it is its storied history. When it opened its doors to hard hatted visitors in the 1990s, urban decay was as much a part of the urban experience as taxes and traffic. Places like the Reading Viaduct and Eastern State weren't white elephants to be endured, they were simply expected. 

It's from this era where much of our fascination stems. From the New Deal to the Oil Crisis, American cities are a mystery to anyone under 40. You can scour the internet and find countless photographs of Philadelphia in its heyday of the Industrial Revolution, but you'll find few of interest between the late '40s and early '80s. Philadelphia was filthy, blighted, and covered with the dust of constant construction and demolition. Places like Graffiti Pier are more than evolving art galleries, they're places where we can experience an era that many didn't bother to photograph.

Sanitizing all of that has been happening since the 1980s, but those more interested in the allure of our forgotten past flock to these places because they allow us to imagine a built environment few ever documented. Change is inevitable, and preservation of that ideal impossible. Several piers have been transformed into parks, the Reading Viaduct is undergoing the same fate, and if the economy continues to bring more residents to the city, Graffiti Pier will lose its allure, either as a museum to graffiti or in total demolition. You can't fight it anymore than you can bring back the past. Even in the midcentury, these spaces were fleeting, constantly under the threat of demolition and transformation. 

I wish Philadelphia still looked like it did when I moved here in 2004, that the Reading Viaduct still ran trains through Callowhill as it did in the 1970s, and that Graffiti Pier would never change. But what makes these places so alluring, more than anything, is their complete lack of permanence. The only way to make time stand still is to take plenty of pictures. I wish I'd taken more photos in the 1980s and '90s, even when I finally moved to Philadelphia. They'll be another Graffiti Pier, and the beasts we build today will someday crumble and crack, attracting another generation to the history we're creating right now. Nothing lasts forever, and that's exactly what makes Graffiti Pier, and cities, so special.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Boredom and the Two Towers

When Sandy Smith at dubbed Cecil Baker a "starchitect," I was taken a bit back. Not necessarily because it was printed, Philadelphia Magazine loves touting our own. Rather because Sandy Smith is so well versed in Philadelphia's history, particularly our architectural heritage, that it seemed odd to pair Baker next to our revered starchitects of yesteryear: Frank Furness, Willis G. Hale, William Decker, Wilson Eyre, Samuel get the idea. 

More so, Cecil Baker was the expert consulting on the article's primary point: "How Philly Can Avoid a Skyline of Bland Boxy High-Rises." Yet Cecil Baker's most recent, notable contributions to Center City's skyline aren't exactly avant garde works of art. Comparable cities like Chicago and Miami have erected Zaha Hadid's skysrcapers, Milwaukee has a Santiago Calatrava, and Seattle's main library was designed by Rem Koolhaas. Sure, we've got Lord Norman Foster's CITC rising, a couple Cesar Pellis, and Frank Gehry futzing around the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But when it comes to in-house architects and local firms, Cecil Baker's reputation as a near-starchitect has more to do with his proliferation than it does any sort of signature style.

To his credit, Baker does give our daring architects their own due, noting Interface Studio, Erdy-McHenry, DIGSAU, Tim McDonald, MGA Partners, and Qb3, any of which might be better equipped to comment on the threat of potentially boring, mid-rise infill. Cecil Baker's latest standouts are fine buildings, and it might be unfair to call them "bland" or "boxy." One Riverside, despite the unfinished appearance of its roofline (I don't know why he didn't finish the top floor with glass), complements its surroundings much better than neighborhood groups had warned. Likewise, 500 Walnut, nearing completion, doesn't distract from its historic surroundings. In fact, the east wall angles away from Walnut Street deliberately to keep its presence in photos of Independence Hall to a minimum. 

Both towers try to blend seamlessly into their backgrounds and surroundings. But that is exactly what keeps Cecil Baker from being a starchitect. 500 Walnut's neighboring buildings are far from unobtrusive. Next-door, a Brutalist tower flanks an Egyptian Revival facade. At the west end of the block, a classical office building flexes its marble muscle. None of these buildings, nor Independence Hall itself, are exercises in understatement. They're products of their eras designed to send a specific message, each a piece of the architectural anthropology of our city and nation. 

What does Cecil Baker have to say?

Such diluted lack of panache is more excusable at One Riverside, along the Schuylkill Banks where neighbors demanded the built environment not encroach into recreational park space. But across from Independence Hall, long the site of commerce and construction, 500 Walnut's lack of prowess is distracting where it's designed to disappear into the sky. 500 Walnut makes its block look incomplete, unfinished, like the roofline of One Riverside. 

