Thursday, April 28, 2011

Star Renames Historic PA Town, at What Price?

Morgan Spurlock, the sarcastic documentarian behind Supersize Me, has arranged to have Altoona, PA renamed "POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold" for 60 days, named for his latest tongue in cheek documentary.

While making the point that everything in America has a price, targeting a struggling town of 31,000 with big money and Hollywood fame might say more about the film maker than it does about America's willingness to sell out.

New York and Los Angeles are the country's greatest harbingers of capitalism. Washington, DC is globally synonymous with anxiety. Had a member of America's trifecta of internaional PR leased their brand to Spurlock for two months, his message might be more justified.

But Altoona?

The Smithsonian has never been branded. Many of Philadelphia's museums have corporate sponsors responsible for their survival, and in return ask for little more than a brass plaque. City planners have been struggling to transform our Market East corridor, and advertising has emerged as a dynamic solution.

In a nation on the verge of bankruptcy, should we really turn our noses to coroprations offering to save zoos, libraries, and schools? It's not a new concept. Wrigley Field?

While the movie hasn't made its way to PA yet, Spurlock's message remains unclear. What is clear is that his choice to bribe Altoona is opportunistic, even predatory. It's a cheap shot. While Altoona and its residents have every right to oppose the town's decision, Spurolck is using the system he's complaining about to do what the system is designed for: to make money.

Turn on Those Lights

The nice weather is bringing out the tourists and just as I passed 12th and Market, what were they taking pictures of? Not Market East's "quaint Colonialism", but the Hard Rock guitar and the news feed outside Loews. 

History is our brand? Not everywhere, SCRUB. Tourists like shiny things. As soon as we stop struggling to convince Nebraskans that they have to appreciate our cobblestone streets and Steven Starr restaurants, the sooner we can just give them what they want: "authentic" Italian from Sbarro and $20 plastic busts of Benjamin Franklin.

We burden ourselves with the labor of insisting - even dictating - the tourist experience. The sad reality is most tourists don't care. And they're not going to care. You can't educate a revolving population of individuals that spend three days here once in their life. Try to do that and you'll make yourself crazy. Try to do that and you'll find yourself fighting to preserve the "historic brand" of Market East.

Most tourists want to see what they see in pictures and have dinner at a familiar restaurant. You're average tourist doesn't want an adventure, they want convenience. It's true we have a great restaurant scene, and the Foodies that come here know that. But they know exactly where to go and they have fun finding it.

Instead of shoving gourmet food down the throats of families from Phoenix who wouldn't know the difference between Olive Garden and Vitri, reserve it for those who appreciate it along the quaint cobblestone streets of Society Hill.

There is no shortage of opportunity for authenticity in Center City. Look around. Chestnut Street, Washington Square, and even Old City are home to plenty of vacant storefronts and undeveloped properties bound to become the next hot restaurant run by an Iron Chef.

Let Market East be what it is dying to be. Practical for us, bright and shiny for tourists, and a gold mine for the city. Given the excitement generated by that neon guitar, and then the dread as tourists turn to the east, I don't think SCRUB is going to win this one. It's just a matter of one of the Market East stakeholders making the first move and turning on the lights.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Barely Human: Jim McGreevey

Okay, so he's not from Philly but New Jersey shenanigans have helped shape the face of our city for centuries, for good or bad. Wasn't Milton Street a NJ resident when he "ran" for mayor?

Self-proclaimed "Gay American" Jim McGreevy, the former NJ governor who resigned after a whole host of weird behaviors spawned from allegations over his sexuality, ultimately including a nasty divorce, has found his way back in the news.

After making the entire gay community look like a bevy of devious liars, adding another stain to New Jersey's tainted reputation, he's decided to try to soil another group's reputation: The Episcopal Church. 

As they are no strangers to controversy, he sensibly avoided the Catholic church and converted to the more liberal Episcopal sect. 

Doing what all celebrities do when they get out of rehab, he "found God". Only he took it one step further and joined the clergy, or at least he tried. I'm not a religious person, but I have respect for those that are. Enough to be offended when someone like McGreevy not only joins the church, but tries to play an administrative role in the faith, as a PR move.  

It's skeevy. McSkeevy.

He couldn't lead a state without deceit. How could anyone put faith in his leadership behind that which they hold most sacred?
Luckily for the church, which is no doubt already exercising caution due to the scandals surrounding its sister religion, could see past McGreevy's transparent - and bizarre - intentions. So much so that a source at the Episcopal Diocese of Newark explained that the reason he was denied a bid to the priesthood "was not (for) being gay but for being a jackass."


