Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Save Sriracha

When it comes to things Americans enjoy, particularly our vices, the government can't move fast enough to stop it. Of course things like smoking, drinking, pot, and transfat are unhealthy habits that probably deserve at least some level of public regulation.

But what happens when the government misses the mark? Instead of looking at thirty years of production history, the government looks at the public's overwhelming interest in a product, their addiction to it, and immediately treats it like heroin.

That's an exaggeration, of course, but an exaggeration of what the California government is doing to Huy Fong Foods' wildly popular Sriracha sauce.

Although previous complaints by neighbors shut down Huy Fong's Irwindale, CA factory in November, California regulators have stepped up their efforts to shut Huy Fong down, or at least drive it out of the state.

According to Anita Gore from the California health department, new FDA regulations applied just last year will have an impact on raw foods. Since Sriracha isn't cooked, and is a natural food containing no additives or preservatives, it could be prone to bacterial growth.

It's kind of ironic that a state that prides itself on the natural and organic is trying to shut down a product that has been natural and organic for thirty years, and widely available.

One has to wonder why regulators are pressing Huy Fong Foods and no other hot sauce makers, most of which contain uncooked and raw ingredients as well. Is California's decision to suspend Huy Fong Foods' operations a good intentioned provision of new FDA requirements, or is it simply another knee-jerk reaction by government suits to put an end to something that's just a little bit too enjoyable?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

More Decadence for the Mummers Parade

A year ago, the irrelevant Philadelphia Metro Task Force, from the even more mythical Saint David's, PA, was distressed that the Mummers Association decided to allow "a dance troupe that is known as sexually transgender" to perform in the annual parade.

If you've ever seen the Mummers strut up Broad Street on New Years Day, clad in bedazzled dresses and large feather headdresses, you understand how absurd the Task Force's statement really is.

I mean to the unfamiliar, one would likely wonder why the Philadelphia Gay Pride Parade took place on New Years morning. The drunken orgy of hot glue and sequins puts our annual Pride Parade to shame. In fact, if the Mummers strutted (a term that might even be too gay for drag queens to use) in the balmy summer they'd undoubtedly be just as scanty clad as the twinks atop Woody's float in June, although they'd probably look more like the boys from the Bike Stop.

Of course the Mummers Association unequivocally ignored the Task Force's letter of concern, stating that the Mummers Drag Brigade was a fine way to attract a broader audience.

Mummers LGBT Liaison Committee
When I first saw this picture on Facebook, I couldn't decide who looked more awkward, our city's drag queens or our city's leaders. Then I realized that our city's people working together is exactly what makes Philadelphia such an amazingly embracing place. Bravo, ladies and gentlemen.
This year the Mummers Parade will again host drag queens and now, drag kings. To the folks at PMTF, there is a difference between a drag queen and a "sexually transgender" person. Watch Too Wong Foo, Wesley Snipes has a great monologue that explains it all.

What drag queens and drag kings do isn't much different than every other Mummer in the parade's century long history. They put on make up and they perform. But how one identifies shouldn't matter in a parade that brings all Philadelphians together, and it doesn't matter to the Mummers Association. And that's fabulous.

In respect to history, female impersonators regularly participated in the Mummers Parade into the 1970s when women were allowed to participate. Councilman Jim Kenny, who's been a champion of LGBT causes in Philadelphia, helped bring the queens back to the Mummers Parade after their last appearance in 1989.

Is this the W Hotel?

With all the construction buzz around town - the FMC tower and the Grove completing Cira Centre's original plan and carrying the skyline across the Schuylkill River, Dranoff's SLS International Hotel, talk of high rise or two at the Girard Trust Block - Inquirer Architecture Critic Inga Saffron might be faced with more subject matter than she's seen since 2005, and it's wonderful.

W Element Hotel? Maybe.
Still, little has been said of the still-vacant lot at 15th and Chestnut, once the proposed location for a Waldorf-Astoria and now a W Hotel. Rumors of talks and tax incentives have found their way online, but little has been officially released.

A cute and very preliminary rendering showed up on SkyscraperCity a few days ago showing a glass tower roughly the same height as City Hall. Dubbed the W Element Hotel, the rendering is very simple, but worth a look.

SLS International Hotel

News broke today that Carl Dranoff's SLS International Hotel and Condo at Broad and Spruce is all but a done deal. And at 47 stories and 562 feet, it's tall. Like taller than William Penn, tall.

Dranoff Properties released Kohn Pedersen Fox architects' initial renderings of the sleek tower and it's an exciting departure from Dranoff's other properties. Construction is planned to start in 2014.

Kohn Pedersen Fox

Kenny Gamble, of the legendary Gamble and Huff and Philadelphia International Records, sold the current building to Carl Dranoff.

Despite the loss of the landmark building, South Broad Street will also be losing a vacant gravel lot.

