Sunday, September 29, 2013

Gay Businesses Come Out

Philadelphia's impression outside Philadelphia leaves a lot to be desired. That's fine. We're Philadelphians. We're used to it, and we usually get a laugh out of the hate. We might be America's best kept secret. 

You think Philadelphia is that bad? Well, visit, then we can talk.

Nestled between DC and New York, too few bother to see what we're all about. I've had friends back in Virginia ask, "isn't it kind of a big Baltimore?" While I'd prefer "a small New York," Baltimore is nothing to scoff at, kind of like a DC cupcake with more icing and sprinkles.

But this isn't about Baltimore, New York, or DC.

This is about Philadelphia, and how all inclusively awesome we've become. On my way to Home Depot a woman in a burka was tailgating me. As much as her road rage annoyed me, I had an "a ha" moment, realizing she'd likely be profiled in New York, stopped and harassed for more than just a minor traffic violation.

Here, we're free to be. While our grab bag of religious, ethnic, racial, cultural, economic, and societal differences often sparks lively, sometimes offensively charged debates on message boards and blogs, we're free to practice what we want, how we want, and with whom we want.

About a year ago, the Human Rights Campaign placed Philadelphia at the top of its municipal equality index of LGBT equality. With Pennsylvania yet to legalize gay marriage, it says a lot that our municipality received a perfect score, with several bonus points that put us above San Francisco and New York.

This may come as no surprise to us. After all, our city is the only in the United States to brand its Gayborhood with rainbow street signs the way many designate their Chinatowns and Little Italys.

A night out in the Gayborhood might leave visitors wondering why. The "gay scene" in Philadelphia isn't as wild as smaller cities like DC or Portland. With about ten gay bars, some rarely crowded, you might think that Philadelphia is about as gay as least if you base inclusiveness solely on our ability to segregate where we drink.

That is where Philadelphia shines. Unlike conservative cities that isolate their gay bars and use them as defacto community centers, we need neither isolation nor therapy from a pint glass. America no longer calculates a city's gayness by its collection of gay bars, and Philadelphia helped make that happen.

We're integrated into mainstream society. Instead of sending a liaison to Harrisburg to help instruct our local Congress on issues in the community, we elected a gay Congressman, the first openly gay Congressman elected in the country.

While City Hall has embraced the gay community as much as any other, until recently the gay community has been relatively invisible on the street. In fact virtually every gay owned business in Washington Square West is fortressed behind a windowless façade.

As one of the first gay businesses to open its windows to the street, Uncles comes out as U-Bar

Many gay bars are still tucked in narrow alleys hidden from the street. Perhaps we never noticed what message this sent being that many of these establishments are so old.

In fact long before organized gay communities began emerging around the country, Philadelphia had already established an underground community in those same alleys, tucked behind theaters amid art clubs, catering to gay clientele in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. 

It's not surprise that the Venture Inn is purportedly the oldest gay bar in operation in the country.

Venture Inn c.1900

Of course, tolerance waxed and waned throughout history and will likely continue to do so. While most people will always be reasonable, any kind of diversity will never be entirely free from bigotry.

For now, things are looking up. While gay men and women step out from the confines of our rainbow clad Gayborhood, businesses in the Gayborhood are coming out themselves.

Perhaps in an effort to combat, or at least coexist with the city's attempt to rebrand the Gayborhood as the more marketable "Midtown Village," Woody's, Icandy, and U-Bar have all replaced their unbranded walls with large windows showing off their renovations.

Improved menus at Tavern on Camac, The Westbury, and Venture Inn have proven that gay bars are more than just places to drink.

It's unfortunate that Philadelphia's gay owned businesses shrouded themselves for so long, particularly in understanding our trailblazing history.

The Midtown Village marketing campaign created an inadvertent, sometimes veiled prejudice towards long time neighborhood businesses. While not directly pointed at the city's gay community, the neighborhood's prior reputation as a slum paired with the fact that so many preexisting businesses were gay, created an inadvertent and false impression that Philadelphia's gay community was somehow seedier or less pronounced as the cushy enclaves of DuPont Circle or The Castro.

This is a misunderstanding. DC's DuPont Circle always struggled with a community association that never embraced its gay community and most of its nightlife has been pushed to the nether regions of the U Street Corridor, ripe with so much development it will likely continue to be pushed further east. Meanwhile San Francisco has become so expensive that its former gay oases serve tourists while locals play in Oakland.

Much the way our Chinatown remains largely authentic, Philadelphia's gay community has been active around Center City's Washington Square West for so long, we're more integrated into our city's soul, despite how it may look to visitors and new residents.

As more gay owned businesses open up to the street, the community's visible presence will increase. While anyone can enjoy the recent developments brought by the Midtown Village campaign, improving the image portrayed by gay owned businesses will hopefully tell gay visitors and locals alike that there's no reason to hide in Philadelphia.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Job Security

It looks like Councilman Wilson Goode, Jr. won't rest until he's followed in his father's footsteps, destroying the city one way or another.

