Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Fourth Annual Philly Spring Clean Up!

Break out the brooms and trash bags, Philly's Fourth Annual Spring Clean Up is this Saturday, April 2nd. The rain date is Saturday, April 9th.

In a city as notoriously filthy as Philadelphia, everyday should be Spring Clean Up Day. But we're human, and sometimes we need an event to remind us of the decent people we should be.

Philadelphia Streets Department has a sign-up sheet on their website, coordinating efforts towards target areas. If you're too busy, or simply don't feel like traveling, that doesn't mean you can't sacrifice a few large garbage bags and pick up the trash on your block.

If you think it's already clean, take another look. You'd be surprised how much trash accumulated in piles of snow and melted its way into your blind spot. Believe me, it's there.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Lost in the Squabble

Demanding too much or too little, preservationists have managed to leave at least two historic properties behind in the squabble. Years ago, developer John J. Turchi purchased former Mayor Richardson Dilworth's Washington Square mansion. Intending on restoring the property and converting it into his private residence, that wasn't good enough for the Historical Commission. Denied his attempt to reside on Washington Square, the Historical Commission demanded that it serve the neighborhood as nothing less noble than a museum.

Well nothing that remains of Dilworth House today is noble. Turchi did what developers do best, he went through the back door and filed an application to build a 20 story condo tower on the site of the house, which would have completely demolished Mayor Dilworth's presence in the neighborhood he fought to transform.

Neighborhood organizations did what they do best and tied Turchi up in hearings for years, demanding rendering after rendering, some so absurd that the facade of Dilworth's mansion was sitting in the lobby of the high rise.

Is this the compromise the Historical Commission wanted when they denied Turchi's use of the house as a private residence? Instead of a restored Colonial reproduction gracing Washington Square, Dilworth House, which was once a message to this former slum, now stands as a vacant testament to what the great mayor fought, not what he accomplished.

At the opposite end of well intended meddling, the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia and the Callowhill Neighborhood Association had their say yesterday in one of the hearings to decide the fate of Spring Garden's Church of the Assumption. The non-profit group, Siloam, was granted the authority by the Historical Commission to demolish the church due to economic hardships. After hearing of the demolition's approval, a board member of the Callowhill Neighborhood Association quickly submitted the church for historic certification.

Amy Hooper, President of the Callowhill Neighborhood Association claims the organization was "caught off guard" by the demolition. Adding "the last thing (needed) is another parking lot". Truer words can't be spoken of Callowhill and Spring Garden, but in a neighborhood with sparse examples of historic properties, how is it that the status of this iconic building ever managed to fly below the radar? Perhaps Spring Garden's most prominent contribution to the skyline, not one voice at the Callowhill Neighborhood Association spoke out on behalf of this historic property until it was under the wrecking ball.

The property has long sat on numerous endangered lists, even catching the attention of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Why then, was it not submitted for historic certification until after it was approved for demolition?

Additionally, Hooper noted that the building stands at the "gateway" to the Reading Viaduct which the group wants to convert into a park. But like their absent responsibility for the Church of the Assumption, the neighborhood sits on acres of potential community gardens neglected as urban landfills, and with numerous surface lots and barren concrete walls left from demolition, Callowhill does not have one mural in a city of more than 2000.

It's hard to sympathize with an organization that waited until the 11th hour to wrangle a bevy of witnesses, particularly when they clearly have a habit of neglecting their own potential.

Siloam isn't devoid of their own suspicions. Prominent developers like Alex Generalis have stepped forward to cite how little they knew of the organization's attempt to sell the property in lieu of demolition. Still, in the years that the Church of the Assumption sat vacant no one from the Callowhill Neighborhood Association pointed out the site's deteriorating state of disrepair.

In a neighborhood with no shortage of available land in the way of surface lots and vacant meadows, the last thing that comes to mind when a developer sees a vacant church is going to be "adaptive reuse". This is where neighborhood organizations can shine, by proactively addressing a potential loss in their historic portfolio. Instead, the Callowhill Neighborhood Association is best known for deterring the redevelopment of several surface lots and the fiercely debated reuse of the Reading Viaduct. Meanwhile, many Callowhill residents live in gated fortresses isolating their contribution to the city, and even their own sidewalks.