Kohn Pedersen Fox

The hotel's name pays homage to Philadelphia International Records and vested parties have hinted that more than the namesake will pay tribute to Gamble and Huff, Philadelphia International Records, and Mayor Wilson Goode, whose offices were once in the current building.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Preservation Alliance's Endangered Properties

Curbed Philly put together a nice map of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia's endangered properties list. With seventeen sites threatened, all undeniably significant or downright amazing, it means that Philadelphians either host too much history to care, or that the Historical Commission of Philadelphia doesn't care.

It's probably a little of both. Few American cities host as much built history as Philadelphia. Smaller cities preserve their history in lieu of growing while New York and Chicago have demolished much of their history due to market demands. Saturated with so much history, Philadelphians can take it for granted.

However, that makes the city's Historical Commission that much more important. Instead of existing solely to pass out demolition permits, the Commission's job in a city as historic as Philadelphia is to protect the city's history. That doesn't mean simply saving what developers are willing to save, but lobbying the city for funds, creating programs to assist with restoration, and being the voice of preservation.

The Alliance's list, which doesn't just include landmarks like Lynnewood Hall and the Divine Lorraine, but also unconventional sites like the SS United States and others that many consider insignificant like the Roundhouse.

Despite the Historical Commission's ineptitude, practices that run entirely counter to the commission's purpose, it's nice that Philadelphia is home to many nonprofit organizations willing to do the commission's job. Unfortunately without the city's support these organizations are only able to address dire situations setting themselves up for failure. Perhaps the Historical Commission should be abolished and the Preservation Alliance of Philadelphia contracted in its place.

SEPTA Concourse Improvements

Have you ever enter SEPTA's Broad Street concourse, or any part of the city's cavernous underground, and felt the impending doom of the subway scene from The Wiz?

While you might curse SEPTA for your fears, frustrations, and that urine smell, SEPTA actually doesn't manage the concourses, the city's Department of Public Property does.

That's about to change, and improve. The state's recently approved transportation funding has put SEPTA in a position to beef up its system, and the transit organization is seeking to take over management of the city's underground concourses.

Wanamaker's display window on the Market Street subway concourse

What's more interesting than simply cleaning the vast space, SEPTA is even considering retail additions to its more prominent corners of the underground. For decades Wanamaker's Department Store had several displayed windows along the Market Street's concourse, even entrances long since shuttered. Perhaps we may soon see them reopened.

Free Library's eBook Kiosk

America's first public library added another first to Philadelphia's history. PlanPhilly reported this week that the Free Library's virtual library at Suburban Station is the nation's first of the kind.

Libraries around the world have been struggling for a while, competing with the internet, the disposable cost of books, and now ebooks. It's a shame, but it's a problem that should have been addressed decades ago. Now that big box bookstores have been rendered irrelevant by ebooks and Amazon.com, libraries are trying to sustain a model that has been lapped by the market's evolution numerous times.

Unfortunately it's tricky. A library's most noted purpose is actually supplemental. It's easy to look at a library as a failing business and say, "it's not making money, people get books elsewhere, just close it." But libraries are neither businesses nor designed to generate revenue. They largely exist as regional archives, banks of information that - believe it or not - is not available online, and museums to posterity. They've never been sustained by late fees, only governments dedicated to that posterity.

In that regard, a library system's main obstacle is public perception. The Free Library of Philadelphia has taken an important step in the right direction with its virtual library kiosk at Suburban Station. It finally ignores decades of failure and charges headfirst into the here and now, offering readers exactly what they're looking for.

In an increasingly virtual world, buildings matter less. Of course Philadelphia's remaining library branches will continue to offer readers physical books and quiet places for research, particularly at it's prominent Logan Square location. But offering readers a free, membership based alternative to downloading ebooks at cost, it reminds readers that libraries exist.

Fox News Ruins Christmas

Thank you, Megyn Kelly, and Fox News' panel of bitter white people for proving once and for all that Santa Claus and Jesus Christ are white, bridging your news network's gap between oppressive conservativism and overt racism, and murdering Christmas once and for all.


Fox News' disturbing panel rant was a reaction to Aisha Harris's Slate article discussing her personal experience with two Santas, one at the mall and one at home who looked a little more like her.

The article brings up a lot of good points, but is also somewhat lighthearted, like all things Christmas should be.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

What to do with Detroit?

Gawker has a few ideas. Today Gawker posted an article, if you can call it that, with what looks like a group chat. Don't bother reading it. It's one, long inside joke that doesn't even end with a bang...like an SNL skit this side of Tina Fey.

Okay, SNL is a worn target, but so is Detroit.

"What Should Be Done About Detroit?" Well my first response to the question posed by Gawker, and seemingly everyone in the Western World was, "Well, what do Detroiters think should be done with Detroit?" Now sure, Detroit is currently undergoing the nation's largest municipal bankruptcy, so the city has willingly accepted national input.