In yet another example of why electing familiar names is a bad idea, Goode, entirely out of touch with what has financially benefitted the city since 1997, is trying to kill the ten year tax abatement as it applies to properties under $500,000.

On the surface, the simplicity of Goode's plan seems to be about fairness.

Unfortunately, simplicity isn't what we need. The tax abatement is responsible for Philadelphia's first population increase in sixty years, a small increase, one we should not be content with.

While Goode tries to paint the tax abatement as an attempt to bribe wealthy residents to move into the city, those buying $200,000 houses in demilitarized zones are not wealthy.

The ten year tax abatement does more than just build new homes, it builds new communities and improves others. Most large cities have programs that encourage new home buyers to move to the city by providing tax incentives or auctioning off vacant properties. The tax abatement is Philadelphia's.

Goode remembers 1990 well enough to know that it works.

At a time when many Americans rarely live in one house for more than five years, our program encourages homeowners to invest in their neighborhood long term. Putting new residents in a struggling neighborhood for ten years increases the value of nearby properties, calling other residents, new or old, to revitalize their own. It's not a permanent solution, but it's one that's working and still has work to do.

Of course, the reason Goode's attempts to derail this program make no sense is because we're thinking about the city, the safety of our neighborhoods, and the quality of life for our residents. Goode is thinking about politics. As the son of a former Philadelphia mayor, Goode was raised in City Hall, not Philadelphia.

As the tax abatements drop off, newly tenured residents either decide to stay in a neighborhood they've spent the past decade improving or pass the property on to other Philadelphians paying their full share of the property tax. These abatements aren't bribes, they're incentives. Those who enjoy the tax breaks are also enduring the efforts of improving the city.

The city couldn't do it, so they outsourced it to us.

Let's face it. Without the tax abatement these new residents wouldn't be here shopping, dining, opening businesses, paying taxes and driving the economy in other ways.

But Goode knows how to keep his job. It's easier to blame temporarily tax exempt residents  for our failing schools than explain the intricacies of a program that proves they're paying their share and then some.

If Goode manages to bomb the ten year tax abatement he'll keep his seat, but development will cease, neighborhoods like Point Breeze, Kensington, and Mantua will quickly revert to the impoverished ghettos that they were, and slumlords and land hoarders will find their way back into many of the neighborhoods that have managed to push them out.

But in that world known as 1980, Goode has job security, and that is his only concern.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Adam Wallacavage's Wonderland

A friend recently turned me on to the work of Philadelphia artist Adam Wallacavage. With a BFA in Photography from the University of the Arts, Wallacavage ultimately branched out into plasterwork, becoming globally recognized for his ornamental octopus chandeliers.

Like a lot of artists, his work extends well beyond his most popular and public. Apartment Therapy toured his South Broad Street home and found a world as easily described as a waking dream. A work of art impossible to entirely absorb.

Apartment Therapy

With its taxidermied fish heads, Victorian chachkies, and Key West colors, his living room might as well be a Steampunk Trapper Keeper painted by Lisa Frank.

"Now we know who's buying everything on eBay." -Will & Grace

Each room in Wallacavage's home is a display window for the best of Craigslist's Curb Alerts.

And I mean all of that as the utmost compliment. 

It's not easy to bridge the gap between kitsch and art. Raised amongst the clutter of flea market shopping sprees, I have a soft spot for nostalgia and shelves of knick knacks that each hold a story, even the ones I make up. Online auctions have allowed me to amass my own collection of nonsense, or as much as a 19th Century Trinity can hold.

My friends say my house looks like that of a 23 year old hipster. A girl. 

Mind you I'm a 37 year old man. I've mastered kitsch, but could only dream of turning my basement finds into the architectural Rabbit Hole that Wallacavage offers his guests.

He's given me the motivation to buy that jackalope I've always wanted, and his house has proven that there's nothing wrong with a seven foot tall hall tree in my very small bedroom.

Thank you, Adam.

Surprisingly Wallacavage is a self described minimalist. Well, he's genius enough to call himself whatever he wants, but I wouldn't consider a totem pole in the Pennsylvania, Minimalism.

With its unorthodox color pallet juxtaposed against gaudy Victorian furniture his home looks like the site of a Katy Perry photo shoot. Would you be surprised to know that it is?

Like a Tim Burton dreamscape, although a little more alive, this unassuming Broad Street Brownstone could be the set of the forgotten Beetlejuice footage of Otho's own Manhattan penthouse.

"You're lucky the yuppies are still buying condos, Charles, so you can afford what I'm going to have to do to this place."

I might be one of the few people who actually liked the Deetz's house after Otho brought Delia's vision to life (or death).

