Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Oval

Those dedicated to improving the Ben Franklin Parkway will soon be one step closer to helping it become what it was always meant to be.

Originally intended to be a European style thoroughfare slowly taking Philadephians to and from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the posh neighborhoods beyond, it never really caught on.

A decade or two after the museum and thus the Parkway was completed, the American love affair with the car began. Couple that with decades of suburban flight and suburbanization and the Parkway became just another freeway out of town.

Luckily for us we haven't mess with it too much. And a century later we're finally starting to appreciate it for what it is, a park.

Over the last decade improvements to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, its expansion, the opening of the Barnes Museum, and general street improvements and bike lanes have attracted countless joggers, cyclists, strollers, and picnickers, some of them long time Philadelphians who never realized what an asset this space was.

For a month this summer a pop-up beach will replace the useless parking lot in the middle of Eakins Oval. What's that mean? Well, it's just simple fun. They'll be sand, "lifeguard stands," a beer garden, and movies at what they're dubbing "The Oval."

It's obviously not as substantial as a new gallery or museum, but the real hope lies in the subtext of the plan. With all the improvements made to the Schuylkill Banks, the PMA, The Waterworks, and the Parkway itself, this lingering parking lot has led even our more curmudgeonly Philadelphians to ask why it's there.

The Oval is undoubtedly a litmus test to gauge interest in a relative large public space that's rarely used, thus justifying eliminating the parking lot and enabling easier access. 

Day Tripping: Camden

After a walk across the Ben Franklin Bridge I decided to explore the better parts of Philadelphia's eastern counterpart, Camden, NJ. As expected, "better" is extremely relative in this part of the Garden State. Aside from the aquarium, after a decade in Philadelphia I've never actually seen Camden but from across the river or the interstate.

It's hard to explain what's so scary about this place. It has a surprisingly walkable downtown with some interestingly rich architecture, but even with a concert, baseball game, and Cirque du Soleil, a few blocks from the waterfront the only souls that can be found are in cars...everywhere.

Perhaps that's what makes it so scary. Were it not for all the traffic, it felt like the second act of a zombie movie. With the exception of the undead factor, it's probably not far from reality. Even the worst parts of Philadelphia have active pedestrians, and even when they appear unsavory, seeing enough people on foot can make you feel safe. Lack of street life kills a city, and worse, kills safety. It's easy to drive passed a crime and not even notice, and just as easy for criminals to act when they know this.

Rutger's campus was a ghost town and that certainly didn't help. But beyond campus, City Hall, clean and iconic, was desolate on a Saturday afternoon. It's obvious that money has gone into improving the streetscape but it clearly hasn't convinced anyone Camden is a better place.

Those who live in the restored townhouses closer to the core and the RCA lofts near the water are fortressed in their homes, surrounded by gates with parking at their door.

What life could be found was on the river in the endless acres of tailgating, drunken teenagers, and police officers struggling to direct traffic through a city that decided to turn off it's traffic lights on the rare occasion that it would actually see traffic.

Locked down for the Thunderdome.

If you're on foot, you're left darting across traffic at your own risk, followed by a glare from an officer that says, "how dare you walk." It might be an apt accusation. The parking lots on the waterfront have a footprint the size of Society Hill.

It's unfortunate for the city, which hosts a collection of amazing architecture and an historic core with a wealth of potential.

New Jersey is an odd place, particularly it's major cities. The state shrugs a political disregard for its struggling urban spaces, taxing a dwindling working class into oblivion in lieu of its suburbs. Meanwhile most of those suburbs service major cities in other states.

That disregard is carried over in its citizens and visitors chucking beer cans into the Delaware River as police officers look on and laugh.

It's a lawless place.

Like Detroit and dying Rust Belt towns, Camden's fate is uncertain. It's riverfront attractions, Rutgers University, and Cooper Medical Center certainly help the city stay afloat. But as Philadelphia is learning, improving a city requires it to evolve, a feat that can't be met without new residents and a new mentality. 
If those who reside in Camden continue to work and play in other cities and states, the city is nothing more than a poor suburb that happens to look like a city.
Suburbs are finally learning the lessons that our major cities spent the last decade tackling. Moving forward in some respects means turning back the clock. Parking lots and drivability produced successful suburbs like Cherry Hill and King of Prussia in the mid-1900s, but it's a dying and unsustainable infrastructure, one that much of New Jersey still clings to.
In a state attached to its mid-century nostalgia, it's hard to say if South Jersey will ever understand the dynamic infrastructure they have in Camden laying in wait.

