Friday, December 30, 2011

Breaking Christmas

It's a common gripe around the holidays, "Christmas just flew by," or "it seems to start earlier every year." It's true, especially as you get older. When you're not riddled with insomnia the night before in anticipation of the Red Ryder you know is under the tree, the Christmas season isn't just time for tree trimming parties and eggnog, but also a burdensome source of anxiety, travel, and shopping malls packed with frenzied last minute shoppers.

But ever since Macy's first Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Christmas season has begun the day after, Black Friday. And although as a child that month seemed an eternity, as an adult those 30 days are a perfectly respectable amount of time to shop, throw parties, and put up some decorations. As one of our nation's largest holidays for both the religious and secular, however you decide to celebrate, one month is plenty of time. I

n recent years a number of retailers have attempted to push the envelope, starting sales and installing Santa displays in the weeks before Thanksgiving, but not until this year has there been such a unified attempt to start the official season a month early.

The city's lights seemed to go up the day after Halloween. No one even complained about religious verbiage on government buildings and public schools, not because people have become more sympathetic or patient, but because we were so blindsided by Christmas this year that the complaint department didn't know where and when to register.

One month in, people were stuffing themselves with turkey and ham wondering where the Christmas tree was, forgetting that it was still a month away. The season has become the cultural equivalent of carrying a baby to term or planning a wedding, ending in a deep depression the day after New Years that comes back to bite you in the ass on February 14th. Only we have to do it every year.

In the longest Christmas season the nation has ever seen, it went by faster than ever. Articles chastising merchants for opening stores at midnight outnumbered uplifting stories about Yule Time revelry and anonymous acts of kindness.

By December 25th, colorful lights and beautiful window displays were nothing more than white noise which retailers couldn't wait to replace with the day-after sales. We had the baby, the wedding is over, and we're left with nothing but the nagging notion that we only have ten more months until we have to do it all over again.

We broke Christmas, a holiday fast losing any real significance outside the farms of Lancaster County. If the seasonal sprawl repeats itself in the future, retailers may find thousands of consumers too exhausted to bother.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Paradise City

If you're familiar with Philadelphia, you know what an abandoned building can do to the morale of its neighbors. If you're familiar with West Philadelphia, you're familiar with the Croydon. If not, you may have mistaken it for an old West Philadelphia high school. This mistake is easy, as the blighted edifice looms over West Philadelphia High School's athletic field.

Once home to the children of the Industrial Revolution, the Croydon has established a reputation with an underground community that sponges off the working class, property owners, and everyone in between.


I'll get to them in a moment.

The Croydon's sketchy past is fit for a horror movie and has undoubtedly encouraged more than a few kids to play Candy Man, a horrific tale that came true in 2007 when its rooftop was the site of a grizzly murder.

Purchased by Orens Brothers in July, the apartment building at 49th and Locust stands to redefine the fringe of University City with $10M in renovations. One to three bedroom apartments will be offered in the rehabbed apartment building for $600 to $1300 a month.

As it stands, the neighborhood has done nothing but applaud the project, including full support from Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell.

Orens Brothers rendering of the rehabilitated Croydon Apartments

If unanimous support wasn't weird enough, don't forget where we are.
The property has a national reputation amongst a loosely knit community few know much about. Philadelphia's decidedly homeless, international transients, and a pantheon of undesirables have dubbed the Croydon "Paradise City." The origins of its namesake aren't certain, but one can assume it refers to the fact that its absentee owners allowed it to stand open and unsecured, allowing vagrants to occupy its floors unchecked, siphoning off its available resources.

This community of modern day hobos is surprisingly active. An Internet search for the Croydon Apartments finds many benign blogs and articles about the building's colorful history, followed by hostile comments from its illegal inhabitants defending their right to live off the grid, illegally trespassing and vandalizing private property.

Thi Chien went as far as documenting three days in the lives of two of its residents, Papi and Christina, glamorizing their life of panhandling, drug abuse, and crime.

It's hard to muster sympathy for these people. Choosing a life of homelessness and abusing the strapped resources set aside for those with no alternative is insulting to the thousands of situationally homeless residing in Philadelphia who struggle to contribute to society. To be born to family, privilege, or opportunity and cast it aside for a culture of ingrates who find solace in one another's laziness is the ultimate exercise in narcissism.

There is an incredible arrogance that comes with playing Box Car Willy while claiming to make a statement, particularly in those who expect the "close minded" property owners to supplement this lifestyle. 

The Croydon Apartments circa 1925, shortly after its opening
Ironically, these aren't the products of a bad economy, but of a bloated financial situation: so bored, guilt-ridden, and entitled that the only path to self actualization is completely checking out of the society that created them.

The hypocrisy is evident in, among other things, the fact that they are blogging from the top of the Croydon from smart phones. Then again, what else is there to do after shooting up, eating a can of dog food, and dodging concerned relatives?

The parasitic counter culture manages to hide in society's cracks between hipsters and big-city tunnel-vision, but if you've been to Philadelphia, you've seen them.

These times are trying for most, and as more and more continue to struggle with the realities of an economic crisis, playing homeless won't be the ironic game it was when we were at the climax of our 21st Century Gilded Age.