Something tells me Wallacavage might have used the Maitland's Manchurian Tung Oil to finish an 18th Century curio in which to display some of Delia's "dangerous" sculptures, or his own.

Like this with an octopus chandelier and a red velvet chaise lounge from a Tenderloin burlesque house. Okay, so nothing like this.

Wallacavage hasn't gone the way of Isaiah Zagar and opened his workspace to the public, yet. His home remains a home, a place of inspiration for his own personal work. One can only imagine the unused corners of this house, the stacks of inspiration not yet incorporated into his living architecture.

Have you ever seen a Donald Roller Wilson painting up close? That might be what you'd find in his attic.

The Man Has Left the Moon Tonight - Donald Roller Wilson
Or maybe a miniature replica of Winter River, CT. Okay, no more Beetlejuice references, I promise!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Bloomfield to be Restored

While other Gilded Age mansions fight uphill battles towards preservation, two home owners plan to restore one many thought was lost.

Renovated by Horace Trumbauer with grounds designed by the Olmstead Brothers, Bloomfield in Villanova was destroyed by a fire in 2012.

After a year of Philadelphian litigiousness aimed at the property's residents, Julie Charbonneau and Dean Topolinski, finally ended, they have decided to restore Bloomfield.

With an $11M settlement, Charbonneau and Topolinski could have easily walked away from the tragedy, razed the ruins, and subdivided the desirable address.

However Charbonneau, native to Montreal, fell in love with Bloomfield the moment she saw it, never expecting to find a house this, well, French in America.

Her love for her Bloomfield has weathered the devastating fire, leading her to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania where she unearthed Trunbauer's orginal drawings of her house, allowing her to restore every detail of the original mansion using as much that remains as possible.

She's even employed D. Robert “Bob” Farrow, grandson on the man who built the house, as one of the carpenters working on the restoration. Farrow is even trying to locate the original plans for the house.

With carpenters enduring arduous tasks that haven't been employed since the 1920s, Charbonneau's ambition stands to challenge the region's notion of disrepair.

What's more, while the region's wealthy residents tear down perfectly livable landmarks like La Ronda to build their own Xanadu, Charbonneau's respect for the history challenges the American notion that land owners have the right to eradicate history just because they sit on a boat load of cash.

Diner en Blanc: Tradition or...?

A little over a year ago, the recently opened Barnes Museum held a gala for the city's elite. For $1500, the city's wealthy art appreciators dined on lamb and drank champagne outside an institution that holds some of the world's most valuable artwork.

While attendees feasted and canoodled amid the landscaped Parkway in ball gowns and tuxedos, Occupy Philly staged a protest of sorts across the street, feeding the city's homeless in plain sight of the rich who were mixing and mingling.

Whatever you think of the Barnes Museum, their extravagant gala, or Occupy Philly, the one thing that all of those involved share was a message and a cause they believe in. 

No one paid $1500 for a meal. Those privileged enough to attend the Barnes Gala did so out of a civic sense of pride, celebrating the end of a long fought battle to bring the museum to the city.

Likewise, Occupy Philly wasn't serving bologna sandwiches, but sending a message to those with means that a very real problem exists in the city beyond the hallowed halls adorning their artwork.

Both events took place side by side, as uneventfully as planned.

While the Barnes Museum made a handsome chunk of change to help maintain its priceless collection, wealthy philanthropists figuratively shook hands with the city's less fortunate.

Both had a cause, and in that, both succeeded.

Often these events are mundane on the surface, but the fulfillment comes from knowing that you participated in a cause you strongly believe in. Anyone on 20th Street that night walked away knowing they did something good.

I'm certainly not suggesting that everyone, rich or poor, spend all of their time advocating for a better world. It's exhausting, and too much can even contribute to a sense of self righteousness. 

Treat yourself.

The city hosts plenty of public events like Welcome America! and our annual New Years Parade. They cost the city money, profit their sponsors, and they make the city an exciting place to live.

Whether you're at the Barnes Gala, an Occupy protest, or Welcome America!, no one can really ask, "why?" Charitable events fund organizations that need it, or at the very least support a cause that attendees believe in, and public celebrations drive tourism and are a good time for everyone. 

But occasionally an event comes along that culminates in nothing more than the indignant end result of too much charity, without actually providing any.

I'm talking of course, about the BYO everything Diner en Blanc


Well, you can ask that simple word until the end of time and no one will give you an answer. 

With an inside invite, you too can pretend like you're one of those philanthropists outside the Barnes Museum without actually doing anything...except for bringing your own dinner, wine, and adhering to the most tedious dress code this side of a fetish party. 

Remember when Barbara Streisand brought her own white microphone to the Opera show? Imagine that microphone personified as 2500 Philadelphians who desperately want to feel special.

What is Diner En Blanc? Well it's a flash mob with a cover charge. Invitees show up in white with picnic baskets and chairs and dine amid our city's historic landmarks. Organized by Diner En Blanc International, it's an event that takes place yearly in many cities around the world.