Day Tripping: New Castle

I spent a recent Sunday afternoon wandering the quaint streets and waterfront of New Castle, DE. Here are just a few pictures from the mini-adventure.

Old New Castle Courthouse
Emanuel Episcopal Church on The Green
Old Library Museum

Friday, June 28, 2013

One Riverside

What happens when a city produces a wildly successful riverfront park? Well turns out people want to live there. Take note, DRWC.

In what skyscraper nerds are hoping is the second of many high rise apartment buildings to line the Schuylkill Banks, Dranoff Properties hopes to join The Grove by adding 21 stories to Center City's side of the river. Architecture nerds are hoping that it looks good.

The new high rise would replace a surface parking lot at 25th and Locust near Fitler Square. The high density dwelling proposed at an already impressive location will undoubtedly raise the eyebrows of its posh brownstone dwelling neighbors. 

However, ironic as it is, Center City West residents are often less resistant to new developments than their residential counterparts in more transitional neighborhoods just outside Center City, especially when those projects erase scarring surface lots.

Until a rendering is released, most of the leeriness will probably stem from Dranoff's reputation for hokey neo-classical design and cheap materials.

The Grove will soon be the Schuylkill River's newest high rise addition.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Where's City Hall's Apology?

With the alleged suicide of Ron Wagenhoffer, seven are now dead as a result of the collapse at 22nd and Market.

Meanwhile the media can't keep its facts straight, one moment claiming that Wagenhoffer blamed himself for the tragedy, and redacting it the next. That's a pretty big fact to get wrong. In fact, that's the entire premise of the story.

And where's our Mayor? He's at a conference in Chicago leaving his spokesman, Mark McDonald to handle his publicity nightmare.

Councilman Kenny called him out on it, and McDonald played politics by accusing Kenny of playing politics.

Come on, Nutter, we've all seen enough political dramas to know this scene by heart. When your office is under fire and the press is asking for answers you don't have, you get out of town until the heat is off. Give us some credit.

And while you're at it, how about an apology?

I'm certainly not going to blame anyone for a man choosing to take his own life, but it's no stretch to imagine that had the Mayor and City Council been managing their city - doing their jobs - instead of covering their asses or cowardly hiding, more death could have been avoided.

Instead, they sat back and allowed the blame to be heaped on the shoulders of one crane operator and one inspector, hoping that the public eye ignored the fact that their own ineffectual policies and regulations are as responsible.

Those running this town are busy doing what they do: satisfying the status quo. L&I is pandering the "he was a model employee" rhetoric. City Hall has doled out their own politically correct "L&I followed the rules" bullshit. Not one apology from a career politician has come without a caveat.

I just want one elected or appointed official to look at a camera and say, "me, my office, and City Hall played a role in this tragic event and I'm sorry."

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Historic Walkabout in Fairmount Park

Sometimes even I get tired of my opinionated rants and just want to look at - or take - pretty pictures. Yesterday I decided to wander around Fairmount Park and explore its history. At the time I didn't realize that Fairmount Park manages at least 45 historic homes and I only scratched the surface.

After botched attempt to find the ruins of The Cliffs, an historic home lost to arson in 1986, landed me unknowingly in the middle of a wooded frolf course, I reluctantly abandoned my quest and headed north.

Most of the mansions can be enjoyed from Fairmount Park's Boxers' Trail, named for Philadelphia's legendary Joe Frazier.

Clunie (Mount Pleasant)
Built: 1761-1762
Architect: Thomas Nevell (Apprentice to Edmund Woolley, architect of Independence Hall)
Resident: John and Margaret Macpherson
Occupation: Privateer (Pirate)
Location: Mount Pleasant Drive
Status: Museum

Rockland Mansion
Built: c. 1910
Resident: George Thomson
Occupation: Merchant
Location: 3810 Mount Pleasant Drive
Status: Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia


Ormiston Mansion
Built: 1798
Resident: Major Edward Burd
Occupation: Pennsylvania Supreme Court
Location: 2000 Reservoir Drive

Woodford Mansion
Built: 1756, addition 1772
Resident: William Coleman
Occupation: Pennsylvania Supreme Court
Status: Naomi Wood Collection Museum

Historic Strawberry Mansion
Built: 1789
Resident: William Lewis
Occupation: Judge
Status: Museum

 Adjacent to Historic Strawberry Mansion are the ruins of the 19th Century Strawberry Mansion Music Pavilion, designed by Horace Trumbauer.
A sidewalk just north of the mansions takes you down stairs and through the woods. Across the street is an inconspicuous stone opening, taking you down more stairs and deeper into the woods, landing you at the recently rediscovered Frank Furness Gate on Kelly Drive.