But to use a prominent blog to pose the question and then follow that question with an internal conversation and a series of inside jokes, with no input from anyone in Detroit, is a bit disrespectful to a city that still deserves at least a shred of respect.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a huge fan of self deprecation and politically incorrect humor, but the article isn't even funny to anyone not involved in the conversation. And for politically incorrect humor to be funny, it also should have a point.

This article is just a bunch of New York hipsters abusing a real city most of them have never been to, to fill HTML. Come on, Gawker isn't my favorite blog, but it's better than this turd.

Still a city

That said, the Motor City is in a dire situation, they've even considered auctioning off the city's art collection valued at $866M. Sure, that's a handsome number, but when you consider the fact that $800M builds a convention center and Detroit owes $18B, is it really worth it? Maybe. Detroit holds an art collection on par with many large American cities. While it will barely make a dent in the city's debt, why hold art that no one is visiting at the cost of pensions?

Detroit's problems are complex, and perhaps that's why Gawker pitched an inane conversation at it instead of thoughtful discussion. I'm not going to pretend to know how to fix that city, but its rebirth will unlikely be relative to Philadelphia's or any other major American city. Detroit has lost more than a million residents who aren't returning.

When Detroit does find its way, and it will, it will certainly be smaller, less globally relevant, but it will always represent what it once was. Gawkers need to remember that, despite what's become of the city, Detroit built an industry few cities can claim.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Philadelphhia Eataly

For a century Market East thrived, serving Philadelphia's diverse community. It was America's Main Street, its success waxing and waning. But then Strawbridge and Clothier was purchased by Macy's, closed, and Market East was declared dead.

Macy's retained the Wanamaker Building and not wanting to compete with itself, relinquished the historic Strawbridge and Clothier building. The Wanamaker Building is certainly the more significant of the two, but the Strawbridge building on Market East was Strawbridge's historic flagship location.

Rumors of casinos and condos circulated for years until it was finally turned into a dull office building. For now the ground floor is occupied by the Franklin Flea Market, a temporary winter market that will undoubtedly be one of those places only truly appreciated by history, like Center City in the 90s or McGlinchey's.

The latest rumor is that Food Network's celebrity chef, Mario Batali and his colleagues are eyeing the building's retail space for Eataly, a Gourmet Italian grocery store started in New York.

With many Center City residents asking for a grocery store, Eataly may be one solution. There's no doubt that market research pointed Eataly to DiBruno's apparent interest in a Ben Franklin House location as well as the Reading Terminal Market, making Strawbridge's a perfect location for competition.

Grocery shopping is different for urbanites. Although Whole Foods and Trader Joe's (for some reason) serve their purpose, many city folks don't simply go to a big box grocery stores on Sunday afternoon. They grab things on their way home to work, selecting various items from one vendor or one shop, moving to the next.

Eataly provides this opportunity, particularly near DiBruno Brothers and Reading Terminal Market on the path from Center City to Washington Square, Society Hill, and the emerging Callowhill.

Of course the biggest question for Eataly if it decides to open here is, will they sell wine?

Ultraviolet Sidewalks

Need a cost cutting solution to supplementing the lighting along the Schuylkill River, or dare I say the Delaware Waterfront?

Pro-Teq of the U.K. developed ultraviolet surfacing that looks like something out of the rainforests of Pandora.

During the day, UV reactive particles absorb light, releasing it at night creating something that looks like bioluminescent grass.

Since the UV reactive particles are essentially manmade gravel, installing it is as simple as paving an asphalt bike trail, or even a gravel trail.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Goldtex Apartments' Next Uphill Battle

Now that Goldtex has defied convention and won the war against the region's unions, let's talk about the new apartment building that stands to define the city's latest hip address.

It's certainly grand. Post Brothers brought ambitious design, high end appliances, and the kind of amenities usually reserved for condos to the rental market. But their next challenge could be finding those renters.

Starting at almost $1400 for a little more than 500 square feet, Goldtex must compete with luxury rentals in Rittenhouse and Society Hill. In fact, the main thing more appealing about Goldtex than similar Center City rentals is easy parking and freeway access, and one can find those conveniences in University City or the suburbs for far less. 

Come on, who shaves like that?

But that could all change. Goldtex may be the catalyst Callowhill needs bring the same success found in hip islands like Passyunk Square closer to Center City. Although it's not comparable to the Piazza, more foot traffic at 12th and Wood can encourage other developers to explore the vicinity's vacant warehouses and surface lots, even those across Vine Street.

The nearby State Office Building has already been transformed into Tower Place. With 50% of Post Brothers' Goldtex units rented before their building is even complete, they've given Bart Blatstein the fire he needs to begin converting his nearby Inquirer Building.

Still, Goldtex is unique. Philadelphia is not a transient town. Most renters ultimately want to buy, and are often willing to settle for standard amenities with modest rent in the mean time. Over time the Post Brothers may find themselves regretting the decision to use stainless steel appliances and lavish amenities, amenities that need to be maintained and replaced throughout the years.