But it doesn't exist for any reason other than that it exists. What's most deplorable about Diner en Blanc is that it specifically excuses its complete lack of philanthropy as part of its tradition. It clearly states, "There are no sponsors, no political or ideological agendas."

Of course that statement is immediately false in that Diner en Blanc International is a profitable organization that is itself, the sponsor. For the privilege of shelling out roughly $30 a head (or $60 for two, since couples are required), you too can throw money at an organization that straps the resources of your local municipality to profit a collection of event planners.

When a city as broke as Philadelphia is asked to close Logan Square for a bunch of invite-only d-bags and their sense of self righteousness, it's kind of a slap in the face.

Ironically Diner en Blanc touts itself as a collection of "friends" who enjoy good food without actually providing any. Yep, Diner En Blanc is entirely BYO.

The whole premise is to feel exclusive. Of course exclusivity for its own sake means nothing, something the attendees don't seem to get. Or maybe they do. Maybe they're just bad people. Maybe they're the kind of people who walked away from the The Great Gatsby thinking, "wow, what an awesome party."

While those charitably connected routinely attend events knowing exactly what attire is appropriate, Diner en Blanc specifies a laundry list of adjectives and seems predominantly focused on the phrase, "astonished looks from passersby." 

In that regard it is a flash mob, but stripped of its fun and spontaneity...and freeness. The tediously laughable dress code only proves that people who use the words "classy" and "elegant" aren't.

"...the greatest decorum, elegance, and etiquette...a mass 'chic picnic'..."

"...a love of beauty and good taste."

"...the elegance and glamour of court society..."

"...a picnic basket comprised of quality menu items and china dinner dressed elegantly....stylish and denotes taste."

" disruptions...except for the occasional amazed and astonished looks from passersby at the scene unfolding before them. And we, as they, wonder whether it's all not a dream..."

In other words:

"Do you like steak? Try eating it, under a chandelier." 

Attending galas can be a good time, and sure a part of that is self satisfying. When someone walks up to an event and asks, "What is this for?" you can plead your cause or ask them to join you.

What do these people say?

Well, most will tell you its a standing tradition dating from France that has spread around the globe. While that's true, what most likely don't know is that it's a tradition dating from 1988.
Sometime between gym class, blasting Depeche Mode from my '82 Volvo, and bagging groceries at Food Lion, François Pasquier was looking for his friends in Bois de Boulogne.

How he found them? He told them to wear white.

Sure, that's cute. But it's not quite as romantic knowing that the tradition dates no earlier than the year Critters 2 came out.

Neglected Obligations in Cheltenham Township

Chelnetham Township's commissioner, Harvey Portner has said little about the forlorn Lynnewood Hall, at least nothing more than "it can be and should be developed into something magnificent." It's hard to know exactly what he means, and speculating isn't fun.

The township has been firm. Unless Richard Yoon's petition to the Supreme Court makes waves in Cheltenham, the owner of The First Korean Church will not be able to operate the property as a tax exempt church or school.

Currently Yoon pays over $130,000 in taxes yearly, and he'll likely unload the property if its tax status doesn't change.

Cheltenham is a nice enough suburb, but it isn't as renowned and cash flushed as other areas. Portner has a job to do, and losing $130,000 every year isn't part of it. In that regard, Portner's stance may seem reasonable.

It's a shame, because Lynnewood Hall is one of the regions most spectacular examples of Gilded Age architecture. Designed by Philadelphia's own architect to the stars, Horace Trumbauer, Lynnewood is the ninth largest historic home in the United States, 5000 square feet larger than Newport, RI's Breakers.

We learned our lesson when Whitemarsh Hall was demolished in the 1980s, the third largest historic house in the United States. When La Ronda was demolished a few years ago, preservationists and historians across the country were devastated, yet Addison Mizner's Spanish style masterpiece pales in comparison to Lynnewood Hall.

Enough locals don't realize what's at stake here. Landmarks like Biltmore Estate are household names, even for those with no interest in architecture or history. I know I don't need to say this to anyone reading an architecture blog, but that's what Lynnewood is.

It's City Hall. It's the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It's Philadelphia's foremost example of  Gilded Age architecture, perhaps even the Northeast's.

If Portner wants something "magnificent," he already has it.

Beyond the rusted gates of Lynnewood Hall, Cheltenham has something even more magnificent, something no other region in the country can claim.

Lynnewood Hall is not alone. As stately as the manor is in itself and its grounds, it's simply one part of a complex of architecture history unrivaled in the United States, all of which lie dormant.

Across the street from Lynnewood Hall is not one Gilded Age mansion, but three.

Elstowe Manor, the seventeenth largest historic house in the United States was abandoned in June of this year. Known as the Elkins Estate, the grounds are comprised of Elstowe Manor and Chelten House. Additionally, Georgian Terrace was abandoned by Temple's Stella Elkins Tyler School of Art a few years ago, also empty.