The Croydon's resurrection as a place for those seeking affordable homes and neighbors yearning for pride in their neighborhoods is a welcome glimmer of hope. It's time for Papi and Christina to move over for those who contribute to a greater Philadelphia.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Phil E. Moose

The Sixers have decided to retire Hip Hop the rabbit and they're leaving his replacement up to us...kind of.

The most creative minds at the Seventy Sixers have offered us Big Ben, B. Franklin Dogg (yes, with two g's), and Phil E. Moose as optional replacements.

Ben Franklin's connection to '76 is obvious - and overdone - although he never responded to the name of London's famed clocktower, nor had any relation. B. Franklin Dogg's connection is in the dog's namesake only. But Phil E. Moose, a moose? I don't get it. I feel like the marketing team at the Seventy Sixers might already made up their minds and decided to hand our basketball team over to Ben Franklin by offering us two terrible alternatives.

I mean really, a moose. I actually had to look it up: The moose's closest modern natural habitat is upstate New York. Way upstate.

Come on guys.

You decide.

Friday, December 2, 2011

"Do We Really Still Need Eastern State Penitentiary?"

The title is in quotes because I'm not asking, rather that's the question posed by Philadelphia Magazine writer, Annie Monjar in an article of the same title. I have a question of my own. Has Philadelphia Magazine officially lost it, or are they desperately baiting angry comments in a grab for ad sales?

I'm all for experimental solutions to unusual problems, but Eastern State poses neither a problem nor a need for resolve. In fact, Eastern State's popularity among tourists and curious locals has done its part transforming a once iffy neighborhood. It's amusing that Monjar cites the neighborhood's gentrification success without giving Eastern State it's credit. Instead she carries on about friends she "dragged" to the site who ask, "they need the whole thing?"

She suggests a questionable need for a fortressed park within spitting distance of the Parkway, Fairmount, and the Schuylkill River Trail. The fact that she accuses Eastern State's size as a waste of space yet neglects to mention the adjacent surface lot, nearly the same size, says a little bit about where she might be from. Philadelphia newcomers have a nagging habit of embracing what makes Philadelphia unique before they move in, followed by a disdain for the unique when it compromises their creature comforts.

To be fair, Monjar hasn't proposed bulldozing the historic structure, not completely, but rather delegating a portion of its walled grounds as public park space by razing the less restorable wings. Monjar obviously didn't visit Eastern State in the mid-1990s when its doors were first opened to those with a hard hat and a sense of adventure. If she had, she would know that the foundation's initial mission was to maintain the site's decay as part of its history rather than rewriting it through renovations and restorations. It's a very unique concept and one that we've embraced at Eastern State for two decades.

Unlike Alcatraz, visitors to Eastern State are confronted with the same bleak experience that Charles Dickens wrote about after his visit. Its self guided tours offer visitors a history lesson, but its open ended experience allows the more adventurous the opportunity to wander, enjoy its peaceful surroundings, and enjoy the art exhibits that fill its forgotten cells.

While the article seems harmless on the surface, the fact that such an opinion has been printed in a local publication suggests an increasing lack of understanding and respect for our city's history. Philadelphia is old. Would London raze part of it's Tower for public park space? Although not nearly as old, like European cities, much of our history lies in our ruins.

Those of us that know Philadelphia know what we've lost. We know what a blessing it is that this site has survived countless proposals that called for its demolition. To come to Philadelphia and propose demolishing even a portion of Eastern State for a park is on par with clearing part of the Acropolis for condos. That may sound absurd to someone like Monjar who I can only assume is new to Philadelphia, but like Athenians and Romans, we have an unwavering pride in our landmarks that can be just as loyal.

I can be staunchly pragmatic when it comes to business and development, but one thing I love about Philadelphia is, like many European cities, when it comes to our history, sometimes, sacrificing even a piece of grass to maximize perceived potential, isn't worth the financial benefits. Perhaps that's where Monjar is lost. When we walk though the gates of Eastern State, we see the history in every square foot of its grounds. When Monjar and her apparently unimpressed friends enter, they see a pile of bricks. They're looking for the tour guide and the gift shop. They want the history lesson printed in a coloring book rather than embracing the macabre experience.

I don't know Annie Monjar so I can't speak for her tenure in our city. I would like to assume that her proposal is a knee jerk reaction to something she doesn't get. She is obviously a talented writer, so I hope in time she comes to appreciate Philadelphia not just as someone who resides here, but as a Philadelphian. Perhaps, like many of us not native to Philadelphia, each continued visit to our landmarks' hallowed halls will bring her closer to understanding each brick's importance.

In the mean time, publishing such a brazenly anti-Philadelphian article in Philadelphia Magazine is disrespectful to its namesake.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Barely Human is Back

Thank you, Former Philadelphia Public School Superintendent, Arlene Ackerman, for reminding us all how many shady public figures there are in our region with absolutely zero regard for those they're hired to serve.


Arlene Ackerman eclipses Wall Street's abuse of the word. Getting rid of this money grubbing cow was a train wreck. She left her post with a $629M debt, and now she's making sure she maximizes the School District's strapped situation by sucking every cent possible out of it.