Luxury rentals aren't easy to sustain, and where they survive, they're paired with a premier address. Still, while we leap to 18th and Walnut when we think of that premier address, luxury rentals have helped transform Northern Liberties and University City into mighty fine addresses.

Callowhill's grit has always been baffling considering its proximity to Center City. It's dynamic and urban unlike emerging areas of South Philadelphia much farther from City Hall and public transportation. It may take just one, wildly publicized and successful building to remind people how close the neighborhood is to everything.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Toll Brother to take on Rittenhouse Square?

For some time Toll Brothers has been experimenting in expanding its market to urban spaces, even Manhattan. Naval Square, though fortressed from its urban surroundings, has been Forgotten Bottom's most successful development.

But the development corporation, largely synonymous with suburban McMansions, has also been growing vertically.

Recently Toll Brothers has explored the possibility of purchasing 1911 Walnut Street. Just off Rittenhouse Square, the vacant lot is perhaps the city's most coveted construction site.

Castleway's 1911 Walnut

Empty since the 90s and owned by Ireland's Castleway Properties, the lot's last proposal was for a 50 story tower that died with the Great Recession.

It was an exciting design, but given Toll Brothers' reputation, one that likely won't be resurrected. As one of the largest development companies in the nation, Toll Brothers is a publically traded company. Although their talent may not want to design for the status quo, appeasing its shareholders often means doing just that.

1911 Walnut's premier address deserves exciting architecture. But Castleway Properties purchased the lot for nearly $38M, and that price tag means fielding a developer that can afford it. Having been vacant for two decades, Toll Brothers may be the only offer the site could see for a while.

Toll Brothers isn't the only company guilty of lackluster design. It's a hazard of the trade. While corporations like Comcast and Verizon want to stamp their brand on exciting architecture, residential developers, even private ones, need to appeal to the broadest range of customers. That often means dull glass curtains. When residential developers try to offer something interesting we wind up with Symphony House.

If Toll Brothers does decides to purchase the site, and that's still a big "if," they may consider the significance of the address and offer up something exciting. They're certainly capable. Given Philadelphia's influential neighborhood organizations, a Toll Brothers tower at 1911 Walnut will never look bad. If developed, the worst the site would see is something dull. But it all remains to be seen.

Don't Stop the Music

Philadelphia isn't known as a nightclub kind of town. It's somewhat sad. If this were the 90s, in any other city, saving Spring Garden's Church of the Assumption would be easy. Turn it into an amazing nightclub. Serve up signature Blood of Christ cocktails from chalices while sushi is rolled across the Abs of Christ atop the crucifix.

Have those comments weeks before Jesus's birthday secured my place in Hell? Don't worry, I'm already well on my way.

I'm not young enough to enjoy the Adderall popping unicorn farts the nightlife scene has become, but I'm not old enough to wax poetic about my glory days.

But I'm going to anyway.

Back in my day, the Roaring 90s, in a distant land of Olde DC, there was a place called Tracks. It was in a terrifying neighborhood, which in 1995, was most of Washington. It's now the site of the Expos Stadium, sorry, I mean the Senators, er, the Nationals. Whatever that sorry excuse for Disney Baseball nostalgia decided to brand itself.

Tracks DC

You know what was nostalgic? A sandpit volleyball court next to a hamburger grill where you could enjoy some mozz sticks, a Potomac polluted cocktail, and jump into a volleyball game with a frat boy, lesbian, goth chick, and a drag queen digging her size 13s into the sand in the shadow of the US Capitol Building. It was a performer being lowered onto the roller rink sized dance floor atop a ten food wide disco ball.

It was fantastic. No, it was fabulous.

Unfortunately I didn't move to Philadelphia until 2003, right around the time that the cast of Friends started marrying each other and the cast of Sex and the City forever ruined the urban experience.

You see, in the 80s and 90s the only people with the balls to live in any American city were those who never left and gay people with nowhere else to go. Despite the routine ignorance that abound the American suburbs, before Ellen came out of the celluloid closet, and the very notion of gay marriage was even conceived, America's cities were something of an anomaly.

They weren't places for convention. Convention found its way here to work and promptly left at five. Daring suburbanites who crossed our bridges and tunnels to dance were too afraid to express any prejudices, or too excited to hold them.

Before Y2K and the War on Terror transformed optimism into fear, America's urban experience was a lawless fantasy. It was Bladerunner, The Fifth Element, it was under the Thunderdome. All those dangerous, terrifying, but wild dystopic futures predicted for the 21st Century have already happened. And they were amazing.

Philadelphia, even with its quant Colonial charm, before Helmut Jahn defied the city's Gentleman's Agreement, was not immune to the Strange Days of the late 20th Century. Today's nightlife scene is largely relegated to Penn's Landing, with few places to dance within the grid of Center City.