This deliberate lack of presence is far from exclusive to Cecil Baker. In fact, it's become incredibly common. BLT's East Market is designed to pay homage to the famed PSFS Building across the street. While BLT breaks up the monotony of East Market's super-block by varying the designs of both towers and the renovated Family Court building, the southwest tower is set back atop a curved podium that reflects the PSFS Building itself. This respects and retains the views of the PSFS Building, and the curved wall's homage is commendable, but when concessions trend into how a design will be indefinitely perceived, we lose the sense of confidence that once dominated the field of architecture.

A stone's throw from Baker's 500 Walnut are I. M. Pei's Society Hill Towers. Now a star amongst meager planets, Pei boldly redefined Society Hill by starkly breaking from the neighborhood's recreated Colonial norm. To this day, Society Hill Towers are both adored and abhorred, but they generate conversation, even from passersby who don't care to know anything about architecture. That's why I. M. Pei is featured prominently in architectural textbooks. It's hard to imagine anything designed by Cecil Baker finding its way into the classroom, but it's not hard to imagine how unsatisfying Society Hill Towers would be had an architect like Baker been commissioned for I. M. Pei's project. 

When Philadelphia Magazine set out to uncover how to avoid becoming a city of "Bland, Boxy High-Rises," Smith went to a firm building just that. That's not to say Baker has designed anything bad. He didn't design Symphony House. But at least at Symphony House, BLT made a statement with a classical design, unfortunately undermined with cheap materials and construction. At Symphony House, Carl Dranoff wasn't just building a tower to sell units, he and BLT were attempting to build a legacy. And that's the exact problem with market rate architects like Cecil Baker, at least where design is concerned. Like most projects today, their buildings are designed solely with profit in mind, and that means skirting the negative press of rogue artistry. They design buildings cram packed with amenities without risking too much visibility. 

The most sellable design lands firmly in the status quo. If we want to avoid a skyline of "Bland, Boxy High-Rises," our most prolific architects need to dare to define something new, not just build what moves the most units. More importantly, we need developers willing to hire firms that do just that - firms like Erdy-McHenry and Qb3 - and not just firms that seem safe. The "Bland, Boxy" skyline will become the urban answer to cul de sacs full of McMansions if developers, and their consumers, aren't willing to embrace the truly avant garde, even the wacky. 

Artistic innovation happens and new styles are being developed - in Manhattan, Dubai, Beijing, and London - but as Philadelphia becomes more of a bedroom community for out-priced New Yorkers and Washingtonians, our residents are looking at our skyline with less of a sense of pride and more pragmatism. That's boring. We gave architecture history Louis Kahn and Edmund Bacon. Are we winding down to a point of complacency, or are we waiting for the next homegrown starchitect to force us to demand more.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Elon Musk vs SEPTA

From the highways to the stars, Elon Musk has become a titan in the transportation industry. However, his interaction with SEPTA consultant Jarrett Walker two weeks ago paints a different picture, one of a dismissively arrogant elitist who can't be bothered to craft an informed response to expected accusations. 

"You're an idiot" is the way a tween shuts down a conversation on Tumblr. Deleting the comment is what that tween does after graduating to Twitter. Loose tweets sink fleets, and in 2017, two words and a conjunction can do a lot of damage. The juvenile retort was picked up by Inga Saffron at, but not before it went global on Slate, The Guardian, and Fortune.

A week later, he clarified his Tweet: "Idiots can be very dangerous when they seem smart, but aren't (having 'PhD' in their bio is a dead giveaway), as some policy makers may get fooled." By doubling down on his statement, Musk solidified his attack on Walker, called all PhD holders potential idiots, and insinuated that city agencies can't understand why they value consultants and employees with advanced degrees. Musk's education isn't shy on impressive bachelor's degrees, but the fact that he dropped out of a PhD program at Stanford after only two days might explain his bias, and dare I say insecurity, around those more educated. 

While Elon Musk's ventures range from boring tunnels beneath the earth to hovering miles above it, his bread and butter is the Tesla. But Tesla's Model 3, designed to make his pricy electric platform affordable to a larger audience, has been plagued with problems, from poor quality resulting in large gaps between body panels to delayed delivery. As customers wait for Teslas that may or may not be worth what they'll pay for them, Musk is prepping to put a cherry red roadster into orbit around Mars

Elon Musk is beginning to sound like a dreamer who fell ass backwards into enough money to bankroll a product General Motors shelved twenty years ago, and borrow enough money against that to inflate his ever growing ego. He's the Liz Carmichael of the digital age, only instead of getting an immobile car featured on The Price is Right's Showcase Showdown, he's launching one into space. Instead of defiantly fighting an automotive industry bent on destroying any innovation not owned by the Big Three, he's working within a market that's largely given up. 

