Wednesday, November 26, 2014

How One Parking Garage Exposed a NIMBY's Ulterior Motive

The Piazza is getting a new parking garage, you know, right around the corner from that other parking garage. Despite easy access to SEPTA's Girard Avenue El, Northern Liberties residents seem deeply attached to their cars. And neighbors already turning a blind eye to heinously bizarre street parking juxtaposed against fantastic architecture seem more than willing to accommodate suburban traffic as long as there's a place to stash their beloved Priuses.

A new parking garage on land that can accommodate one may seem benign. Despite Northern Liberties should-be proximity to Center City (Spring Garden really is just a few blocks from Old City), it's been an island since I-95 was built. But residents' lack of reaction to more parking exposes neighborhood groups' own hypocrisy and what they really expect of the city.


At the height of the building boom, numerous high-rises were proposed along the river. So many so that they could have created a densely urban neighborhood on par with West Market Street. 

What happened? 

The neighborhood bitched and moaned about shadows and access to the river until the economy collapsed. Then they all retreated west of the interstate to pat themselves on the back for a job well done. 

Well fuck that noise.

These NIMBYs didn't give a shit about shadows or river access - something that still only exists in Penn Treaty Park, a park never threatened by development - but were only concerned with potential urban density that threatened their precious parking spaces.

If Philadelphia wasn't afraid of being Philadelphia, this could have happened.
I guess I just can't grasp the new urban mentality. The mentality of those somewhere between suburban and urban. By the time you've accommodated all the ills that make the suburbs so intolerable you've created a microcosm of those suburban ills: parking structures, parking lots, and a sprawling lack of density.

By then, you've killed your neighborhood and turned it into Ardmore without the charm.

As cities grow - and Philadelphia is growing - that means taller buildings, more people, and less parking. That should be exciting to anyone living in a city. You can't move to a city, applaud yourself for being an urbanite, and then turn around and expect your Starbucks drive-thru. You have to learn to enjoy the urban experience. 

If you don't like it, well, that's why New Jersey exists.

Escaping the Cold...Underground

Now that it's nut shriveling cold outside, your cardio routine has probably taken a hit. The Schuylkill River Trail is so much more inviting than a stationary bike next to twelve others that smell like feet.

Well, have you ever thought of taking to SEPTA's expansive underground concourse for your evening jog? No. That's insane. Your gym's foot smell is way better than that piss smell. 

But what if the concourse looked like this?

That's a rendering of Manhattan's proposed Low Line. Utilizing an abandoned trolley terminal under the Lower East Side, New York hopes to bank on the success of its High Line and turn it upside down. Skylights will filter sunshine into the subterranean park offering a bit of nature during New York's brutal winter.

As Philadelphia wrestles with the logistics of creating our own variation of New York's High Line atop the abandoned Reading Viaduct, others have proposed converting its abandoned extension sunken below the city at Broad and Noble that continues all the way to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

While New York beat us to both the High Line and now, possibly, the Low Line, Philadelphia's potential is unique in that the two are already integrated. 

It's a tough sell. The Reading Viaduct Park has faced an uphill battle since it was first conceived but it's finally gaining a strong foothold in reality. But the proposition of an underground "park" anywhere in Philadelphia has been the butt of more C.H.U.D. jokes than actual praise.

That's understandable, but partially because it's been pitched primarily as an underground incarnation of the more logical Reading Viaduct Park. It seems hokey. "If we're using old tracks for an elevated park, why not make one in the tracks underground too?!" It's reactionary, not innovative. 

Obviously the best use for Philadelphia's abandoned rail - both above and below ground - would be to reopen it to subway/elevated trains carting people to black holes of speedy transportation like the Art Museum, the Zoo, and other neighborhoods in the Northwest.

Well, that's not happening. 

And to understand why an underground park is a good idea you have to stop thinking of it as a park. Even in New York, while the Low Line may offer similar plant life found above ground, it will likely find its best use as a well dressed concourse ferrying pedestrians throughout the Lower East Side during the winter and on rainy days. Clean, it will also offer recreationalists a unique reprieve from their boring gyms.