Let's break down the basics:

  • We The People paid Ackerman $905,000 to go away.
  • She had accumulated $86,700 in unused vacation time. 
  • Arlene Ackerman is now sitting on a check from the state for $991,700.
  • That's not including her annual salary of $346,00.

Now, are you ready for this? 


Arlene Ackerman: the official who extorted almost a million dollars from taxpayers despite leaving her post more than half a billion dollars in debt. 
Arlene Ackerman: the highest paid public official in the city of Philadelphia, despite hundreds of layoffs on her watch. 
Arlene Acekerman: uncaring, unemployed in every sick sense of the word, and completely, un-apologetically, and 100% un-human. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Hoarders of History

Before I moved to Philadelphia in late 2003, I didn't know a lot about the City of Brotherly Love. What I did know, intrigued me. As a young child and in high school, I remember family trips to Phoenixville, which often led to a day of sightseeing in the city.

Anyone in their 30s and 40s knows that family vacations weren't what they are now. Christmas in Paris wasn't in store for the upper-middle class who could find deals on Orbitz, it meant you were loaded. For most of us, traveling meant packing up the Family Truckster and checking out a nearby city, or looking for the Worlds Largest Ball of Twine.

I applaud my parents for instilling in me the love of the road trip. To this day, if the destination is within driving distance I stick to the open road, knowing very well that half the excitement is in the journey. And like the fact that a vacation doesn't have to solely rely on its destination, the destination itself doesn't have to solely rely on its attractions.

Trips to New York weren't reserved for a two hour line to the top of the Statue of Liberty, but aimless meanderings through the East Village. And although I'm sure I took more than a few tours of Independence Hall in my childhood, what I remember most about Philadelphia were the street performers, its charming (and sometimes less than charming) side streets, and its never ending supply of antique stores.

In a place as old as this, our shops are more than just boutiques, they're museums in themselves. Before deciding to move here, I remember visiting the outdoor flea markets and South Street's junk shops. A lot of urban newbies might scoff at shops packed with musty furnishings and boxes of unmarked photographs, but these places are time machines. Real history extends beyond Antique Row and the Liberty Bell, and you might have to dig to find it, but the treasures of the past are in the apothecary bottles and bizarre contraptions buried in the boxes and display cases that once lined the streets of Philadelphia.

The Renaissance of urban living, particularly from the upper-middle class, has been both good and bad. Since families fled our cities for the suburbs, they've consistently remained a place for urban pioneers and eccentrics. Perhaps its these eccentrics, and those with an eye for the masked grit that opened the market for our hoarders of history. But with slowed suburbanization and reversed flight, the families that helped clean our streets and make our homes safer, have also led to increased rent and an abundance of suburban creature comforts that have eliminated that market for the strange.

South Street's junk shops are gone. Antique Row found new life with high priced history for those who can afford a "Philadelphia style" with little regard for where their merchandise actually originated. We've fared better than other places. New York and Chicago have been stripped of their hidden historys' soul. Perhaps its our marginally successful Renaissance that has enabled us to retain a bit of grit.

Summer still hosts monthly flea markets, and if you only go occasionally you won't notice that it's always the same stuff. Old City, while it is arguably our most gentrified section of Center City, is still home to a few warehouses filled with architectural relics, both affordable and not. South Street still has one amazing shop fit for a Stephen King novel. Filled with lamps, clocks, and chandeliers, when you walk through the store, no matter which way you look, you always feel alone. A converted Synagogue just below South Street has found a market amongst the hipsters looking for vintage duds and furnishings.

The best surviving store of Philadelphia's lost era of junk might be Anastacia's Antiques on Bainbridge Street. Filled with antique marionettes, animal skulls and hides, and antique religious iconography, the place rivals the Mutter Museum in the macabre. Anastacia's Antiques will not just transport you to the historic eras of its merchandise, but also to a time when these places packed our cities. While it's hard to imagine how these types of shops stay in business, the digital age has allowed a handful to stick around through online auctions and internet sales.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Bring Back the Boot & Saddle

As opposition mounts against the Boot & Saddle on South Broad, support for the venue's reinvention may put a stop to the NIMBYism that threatens to maintain the blighted destination's vacancy.

Sign the petition here.

One has to wonder, is only objecting this project considering the fact that this is a step up from the strip club down the street? Several steps in fact. I hear those girls don't bring their A-game.

Have they considered the fact that this could drive the redevelopment of the Broad Street Diner? Maybe they oppose that too.

And what does the Boot & Saddle's proximity to a church have to do with anything? People go to church in the morning, bars at night. Besides, this was a bar fifteen years ago, in the same proximity of the same church. As if it should matter. This is, afterall, a city.

Walnut Street Supper Club

Break out your Dan Draper suit, Philadelphia is about to bring us a bit of forgotten nostalgia: The Supper Club. In a region plagued by a lack of refinement that confuses the Jersey Shore with sophistication, where the only ones in fine three piece suits are hipsters donning vintage duds as senseless irony, The Walnut Street Supper Club promises to return us to a period of grace and subdued class that doesn't wear its salary on its finely stitched sleeve.

James McManaman is scouting talent, and not for a stage on Broad Street but for servers, bus boys, and hostesses looking to sing their way to their big break in...Philadelphia.