He's second wave technology, the tail end of the 21st Century's Industrial Revolution, a market not funded by great products and satisfied consumers, but by venture capitalists and promises of an exponentially altered future that may or may not come. Accusing a SEPTA consultant of fooling policy makers simply because Walker has a PhD is absurd, and infuriatingly hypocritical. The Boring Company, Musk's corporate arm aimed at building a pneumatic tube ferrying passengers between Washington, D.C. and New York City, has been granted conditional approval to dig beneath the Baltimore-Washington Parkway based on nothing more than Musk's own provenance. 

Jarrett Walker may be bogged down with the harsh realities of existing transportation systems, but his reputation precedes him. He understands cities, subways, and public transportation that can't simply be scrapped to start over. Musk's aim is two dimensional. He's playing SimCity while holding down on the fast forward button, and his impatience fails to recognize that cities continually need to function as they evolve. 

Walker's original tweet holds very real merit. Musk's dream of a megalopolis wherein pods deliver us directly from points A to B is only sustainable for the extremely wealthy. To entirely neglect or ignore public transportation in lieu of a Hyperloop and autonomous vehicles forgets about all the service employees who will never be able to, nor should want to, pay for his innovations, and it clogs our streets with more cars.

Those who embrace electric vehicles, car sharing apps, and automotive autonomy are decidedly progressive, and that doesn't jive too well with Musk's personal disdain for subways and buses. When we call for more bike lanes, that isn't meant to include more auto sharing and electric cars. We want the streets safe and clear of unnecessary traffic, something that can't happen without commuters vastly more willing to share trains and abandoning their unease over mass transportation. 

The dictionary defines "idiot" as "a stupid person." Jarrett Walker is a public transportation expert exercising that expertise to make cities work better, dynamically. Whether or not Musk is incapable of understanding that - what will make cities work - I can't say. But maligning a stranger for a degree he doesn't have, for criticizing someone's job done and done well, all while premier products sit on the assembly line as customers wait, that doesn't sound like a particularly smart person. While Jarrett Walker is vested in his job, in SEPTA, and the people of Philadelphia, Elon Musk is trolling Twitter like a teenager with way, way, way too much money for his own good.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Jeweler's Row: What's Next?

Despite the best hopes of preservationists, we all knew this was going to happen. Toll Brothers received a permit to build a 24 story apartment building on historic Jeweler's Row. Under the permit, six properties will be combined, five of which will be demolished. 

While Jeweler's Row is largely synonymous with the 700 block of Sansom Street, it is essentially a district of its own, albeit a small one. Many jewelry shops line 8th Street and a few spill over to Sansom's 800 block. 

The demolition is an architectural loss, and the proposed building's height and vaguely modern design are a jarring juxtaposition to the eclectic row we know now. But Toll Brothers is a publicly traded company, and a successful one at that. It doesn't build what the market doesn't demand, especially after the Housing Crash of 2007. Toll Brothers isn't the problem, it's a symptom of a changing mentality in city residents towards our history and heritage, change that the historic community hasn't figured out how to deal with.

Although Toll Brothers' high-rise will stand out, its impact on the district will be more cultural than architectural. 85 units will be available in the tower and it will find tenants willing to pay top dollar. Those are at least 85 Center City residents who don't quite look at Philadelphia the way many of us do, especially those of us who look at places like Jeweler's Row as points of nostalgia and adored relics of another era. To Toll Brothers' clients, Jeweler's Row is outdated. They want the address and the cache of living in the historic diamond district, but they only want the name, a name that will undoubtedly be appropriated by Toll Brothers and affixed to a building that has nothing to do the row's history.

If you stroll the blocks of Jeweler's Row, you'll notice something curious. Most of the jewelers host signs in favor of Toll Brothers and its construction. Property owners know the reality of high end apartments on their block. Real estate values and rents will go up, something property owners want on a street that is still relatively cheap for Center City. It's a harsh truism in a city on the rise, and one preservationists haven't yet grappled. Not everyone looks at Jeweler's Row and appreciates the time machine, and these are the people driving the city's transformation. These are the people who'd rather see the 700 block of Sansom house a Chipotle, Starbucks, and a few gastropubs instead of the independent jewelry shops they'll never enter. These are the people who have sanitized Northern Liberties and Kensington and tried renaming the Gayborhood and Callowhill purely out of spite for the past.