When you think about it that way, jogging throughout Philadelphia's concourse - and our own Low Line - don't seem like such a half baked idea. Philadelphia's abandoned tunnel, The City Branch Line, extends from Broad to Pennsylvania Avenue. It's not a long walk but the urban planning missteps that created Franklin Town make it an awkwardly disjointed one. One an underground concourse could easily address.

Unions: Lost in Nostalgia

According to, the city has experienced a 20% increase in hotel bookings directly related to improved work rules at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. 

Record scratch - what?

Check out the numbers in the article. They're impressive.

It's also a mind blowing no-brainer the Pennsylvania Convention Center should have grasped way back when it opened in 1993. But politics and the mentality of residents have changed. The only thing that hasn't changed, it seems, are the tactics of the dying trade unions. And they're not dying because of public perception, they're suffocating themselves by refusing to acknowledge a new millennium...already 14 years old.

How effective are their weekly protests at the Convention Center? Those of us annoyed by their routined rhetoric are local, while the vast majority of convention attendees are not. Conventioneers are simply returning home with a funny story about some inflatable "Fat Cat" they saw in Philadelphia. Their presence has little to no barring on any conventions. Hell, they're even offering up some good music at 12th and Arch.

Lately they've been picketing Boxers, a new bar in the 10am. You know when customers and employees aren't at bars? At 10am. One passerby even commented on the inflatable rat, "I don't get it, are they calling themselves rats?"

They're cluelessness would be sad if they weren't trying to strangle development in the city. Protests at Goldtex Apartments at 12th and Pearl were so misguided that the developers, the Post Brothers, actually highjacked their rhetoric and used it as a marketing ploy. But those acting out were too bent on chasing their waking dream that they didn't get it.

Here's how lost they are: When I was taking pictures of some picketers at an apartment development near Race and Camac one day, a protestor mistook me for someone who gave a shit and said. "Look, dey got den damn Mexicans working up there, you know dey ain't local." 

I didn't even know how to respond. Not because of the racist nature of his remark, but because the racist nature of his remark was about two layers deep. The workers he was pointing at were Chinatown. So I just muttered something about all the New Jersey license plates illegally parked next to him and walked away. 

These are organizations so deeply indebted to their own dysfunctions that they can't even recognize the fact that they need guidance. Philadelphia's sidewalks are a mouse maze of pedestrians staring at their phones and listening to Taylor Swift. The 21st Century cares about a union protest only for as long as it takes to post it on Instagram.

The best thing the more rigid unions could do would be to hire a public relationship manager well versed in marketing organ slimming pills during Real Housewives marathons. Someone who understands that the only causes the modern world cares about are those with a brand and sexy spokespeople. 

But they're lost, buried beneath rhetoric that applied in an era when politicians turned a blind eye to the illegal and violent efforts that got unscrupulous results. But the truth is, politicians were never on their side. Politicians are on the side of what wins elections. And in a new world where picket lines are irrelevant, politicians who join, lose. And the delusions that keep fueling these aging unions' tactics have turned them into a nonsensical circus, and that's exactly why they'll vanish.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Uber is Here to Stay...and It's Good For Us

Yes, please.
Say what you will about Uber, or it's more affordable option, UberX. 

Rhetoric has been compiled by an industry that has been playing fast and lose with a monopoly for decades. Around the country, Uber drivers have been accused of being reckless and harassing customers. In all likelihood those accusations are 100% correct. But the fact many seem to ignore is: taxi drivers have been getting away with this for years.

It's a double standard likely caused by a multitude of reasons. For starters, taxi cabs have been reputedly disgusting since the dawn of hired carriage rides. They're rude, they stink, and they'll take you on a joy ride if you don't know where you're going. It's easy to call out an isolated disservice in an Uber car because Uber gives you a venue to call out the disservice

Your Uber driver has a predetermined route to guarantee an accurate estimate. The driver cannot claim that the "credit card machine is down" to pocket the fare. The transaction takes place in the cloud. And if - worst case scenario - you have an unseemly altercation with your driver, you know exactly who's driving you. 

The gripes that don't sidestep reason seem fixated on Uber's apparent assault on a timelessly nostalgic and struggling institution, as if you're being carted around in a horse and buggy, not a twenty year old Caprice Classic with worn shocks and bald tires. 

Industries change and cabs are by no means the struggling poster child for a dying industry. If they are dying, they're dying at the hands of their owners. 