Sadly, Assistant City Solicitor Leonard Reuter may have made the most apt statement during yesterday's hearing, "Sometimes you have to let it go." And this fact isn't solely due to Siloam's sloppy and inexperienced respect for their property. The loss of the Church of the Assumption, an architecturally and historically significant site, is largely due to those who self-assign themselves watchdogs for our neighborhoods' best interests, and then ignore our neighborhoods' most valuable assets.

Meanwhile, like children caught up in a divorce and awaiting a custody decision, Dilworth House and the Church of the Assumption stand alone, both parents caught up in the squabble, neglecting what's truly at risk because of their own stubborn pride.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Illuminating Broad Street

Arguments against digital signage may have lost a little traction as the Kimmel Center unveiled it's animated video cube at the corner of Broad and Spruce.

Broad Street's historic core has been illuminated in everything from lanterns to neon to LEDs for the past 200 years, and now plasma.

The new signage shows how illuminated advertising can revitalize an architecturally barren corner.

While the target demographics for the Kimmel Center and The Gallery at Market East may be substantially different, the PIFA cube has transformed a stale, unfriendly design into something dynamic through the process of digital advertising.

Far less architecturally significant, Market East's target retail market is primed for an exponentially larger implementation of this successful medium. While South Broad is home to more than a dozen historic skyscrapers and theaters, Market East's major retail artery is left with four historically significant properties at best.

8th Street to 12th Street is an architectural fallout zone of poorly designed retail space, unattractive signage, and The Gallery, saddled with more than two blocks of sporadically adorned metal and concrete walls.

If the argument against the proposed digital signage at Market East is based on its content, then the conversation hasn't begun. Advertisers would be sought after the space is approved. As SCRUB proved with an Absolut ad near 8th and Market, it only takes a few helicopter parents to harass advertisers away.

No one has proposed illuminating The Gallery, or any other building in the vicinity, with advertisements for Delilah's.
The potential revenue generated by this space and the business it will attract are staggering. Campaigning against digital signage on Market East purely based on its speculative content is irresponsible to the community.

However if the argument is based on the wattage, medium, or the technique in which the content is applied, a format justified even minimally on South Broad Street cannot rationally be banned from what should be Center City's core of consumerism.

What to do with the Philadelphia Family Courthouse

As technology changes and evolves, it gets harder and harder to reuse purpose built structures whose purpose no longer exists. As the Court of Common Pleas Family Division outgrows its facility at 18th and Vine, demanding a new 14 story courthouse at 15th and Arch adjacent to City Hall, the fate of John Torrey Windrim's 1941 courthouse remains uncertain.

Philadelphia Family Court building, 18th and Vine.

Environmental considerations have architects designing smaller spaces, even in schools and libraries. The courthouse's massive footprint makes it impossible to convert into apartments or hotel rooms. Without an addition, practical uses for the building are limited, mostly as a museum. It's a shame we don't need one right now. Being situated on Logan Circle makes this an ideal location for a new gallery.

But what of an addition? A nearly identical situation arose in Jamaica, Queens, New York where a Queens Family Courthouse was converted into a retail complex with a 12 story residential building encasing the rear of the original courthouse.

Queens Family Courthouse with residential addition.

The conversion has been harshly criticized for wrapping an historic landmark with "boring glass and steel". But with all due respect to the critics, what is the best way to reuse a building that has outlived its usefulness?

I will agree, the Dermot Company's addition is not the best way to integrate old and new. And part of the problem is in their attempt to respect the scale of the original. The dull, horizontal addition cuts through the original courthouse. The subtlety of its presence is what makes it so obstructive.

Queens Family Courthouse in 1935.

If you're not going to fully respect the original design of the original and stick with one style, don't just slap on a boring, plastic cube. The classicism of the original design is dramatic, and so should its addition.

A glass curtain of bright colors could be shooting from the center of the building. Asymmetrical lightening made of glass and steel could be exploding from the courthouse's main hall. Any number of shocking designs could create drama in a building originally intended to be dramatic.

We could learn from the mistakes made with the Queens Family Courthouse. If we intend to encourage the redevelopment of our Family Courthouse as a hotel or apartments, let's also encourage exciting design. Not something that blends into the background, or worse, something that dilutes the drama of the Ben Franklin Parkway and Logan Square.