Lemon Hill Mansion
Built: 1800-1801
Architect: Owner
Resident: Henry Pratt
Occupation: Merchant
Status: Museum

From Lemon Hill Mansion you will find one of the most astonishing views of the Philadelphia skyline.


Monday, June 10, 2013

Philadelphia Legends

This is the Saffroness that I love to read! In a recent Changing Skyline column, Inga Saffron challenged convention and colleagues without an ounce of self deprecating Negadelphianess, and proved just how much she loves this city given she could easily snag a job droning on and on about how great "better" cities are that everyone already knows are great.

While his products were products of their time, Bacon was inarguably a visionary. Even Penn Plaza and its underground concourse, as sterile as they are, were novel in their prime. He experimented, but just as importantly he built.

I'd take her comments further and say that there is no question that we're better off having had him, in spite of The Gallery and I-95.

Had he developed our city beyond the 70s we might actually have a Penn's Landing worth walking to. It's no coincidence that his retirement coincided with the beginning of four decades of design studies and architectural competitions that, to this day, have gone nowhere.

Without him Society Hill would be a blighted extension of South Philadelphia, a midcentury perception responsible for his interpretation of an expendable South Street. Because of him we have Queen Village and Hawthorn sidling up to some of the city's most expensive real estate that he created.

Philadelphians have a nagging reputation for bragging about our faults, a reputation that a century later, keeps Frank Furness and Willis Hale only locally appreciated. Bacon and Saffron are no exceptions to the rule, and the fact that they maintained or maintain a local loyalty only make them more exceptional at their jobs.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Eastern State Photography Tour

It's no secret I'm obsessed with Eastern State Penitentiary. It gives amateur urban spelunkers an opportunity to explore one of the city's many decaying relics without the legal loopholes and hardhats required to peek inside places like the Divine Lorraine.

So when the site opened its doors last week for photographers to explore afterhours, I seized the opportunity.

It was an unfortunate mess.

I'm not a professional photographer by any means, however my mother is. I grew up in the darkroom, shadowing her at athletic events, posing for local flyers whenever she needed a scrappy kid in the shot. While I may not have inherited her shutter speed, I did learn quite a bit about the proper etiquette that comes with shooting anywhere.

The site was packed with photographers, some more professional than others, enjoying the quiet that comes with such a large site after it's closed to the public. But before any of those appreciating the solitude of the space and the natural artistry of the overgrown cells and rusted patina, every amateur model in the tri-state area had claimed entire cellblocks for themselves.

In one particularly decrepit cell, one never opened to the public, nearly every cell was occupied by a model in fetish lingerie. My buddy was scolded for setting his camera on a bench while the fishnet clad vixens rearranged furniture and straddled broken chairs. A single model in a white dress posed at an iron gate nearest the center of the prison for the duration of the visit while her photographer instructed others not to obstruct his shot...of the entire cell block.

I'm not saying that this site shouldn't be used for catalogs, websites, or headshots (although from an artistic perspective, it might be a little on-the-nose), but those businesses regularly shell out hundreds of dollars for the privilege to privately reserve such sites.

It was a great opportunity for both photographers to explore, and an even better opportunity for the historic site to generate some money. Eastern State does a lot of things well, but hopefully next time they'll be better at reminding everyone, particularly the professionals, the limited opportunity that comes with a meager $15 entry fee.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Barely Human: That Guy, Wildwood's Mayor Ernie Troiano

Jimmy Georginis of Wildood, NJ was recently arrested for theft by deception, accused of scamming teenagers out of $75,000 in summer rentals at the popular Jersey Shore destination. One group of teens alone lost $21,000 on a rental they claimed was filled with other's clothing and even a couple kittens. Wildwood's prosecutor has even said that one of Georginis' rental properties is owned by the bank. Another claimant stated one of his rentals was double booked.

Sadly this is the kind of scum bag that comes with life. Shit happens. Georginis will likely be tried, foreclosed upon, and the kids will get some of their money back. But being a Jersey Douchebag doesn't make you Barely Human.

What does? Blaming the victims for criminal activity, and opening admitting you just don't want to do your job. Enter Mayor Ernie Troiano, apparently perturbed with the amount of angry complaints revoked Georginis' license, but then turned on the tourists that pay his salary.

"The parents need to wake up." - Mayor Ernie Troiano

Trioano's city granted Georginis his license for the sole purpose of entrusting tourists to Georginis. What more can parents do? He went further, citing that underage drinking and cramped housing has gotten out of control. He went as far as singling out Catholic high school students as the biggest offenders.