Fortunately none of these properties have succumbed to the death of architectural hope otherwise known as tax delinquency, but with the Elkins Estate taxed at more than $300,000 a year, it's even less likely that the township will grant any of these properties the exemption they need to survive much longer.

As if the architectural significance of these properties isn't enough, their history is unparalleled. All built for the Widener and Elkins families, these estates once carved out a private enclave for the tycoons that built the Philadelphia we know today. It's inarguable that their contribution to the region, even the nation, deserves the dignity of salvation.

When you consider this site's significance and the unique fact that this compound remains intact, Portner's position goes beyond the scope of his local responsibility, but also taps an obligation to the nation. While this land could stand to profit from townhomes and condos, this is one of those rare occasions when money doesn't matter.

What's most disconcerting is Portner's absent resolve for a specific outcome. This leaves the preservation community and the region in the dark. These properties are more than simple homes and the township has an obligation to responsibly address these assets as the benefits to the community that they are.

Without the township fielding investors, it leaves the job up to preservationists and realtors. But without a statement from the commissioner other than it should be "something magnificent," those concerned about the fate of these mansions can do little.

Can it be a school? Can it be converted into condos? Can it be a museum?

No one knows.

Without an interest from those in charge, realtors and property owners are saddled with finding buyers willing to use the properties as they were zoned. In the case of Lynnewood Hall, that's as a private home, which at 70,000 square feet, is a tough sell in Cheltenham Township. 

Cryptic comments from those presiding over the nation's most significant chunk of unused real estate call their motives into question. Sadly, the most realistic possibility is one that happens all too often.

Could Harvey Portner simply be awaiting the inevitable, wherein property owners unable to sell simply abandon their tax obligations, allowing the mansions to be seized by the township and sold for scrap?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Market8 and a Tub of Lego Blocks

When I first saw the new rendering for the Market8 Casino, I have to admit, I was a little excited. Giddy, even. We don't see a lot of proposals for new high rises in the city, particularly ones that deviate from a simple glass cube.

Market8 certainly does that.

Still, as Philebrity rightly pointed out, this casino won't happen. If we get another casino, we'll likely wind up with The Provenance or Wynn, the former being more exciting and, at the Inquirer Building, most central.

Market8 spokeswoman Maureen Garrity and lead developer Ken Goldenberg excitedly talk about engaging the site with the sidewalks, providing restaurants and retail space at street level with the casino upstairs.

That's a noble gesture and one that respects its location. In fact, in that regard, were we to actually see Market8 on Market East, it might just be the most respectful casino in any major city that doesn't exclusively cater to gambling.

Of course some of the more dangerous threats from Center City casinos come with their routinely phased development. Market8 might be pitching its casino with a high rise, but if this were to play out like SugarHouse we'd be left with a lackluster stump that looks a lot like a suburban movie theater.

Then there's parking. Market8 has clearly provided a parking garage in its design, and it appears that the surface lot on 8th and Chestnut is still available in the rendering. But SugarHouse provides a similar configuration, plus acres of surface parking lots sometimes full.

It won't take long for predatory land hoarders to recognize a demand for supplemental parking and begin buying up and demolishing adjacent buildings. Keep in mind, historic Jewelers Row is a block away. 

Market8 can't be blamed for this, particularly when the Pennsylvania Convention Center was allowed to move forward with no designated parking. But until the city sets a moratorium on private parking or raises the taxes on these lots, any casino in a depressed zone like Market East or North Broad unintentionally threatens the surrounding architecture.

Beyond the possibility that Market8 could replace the Disney Hole for an even larger Casino Hole, there's the redesign itself. Market8's previous rendering called for a low profile building running horizontally between 8th and 9th. It was sleek and modern, but also subtle and sophisticated. Of all the proposed casino designs in Philadelphia, it was the most applauded, even by some in the casino opposition camp. But for some reason, Market8's design team decided to throw out their webbed facade for something entirely different.

Maureen Garrity and Ken Goldenberg pitched the latest incarnation as a nod to the corridor's historic infrastructure, siting it a modernist interpretation of Wanamaker's or Gimbel's, essentially suggesting the more traditional approach is what we'd expect to see if Market East were the thriving commercial it should be.

I see what they're getting at. Market8's geometric shapes and ABC color palette reference recent proposals for a revived Girard Trust Block and renovations for The Galley at Market East. 

Previous Proposal for Market8

It's unfortunate because the previous design was a nice start. Even if Market8 faces an uphill battle, one it will likely lose, exciting proposals are exciting nevertheless. Instead of building on the prior concept, Market8 decided to play with a tub of Lego Blocks and gave us a collage of recycled postmodernism. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Political Agoraphobia

Inquirer writer Thomas Fitzgerald made a nostalgic pitch for Ed Rendell's return to City Hall. Of all the word's in Fitzgerald's article, one that wasn't mentioned was "frustration," the one word that encompasses why anyone would seriously entertain the notion.