Monday, April 25, 2011

Philly Mag's Beef with Baby Boomers

A recent Philadelphia Magazine cover calls out to Baby Boomers, asking them to drop dead. With one article, Janine White has managed to transform a decent regional magazine into the opinionated afterbirth of the hipster's Bibles. I can't even imagine Philadelphia Weekly or Philadelphia City Paper publishing something so socially irresponsible, certainly not on a cover.

This is the kind of hypocritical selfishness that stains my generation. White accuses Baby Boomers of selling out their mid-century idealism for Volvos and suburbs, but whether you're an X or a Y, the Baby Boomers sacrificed the LSD and free love to raise us. Many worked full time at K-Mart to make sure that art school drop outs were entitled enough to demand high paying jobs that don't exist.

If Baby Boomers are guilty of anything it's for raising us under the delusion that we can do anything we put our minds to.

Baby Boomers took the flaws of their parents and in spite, conceived a cultural Renaissance.

What did we do with the indiscriminate acceptance we inherited? Invented Gentrification and then bitched when the real estate market collapsed. And well into our 30s or 40s, we're still stomping our feet and blaming our parents when the world doesn't go our way.

In her rant, Write blames her parents' generation for everything from the Global Recession to illiteracy. Anyone who's taken Anthropology 101 can tell you a single generation can't be blamed for evolution. Baby Boomer, Billy Joel's We Didn't Start the Fire explained that 22 years ago, and at the time we got it.

Our parents fostered a cultural tapestry that transformed the world forever, and somehow found time to raise us. We licked the icing off the cake of diversity like the fat, greedy sociopaths we are, then accused the most influential generation in modern history of not doing enough for us.

We've been voting since the late 80s. Generations X and Y are as accountable for any current crisis as our parents, or their parents. In fact, had we the foresight and ambition of the generations that preceded us, perhaps we could have been carrying on their legacy instead of tuning into The Jersey Shore.

I don't know why Philadelphia Magazine is calling for Baby Boomers to drop dead. Without them, who will its editors blame for their mistakes?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Happy Holiday Weekend

From Earth Day to Easter, have a great weekend!

There's a lot of architectural symbolism in this amazing video. Enjoy.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Found in the Attic

The creepiest of things are the unknown. That's just what made Insidious such a scary movie. Accepting its funhouse camp, without gore this classic haunted house flick keeps you jumping at what you can't see, not what you can. And that is just what's so scary about my house.

A month or so ago I mentioned the leaky roof in my 200 year old rental trinity, and the fact that the attic door was ominously sealed shut behind the shower decades ago. Waiting for my landlord to coordinate with his roofers, some of the plaster has deteriorated and exposed the understide of the sloping roof.

While the hole doesn't look straight into the attic, its contents have worked their way down. Dozens of brochures for the Peirce College of Business and Shorthand have found their way into my bedroom. Every day another one of these damp cards drifts from the hole.

Originally I assumed these must have been from the 1960s, probably around the time the attic was sealed up. But the most recent one to land at my feet as I dressed this morning yielded a readable date, "Session begins September 21, 1891."

The address of the college is listed as 917-919 Chestnut Street, or the Philadelphia Record Building, which was razed around 1920 to make way for the Federal Reserve.

That's really old. But nothing in itself is creepy about an old college brochure. Nothing is creepy about someone stashing dozens of these brochures above my bedroom more than 100 years ago. What's creepy is knowing that they are still there.

What else is up there? Why were they left? Simple questions with simple answers I'm sure, but without someone to provide those answers, creepy.

Scary movies are scary because of the unknown, because of subtle clues that make your mind wander. Sometimes the most subtle and unassuming clues are the ones that cause your mind to wander the greatest distance.

I've thought of tossing a web cam up there with some glow sticks just so I can sleep easy. But part of me enjoys the unknown mystery of what could be.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Putting Stock in Market East

Philadelphia Heights put the spotlight on some exciting movement taking place in our struggling retail corridor, Market East. While The Gallery at Market once sought to streamline a successful haven of consumerism, it merely turned it in on itself, eclipsing the street in the shadow of windowless concrete. The same tactics that work in suburban shopping malls surrounded by parking lots, don't typically fly in dense urban areas that rely on window shopping.