When Portifino was closed because of damage caused by hurricane Irene Philadelphia lost an icon, but its elegant history will be reborn, restoring the locale to its 1940s grandeur.

The Walnut Street Supper Club anticipates a December opening.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

An American Versailles

Lynewood Hall, coined "The Last of the American Versailles" by it's owner, Peter A. B. Widener's grandson. Although the 110 room mansion in Elkins Park is Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia's endangered properties list, it is not yet on the National Register of Historic Places.

It's current owners, The First Korean Church of New York, has been battling with the Cheltenham Township Planning Commission to use the mansion and grounds as a church and residence for a caretakers and assistant pastor since 1998.

Although the community's refusal to accommodate the property's owners has contributed the the mansions decay, negotiations for new ownership are supposed to conclude before the end of 2011. Proposed renovations to the estate would allow it to serve as a private residence with guest rooms, serving as a bed and breakfast.

Renovations are expected to cost around $12M, and efforts are underway to track down many of the home's original fixtures and artifacts that have been auctioned off over the past fifty years.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Boot & Saddle Reopening?

The visionary behind Drinkers and Molly's Hat Shop, Avram Hornik has his sights set on a vacant icon of South Broad's hey day of entertainment, The Boot & Saddle Bar, where he once bartended, and not everyone is thrilled about it.

Where would we be without Philadelphia's champions of stagnation and decay, NIMBYs? Well, we might be Chicago. While Hornik's hot spots enhance Old City, South Broad Street Neighborhood Association's President Peter Zutter thinks it might attract an undesirable element, somehow not suited for Philadelphia's busiest thoroughfare. And of course, they've filed a petition to halt Hornik's application for a liquor license.

Citing a familiarity with Hornik's other locations, Zutter doesn't want that in his neighborhood. According to Metro, Zutter wants to see a nice restaurant grace the location of the iconic boot. It's my way or the highway when it comes to neighborhood dictators, and developers usually end up hitting the pavement. One question: Where has Zutter been for the last fifteen years? Congratulations on maintaining yet another rusting eyesore.

A Philadelphia Horror Story

Although construction is almost complete on La Ronda's 16,000+ square foot replacement, Halloween is a fitting season to discuss this monstrosity. Joseph D. Kestenbaum's spiteful demolition of one of Bryn Mawr's most beloved works of art aroused a regional hatred for our new neighbor.

The architecture community's relationship with McMansions can be a bit hypocritical considering they are, after all, designed by architects. The true dispassion for McMansions lies with historians, restorationists, and art lovers, which in a region as old as Philadelphia's, is a large slice of the population.

La Ronda estate before demolition
Bryn Mawr is no stranger to architectural loss. It's portfolio consists of Gilded Age masterpieces and modern infill that tries to recapture its past with cost cutting interpretations of its history. New or old, they often impress. Kestenbaum's new mansion fits the bill, and once the trees grow in it will blend.

But Philadelphian's don't quickly forget, and rich people with lots of art never do. What Kestenbaum did to a community is why his neighbors are throwing stones from their own McMansions. He didn't just buy a Picasso for the frame. He turned down an offer for the naked Picasso so he could strip it for the oil, then shredded the canvas on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

It's almost impossible to believe Kestenbaum wasn't driven by spite. It's likely no one will ever know his motivation for denying the offer to move the house, which would have saved him more money than he could have possibly made by scrapping the mansion. No one really knows Kestenbaum. His silence is understandable considering the region's reaction to his act, but the only stance he has made on the subject is one of befuddlement over that reaction.

He's left himself open to attacks, and in an absence of dialogue we have to assume he deserves them. Could it be true that he was so enraged at his neighbors for trying to dictate what he did with his own property that he razed La Ronda during a costly temper tantrum? The only details offered during the media circus that preceded the demolition came from Benjamin Wohl, a wealthy fan of La Ronda's architect, Addison Mizner, who attempted to have the house moved to an adjacent lot at his own cost.

Of the limited reasons Kestenbaum offered of his decision, one was that he had chosen the site for his new home because of the grounds. The obvious flaw in his argument is that the grounds wouldn't have moved with the house to the adjacent lot. The second flaw can be found on Google maps, which show a lot devoid of landscaping, save five or six trees left to perhaps block the glares from his angry neighbors.

Kestenbaum's Bryn Mawr mansion under construction in Bryn Mawr, haunted before it was built

Another argument made during the debacle in 2009 was that an historic 18th Century farmhouse had been razed to build La Ronda in the 1920s, an act that enraged the community at the time. That is an apt analysis, but if you want to debate the merits of the paleohistoric interpretation of La Ronda's existence, you need to replace it with something even more architecturally astounding. 

Let's face it. This man was bitter and wanted to piss people off.

Well he did a fine job, and he certainly created enough space to mise away in solitude, including an indoor hockey rink. He'll have to import friends if he wants to enjoy it.