Daniel Libeskind's addition to the Royal Ontario Museum. Although the addition is in stark contrast to the original building, the avante garde juxtaposition creates an exciting situation, whereas Dermot's addition to the Queens Family Courthouse humbly respects the architecture of the original building while doing nothing to compliment or contrast it, diluting the designs of both.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Pork Brick

Answer? Don't think about it.

Quite possibly one of the most quintessential Philly Bricks, Dutch Country's delicacy is being honored tomorrow at Reading Terminal Market with Scrapplefest. With activities including Iron Chef inspired culinary competitions where the mystery ingredient is this mystery meat, and sculptures made out of your favorite gray loaf of pig, spice, and corn meal; save your appetite, set aside any misconceptions, ignore what you're eating, and embrace being a Pennsylvanian.

1200 Bank Moving Forward

Between the red tape, unions, antiquated zoning ordinances, and no shortage of public opinion from our institutional Negadelphians, the cost of doing business in Center City isn't cheap. If you want to open a hot dog stand on Broad and Chestnut, chances are someone in East Falls has an opinion on it and will not hesitate to let you know. Perhaps the biggest toll on developing anything in Philly isn't the cost, but the mental toll developers go through trying to wrap their heads around the accepted corruption and absurd rationalization that borders on schizophrenic. It certainly boggles my mind.

That said, it's not shocking - albeit absolutely bat scat crazy - that the posh billiard hall, 1200 Bank, that promises to transform a stagnant Chestnut Street intersection in Washington Square West, has been forced to jump into the sludge pit of subjective crappery brought about by neighborly opposition. It hurts one's head to try to understand why owners of condos that cost more than half a million dollars would object to re-branding their iffy intersection that is home to little more than a tenement of some of the most angry bums in the city. Given the economy, you would think that they'd jump at the opportunity to boost the value of their real estate.

Instead, White building resident Craig Grossman has been 1200 Bank's most vocal opponent. It's interesting to note that Grossman works closely with Tony Goldman who developed the White Building and transformed a similar intersection at 13th and Sansom. It's not shocking but a little unnerving that unethical maneuvering is tolerated. Muscling out competition is tacky. Besides, developing 12th Street will only help the existing business on 13th.

Typical Philly bull plop. Really? Grow up people. I'm starting to realize that the most powerful players in this town are nothing more than over-educated children using City Hall as a giant middle school cafeteria.

1200 Bank's developer, Paul Giegerisch is coming close to "breaking ground", but it's been a two year process, and Grossman's mouth and Goldman's muscle certainly won't be the last obstacles. A proposed zoning bill is headed to City Council for a vote. With the full support of the Planning Commission, the Historical Commission, and the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, it seems hopeful that some White Building residents at 12th and Chestnut might have to accept the fact that their address just might get a little more desirable.

Nagging Your Way to Relevance

College is expensive, especially design school. And architecture school? Forget it. But my favorite little clique of chronic complainers have found a loop hole in all of that. Apparently in Philadelphia, if you want to be a professional in anything - let's say urban planning - all you need is a website, 30 fans on Facebook, and the incessant ability to nag.

Well, Mary Tracy and her cohorts at SCRUB have outnagged themselves this time. In addition to being the thorn in Market East's multiple attempts to reinvent itself, SCRUB has self-assigned itself an expert in urban planning and outdoor marketing, publishing the "Accessory Signage Handbook".

These anti-blight activists, who have done little if anything to address this city's definable examples of "urban blight", organized a workshop in Lower Moyamensing on responsible and legal signage. That's funny, because the only signage SCRUB has been attacking is the legal signage along Interstate 95, small posters on news stands, and the attempted use of The Gallery's blank walls.

Meanwhile vacant buildings in our poorest neighborhoods continue to be shrouded in illegally applied signage that isn't just ugly, but also dangerous, and Market East remains a desolate strip of mid-century architecture, concrete, and trash filled surface lots.

I can't wait to hear what these self-professed professional urban planners have to say about City Target's possible arrival at The Disney Hole.

City Target

Limited by their size and sprawling warehouses usually disguised with little more than a painted, cinder block facade, discount department stores have avoided densely populated urban areas. When we do see one, it's usually found in a mid-century, urban mall designed to compete with the relocated retail that fled the city years ago.