In all fairness, Fitzgerald does refer to the political nostalgia surrounding familiar candidates, or even names. But he doesn't explore why it's happening.

Philadelphians are frustrated. Pennsylvanians are frustrated. Americans are frustrated. Yes, even Earthlings are frustrated.

These are frustrating times. But they're also new times. 

Whether or not you think Rendell was a great mayor, corrupt, or just plain bad, write a book about him. What our mayor did from 1992 to 2000 isn't relevant in the scope of today's Philadelphia. It's a different city. 

Voters have become so jaded that many can't even consider a candidate they've never heard of. Democrats who don't like Rendell would likely vote for him, even in a primary election, simply because a familiar mayor - good or bad - is better than the fear of the unknown. How frustrated do we need to get before that changes?

When writers like Fitzgerald aren't looking for candidates through their rose colored glasses, they're looking at our corrupt City Council for the least corrupt to put up against a Republican sent to the podium to lose.

This political agoraphobia is echoed at all levels of Democracy, in every country plagued with the demons of political bitterness. How many times will Russian voters allow Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev to swap places? As soon as Hillary's too old to run, will we be pitting Chelsea against one of the Bush twins? 

What are we afraid of?

Will Philadelphia collapse upon itself if we elect someone who isn't familiar enough with our institutional corruption to be a part of it? It's sad that keeps running articles about Philadelphia's doomed future as the next Detroit, yet can't hold a political discussion about a candidate who isn't recycled. Detroit's last mayor had a familiar name and look how that worked out.

Our mainstream news outlets can't talk about viable politicians like Tom Knox and Sam Katz without giving a nod to the frustrated Philadelphian, assuring us that these outsiders don't stand a chance.

Instead of exploring candidates who bring a new voice to the city, the media focuses on rogue candidates like Pia Varma or Larry West who entered their races to make statements about the internal corruption of our political machine, not to win. Instead of focusing on their messages, the media told fear ridden voters, "if you vote outside the box, this is what you'll get."

The media and the local political structure have taken that message and expanded it to anyone unfamiliar, no matter how boringly reasonable the candidate is. wants you to think that Sam Katz is synonymous with Pia Varma. City Hall thanks them, and picks out the next mayor like they're deciding what suit to wear on an idle Tuesday.

Rendell fans might think they loved him thirteen years ago, but everyone's fooling themselves if they think they didn't hate him as much as they hated any mayor in charge. The same goes for Clinton, Reagan, Rizzo, and someday, Obama. The only thing anyone loves about a politician is their election campaign and history.

The one reason anyone wants Rendell to be mayor is because he's not Nutter, or simply not now. Rendell may be a better mayor than one of the cronies in City Hall, but what does it say about voters when our only expectation is that a candidate be "better than" a potential disaster?

Rendell is better than a lot of people, but a lot of people are better than Rendell. We know that the next mayor will likely be appointed from City Council, so in that context, Rendell is inspiring. But the only reason he's a beacon of hope is because the Democratic party looks at Philadelphia as a city it already owns. 

Why would the party waste quality stock on a city that continues to elect itself? The party has become the city's slumlord. The bigger question might be, why do local Democrats continue to apathetically respect that?

On a more transparent level, the problem with looking at retired politicians for anything more than a biography is that we attribute everything from that era to them. Philadelphia got a lot better during Rendell's time for a lot of reasons. The national economy was on the upswing, Communism fell, there was no such thing as a War on Terror, little of which had anything to do with Rendell.

It was a more optimistic time. He can't bring that back.

Since 2001, Americans have been convinced that the world is a scary, scary place. In the late 20th Century, change was exciting. We looked forward to new technology, expanded wealth, and unfamiliar politicians. 

When we got a world of change we didn't ask for, politicians took note and elections became scary.

Fans of Rendell can site all the statistics they want, and the foes can follow up with their own. The truth is voters tend to look at pockets of history and embrace the "those were the days" ideal.

When an irresponsible tabloid paints us a glossy picture of what the city could look like if their hero returns, his fans embrace the fallacy that they won't start hating him the day after he's elected.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

3601 Market

3601 Market, part of the University Center Science Center and a mixed use apartment and commercial tower, will now be a little taller and a little bit more interesting.

A little.

Perhaps riding Drexel's new style guide, BLT Architects will be staggering many of the windows and some of the balconies on the 300 foot high rise. While it's not quite as exciting as Campus Crest's Grove or Drexel's most recent additions, BLT has angled the 28 story tower towards Center City to offer residents a view of the skyline.

Of course with seemingly no cap on University City's rising skyline, Center City developers might soon be offering their potential tenants a view of a new Philadelphia, one west of the Schuylkill River.