While the only company he receives from his neighbors in this cushy Main Line enclave will be the passing glares of his neighbors, something tells me he won't be alone. Addison Mizner was an eccentric who died in poverty, and Kestenbaum has branded himself a Dickensian Scrooge. The stage is set for a real life Shamalan horror. The only question remains: How long will it be before the ghost of Mizner and his pet monkey are haunting this McMonster's new residents?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Dranoff's Broad Street

In spite of a bad economy, it's evident that Center City is still looking for tenants. And while Carl Dranoff's soap opera sets won't earn a place next to the PSFS tower, he's filling the voids on South Broad Street, a place with no right to the vacant lots it owns.

While critics painted his Symphony House a Nightmare on Broad Street and others had little praise for 777 South Broad, the man knows how to get things built. In a city that contracts those defiant of development, Carl Dranoff knows how to dance.

South Street is Philadelphia's "strip," so it's a mystery why this iconic intersection is home to a community garden. This will soon end. Dranoff outbid P&A's superior design for Broad and South and will soon be erecting 777-light.

Its faux art deco facade isn't bad, at least on paper. But given Symphony House's misleading brick renderings and 777's plastic and cardboard construction, any critique should be reserved for its opening.

New Loft for Callowhill Rivals Expectations

For the past decade one couldn't traverse the Vine Street Expressway without noticing the graffiti covered building at 12th and Wood. Kid Agua's tag had almost become synonymous with Philadelphia when a developer finally saw a silver lining in Callowhill's crowned jewel.

I'll be the first to admit that architecture is not without its popular trends, but at the same time, I am a product of my times. Sheathing buildings in a "modern" skin never lasts. It conjures images of South Broad brownstones clad in steeply pitched vinyl faux shingles.

And in all honestly, that's how we'll see the renovations at 12th and Wood in a decade or two.

Still, in a city as architecturally diverse as Philadelphia, the juxtaposition of Brutalism and Classicism often warrants "ugly" architecture a place in the textbooks. More to the point, a building so popularly styled, trendy or not, in a neighborhood all but forgotten is sure to attract not just residents, but businesses and developers.

Look Up: Chinatown

Our skyline might get a new addition, and not where most would expect. Pedestrians and commuters might be looking up in Chinatown, both vertically and northward. As Chinatown continues to expand despite the Vine Street Expressway, those managing stock footage might have to update the pictures of Philadelphia's Chinatown gate.

Chinatown CDC was granted approval by the RDA to develop a lot at 10th on the north side of Vine Street. A 23 story building with groundfloor retail has been proposed for the site complete with a community center, offices, and apartments. AK Architecture is designing the site.

From the Skyline to the Streetline

While the corporate trainwreck that redefined city skylines across the world grinds into second gear (kind of like the theme from Friends for urban development), public projects have become too numerous to keeptrack. From Race Street to University City to Manayunk, one could easily question, "Where is all this money coming from?" We left the definition of the city up to private developers in the 90s and early twenty-first century, but now, inexplicably, the city seems to be doing the work itself.

UCD's 30th Street Station Plaza will officially open on November 2nd, just before Dilworth Plaza's renovations are expected to begin. Overnight we seemed to welcome more miles of bike lanes than Seattle and Portland combined, and the Reading Terminal Viaduct Park almost seems like it might be more than the idealistic dream of the hipsters that can't afford to live there.

30th Street Station Plaza

The Parkway is being redefined as America's Champs-Élysées with enough artwork to make those dining on its Parisian counterpart choke on their baguettes in jealousy, the Schuylkill River Trail is being expended into territory that hasn't been explored since South Philadelphia was home to natives, and perhaps more shocking than anything, Philadelphians are actually exploring the Delaware River...recreationally!

Greening JFK

As national news syndicates continue to run headlines about our grim economy, without the cranes and scaffolding of progress, Philadelphia appears to steaming forward without hesitation. Perhaps we owe our lowered expectations, those fostered by the shadows of New York City, more credit than they often receive. There is no doubt that these public projects are taking place around the country, often funded with federal stimulus money, but in a city accustomed to leaning on private corporations to pick up the tab for civic inefficiencies, it is almost heartwarming to see our money at work.

Greening America's City

I have to admit, when I first saw this I was blown away by the rendering and ignored the article. Someone at had a field day with PhotoShop, and with my neighborhood as the subject, I loved it.

When I got past the rendering and read the artical I was even more shocked. Back in June, Philadelphia approved the Green City, Clean Water program, that will put $2B into improving our environmental infrastructure. South Philadelphia has even become home to our first pourous street, which literally absorbs water instead of requiring it to be funneled into outdated and often clogged storm drains.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Occupy Dilworth Plaza

I am all for a crackdown on Wall Street. However Wall Street is 100 miles northeast of our nearly bankrupt City Hall, which is why it's understandable that those protesting corporate greed in Philadelphia quickly realized that their voice at 15th and Broad was nothing less than preaching to the choir.

They came looking for a fight, and all they got was, "I hear ya." Of course zealous protesters rarely have little else to do, so with an absence of discourse they decided to go rogue. 

It's hard to say whether those camping at Dilworth Plaza had any clue that it was about to undergo a makeover starting in November. It was certainly convenient. Once they realized they weren't getting the kind of press they were looking for they decided to target the $55M project.

Joshua Albert told Metro Philadelphia, “The fact that they’re going to spend $55 million to renovate this when there’s so much else to spend the money on, I don’t think we’re leaving...not peacefully.”