But for the most part, the Wal-Marts and Targets are found closest to the cities in former industrial areas where large tracts of land have been cleared. Selling everything from kibble to lawnmowers, servicing cars and licensing hunting rifles, these discount retailers are rarely engineered vertically.

They still might not be. But a new trend is bringing these retailers to the American downtown. And with a short break in the global Recession and urbanites still wondering if that Arts Condo will ever be worth more than $100 grand, it isn't a moment too soon.

Starting in downtown Los Angeles, Target is experimenting with a new brand: City Target. The second stop in City Target's urban trail is Center City Philadelphia. Not exactly small when it comes to the East Coast grid, these stores will be limited to 100,000 feet and serve primarily as grocers. That's pretty big, and if Target wants to best service Center City, I can't think of a better location than The Disney Hole at 9th and Market.

Connected to SEPTA's regional rails, subway, and Patco's high speed line, 9th and Market is not only convenient to Jefferson University students, Chinatown, Washington Square, numerous hotels, Old City, tourists, and conventioneers, all without a major grocery store, it might provide the competition K-Mart at The Gallery needs to start stocking its shelves and cleaning up its display windows. There really is no better location.

More Parking

At least this parking is going to be three dimensional and offer retail space. I'm not going to throw a parade for a parking garage even if it does look like Barbarella lives there. But it's nice to see another surface lot bite the dust.

City Council approved new zoning legislation that will allow the construction Dennis Maloonian's parking garage at Juniper and Arch. Someday someone will need to explain to me why every new project in this city needs new zoning legislation, particularly when this parking garage is around the corner from several identical pieces of property.

Even with the expansion, I find it hard to believe that the Pennsylvania Convention Center warrants any more parking. But people are lazy, and a garage within spitting distance of the Broad Street entrance to the PCC will undoubtedly succeed. I'm just hoping that these 500+ spaces will take business away from the half dozen eyesores scarring the blocks between Race and Vine.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

MilkBoy Coffee Coming to Center City

Ardmore's hot coffee joint is about to grace Washington Square and add a little excitement to a dreary block of Chestnut Street. The versatile music cafe, MilkBoy will serve coffee, drinks, and burgers.

Philadelphia Weekly has a nice editorial on MilkBoy's growing pains, as does the The Save Ardmore Coalition, as the Philadelphia's carpenters union protesters have been picketing their Ardmore location with banners reading "Milkboy Coffee Hurts our community". What they don't tell you is that union contractors demanded three times the price of the competitive, fair market builders. If you ask me, muscling small businesses into a cash strapped, cost prohibitive situation is what hurts our community.

Once this place opens, be sure to check it out. The giant, inflatable rat will make it really easy to find.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Barely Human: Marge Tartaglione

I try to steer clear of conventional politics here at Philly Bricks, but when our civil servants control what happens to our bricks, it's hard not to go down that road. A new monthly post, Barely Human, will shine a spotlight on our most institutionally corrupt elected and appointed officials. I'm not just talking about your average pay to play politicians or career council members, but the real sleaze that have become so out of touch with the reality of their job, that they honestly believe their behavior is not only ethical, but the professional norm.

Sadly, Philadelphia employs enough cretins to warrant a daily rant, but that would just get depressing.

I'm going to start with a feisty piece of shit that has been in office since Philadelphia's heyday of self destruction. Marge Tartaglione is our 78 year old City Commissioner seeking a tenth re-election. When interviewed by Philadelphia Weekly regarding her absence, she repeatedly fired back, "No comment," "No comment," with a "none of your business" thrown in to make sure everyone realizes what belligerent trash she really is.

As if that's not obvious. She just cashed a $288,000 check from the controversial DROP program, a perk she received for her "retirement" which lasted for a day in 2008. Recovering from open heart surgery, the great-grandmother in charge of city elections makes John McCain look like a spring chicken.

Age isn't the only reason Tartaglione deserves to be flushed with the rest of the bureaucratic cronies using our tax dollars to wipe their ass, she doesn't breed well either. Her daughter, Renee, was forced to resign from her mother's staff by the Board of Ethics. Renee's husband, Carlos Matos, another Philadelphia gem, is a former ward leader now in prison for bribery.