Often criticised by car bound urban newbies who still flee to Cherry Hill for groceries, The Gallery is surprisingly practical. There is no denying the loss of Strawbridge's put a huge dent in its retail portfolio, particularly upscale retail. Still, if you're an urbanite and don't have a car, it's a great resource. Personally, I'd be lost without K-Mart.

The mall could be better. What mall couldn't in this economic climate? But its vicinity contributes to The Gallery's woes as much as its management. The Gallery's architecture can't be faulted for its lack of Baby Gaps. It's a mall. From Manhattan to Terre Haute, they all look the same.

Unfortunately its sensible and malleable design is just that. It's there and it's dull, and its success will partially rely on exciting surroundings. But when you step out on the sidewalk, the stage presented to tourists ferried from their hotel to The Liberty Bell, it's not just dull, it's depressing.

As a purported historic district, it's history is purely philosophical. With four arguably historically significant buildings between 8th and 12th, Market East's historic credibility is in its place as the nation's first concentrated avenue of consumer goods, not its architecture.

Fortunately, developers are starting to understand the artery's importance as just that, and recognizing this forgotten potential.

The organization managing The Gallery, PREIT, will begin a $100M renovation this year. Although Strawbridge's retail space is still unspoken for, it's upper levels have been renovated for the relocation of the employees formerly housed in the State Office Building on North Broad.

Nearby at between 11th and 12th, JOSS Realty Partners, SSH Real Estate, and Young Capital will be demolishing the two storeys that remain of the old Snellenberg's Department Store, replacing it with the 280,000 Pavilion at Market East.

With City Target as a possible anchor, like The Gallery at Market East, The Pavilion will be built to support a skyscraper. Target completion is 2014.

Goldenberg Group, Inc. is planning its own retail and entertainment complex on the long reviled Disney Hole at 8th and Market.

While three large retail complexes would be ambitious even in a successful suburb, the long list of savvy developers involved suggests confidence in our market. And given Center City's lack of suburban challenging entertainment, grocers, and retail, it seems a logical move to introduce some large scale capitalistic competition.

Undoubtedly, there were be plenty of push back from tunnel visioned activists. Many Philadelphians are staunchly opposed to chains and will complain about any new retail that isn't local and organic.

But the opposition are often those who most vocally avoid Market East, so what better place to erect Philadelphia's dirty little secret: A successful, corporate retail and entertainment corridor catering to conventioneers and tourists, and of course those of us who don't turn our nose up at buying kitty litter from K-Mart.

Dutch Bricks

Unions will love this. The Dutch company Vanku BV, came up with a fast, effective, and affordable way to professionally lay real brick. It's called Tiger Stone, and just a couple people can lay almost 1500 feet a day.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Did Borders Jump the Gun?

I read, but apparently not enough to know that Borders was going out of business for good. This came up when I walked around the corner at City Hall and South Broad and noticed the giant "Going Out of Business" signs.

"Great," I thought, "another massive store on Broad Street going under."

I mean sure, FYE is great when you want a cheap movie and don't feel like waiting for Netflix, but come on, Tower Records was a global institution. It doesn't help that FYE did nothing to brand the space its own, leaving it looking like a large outlet.

Just like record stores and Blockbusters, book stores have finally succumbed to the same technological kiss of death. No one would have ever dreamed that the romance of the printed page would give in to iStuff, but the Kindle (surprisingly not an Apple product) has cornered a market reserved for the few who still appreciate the lost art of literature.

The Big Book Store had become an urban treasure. Open for breakfast, constantly filled with coffee drinkers and hipsters, reading, studying, conversing, well until the twilight, a never ending crowd of customers would have never signalled any struggle. But by the end of the last decade, bookstores had become little more than a hip library.

In fact, many struggling public libraries have managed to compete with their money-making rivals by providing customers with the same atmosphere, and obviously, free books.

The irony, of course, is the Big Book Stores like Borders and Barnes and Noble were the pariahs of the 90s, accused of driving hundreds of independent bookstores underground or out of business, and leaving public libraries forgotten in the dusty stacks.

And now, the truth is, not everyone wants to read a book on an iProduct. There is a relaxing anxiety in the anticipation of the turned page, one you don't get with the press of a button or the click of a mouse.

While the Kindle may be the death of the Big Book Store, it may have breathed new life into the few remaining independent bookstores. So while I'll mourn the loss of a massive, and popular retail presence on South Broad Street, I welcome the resurrection of the quirky shelves of the homegrown bookstore.