What are they protesting? Wall Street or public beautification projects in Philadelphia?

Metro went on to quote Sean Rose, “They want to turn it into an ice skating rink. They didn’t pass a bill to make new libraries, but they passed a bill to make a rink.”

The Dilworth Plaza renovations are made possible by money designated for projects designed to bring tax revenue to cities that can go towards things like...libraries. A large portion of this project was funded by a grant set up for projects specifically like this one. 

If you want to protest social spending, the new site of the Family Court is right across the street. The Parkway is under renovation. We've laid down hundreds of new bike lanes. We opened Race Street Pier. We're expanding the Schuylkill River Trail. 

Why Dilworth Plaza? 

Because they just happened to be there.

Stating that the money allocated for the Dilworth Plaza renovations should be funneled directly into a library fund is like telling me I shouldn't buy a Halloween costume when there are Philadelphians without new shoes. I feed my cat while people are starving in other countries. I own a car yet some people can only afford to take the bus.

Are they protesting an unethical corporate influence on Congress, or the very idea of capitalism?

Are they mad at GM for spending our tax dollars on private retreats, or are they upset that it's being used to clean up our city instead of funding unlimited unemployment for those too proud to apply for a job at Starbucks?

Occupy Wall Street had a message, one that Occupy Philly lost. If your gripe is with Wall Street, I can sympathize. But don't demand fiscal accountability in one breath and ask for a handout in the next. 

I want to see more jobs. 

I want to see responsibility. 

I want to see action. 

Dilworth Plaza's renovation is a weak and easy target, and one that will employ hundreds of people, and potentially bring thousands of tax paying tourists to 15th and Market. 

There are public projects taking place all across the city right now, and none of them have anything to do with the criminal acts that led to our bleak economic climate. In fact, these projects are in an attempt to revive a little of what we lost. 

As a socially minded, publicly funded project, using Occupy Philly to protest Dilworth Plaza's renovations is hypocritical, flying in the face of their overall message of social welfare. 

Saturday, October 15, 2011

What Could Have Been...

While West Market Street and JFK Boulevard give Philadelphia its impressive skyline, one of many master plans proposed following the removal of the Chinese Wall was never implemented.

It's hard to say if our central business district would serve more than the 9 to 5 crowd it does today had it met with a cohesive design, and one can even argue that its organic development serves Philadelphia's diverse architectural history better than it would have had it been immediately developed in a continuous singular style.

More than a half century later the district is only now filling the voids left by Broad Street Station's move to 30th. Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White proposed the district's redevelopment as a grand Art Deco promenade leading travelers and pedestrians from City Hall to 30th Street Station.

Whether or not this approach would remain as impressive as its rendering today, it's still fun to imagine what could have been. Capping the remaining regional rail line that keeps people off the sidewalks behind the Murano would certainly bring pedestrians closer to the river.

Our most recent attempt to do so was in the less than inspired proposal of Philadelphia River City that would have towered over the Schuylkill like an 80s power suit. Where has all the panache gone?

Philadelphia River City

Friday, October 14, 2011

A Horror Story

It may not be in Philadelphia, but there's a big, scary house on your television right now that is likely to remind us of some of our own ghostly stories this Halloween.

If you're a fan of the macabre - and if you're a fan of Philadelphia you are - and you haven't seen American Horror Story yet, get online and watch it. Those glued to Twin Peaks in 1990 who happen to own the Amityville box set will love this nail biting hybrid. With all of the cliche elements of your horrific favorites wrapped around a bizarre cast of characters you're not quite sure you want to like, this Amercian horror story offers a refreshing break from the insipid debutantes and perfected discourse that plague your television, but somehow manages to offer the same guild laden pleasure.

American Horror Story is set in the Alfred Rosenheim House in Country Club Park, Los Angeles. The house, built by resident architect Alfred Rosenheim in 1908, was entirely reconstructed for the series. Perhaps with its own ghosts, the house has been on the market since 1999. The 15,000 square foot home at 1120 Westchester Place was originally offered at $7.5M, and now at $4.5, most recently served as a home for nuns. Its detached ballroom formerly served as a chapel. It's easily understandable how this mansion would be a tempting treat for one with means, ghosts and all.

Better Than Nothing?

Hilton Home2 Suites released its rendering for the corporation's second spot on the Pennsylvania Convention Center's Arch Street strip and it begs the question, is something better than nothing?

As the Roaring 2000's brought us back to an era of opulence few remember and architectural experimentation headlined our newspapers, the answer was certainly a resounding "NO". Only in recent history have few chains of hotels attempted to rival the decadence and luxury of the Gilded Age, but for the most part, even historically, hotels do little to serve those who make their homes in the shadows of these businesses.

It makes sense, at least business sense, especially around convention centers, arenas, and corporate hubs. Hotels are in the business of serving those who don't live here, and unless you're one of the few who can't travel without courtesy robes and a plasma screen TV displaying a crackling fire, your hotel room is going to be remembered as little more than a comfortable bed and a convenient location. That's where Hilton Home2 Suites is better than nothing.