Her record speaks classic Philadelphia corruption too. In 1994, after two decades of experience, a judge ruled that she didn't follow the proper absentee ballot protocol. The same shenanigans may have been responsible for David Oh's loss of the 2007 City Council election to career Councilman Jack Kelly. put together a timetable of Tartaglione's outbursts throughout her career. In 1980, five years after she began, she got into a fistfight with Councilwoman Joan Krajewski. In 1988 she knocked a cigar from ward leader Norman Loudenslager's mouth, accusing him of writing a nasty note about her. In 1999 she charged at Carol Ann Campell like a bull in Pamplona. The next day she hit aide Ken Boggi in the face after allegedly sending one of her goons after him. And just last December she threatened a Philadelphia Weekly reporter after being questioned about her daughter's resignation. She's obviously aging. Her staff got quiet during the last altercation when the Philadelphia Weekly's reporter responded to her threat, essentially telling her to bring it.

Tartaglione is not only out of touch with her voters and what the city wants. She's unpredictable, unprofessional, and unstable, and it's apparent that she will make your career disappear if you don't dance with her. It's how business was done when she started, and in her mind, perhaps it is still 1975. She continues to employ her immoral, antiquated actions under the delusion that she is doing nothing unethical. And that, Marge Tartaglione, is what makes you Barely Human.

Marge Tartaglione can be contacted at the City Commissioner's Office:

City Hall, Room 130

Monday, March 21, 2011

Burnt Bricks

What happens when the earth beneath the ground catches fire and an entire town is forced to evacuate? You get the loose inspiration for the 1991 comedy, Nothing But Trouble: Centralia, PA.

Former State Highway 61 was rerouted when it began to succumb to the pressure below ground.

In 1962 a fire was started in the landfill of this Columbia County coal mining town, igniting an exposed anthracite coal vein and the earth beneath the town. As repeated attempts to extinguish the fire failed, the ground throughout the town of 1100 continued to smoke.

Trees line a street once lined with row homes.

Concern for the potential danger culminated in the late 70s and early 80s. An underground gas tank was found to be 172 degrees. A couple years later a 12 year old was nearly killed after the ground open up beneath him exposing a 150 foot deep sinkhole filled with carbon monoxide. He managed to hang to a tree root before his cousin pulled him to safety.

A stone wall along Park Street is lined with staircases leading up to what were once homes.

Domestic trees grow wild, tearing apart the manufactured remains of this abandoned town.

These incidents drew national attention and in 1984 U.S. Congress provided $42 million to relocate all residents to nearby towns. While the current census shows that seven residents remain, legally all remaining properties are condemned and as of 2009, all remaining residents have been formally evicted.

Centralia's South Hill shows the most obvious signs of the underground fire. The smoking ground is hot to the touch, releasing toxic carbon monoxide.

A lone staircase on Centralia's South Hill.

Besides the few hold outs on the town's small grid, signs of a once thriving small town can be found throughout Centralia's footprint. Trees have taken over sidewalks, faded stop signs mark intersections, and fire hydrants peek out above the overgrowth. The most significant sign of its former life is perhaps the stone wall with staircases marking the row homes that once lined Park Street.

Modern wind farms like the one west of Centralia can be found all around the region, perhaps signifying a new era in Pennsylvania power.

The only remaining street sign in Centralia is at the corner of Locust Avenue and Park Street.

State Route 61 takes you into Centralia. A bypass has been constructed around the original divided highway. Having succumbed to the earth settling into the burning coal mine, scarred with cracks and sink holes, highway 61 looks like it was destroyed by an earthquake. Smoke billows from its large crevasses where graffiti aptly tags it the "Highway to Hell".

In a small park at Locust and Park, a stone wall and time capsule marker are maintained.

Along Locust Avenue, or Highway 61, a stone wall is maintained surrounding a time capsule to be opened in 2016.

Centralia's blocks are marked with rows and rows of concrete and stone foundations, domestic hedges, spring flowers, and large trees that once divided lawns. At the hill on the south side of town is the heart of the underground fire. Smoke pours from vent pipes and cracks in the ground. Hot to the touch, the polluted air makes the area inhospitable to any sign of life but a bright green moss that seems to thrive in the acrid stench.

The Centralia Municipal Building houses emergency services supported by volunteers from neighboring towns.