If Troiano wants to blame his tourists on criminals existing, he needs to recognize that his city exists because of his tourists. Do your job.

It's not surprising that Troiano is out of touch with his spring breakers. After all, he not only tried to ban baggy pants, but also proposed requiring shoes and shirts after a beach town. That's right, in most major progressive cities including Philadelphia, it's perfectly kosher for men and women to go topless, but at Wildwood, you better cover up. I'm almost two decades removed from my childhood and I still go bare chested at the beach. It's a %&$#ing beach.

The Jersey Shore struggles with a unique quagmire. It's affordable and extremely close to the most populated metropolitan areas in the country. However a nostalgia for the small beach towns they once were is still a predominant theme. While Los Angeles, San Diego, and Miami Beach administer their own wildly popular spring break destinations, they're administered by their own extremely large governments.

At the Jersey Shore however, you have a provincial government on par with an Outer Banks town administering a town that sees the same hoards of teenagers and tourists as Venice Beach. Basically, Mayberry is trying to run Los Angeles.

If Troiano wants to continue managing his city, he needs to manage his city. His "Wildwood Days" are over, and if his tourists are pissing him off, he either needs to do something about it or recognize that this is their time to enjoy a Wildwood youth.

Whatever the case, he can't blame the victims for a situation he created. It's very rare that any vacation renter knows their landlord and parents can only do so much. If a tourist is renting a house from a landlord that you're administration licensed, you played a role. Deal with it and do your job.

Dust Settles at 22nd and Market and the Storm Begins

As the dust settles at 22nd and Market, the fallout is spreading through Center City. Sean Benschop was the crane operator at the site and tested positive for marijuana and pain killers at the time of the accident, and will likely be charged with six counts of involuntary manslaughter.

The straight dope is that Benschop shouldn't have been driving a crane at the time. But Philadelphia's seemingly run by as many unfit criminals as it employs, and every city agency remotely tied to this disaster is doing everything in their power to deflect the spotlight from their own role in the collapse.

L&I has been on damage control shutting down Rosewood, a new bar all the way across town near 13th and Walnut because it employed Griffin Campbell Construction, the same contractor demolishing 22nd and Market. It's a cheap way for L&I to say, "look, we're doing our jobs," despite the fact that they not only granted Griffin Campbell a demolition permit on West Market Street, but didn't shut down the site after calls about the unsafe conditions were placed to Philadelphia's 311 non-emergency service.

L&I made various claims regarding the 311 calls, from confusion over the address reported to simply verifying that the site did indeed hold the permits that they themselves granted. Philadelphia's big, but it's not as if a misplaced digit in the 2100 block of West Market Street could cause confusion over the location of the site. So many demolition projects aren't taking place on Market Street that those in charge of safeguarding our addresses would be scratching their heads and saying, "Huh?" In fact, it's the only demolition project actively taking place on Center City's Market Street anywhere.

That's obvious, of course, which is likely why as soon as people starting pointing their fingers at L&I, L&I swooped in and shut down a loosely connected business. Of course, let's not forget that L&I is the sole organization that licensed these creeps in the first place. Maybe it's time to shut down L&I, a difficult endeavor when they're responsible for shutting things down. After five years in office, have Nutter's balls drops?

Not likely. City Hall is doing it's own damage control, and it's perhaps even more opportunistic than L&I's. After all, L&I is just covering their ass. But City Hall is full of politicians, more callous and criminal that any pot smoking crane operator. 

Clarke is playing politics the old fashioned way, one voters in this city seem to routinely ignore. He's proposed a 10% tax on vacant property owners. If you don't know anything about Councilman Clarke you might be thinking, "Great!" But if you're reading this, you're likely familiar with the fact that Clarke presides over one of the most blighted wards full of property hoarding slumlords, and it's a common perception that he does everything in his power to keep it that way, including allowing the Divine Lorraine to be all but sold for scrap.

So why would Clarke want to slap a 10% tax on his most powerful constituents? Well he already proposed the idea more than a decade ago and it was never enforced because (for reasons I can't figure out) it's not legal. In other words, Clarke knows the proposed tax will fail and so do his cronies, so he sit back and tell his voters, "Hey, I tried, blame bureaucracy."

It's a cheap political tactic that City Hall has been peddling since the beginning of time and for some reason it still works here. Street did the same thing when he openly opposed the smoking ban, telling business owners and the lingering smokers he was looking out for them while everyone knew it was inevitable.