In all reality, most cities are filled with nondescript boxes that can be easily sold and rebranded when they change hands. Only in our rosie memories of the past 10 years are buildings like this less than par. While one would undoubtedly prefer the W Hotel's previous proposal for 12th and Arch, one can't guarantee that this robust economy will return anytime soon. One also can't guarantee that a W Hotel at 12th and Arch would be more than an empty edifice in this economy had it been built without a business savvy consideration for its future.

As the decade continues, middle class families are cashing in their frequent flier miles for road trips to the Poconos in the Family Truckster. The trips we remember from our childhood weren't bad, but it wasn't a time that warranted boutique hotels in every neighborhood.

Hotels like Hilton Home2 Suites serve a market, and the fact that the market is there is a very good thing. While you won't be overwhelmed by a new skyscraper across from Reading Terminal, the new hotel will put a few hundred beds in proximity of dozens of local businesses.

Infill isn't evil. Passerbys will still be greeted with groundfloor retail, and when they look up, they will still see the beautiful Reading Terminal Headhouse and the PSFS Tower.

Philadelphia and cities across America were offered a reprise from the architecturally mundane for one of the brief periods that only come along when investors are reckless and banks fail to watch their reserves.

These short timelines of opulence leave us with dazzling wonders of engineering muscle, but they're financed by the dreams of those asleep at the wheel.

Could Hilton Home2 Suites be better? Of course it could. But now that we've awoken from the dream, practical infill will increasingly become the best case scenario. This doesn't mean we should stop campaigning against the status quo, but it does mean that the resources of those who campaign for a better city should go where they are needed.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Divine Intervention

While Philadelphia is synonomous with Independence Hall and the Betsy Ross House, to many Philadelphians, the Divine Lorraine is perhaps our most iconic representation of what defines Philadelphia. It's macabre arches and balconies are representative of our eclectic architectural portfolio. Its mysterious history could not be a more perfect metaphor for Philadelphia's post-Colonial past. And unfortunately, its neglected state is harshly representative of City Hall's patented bureaucracy and neglect.

Ten years ago this building stood perfectly preserved. Even after being abandoned by the Peace Mission, it was home to a lone caretaker, its upper levels empty yet respected. In a city covered in graffiti and broken windows, a silent respect left this neighborhood landmark completely untouched.

Today it still sits vacant, but after a developer ripped out its soul and walked away, he took with him a sole source of pride for a struggling neighborhood and city. Concrete blocks seal the ground floor. Upper floors remain completely devoid of windows, open to the elements. Like a desanctified church, God is gone and the vandals have moved in.

With only muddy prospects in its future, the Divine Lorraine stands as a painful reminder of mismanagement and a lack of respect on the part of City Councilmembers against those they are elected to service.

The sad truth is that those representing Philadelphia have an absent connection with Philadelphians and what it means to be one. This is evident in the fact that they - one in particular - have done nothing to save a building as analogous with Philadelphia as the Liberty Bell.

One thing I have always loved about this city is our citizens' interest in our own history. New Yorkers and Washingtonians rarely know little if anything about their architectural, commercial, and industrial pasts. But in Philadelphia, you not only find people who know of buildings like the Divine Lorraine, but they will tell who built it, when it was built, and how it was used.

Our proud history has taught even the youngest and most civilian of history buffs where Broad Street Station stood, where the Chinese Wall ran, and what Dock Street once looked like. Why aren't those who love Philadelphia for its gritty corners and speckled past running this town? And why are we allowing the institution that behaves as though they despise our beloved city to run it into the ground?

Friday, September 2, 2011

Karma can be ugly...and it's covered in vinyl siding

In what now seems to be the age of Yore and Yesteryear, in 2008 Philadelphia's architectural development was booming. So much so I actually had stuff to write about. Neighborhood associations were brutal, and slammed the iron fist of NIMBYism on a potentially new skyline.

As irrational as some of their arguments against Mandeville Place, Bridgemans View, and dynamically planned entertainment and casino complexes may have been, none were more perplexing than the Society Hill Civic Association's opposition to H2L2's Stamper Square.

Center City's most picturesque neighborhood is hoarding an ugly truth behind its mahogany doors. Tucked behind 200 years of history and decades of blue haired entitlement sits a concrete slab that has been eyed by developers since the small tourist mall New Market was torn down 20 years ago.

After H2L2 proposed an interactive, midrise hotel for this trash strewn lot, some residents were relieved. Many more were stractching their heads wondering where exactly this site near Headhouse Square actually was.

What seemed most certain was that Stamper Square had the green light. And why wouldn't they? H2L2 not only designed an engaging complex with ground floor retail at scale with the history of the neighborhood, developers were reaching out to the community, altering design after design to accommodate even the most absurd requests.

Then the SHCA decided on behalf of this entire neighborhood, one that belongs as much to every Philadelphian and tourist as it does those who live there, that we were all be better off with a vacant lot. And they won.

Well, in spite of a bad economy, some developers still manage to thrive, and this ugly lot is still on their radars. Unfortunately for the SHCA, and Philadelphia, the developer is nationally renowned McMansion designer Toll Brothers. Not only is Toll Brothers proposing a gated development at this undeniably urban location, but they have the weight of a massively powerful public company to make it happen.

The SHCA isn't happy, and reasonably so this time. I'm no fan of the McMansions that now rise above the Virginia farm I grew up on, and I certainly don't like the prospect of them taking up valuable real estate in Philadelphia's most iconically Philadelphian neighborhood.