A medallion required to operate a taxi cab in Philadelphia cost $65,000 in 2005. Thanks to an uptick in transit minded residents, DUI checkpoints, and simply more reasons to be downtown, that cost rose to nearly half a million dollars. Well surprise, surprise, that $475,000 price tag is as dead as the Studebaker. The Philadelphia Parking Authority - who in a baffling conflict of interest apparently oversees Philadelphia's taxi cabs - allowed the asking price to be lowered to a paltry $350,000.

What's more mind blowing than any of this is why, when faced with an apparent rise in demand for cabs in the last nine years, the value of a static number of medallions was raised, and not the number of medallions themselves. In a giant "f*ck you" to the consumer, the foundation of the cab industry, the PPA allowed medallion owners to sidestep the very process by which competitive industries work. And now Uber is giving them exactly what they deserve: a cold, hard reality check. 

Chalet on the Delaware

The people have spoken and the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation has answered. Who knew? People like being on the water. I'll set aside my snarky remarks about the torrid history of Philadelphia's Delaware Waterfront for the positive direction it's taking.

Riding the success of the Spruce Street Harbor Park, Penn's Landing is being transformed into a Swiss ski chalet this winter. The RiverRink has been a hit for years, but in the past the waterfront has offered little else in its colder months. This year, RiverRink will have to compete with Dilworth Park's much more convenient and scenic iceskating rink. And they're doing it right.

Two tents known as The Lodge will be outfitted with cozy sofas and rocking chairs, and - of course - Garces Events will be bringing the menu. Remember Stephen Starr? What ever happened to that guy?

Familiar to those who frequented the Spruce Street Harbor Park, the retrofitted shipping containers will be back and full of gifts from Art Star and arcade games.

But here's the best part, and something just so quirky and uniquely Philadelphian: salvaged materials including fireplace mantles and other architectural details outfitting The Lodge are from none other than the city's grande dame of Broad Street, the Divine Ms. L.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Can Preservation Be Proactive?

To look at Philadelphia from the river, we look like any other successful city. Office buildings dominate the skyline, historic steeples complement glassy towers, and from University City to Market East, the city continues to be redefined architecturally. 

But step inside and it's another story. We aren't a city that moves quickly. If New York and Chicago build like the Autobahn, Philadelphia's development climate can be summed up by the Schuylkill at 5PM any time of day.

We are a culture that caters to bureaucracy and neighborhood organizations that miss the mark, and it scars the landscape. As a city home to perhaps the nation's largest portfolio of architectural history and heritage, the fight to save our most beleaguered landmarks is often lost to decades of squabbles. What's worse, some of the most careless developers know this and use it to their advantage.

If you want to tear down a crumbling church for a parking lot or suburban strip mall, all you have to do is wait it out. No site in Center City knows this better than the historic Church of the Assumption on Spring Garden Street.

After years of on-again off-again bickering between developers, owners, the Historical Commission, and advocacy groups, a demolition permit has been issued to the building's current owner, John Wei. Considering all of the city's historical losses in the past forty or fifty years, placing a site on the city's Register of Historic Places almost seems like it ensures a building's inevitable demolition.

The current state of the church means it will almost certainly be demolished despite any appeals. It's just too costly to repair, at least in terms with what you could actually get out of such a space. Were it habitable, it would make a nice gym, theater, or nightclub. But its condition is not a technicality. It's falling apart.

The Church of the Assumption is unique. What happened to it, unfortunately is not. And I'm not just referring to the loss of a landmark. I'm talking about how it was lost. Call it what you want, but what happened to the Church of the Assumption boils down to a dysfunctional dinner table argument full of family members only tethered to each other by blood. While Grandpa was complaining about cell phones, the parents announced their divorce, and the daughter Tweeted the whole ordeal...the dinner rotted and ended up in the dog's bowl.

But this is a lesson Philadelphia's historical advocates are routinely offered but never learn. And it's going to happen again. The Spruce Parker Hotel was recently shut down after a small fire. It's not a historically designated building, nor should it be, but it's a beefy building on a prime corner. Without an eager buyer willing to upgrade the modest hotel, it will begin to deteriorate and we'll wind up with another surface parking lot in Center City.