But not too long ago, Philadelphia's nightlife didn't end with Dave & Busters or cocktails mixed by the latest celebrity chef at another five star restaurant. It was an experience with no expectations. Not because our standards were low, but because we really just didn't know what to expect. Some of that still lingers in the small streets of Washington Square West and concert venues around Spring Garden.

I saw the Scissor Sisters at the Electric Factory a couple years ago, and despite the fact that it didn't smell like cigarettes and Zima, it felt a whole lot like 1997.

But beyond the venues that remain like Silk City and Voyeur, the positive transformation the city has made with its wonderful restaurants, hotels, and coffee shops, there are relics that linger amongst the streets of Center City. No, I don't mean that 37 year old who just wasted your time regaling you with his glory days.

A few years ago, a friend of mine living in the Adelphia House made an exciting and unexpected discovery in the basement. Most of you know the Adelphia House. Many who regularly follow my blog probably live there because you're cheap and want to live in Center City. I know I've considered it.

Despite the purple carpet that Philadelphia Management Company puts in all of its apartments, it's become a fine building. (But seriously though, what is up with that carpet? Did they buy like a billion square feet of it at a remnant sale twenty years ago?)

The building does have a reputation, though, and that reputation is deserved. In the 80s the Adelphia House, and numerous other defunct hotels in Center City, were synonymous with the Spruce Parker Hotel. They were flop houses. Rent was negotiable, and often by the day, week, or month, sometimes by the hour. Most large cities still have one or two of these hotels, particularly in the Pacific Northwest.

But today, the Adelphia House is just another apartment building on Midtown Village's up and coming Chestnut Street. With the exception of one dusty secret. There's a nightclub in the basement.

Beneath the lobby's banal renovation sits what remains of the city's once infamous East Side Club. Just to the right of the lobby's entrance is an inconspicuous door leading down to the remains of Philadelphia's New Wave Studio 54.

After the East Side Club closed it became Kurt's, a gay dance club, and another club after that. Today the space partially remains, or at least it did a few years ago when one tenant accidentally stumbled upon it, its dance floor used primarily for storage.

It's not the only relic of Philadelphia's dormant last days of disco. A couple years ago Michael Borlando published a series of photos on Hidden City inside the mysterious remains of Chestnut's Hale Building.

Michael Borlando

As with much of Chestnut Street's lingering blight, the Hale Building has gone from housing budget retail to abandonment. Once the site of Drucker's Bellevue Bathhouse, a gay sex club, the remaining interior is more than just a target for urban spelunkers that have largely left the building alone, it's an essay to a bygone era.

Clinging to the past is a futile effort to cling to youth. My wild nights at Tracks, like any young Philadelphian's night at East Side Club or Kurt's, were largely a product of naïve wonderment. I've been to Voyeur. The music is still the same, the smoke filled atmosphere is the same, the only thing that's changed is my perception. Once an experience I never wanted to end, dancing until the sun came up, today, it would be absolute Hell.

Likely for the best. Successful cities change, and like cities, so do our relationships with our cities. I still enjoy a night of dancing, but it ends in my bed around midnight, not at Midtown Diner as the sun comes up.

Whatever the future holds for the Hale Building, the basement of the Adelphia House, and the city's nightlife scene, people will always find a place to dance as long as the music never ends.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Robinson's on Market East

Robinson's Luggage is closing its doors. I don't know why that's news. Who buys luggage at a specialty store? I still throw my chonies in a Jansport backpack.

This isn't about overpriced handbags. It's about Market East's Robinson's Department Store and the need to declare it historic and begin the campaign to restore its façade is now. Yes, this very minute.

Historic communities have a knack for calling history buffs to action at the eleventh hour. The historic Boyd Theater is likely doomed, as is Kenny Gamble's Philadelphia International Music. As much as I'd love to see both saved, historic preservation is a job for thousands of people, and part of that job is admitting you've lost.

But more importantly, it's anticipating future loss.

With NREA's planned expansion of the Girard Trust Block, the Gallery's proposed renovations, and rumors flying around Bloomingdale's interest as an anchor, it's quite possible that we will be looking at a whole new Market East by 2015.

Market East doesn't host a bevy of historic properties. With ample real estate at the Disney Hole and lackluster, craptastic architecture begging to be redeveloped, the gems of Market East are likely secure. No one will ever tear down Reading Terminal or the PSFS Building and the post office is probably safe.

But there's one icon on Market East that is largely ignored by historians and completely ignored by shoppers that choose to endure Kmart.

Victor Gruen's Robinson's Department Store still stands at 1020 Market Street. Its neon lights broken and large signature long gone, few people know it's there and why it's significant.

At first glance, Robinson's is a Brutalist nightmare, a product of midcentury design many would rather forget. Stained and cracked, the five story Robinson's looks like a murky, concrete wave prepared to envelope what's left of Market East.