That said, how many opportunities should the SHCA be allowed to dictate what happens in a lot it doesn't own? If Toll Brothers moves forward with this project, it wouldn't be the first time the SHCA dragged its feet to secure the status quo.

When developer John Turchi bought Dilworth House, planning to restore the home and make it his private residence, the SHCA demanded this vacant home be restored and turned into a museum. Turchi then applied to have the home demolished. It still stands - for now - but what could have been a beautifully restored Colonial reproduction on one of our city's most beautiful squares, it still sits vacant.

How much weight can these neighborhood associations reasonably demand? It's one thing to request compromising details: brick, trees, store fronts. But allowing them to demand a compromising developer hit the road with no alternatives in sight, allowing them to keep a valuable piece of property vacant and unused for two decades neighboring some of the city's most prominent addresses, that's irresponsible.

Well, SHCA, here's your silver metal. And unfortunately for all of us, the economic climate is no longer affording the kind of idealism that keeps lots vacant.

What's Your Home Really Worth?

The Actual Value Initiative put in place by the Board of Revision and Taxes is coming to a close. The cities housing stock was so poorly assessed that the assessment initiative headed by Richie McKeithen is starting over.

New assessments are scheduled to be in place by Fall of 2012. This type of procedure takes place in cities across the state and country, but Philadelphia has fallen far behind, with many homes still being taxed on decades old assessments.

So far the team of assessors, expected to be increased from 50 to 106, has assessed more than 2000 of Philadelphia's more than 400,000 homes.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Mutter Museum Most Horrifying Museum in the World

My favorite childhood alternative to Mad Magazine has recently become my favorite source for completely unvalidated lists of top this and that.


Cracked has ranked the Mutter Museum as The Most Horrifying Museum on Earth. Out of 7 absolutely horrific places to visit around the world, Philadelphia's home to "The Soap Lady" and other medical oddities (a very loose definition) has been ranked #1.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Our Thoughts

From those of us at Philly Bricks, our thoughts and prayers go out to all who are picking up after the Great East Coast Quake of 2011.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Reading Terminal: Go Green Already!

Eating local and "going green" go hand in hand, and in Center City there is no better place for organic and locally farmed eats than Reading Terminal Market

I rarely go to a major grocery store, but I found myself at Super Fresh about a week ago. When I asked the cashier for a paper bag, you would think that I had just cursed out his mother. Then he proceeds to put a paper bag inside a plastic one. What?! 

"This is why I go to Reading Terminal," I thought. Until I went back to Reading Terminal and noticed the exact same thing. For a farmers market catering to the city's greenest, the place is environmentally clueless. 

Employees at Iovine's Produce spend their free time stuffing paper bags into plastic ones. Again, what?! Tootsie's Salad Bar briefly offered recycled paper containers, but switched back to plastic, and predominantly styrofoam. At least they ask if you want a bag. At Delilah's you'll walk away with a styrofoam container and a plastic bag whether you want one or not. 

Want to sample some ice cream? Here's a plastic spoon, the existence of which will see less than a minute of action. 

The market does offer recycling cans which is more than most of the city can say, but what's the point? Plastic bags aren't recycled and styrofoam can't be. That's also making the big assumption that the recyclables don't end up in the same dumpster as the trash. 

Considering the clientele, a little effort would pay off. The sad truth is that Philadelphia is a black hole when it comes to the environment. If people can't get trash in the trash cans, they've probably never even heard of recycling.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Things are Looking Up on Chestnut Street

Well, at least literally.

John Buck Co. of Chicago plans on break ground in September on the 35 storey Buck Tower apartments on the site of the Sidney Hillman Medical Center.

Although Hartshorne Plunckard Architecture's glass tower pales in comparison to the diagonally positioned midcentury clinic, it will be an exciting contribution to our skyline in a time of economic uncertainty.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Barely Human: SPHINC Executive Director Claudia Sherrod

This article is a little long, but very important. Thanks so much to NakedPhilly for taking the time and energy to let everybody know about this nonsense. And thank you Ms. Sherrod for pointing out exactly what's wrong with Philadelphia.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Race to Race Street

I went down to the new Race Street Pier just after it opened and I have to admit, it's beautiful. Unfortunately I went back there last weekend and it's a ghost town.

This is why I'm leery of rebranding the Reading Viaduct as Manhattan Highline's southern sister. It's a lot of money to throw at an iffy location.

I hope that the Race Street Pier invites development because that's exactly what it needs to succeed. As it stands it's a destination attraction with a bad destination.

Additionally, as I understand it, the "wood" used in its construction will all but last forever. After seeing the reconstruction of Jeanette's Pier in Nags Head, NC, this bizarre material is my only complaint in the design of Race Street Pier.

It looks like plastic. And when it comes to Philadelphia's most famous art - graffiti - traditional wood is probably a lot cheaper to replace than whatever this stuff is.

Apparently the pier has been recently adorned with "Melissa Joan Hart" in unimpressive white pen. As much as I loved Sabrina the Teenage Witch, I want to meet the hipster that decided to brand our newest landmark with this tag.