In some ways, Toll Brothers presence on Jeweler's Row is a poetically perfect metaphor for what's taking place throughout Philadelphia, and what's already happened in Washington, DC and New York City. The construction company's banal architecture and squarely status quo approach to development is exactly where new urbanites find comfort, those who'd rather drive to Whole Foods than set foot in Reading Terminal Market, those who laud Target's blitz on Center City never knowing how many corner stores have shuttered in the process. 

To borrow a youthful parlance: they're basic. We've listened to seasoned New Yorkers bemoan the onslaught of corporate development for the last two decades, and yet our City Hall continues to grant any new developer carte blanche. 

The ordeal on Jeweler's Row has been ongoing for a year now, and while t-shirts and Facebook pages and Instagram accounts do wonders for visibility, their chances of staving off Toll Brothers was nil. Property owners don't care for historic designations that dictate how they develop and sell their properties, which is why it's important for the historic community to get in front of redevelopment long before it's proposed. 

In the last year, though, what have preservationists done to curb the next loss? What about our equally unique Fabric Row? Surely there are crops of urban pioneers who view a district so dated with the same disregard they have for Jeweler's Row. We'll likely lose Robinson's Department Store's midcentury facade as the Fashion District begins to chip away at what's left of Market East. The Art Deco interior of the 9th Street Post Office remains unprotected. The Church of the Assumption continues to deteriorate in wait for a developer with a profitable plan, and it seems not a week goes by that another church isn't lost to shoddy new construction throughout South Philadelphia, Northern Liberties, and Kensington.

Ride the El towards Allegheny and you'll see parking lots along Front Street and Kensington Avenue that have metastasized overnight.  

In a city known for an architectural legacy, one miraculously in tact, the only buildings we're good at truly saving are warehouses too expensive to demolish that just so happen to make great, expensive lofts. What else the Historical Commission and the Preservation Alliance do manage to save is by pure happenstance, simply for the fact that no developer has come to the site with a wad of cash and a wrecking ball.  

We lost the fight at Jeweler's Row, but we're going to lose the war if those charged with protecting our historic heritage don't begin to understand why it's under attack. We need to do more than catalog threatened properties and assume that all Philadelphians regard landmarks with the same esteem we do, because they don't. We need to begin convincing new Philadelphians that we're more than a city to be remade in their own image, but one with worthy institutions and districts already in place. 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Pettifoggery on Jeweler's Row

In the battle for Jeweler's Row, the gloves were off between Toll Brothers and the city's Preservation Alliance. Philadelphia has a storied history of shouting matches in and out of the courtroom with a few fistfights between council members taking place within its own chambers. 

The debate over what our city is and should be is deeply rooted going all the way back to the Founding Fathers bickering over the same for our new nation. Our skyline has risen, fashion has gotten a bit more practical, and the streets probably smell a little better. But when it comes to being an opinionated bunch, we're still Philadelphians at our core, apparent when one Toll Brothers' lawyer, Carl Primavera, uttered the words "pettifoggery" and "poppycock."

I honestly wish I had more free time to attend these sorts of meetings because they sound like a hoot. Then again, I enjoy the image in my head, one of a man who sounds like a dish at Olive Garden in Colonial garb, pointing an ivory handled cane at the Preservation Alliance and shouting words that send most reasonable people to But perhaps Primavera was making a point by using antiqued words to describe the acts of an antiquated organization. In this instance, the Preservation Alliance's actions were textbook obstructionist nonsense. 

Like every Philadelphian interested in salvaging our city's history, I too would like Jeweler's Row to live on. There's just one problem: Jeweler's Row - despite the t-shirts - isn't historic, at least it wasn't last week.

When Toll Brothers proposed a high-rise at the corner of 7th and Sansom, there was nothing stopping them. While activists managed to appeal the project, in the end the law as it is intended to work, won. Two hearings couldn't prove that these unprotected properties were protected because those charged with protecting our history failed to do so. At this point, no campaigning, signatures, or screaming will retroactively deem these buildings historic. 

It's easy to paint Toll Brothers the cold Scrooge McDuck paving over the city to create some facsimile of what once was there because they're known for naming their McMansion communities for the historic farms that they raze. Whether they've done anything wrong or immoral is irrelevant, they've done nothing unethical or illegal. They're developers, and developers are in the business of making money. Yet somehow, preservationists in one of the nation's most historic cities, can't grasp that. 

To read quotes and comments from the hearings, it's as if the historical community thinks the collective will of every nerd in the tristate area can save every one of our historic landmarks. But that's not how it works. To win your battles you don't just have to know who you're up against, you have to know how they operate and why. Toll Brothers - and every developer - has a clear agenda and business plan. Where are the Alliance's?