But it's more than that. The façade is actually comprised of thousands of small, indigo tiles that once sparkled as a beacon to Market East's thriving enterprises.

Of all of California's Grayson - Robinson's eleven unique department stores, Philadelphia's is one of the few that remain. Although Robinson's tends to get lumped into worn midcentury design, it's anything but.

Its graceful curves harken earlier experiments with Art Nuveau and Art Deco while the sterility and simplicity of its face carried architects to their modern interpretation of International Style: Brutalism. It was built at an odd period of European influence during America's rebirth that followed the Great Depression. Many peg it for basic 1960s retail design, but it was built in 1946 and it's so much more interesting.

While Robinson's peddled affordable womensware much like Burlington Coat Factory and Marshall's, it predated low budget architecture by a solid two decades while catering to the diversity that was Market East.

In its heyday, Robinson's dazzling façade was illuminated by five large lights, its signature, and two smaller neon demarcations. Although its beauty is hard to see today, the building is largely underutilized. Some Scrubbing Bubble and a Sham Wow could easily bring out its luster.

But now is the time. Market East has positioned itself as a clean slate and Robinson's simply blends into the background of disposable real estate. Philadelphian's preservationists need to recognize Robinson's worth, as it was, is, and can be.


In the United States, Santa Clause is a benevolent character, showering boys and girls who behave their best one month before Christmas with gaming systems and Barbie Dream Houses. Let's not dig too deep. He's also an anagram/homonym for Satan Claws who watches children sleep, one who employs a sweatshop of dwarves, and when one of his reindeer was being bullied because of a gross deformity, he turned him into a flood light.

I mean come on, Rudolph may have suffered from bioluminescent rosacea, but at least his name wasn't Prancer.

But in this season of good tidings, we ignore the fact that Superman's neighbor drops prizes down the chimneys of the worlds brattiest brats while completely ignoring the content of Africa and allow him to invade our home on the night of December 25th because he gives us free swag.

Other Westernized nations are not so gracious. Throughout the Alpine nations of Austria, Germany, Hungary and beyond, a not so friendly pagan nightmare haunts the naughtier children of Europe.

Merry Christmas

Krampus, the son of hell, roams the streets of European villages on the evening of December 5th scaring German children into becoming, well, German. Fueled by schnapps because, what else, this hooved and horned beast dragging chains and wielding fire throws coal at misbehaving children and swats them with birch branches.

Merry Christmas!

Councilman Clarke's LOVE Park

Councilman Darrell Clarke is perhaps best known for his district's acres of inexplicably vacant land and surface parking lots. He has a knack for getting re-elected largely by pitting wars between yuppies pushing lofty condos into his turf and blocks of subsidized residents.

He's a dick. But in American politics, being a dick wins elections.

Why is Philadelphia's favorite building, the Divine Lorraine, still vacant? Ask Clarke. But despite being a thorn in the ass of every private developer who wants a piece of his domain, his latest proposal is a complete departure from the man's effort to keep his neighborhoods looking like the opening scene from Trading Places.

Or so it would seem.

Clarke's LOVE Park

With a Chicago company's recent bid for the LOVE Park parking garage, renovation of the park above is still up in the air. Adorned with the city's Christmas Village, the park is a wonderful place. But eleven months out of the year, LOVE Park is a hobo camp dotted with European tourists wondering what that smell is.

It's Philadelphia, Björn. That smell is Philadelphia.

Clarke's plan wouldn't just clean up the park, it would turn the park's management over to his arch nemesis: Private Investors. Clarke sees a LOVE Park, with its lavish fountain and Robert Indiana's iconic LOVE sculpture, surrounded by seven indoor and outdoor restaurants, cafes, and bars.

It's a fantastic vision. With numerous Parkway improvements in place and a reborn Dilworth Plaza on the horizon, LOVE Park is really the last piece in the Renaissance between City Hall and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It's a great idea, but in Clarke's hands, will we see it?

Clarke is the heir apparent to the Mayor's office. In an all but one-party town like Philadelphia, primary elections determine our mayor. And since only seven people with half a brain bother to vote in those primaries, our city's Democratic party essentially appoints the victor. The Republican party on the other hand doesn't bother sending a worthy adversary to the arbitrary debates. I mean why send your A-game to a fight just to stamp "loser" on their resume?

However, the Philadelphia that has kept Clarke in office since 1999 isn't the same Philadelphia it was a decade and a half ago, particularly in Center City, Northern Liberties, South Philadelphia, and University City. The city is growing, and those moving to the city are educated, informed, and some even know the difference between a Philadelphia Republican and Ted Cruz.

Clarke's plan, if it ever comes to fruition, is certainly exciting. But the plan itself is Poli Sci 101. It's a sophomoric effort to grab some publicity outside his depressed and struggling part of town, an effort that many new voters can smell as easily as that weird poop smell coming up from the cracks between the unglued tiles of LOVE Park.