We expect these games when we're talking about unions or business licenses, but when politicians use the tragic death of six people for their own gain, it's beyond disrespectful. It's detached and sick.

Meanwhile City Council hasn't said one word about L&I's role in the tragedy, and likely won't, at least not yet. That doesn't mean the aftershock won't find its way to all responsible. L&I's infrastructure is about as stable as 22nd and Market and City Hall still operates under the delusion that its voters still buy print journalism.

The whole story is surfacing and those responsible don't even see it. L&I will have to do a little more than shut down one bar and City Hall will have to do more than charge one crane operator with the whole disaster to save face, they're going to have to step up and admit their roles, and the administration will have no choice but to act.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Tragedy on West Market

News spread like wildfire this morning over the botched demolition of the former Hoagie City that collapsed onto an occupied Salvation Army on 22nd and Market. Tragically one person died, while 12 others sustained minor injuries, and a remaining person is in unknown condition.

CNN did a fine job chasing the ambulance this morning causing a storm of comments criticizing the United States' aging infrastructure, with many going as far as comparing Philadelphia and the entire country to Bangladesh.

What's obviously mindboggling about the age of the internet and its media is its audience's utter lack of respect for tragedy. With a 24 hour newsfeed and every intern's Google Alert set to go off when the word "collapse" appears, it's not surprising to see this making the national circuit's Breaking News.

What's sick are its readers' detachment from very real situations that unfortunately can and do happen all over this and every other country, regardless of what "world" that country is classified.

Before the dust settled at 22nd and Market, rampant trolls were taking to their laptops to cite this as "proof" that America is fast becoming a third world nation, despite the fact that they're bitching from a laptop in a coffee house in that same country.

From tragedies like this to tornadoes in Oklahoma, the campaign to expose a nation's flaws are instantaneous to blame everything from the President many in the campaign elected to the wrath of God on gay marriage in another state; and the media is a worthy adversary when each of it journalists are morbidly hoping to be the one to break the next 9-11.

Unlike the United Kingdom, those in the United States have not yet come to terms with just how yellow our journalism has become. The unfortunate parents and grandparents who reluctantly joined Facebook that assume is synonymous with a 1982 USA Today are feeling the wrath of a generation who callously view the world from behind a computer monitor.

I'm certainly not saying blogs like this are the answer. Philly Bricks is my pet exercise in extreme narcissism, unadvertised to my friends, and available only to those who wish to sift through the crap to find their own facts or simply laugh at my recycled Seinfeld jokes.

But to those who've come to realize that the trifecta of national tabloids - CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News - is about as objective as the Huffington Post, unfunded homeschooled journalism is quickly becoming the informative source of choice. At least you know what you're getting into.

I guess my point is, let's keep it in perspective people. Someone died today. We're lucky to live in a country that doesn't see that loss times the thousands with every earthquake, flood, or tornado. We're lucky we are not Bangladesh. But one loss is one too many, and family and friends experienced loss nonetheless. There are plenty of platforms for political statements, and the tragedy at 22nd and Market is not it.

*update: a second fatality has been reported.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

SEPTA's letting loose

The cranky Negadelphian I keep buried inside me, the one that wants to show a certain finger to Yellow Tags while I push my granny cart back from the market, really wants to say, "HOW UNPROFESSIONAL" to SEPTA's backhanded apology for a lack of communication surrounding a service interruption during Thursday's rush hour.

Luckily that curmudgeon still has a good twenty years and a stint at the Adelphia House before he's ready to spread his wings and fly, which is why I have nothing but props for SEPTA's reaction.

It's a lengthy response, almost a rant, posted on SEPTA's website. Apparently passengers glued to their iPhones were a little disgruntled that SEPTA didn't take to Twitter and Facebook the moment train #9559 broke down. Instead, frustrated riders had to wait the length of a sitcom to find out what kind of delays to expect, mostly between 15 and 30 minutes.

In all fairness, SEPTA could have made an announcement as soon as they knew there was a delay, but consider the reaction. Telling today's passengers to expect a delay without informing them how long, what trains, and without handing them a broom to fly home on is like screaming fire in a crowded basement full of drunk teenagers, and SEPTA needed this time to assess the situation and brace themselves for the frothing hate every employee was about to receive.

Basically, suck it up. Shit happens. You can read the entire post, but this is the highlight:

So should we announce that the train is having a problem at minute 2 when we don't yet know how we're going to fix it? Some may say - yes SEPTA - talk to us - and some may say Duh SEPTA, we're stuck on the train or waiting on the platform - tell us something we don't already know.

Yeah, they said that.