Servicing the lone residents who have stayed in their homes, emergency services are provided by volunteers from neighboring towns, using the former municipal building to house an ambulance and fire truck. Atop the surrounding landscape are a strip mined mountain top to the west and modern windmills to the east; Centralia's forgotten contribution to powering America's early industry wedged in a small valley may continue to burn for the next 1000 years.

On the hill to the north opposite the smoke and poisonous gas, a small church watches over the few residents who choose not to leave Centralia and their homes.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Next Great City...still?

Philadelphia was pegged "The Next Great City" four years ago in 2007, and we're still embracing the label.

I just want to offer my humble opinion, maybe it's time to either become the Great City or move on to a new platform.

It's certainly better than "The Sixth Borough" or "Philadelphia Isn't as Bad as Philadelphian's Say it is," but I think we can do even better.

Second Chance for the Church of Assumption

The Church of the Assumption on Spring Garden has received another stay of execution. Well, not exactly. Today's decision was passed off to Department of Licenses & Inspection. L&I's unsympathetic reputation towards historic buildings (and disregard for legal protocol) is disconcerting enough in itself. But Siloam, the agency that currently owns the historically significant property clearly wants nothing to do with the building. When initially given an estimate of $1.5 million just to stabilize the church, Siloam saught to demolish the building for a parking lot.

They have since hired consultants to point out the potential hazards in the dilapidated icon of Spring Garden.

Yeah. We know it's in rough shape. Do something with it or sell it.

Besides, no independent assessments of the building's condition have been made. Total estimates of more than $5 million allegedly required for the building's total restoration were made by consultants picked by Siloam.

During its maneuvering, Siloam has had 75 inquiries and 15 visits from prospective buyers, yet claims no serious offers have been made. The property is valued at less than $600,000, which will fetch you a modest McMansion in Cherry Hill. And not one serious offer has been made?

The goose with the golden egg will testify when the hearing continues on March 28th. The Clay Studio in Old City is looking for new home and would be eligible for credits towards the building's restoration. Representatives from the studio visited the property but were deterred by its imminent demolition.

In short: They want the building, not the property. So why, if 15 prospective buyers were shown the property, did Siloam claim that all prospective buyers were uninterested? Because if Siloam is allowed to move forward with their plans, the state is prepared to cover the cost of its demolition, and speculatively, Siloam wants its parking lot.

Yeah, Callowhill needs more parking.

Friday, March 11, 2011


As Forbes uses Philadelphia to wipe its butt with seemingly weekly national rankings, the city hasn't allowed the nation's negative impression to dampen its innovate spirit. Perhaps that's because we're used to it.

Recently ranked the
nation's most toxic major city, Philadelphia is silently leading the way in alternative energy uses.

While the West Coast's feel good factories charge their yuppies big bucks for a sense of self satisfaction and "green" gimmicks promise to save the earth, here
we don't always have the most altruistic motives behind our innovations. We're prompted by the nudge most historically proven to succeed: Money. Whether saving it or making it, we're slowing finding ways to make alternative energies worth their weight in recycled cans, and they could one day save our cash strapped city.

I'm not talking about marketing hybrids and low flow toilets to hipsters. I'm talking about using experimental green technology to actually save money. It's been the dream of idealists for years. Renewable energy should theoretically be cheap, but the technology has always made it a luxury most economically diverse cities couldn't afford.

But not necessarily any more.
Not only might Philadelphia be home to the first self sustaining sports complex in the word, SEPTA is now working with Viridity Energy to turn our 100 year old subway system into a fuel efficient hybrid.

The Pennsylvania Energy Department Authority has given SEPTA and Viridity Energy a $900,000 grant to install a regenerative breaking system along the Market-Frankford line generating 1.5 megawatts of power.

The power can use used by accelerating trains, stored for future use, or even sold to the city's power grid.
SEPTA is expected to save $500,000. If the technology were applied to the entire system, SEPTA's energy use could be cut by 40%.

Back in the Top 5!

The numbers are in and for the first time since the 1940s, we've grown! At one time the second largest city in the British Empire, Philadelphia began declining in the 1950s from over 2 million people to an all time low of just above 1.5 million in 2000.