We likely won't see seven restaurants gracing LOVE Park within the next year and the mayoral election is less than two years away. If Clarke can glide this high into the Mayor's office, will he return to his worn ways and abandon his experiment, or will he cater to the broader scope of the whole city and fulfill the obligations he's laying out?

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Gamble and Huff

Bradley Maule
The announcement of Carl Dranoff's forty story hotel at the site of Philadelphia International Records has caused a stir amongst both American music lovers and national historians. The small but pronounced building at Broad and Spruce, partially destroyed by a fire in 2010, is the location that Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff helped launch the careers of Motown and Disco legends.

With Philadelphia International Records and its neighbor, Utrecht Art Supplies closed, the building is currently vacant. Still, the building stands in the Broad Street Historic District so it's the prime location for Philadelphia's first museum dedicated to the Philadelphia Sound, right?

Well there's just one catch. Kenny Gamble, largely responsible for the building's iconic history, is still very much alive. In fact it is his holding division, the Great Philadelphia Trading Company that is orchestrating the building's sale to Carl Dranoff.

It's a unique situation. The building is clearly historic, but historically significant thanks to Kenny Gamble. Can the city really say, "You did a great job making history, but we're going to tell you what to do with the building that made it. But hey, thanks for the music"?

Given the impending outcome at the Boyd Theater, the city's Historical Commission has rendered itself useless, just an item on any developer's shopping list. But our private historic organizations, those truly dedicated to the salvation of our region's landmarks don't operate without their own missteps.

The simple fact is this is Kenny Gamble's building. If the city forces it from the source of the building's history, in the name of history, the city comes across as a great big ass. That doesn't mean there should be no effort to save it. But that's where Philadelphia's historic organizations need to be a little less...Philadelphian.

Gamble needs a reason to save the building, or at least its legacy. Is the building itself significant or just the music it helped create? At the very least the discussion has proposed the need for a museum dedicated to the sound brought to us by Gamble and Huff. Would a museum anchoring Dranoff's new hotel significantly honor that, or is there true history in the current building's architecture.

Do those rallying to save the building really understand why it's significant? Do they listen to records bought at Philadelphia International Records and connect it to the architecture.

Historic preservation is rarely about buildings, but historians can be somewhat ragmatic when it comes to restoration. Even at the Boyd Theater, what are historians trying to preserve? A building or an experience? An experience that few still appreciate?

At Broad and Spruce, that experience is the music, and most of that history was lost to the fire in 2010. What's left may truly be an insignificant building.

These are all things that preservationists need to consider as they campaign to save a defunct record store. Is the architecture of a building, one built decades before Philadelphia International Records, relevant to its history? Would it be relevant to anyone seeking a museum dedicated to its namesake?

South Broad has its share of underutilized property more appropriate for a new skyscraper, but as we've seen countless times, the market and zoning dictates those decisions. If Dranoff can pull off a skyscraper even more exciting than Gamble's building on Broad and Spruce, one housing a museum dedicated to the legacy of Gamble and Huff, has anything really been lost?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Aldi Declared America's Best Grocer...wait, what?

Trader Joe's Has a Brother. He's Even Better. -Rebecca Schuman, Slate.com

Calm down, Rebecca, Aldi is not America's best grocery store.

In fact, thanks to Aldi's refusal disclose where any of their products come from without a court order, there's a 30% to 100% chance I've tried horse meat.

So how is it that the crunchy Slate.com found itself in love with Germany's answer to Walmart? Well there's your answer. The only thing more appealing to Prius driving yuppies married to their recycling bins is crap with a European label slapped on it. Look at IKEA. Nothing is less recyclable than entertainment centers made of mashed potato board, and nothing is more disposable than Swedish furniture. Still, there it sits, a parking lot full of hybrids.


Despite Aldi's "organic" reputation, bike friendly shops. and "natural" labels, Aldi is very much a conglomerate, and Trader Joe's is its American offspring.

Don't let the inked hipsters in Hawaiian shirts fool you into think either grocery store is anything less than a capitalistic machine. They found a way to capitalize on image and hope that you never ask where your food comes from.

Have you ever looked at their cellophane sealed produce and thought, "this is too good to be true"? Well, first you should be asking why a company that wraps its produce in cellophane deserves its green reputation.

Trader Joe's parent company, Aldi, is owned by Theo Albrecht, Germany's answer to Sam Walton. He won't tell his consumers where he gets his food, how it's organic (a demarcation only determined by determining it yourself), and how he operates. 

There's a reason Trader Joe's is cheap, and what has been exposed about the company's secretive practices exposes the type of grocer you'd expect to buy bottom basement horsemeat from.

In February of 2013 it was exposed that up to 100% of the ground beef in all of Aldi's 8000 stores world wide, including those in the United States, was horse. Yes, horse. I'll say it again. Horse.