Around the corner, the renovation of the Lincoln Apartments appears to have stalled. It may simply be that the logistics of rebuilding an aging structure from the inside out is too complex to show quick signs of progress. But it may also be that the effort has proven more complicated and costly than first thought. Old City recently learned the cost of letting a building drift into disrepair. As the Shirt Corner closed and promised a handsome 3rd and Market, it's twin burned leaving the corner with a vacant lot and a prime corner looking worse than ever.

So what's the point of this rambling rant? Well, for starters, true advocates need to be proactive, not reactive. It's understandable amongst community organizations. Members don't have time to be on top of every effort. They have jobs. But those charged with protecting history, being on top of the effort is the job. Fighting a fight at the eleventh hour rarely works, and this has been made painfully apparently time and time again. 

The Church of the Assumption will be torn down whether or not anyone wants to admit it. It's unfortunate, and I'm not being negative. I'm suggesting we looking for the next Church of the Assumption: Robinson's Department Store, The Roundhouse, The Health District Center. Start the fight before it's a fight. Proactively seek tenants not just with the means to preserve these landmarks, but with the desire for landmark properties. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The City Hall Parking Lot

The west portal to City Hall, Dilworth Plaza, has been reinvented as Dilworth Park. Despite critical opinion, the public has spoken: new is better, especially when there's something to do. Now that the fountain has been transformed into an ice skating rink, one flanked by architecture as diverse as this city (take that, Rockefeller Center), it's found itself full of hundreds of tourists and locals enjoying the outdoors, even when it's brutally cold.

But prior to Dilworth's rebirth, you probably avoided its cracked sidewalks and impractical sunken plaza, the one with that piss smell. So you probably also didn't notice all the city employees who've been treating City Hall's north plaza like a suburban Walmart parking lot.

Well, someone took note. And then someone else. And then someone even started a Tumblr page about it.

Of all the quips about the absurdity of draping the city's most monumental feat of engineering with a make-shift parking lot, the best came in the comments section of of all places: "We have the walkability of Paris and the car-centric mentality of Dallas." We sure do, IR, we sure do.

It may seem petty. The city is growing as we speak. We're better accommodating bicyclists, we're keeping subway lines open later, we're even offering the unheard of notion of credit cards at transit stations. Market East is finally recognizing its potential, and will soon be rising. The same can be said for East Chestnut. 

So yeah, crying about a few (twenty) cars dwarfed by City Hall seems a bit silly. But while many Center City residents have long understood that parking is a privilege, not a right, the city that North Broad faces is largely another story. 

You don't even have to go to Vine to find ample parking on North Broad, and its side streets are flanked with additional parking. And when you finally do reach Vine, still a short walk from City Hall, you'll find Center City's dirty little secret (well, not so little, it's derelict parking lots cover acres of developable land.)

Meanwhile the cretins parking on the sidewalk around City Hall as if it's the Oregon Avenue median are pointing their middle finger at anyone who thinks they should be paying for the privilege of walking two blocks. 

Why, why, oh why, does City Hall require the overwhelming majority of new development offer parking spaces for the supposed sake of traffic and parking if City Hall doesn't require their employees to use them?

By the logic that parks City Hall employees on its sidewalks, we should have torn down the Logan Square neighborhood to accommodate employees in the upcoming CITC.

Again, it may seem petty, but it's representative of a bureaucracy that governs some of the greatest walkability in the nation but refuses to encourage it, or even accept it themselves.  

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Is Little Pete's Worth Saving?

#savelittlepetes is now a thing. 

As the block home to Little Pete's at 17th and Chancellor will likely be rezoned to accommodate a 12 story Hudson Hotel, the diner's days are numbered. 

However, unlike the 50s-era Letto Deli recently demolished at 13th and Chancellor, Little Pete's iconic 17th Street location is only iconic in its interior and signage, all of which could be moved to another location if management chooses to. 

It could even feasibly be reopened on the ground floor of the new hotel. 

But Bob Skiba, the Gayborhood Guru of Hidden City uncovered a bit of history that will be lost with this unassuming parking garage. Like Letto Deli's location on 13th, Little Pete's was once a Dewey's Famous Diner. While Dewey's on 13th tolerated the Gayborhood's largely LGBT clientele as far back as the 1960s, its 17th location barred "a large number of homosexuals...wearing non-conformist clothing."