Pearl Street Painting

Callowhill's Pearl Street got a bit of a facelift the other day. By facelift, I mean it got a fresh coat of paint, and by that, I mean the actual street got painted.

I have no idea where it came from, if it's an art installation, some kind of nod to Callowhill's Viaduct Park ambitions, or a promotional stunt by Post Brothers.

The color is pretty close to the green used in Post Brother's Goldtex Apartments.

Whoever did it and why, it looks pretty damn cool. The street (more like an alley) is mostly unused and lined with nothing of note, so the paint adds a splash of color the way a Favela Painting camouflages the slums of Rio.

But hey, whatever works. Check it.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Friends of the Rail Park

Some new renderings have emerged from OLIN Studio for Callowhill's should-be Reading Viaduct Park as well as some for a City Branch Rail Park, this time opening up City Branch's tunnels to the sky.

Commissioned by Friends of the Rail Park, formerly ViaductGreene, the renderings are highly conceptual, integrating the School District Administration Building and former Inquirer Building.

OLIN Studio

At this stage in the process, this gives us a clever idea of what a rail trail park through our historic industrial district might look like. However, park advocates shouldn't get too excited about the potential reuse of property that private developers don't really control.

Friends of the Rail Trail should be commended for their recent strides, and advocates are finally headed in the right direction. In the past, ViaductGreene has been a loosely knit organization comprised of members with AutoCAD skills and a knack for getting people talking. While they managed to get neighbors involved in the discussion, they never really managed to rally any key decision makers.

Obviously, a large chunk of the neighborhood supports the project. So much so, many were willing to approve a tax increase for the Callowhill neighborhood to support park maintenance well before anything would have happened.

At this point, the property's piece meal ownership poses the biggest obstacle, particularly the portion owned by the mysterious Reading Company. The Reading Company owns the elevated portion that snakes its way through the neighborhood east of Broad. While the company largely exists as a portfolio of defunct rail lines, it's unclear whether ownership even knows of the plans for their property.

OLIN Studio

While the Inquirer Building's owner, Bart Blatstein is open to the idea, he has acknowledged SEPTA's vested interest in the property as well.

The City Planning Commission has expressed some resistance to the concept, citing the potential return of transit to the City Branch portion of the rail. It's a reasonable concern, one Leah Murphy, board member of Friends of the Rail Park acknowledged as well.

Even if it takes fifty years for transit to return to the City Branch line, these lines were established when the surrounding environment was being developed. Subways and dedicated rail lines are hard if not impossible to build in an established city, which is why newer cities opt for surface rails. The City Branch line and even the Reading Viaduct is a unique asset that, despite the fact that we don't use them, would be difficult to reestablish as a rail line after they find alternate use.

OLIN Studio

The Planning Commission has mentioned using the land as a bus line, which Murphy points out could run in tandem with a City Branch park. Park advocates remain optimistic that the line could be used as a park, at least until the city drafts realistic plans to establish some form of transit in the vicinity.

A City Branch Park and a Reading Viaduct Park remain highly speculative, although City Branch's once experimental proposal for an enclosed, underground park, now open to the elements seems more realistic than plans for the Viaduct. Not necessarily because it's more or less desirable, but because it's clear where advocates stand with the land, and who actually owns it.

Until the Reading Company becomes more than a Wikipedia page, the Reading Viaduct, at least its elevated portions east of 12th Street will remain a place reserved for those with a trespassing sense of adventure.

Leah Murphy and Friends of the Rail Trail are moving in the right direction, even if an uphill battle lies before them. Working with adjacent development, the City Planning Commission, and SEPTA, as well as a willingness to work with other potential ideas is the way to go.

Another subway surface line carrying passengers from Center City to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Fairmount Park, Centennial Park, and the Philadelphia Zoo is a dreamy proposal, but one that simply isn't in the cards at the moment.

Why not open it up as a park for now? Bring more people to this colorful, sometimes bizarrely forgotten pocket of what is practically Center City, entice residents with something more than parking lots and weeds, and put some pedestrians on the ground who might someday look for a train to take them beyond.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Evo on the River

The Grove at 30th and Chestnut will be opening in the fall of 2014, and if you haven't gotten your skyscraper fix from the tallest student housing in the United States, Brandywine Realty Trust and Campus Crest aren't done.

When you think student housing, Campus Crest wants you to think vertically, which is why their Cira Centre South project isn't complete. With 33 floors already under construction, Campus Crest is aiming even higher on Walnut Street.

Remaining cryptic and making no official statements, Campus Crest does have the capital to build. With no neighborly resistance to development on the west bank on the Schuylkill River, University City and Campus Crest have been free to dabble in experimental design, tall design, free of community intervention.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Union Muscle? Hit the gym, you're playing with the big boys.