However, it may be even worse. Aldi was forced to disclose where it received it's horse meat because it was, well, horse meat. Where the rest of Aldi's and Trader Joe's food comes from is anyone's guess, particularly in the United States. Since regulations surrounding GMO ingredients and organic labeling are grey areas at best, Albrecht's grocery stores take advantage of these loop holes and arbitrary labels.

The truth is, Aldi and Trader Joe's probably won't kill you. Neither will horse meat. In suburban food islands where the only alternatives are big box grocers who don't even pretend to care, a blind eye is understandable.

But for urbanites, particularly in Philadelphia, Reading Terminal Market and the Italian Market source a bevy of affordable meat and produce that comes with its own local resume. As for Schuman's recent rave about Aldi's amazingly cheap prices, sorry, the dream ends with your receipt.

Drones, Drones, Everywhere

So Amazon's going to start delivering packages with drones, eh? Calm down, internet, it's not going to happen. Even if the FAA allowed civilians to operate thousands of drones over U.S. cities, the logistics are absurd.

If this idea were actually feasible or practical, it would require a massive amount of public interest. That brings with it hundreds of customers at any given time, eagerly awaiting a radio controlled helicopter at their doorstep.

Imagine what that would look like.

It's just plain silly. It's a marketing gimmick which should be obvious in its timing. Amazon conveniently reminded everyone online shopping exists at the second shoppers succumbed to Black Friday fatigue.

Come on people, you're smarter than that.

You know what is real?

Government surveillance blimps.

"Is there anything more terrifying than a hovering blimp?" - Roger, American Dad!

Yep. The D.C. area is launching blimps, developed by Raytheon to monitor the Washington metropolitan area for missiles.

Dubbed JLENS, or Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (because the Beltway loves its insane acronyms) the defense system is the most bizarre pork this side of Reagan's Star Wars initiative.

Welcome to the Skycaptain's World of Tomorrow, otherwise known as 1940.

Simpsons Did It

The self important technocrats of the Silicone Valley have found a new way to opt out of reality, and I'm not talking about a new MMORPG. Stanford lecturer Balaji Srinivasan has made the ultimate proposition, secession from the United States.

With anxiety over Affordable Health Care and same sex marriage growing in the nation's redder states, you might expect the treasonous s-word be uttered in Texas or Arizona, and not from the state home to The Museum of Tolerance.

But that's what happened.

Frustrated with financial failings, unions, and today's government in general, Srinivasan claims that technology has not been allowed to grow under America's pejorative "Paper Belt." An obvious dig at bureaucratic paper pushers, the Paper Belt essentially encompasses everyone who isn't willing to don a pair of Google Glass for the betterment of iMankind.

It's interesting, a little crazy, and dare I say, Nazi-esque.

After all, idealism is an interesting topic in the sophomore student union, or apparently in the intellectual island of the Silicone Valley. But in practice, idealism can be very ugly. The demons that Srinivasan claims plague technological advancement are the same notions that make our nation one of the freest in the world. Our bureaucracy, however frustrating, is the byproduct of divergent opinions and beliefs.

Under the iron fist of ideological societies, it's assimilate-or-get-out. It works on a college campus, or even Google's campus, but it doesn't work in a nation however staunchly enforced. We've seen what happens when tried.

After being asked to remove his Google Glass, Nick Starr too to Facebook to call for the underpaid waitress's termination. Welcome to a nation run by the Silicone Valley: No Freedom, No Privacy, and don't you dare question your Dictator, the Internet.

Of course it's fun to point to the Simpsons, where an idealized society was parodied when Springfield's intellectual elite attempted to run the town, “Not only are the trains now running on time, they’re running on metric time. Remember this moment, people, eighty past two on April 47th, it’s the dawn of an enlightened Springfield.”

The truth behind a proposed intellectual utopia is much darker.

Democracy can't exist in single interest societies. Not because Liberals are smarter than Conservatives, but because Conservatives are just as smart as Liberals. The enlightened points in the history of humankind thrived due to divergent options, those without were referred to as the Dark Ages with good reason.

Whether or not Srinivasan believes his nation should exist off the shores of the United States or in a virtual environment, the products produced by the Silicone Valley won't leave the nation without a fight, one members of his exodus couldn't rival.

You can't beat the U.S. military by clicking Shift-Ctrl-Up.

For all the intellect within the campus communities in the Silicone Valley, around Seattle, or the Dulles Corridor, virtual dreamers can't sustain themselves with 3D printing and biomedicine. Never mind the fact that computers simply can't replace tech support hotlines and clogged toilets, but there's a very real third dimension to this world that includes angry North Koreans and coked up teenage soldiers in the Congo.

Srinivasan claims his conceptual utopia is an opt-in nation for the technologically adventurous, but  in reality, it's a opt-out society for the culturally intolerant.

Then again, if I never have to read about ass holes like Nick Starr and Robert Scoble again, I might be okay with all of this.