If any property should have served as a lesson, it should have been the Boyd Theater. It was a designated landmark, and through a technicality, only the facade was salvaged. Legally, that was a preservation victory because we managed to save what was legally protected. But to those who love history, it was a loss because we lost what was historic about the Boyd, it's auditorium. 

We should have learned our lesson: We can win battles in favor of historic preservation, but we need to make sure all unprotected landmarks are protected, inside and out when necessary. Jeweler's Row is just another unfortunate lesson, and whether it will be heeded remains to be seen. Will we fight to protect what's left of Jeweler's Row? Will we fight for a district? And will preservationists get out in front of other potential losses before this begins to unfold all over again?

With all the energy, resources, and money spent on the corner of 7th and Sansom, is Robinson's Department Store protected? Is Spring Garden's Church of the Assumption still under the wrecking ball? Are there any other 'Jeweler's Rows' out there that might make trendy residences for New Philadelphians? Because I can assure you those buildings and neighborhoods are already on the developers' radars, and firms like Toll Brothers are just waiting for their market research to tell them the time is right. 

Groups like the Preservation Alliance need to be doing their own market research, their own due diligence. If preservationists continue to fight for properties immediately after they've become profitable, at the eleventh hour, preservationists will always be playing defense. And considering how unprofitable preservation is, it will always be an uphill and rarely won fight. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Get Away to Rainbow Mountain

If you're like most Philadelphians, you're eager for the dog days of summer to end. I've lived in Center City longer than any address, so I should be use to the heat, the humidity, and "that Philly smell." But I'm not. Like the farm I grew up on, "that Philly smell" is akin to a corporate chicken farm, and a smell you never grow accustomed to. It's just gross. But luckily for Philadelphians, we're a densely packed reeking city an hour or two away from beautiful beaches and untouched mountains. 

For Labor Day weekend I opted against the crowded shore towns and headed north to the Poconos. The Poconos - a word that can't be uttered without a rural Pennsylvania accent - is perhaps as unique as Philadelphia in that it is just as untapped. You might not find the gingham-clad socialites you'll meet in the Adirondacks or their signature chair, but you'll find the same wilderness, vistas, and lakes at a fraction of the price.

I chose Rainbow Mountain, an LGBT report equidistant from Philadelphia and New York, and a throwback to the retreats that inspired the movie Dirty Dancing. Gay, straight, trans, or anything in between, you need to experience Rainbow Mountain near Stroudsburg, PA because it is a unique something that might not exist for much longer. 

Today's mountain resorts are five star. They allow you to get away from it all while keeping up with your spa treatments and cross fit classes. Rainbow Mountain is not that. Rainbow Mountain, with its musty cottages and dorm rooms, is an untouched enclave that harkens back to an era when the middle class roughed it in basic cabins. 

Today, "roughing it" is one of two things: either in the woods under a tent Bear Grylls style, or in a "cabin" worth more than your house. Either way, it's an Instagram-op that has more to do with your bed than the nature around you.

Rainbow Mountain isn't about the accommodations, it's about the experience. It's a decent mattress and a good night's sleep that comes with a swimming pool and an old fashioned barn dance. To locals, Rainbow Mountain is the answer to a gay bar, and a pretty fabulous one at that.  To visitors, it truly is a comfy place to get away from it all. It's a short drive to the Delaware Water Gap, kayaking, bike trails, and frigid swimming holes. Stroudsburg is a charming town, surprisingly hip, with great shopping and restaurants. 

My only complaint is that it's a bit too close to New York, and New Yorkers. At about ten times the population of Philadelphia, New Yorkers are like locusts that ruin everything within a three hour path of their wake. Some trails are littered with Dunkin' Donuts cups and tagged with graffiti. Other nature trails house relics of the Industrial Revolution, unique in their own right, but not places of natural solace. In the resort itself, you'll be hard pressed to find a Pennsylvanian that isn't local to the county, but rather Manhattanites - or worse, Brooklynites - eager to namedrop their address. 

Still, Rainbow Mountain's cozy cottages, large swimming pool, its lake, and shows are well worth the two hour drive. You'll dance, drink, meet some incredibly friendly local drag queens, and have stories for years. Currently, Rainbow Mountain is for sale, so enjoy it while it lasts. Its location is a goldmine, and with a fresh coat of paint and a few trips to Home Goods, it could be transformed into something that could command twice the price. These '60s era retreats are becoming few and far between, and Rainbow Mountain is a time capsuled treasure. If you really want to get away - from it all - it's the place for you...for now.