But today it's been made certain, we have grown by .6% to 1,526,066, securing our spot in the 2010 census as the fifth most populous city in the United States. Although Phoenix grew by 9.4% and was expected to replace Philadelphia's two decade spot at number five, the economy and politics took a toll on the Sunbelt's sprawling metropolis, and it fell short with 1,445,632 residents.

.6% may not seem substantial, but in a city scarred by the loss of more than half a million people, small growth is significant. Think about it this way: In the past 50 years, Philadelphia has lost 554,055 people, more than the population of Atlanta. Even at .6%, the fact that Philadelphia is growing after losing a quarter of it's residents is cause for celebration.

New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago still hold the top three, with Houston at number four.

Philadelphia's Metropolitan and Statistical Area is at number five as well, at 5,968,252, just behind Dallas-Ft. Worth, both trailing New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Nightmares in the Attic

I lived in my rental trinity for several years before realizing it had at attic. That's because the door had been sealed behind a shower stall. I saw it once when the landlord made repairs on the bathroom and I did everything in my power not to pick off the remaining drywall and sneak a peak inside.

I later found peace from the horrors of a locked and abandoned room when a neighbor told me that she had seen her attic. She suggested that all the attics in the five house complex were connected. Great. So she's seen my attic, my landlord's seen my attic. It's clean, and most importantly, no bodies.

Well apparently my neighbor's sweeping glance of her attic wasn't that clear. As my third floor ceiling continues to leak dark water from 210 years of deteriorating cedar planks, my landlord informed me that there was, in fact, no way to access my attic. In fact, the door was sealed shut when plumbing was installed in what was once home to a pair of servants indentured to a wealthy family on Vine Street.

Two years ago when a plumber removed the shower stall to replace a leaky basin, I was unaware that we stood closer to the blackness that sat above my bedroom than anyone had in half a century, perhaps more. Three inches of drywall and a faded cabinet door were all that remained between me and a dark space sealed shut and forgotten.

My landlord's eyes grew big when I told him I had once seen the door. It prompted me to ask, "What is up there? Why was it sealed shut?" I got a vague response that was little more than a shrug. The shower could have easily been added to the south wall of the room, but instead the attic door knob was removed, and the shower stall was placed in front of it, holding the door shut and keeping it's secrets secret.

The home's 210 year history has seen slaves, servants, immigrants, prostitutes, and bohemians, all of which may have accessed and used the mysterious space above the third floor. These are the kinds of spaces where people hide that which they hold most sacred, from others but also from themselves, locked in an attic for posterity, lost to time.

What demons does this attic hold? Loot, letters, maybe a body? Perhaps it's just a couple inches of brown water and black mold. Whatever sits behind that shower, knowing that it hasn't been opened in 50 years has made me even more eager to see what's behind that door.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


It seems like everyone has been catching David Lynch's cult classic, Eraserhead, On Demand. After hearing that this neighborhood was often referred to as the Eraserhood because of Lynch's residing here in the 60s and 70s, and as a Twin Peaks fan, I figured I'd see what all the fuss was about.

Like a lot of his stuff, it seemed weird for the sake of being weird. A lot of very interesting and eerie stills that might make better photography than cinema, and a story that probably only makes sense to him, if even.

Still, like most of David Lynch's more avante garde films, it's unusual visuals make for good conversation. It's an interesting bit of local flavor too. Lynch has stated that the movie was inspired by his nights in the Callowhill neighborhood in the 60s and 70s.

I would love to see the Callowhill Neighborhood Association organize a public showing of this, perhaps in one of the vacant lots or parking lots around the neighborhood. Maybe even up against the locked entrance to the viaduct.

So many Callowhill residents are always talking about the hidden potential in the Reading Viaduct, but in the mean time rarely go outside. Even if the neighborhood association wasn't interested, I can't imagine it would be that difficult to clean up a lot and power up a projector.

The entrance to the viaduct is used for nothing more than a dog park and could easily be cleaned up for an outdoor mixer. It would be a great way to get people out to meet each other. Most Callowhill residents seem to drive straight to their parking space, go home, and lock the door.

Even if one wouldn't be interested in David Lynch's nightmares, wandering out in the evening and opening their doors to migle with their neighbors would be a welcome change to a neighborhood that's been hiding in its own shadows since long before David Lynch ever set foot here.