It looks like the nonsense at the site of Post Brother's Goldtex Apartments isn't going to end until its tenants are hanging their curtains. While the Firefighter's Union actually opened up a legitimate concern, an easily addressable issue, the city's trade unions continue on their own route to derail construction outside any scope of logic, or at least carry out a few last ditch attempts.

You know the throngs of protesters that routinely block moving traffic in and out of the site? The traffic moving at about a mile an hour behind the crowd of New Jersey muscle waving poorly worded banners about "Community Standards"? The hoards of white guys who criticized the presence of a few Asian construction workers who clearly couldn't be local, you know, in Chinatown?

COMING SOON, whether you like it or not.

The Building and Trades Council has decided to take a security guard to court for no less than six counts of criminal activity, allegedly trying to run over some of the protesters.

With claims like aggravated assault and reckless endangerment, The Building and Trades Council is trying to project a "we're not messing around" image, flexing their muscles. We've all seen them sitting on the side of Vine Street guarding their frownie faced signs. That muscle atrophied years ago.

Anyone with an ounce of reason knows what this is: The Building and Trades Council's pathetic attempt to stave off development for another week or two by forcing the Post Brothers into another frivolous court battle.

With all the eyes on the site, both from the petty union members sitting outside with their camera phones and Post Brothers' security system rivaling Fort Knox, it's pretty obvious that the case will wind up just being another headache for the Post Brothers which could still get tossed out.

At worst it's a costly battle for both parties, including The Building and Trades Union who seems more vested in wasting money trying to bankrupt a nearly complete project than actually finding its members work.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

How the Media Missed Miss Amercia

When Miss New York, Nina Davuluri won the Miss America crown, most of America missed the point.

I'm not talking about all the racist trolls baiting the internet from the anonymity they found under a bridge. BuzzFeed has done a fine job calling them out by their Twitter names likely to bring them fifteen minutes of fame before their teachers and parents find out what they've been saying.

Sure, some will get support from the redder necked parts of the hate states, but for every nasty comment retweeted or recounted in an article, there are hundreds of comments calling them out as the disgusting bags of garbage that they are.

What I'm talking about is the media itself and the fact that most outlets have decided to highlight the hate in their comment feeds rather than discuss who Nina Davuluri actually is.

Let's face it, a lot of us didn't follow the pageant. Had Miss (some white girl) won, many of us would have awoken Monday morning unaware that the pageant had even taken place.

Instead we woke to Facebook comments and articles all decrying the seemingly endless anger over Davuluri's win. Many nameless commenters called her "Arab," as if that should matter. Some even called her a terrorist. According to CNN, it would seem that most of America was wondering why a "foreigner" won Miss America. The last thing any media outlet bothered to tell us anything about was Nina Davuluri, the woman who won. 

Our own Philadelphia Inquirer called her win a "controversial reign."

What's controversial? Did the audience at the pageant stand and boo? Was the election rigged? Is the fact that she looks like millions of other ethnically diverse Americans controversial?

Or is the fact that the media allows a platform for race baiting, encouraging comments as a means to sell advertising, controversial? Is the fact that media outlets are pretending to be dumfounded that these racists exist controversial?

The media is certainly fanning the flames to their own advantage.

One local columnist went as far as to criticize Davuluri for some of the comments she made following her win, paraphrasing the newly crowned beauty queen's remarks towards children who "finally, would feel as if they had a piece of the Indian-American samosa simply because the lady in the sash looked like them."

Christine Flowers of the Daily News actually said that, and the newspaper printed it.

Flowers went as far as to compare her own Italian-American identity - in Philadelphia -  to that of an ethnicity many people, if trollish comments are to be believed, equate with terrorism.

There's a reason Davuluri's victory is significant, and that reason is evident in the comments on,, and Twitter. Those children she's speaking to, those who face that kind of hatred and bigotry in the classroom, are what makes her victory significant.

To decry Davuluri's message to children who face hate every day, hate they don't even understand, as some kind of reverse racism is to embrace the fallacy that reverse racism exists. To claim that being Italian-American creates a common bond with those institutionally discriminated against displays a complete lack of empathy and understanding of the world we live in, particularly when placed against the backdrop of the hateful comments levied against Davuluri.

Of all professions, these are things a reporter should understand.

As a Greek-American raised in a hate state I merely struggled with a last name few people knew how to pronounce. For Flowers, a Sopranos joke here and there cannot possibly translate into the kind of prejudice Indian-Americans, Middle Eastern-Americans, and African-Americans face everywhere, every day.

Get real. The fallacy of a post-racial America has been exhausted, disproven by the comments below any online article in the world, any article a journalist like Christine Flowers has ever posted.

That's why Nina Davuluri's win is significant. That's why her message to the young girls she understands, sympathizes with, and relates to, is even more significant.

And that's why journalists like Flowers need a reality check, or need to pass the story to someone who gets it. Someone who can tell us something about Nina Davuluri instead of using her job as a place to explore her own insecurities.