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?