Civil protests were certainly not unheard of in the 60s, but four years before the famous Stonewall Riots in New York City -  events that typically mark the beginning of the Gay Rights Movement - 150 men and women staged a protest at Dewey's on 17th in 1965.

That same year, another one of the nation's first gay rights rallies was held at Independence Hall. Known as the Annual Reminder, these pickets were held until 1969 when the movement was moved to Christopher Street in New York City to coincided with that year's Stonewall Riots.

While Dewey's is long gone, the location's significance may perhaps be stronger than ever given recent strides in LGBT rights and marriage equality. Philadelphia is home to a lot of "firsts" but I'd be willing to bet that quite a few, even those active in the LGBT rights movement, know just how integral a role the City of Brotherly love has played. 

Even today, despite conservative politics in Harrisburg and throughout the Commonwealth, Philadelphia continues to lead the nation in progressive policies. From Congressman Brian Sims to the ever vigilant Councilman Jim Kenney, both more concerned with doing what's right than playing politics, we continue to be a city that pushes towards the side of acceptance, even if it's unpopular. For the second year in a row, Philadelphia has tied for first place in LGBT equality.

While we have leaders to thank, like State Attorney Kathleen Kane who refused to defend an unconstitutional ban on gay marriage, we also have a loud and opinionated public that refuses to accept injustice even when it may not coincide with their personal beliefs.

Growing up in the South I'm well versed in the hypocrisy of a region known for its "hospitality." It may seem ironic that Philadelphia, a city reputably rude, would also be so tolerant and accepting. Perhaps its because hospitality and politeness are a farce and rarely have anything to do with recognizing what's just. Anyone who's participated in a protest or sit-in knows how true that is. 

And that's exactly why Dewey's Famous on 17th Street may play a role in history, but as a building, isn't deserved of preservation. 

Our rebellious roots were alive and well in 1965. Philadelphia is no stranger to architectural lost, but we've never lost our way. Little Pete's is just a diner and the Hudson Hotel is no one's civil enemy. Philadelphia is still - and will remain - a city that fights for what's right.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Live! Hotel and Casino

It's been a long and contentious road, but the final decision has been made for Philadelphia's second casino. Whether you like gaming or not, if Philadelphia needs another one, the right location was chosen.

As opposed to Center City locations, Live! Hotel and Casino has always been a no brainer. 

The location has always been a no brainer...for all of Philadelphia's casinos. 

But because of state rules that prohibit pairing up competing casinos, each has to be a specific distance from another. In a way it makes sense. If casinos were allowed to compete for a location, Pennsylvania could end up with an Atlantic City without a beach. But the lack of competition also keeps each casino dumbed down to the lowest common denominator.

Nonetheless, the Stadium District is already a growing entertainment zone. Detached from residents and surrounded by freeways and parking lots, the area is free to offer bars, concert venues, and now a casino without annoying any neighbors. 

Whether or not Live!'s hotel materializes, like the component that seems to have been abandoned by SugarHouse, the casino will benefit from adjacent activity. While SugarHouse neither complements nor caters to its neighborhood, in fact it does just the opposite, Live! will be a marketable asset to Philadelphia's burgeoning party strip. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Collateral Damage

In an unfortunate series of events, Philadelphia's Gayborhood neighborhood was delivered several hits in the last month. The former Letto Deli, a unique piece of 50s era Americana, was demolished. iCandy was faced with the suspension of its liquor license. And sadly, it seems, Westbury will be closing.

After a fire broke out in the Spruce Parker Hotel, the city shut it down. The Westbury, a popular gay bar, was caught in the cross fire. Without a second exit, the bar was shut down along with the hotel. 

The city has been looking for a reason to shut down the Parker for years. The hotel is a remnant of a city that no longer exists. Some call it a hostel, others a whore house.

It's by-the-day, -week, and -month rates harken us back to a time when cities were more than Carrie Bradshaw and Co. brunching with their trikes in toe. Cities were places of diversity...ugly, ugly diversity.

To be fair, the Parker has become a venue for prostitutes, drugs abuse, suicide, and other ill repute. But it was also a place for those struggling to make ends meet, newcomers, and rent hikes. The Parker represents the ugly diversity that self ascribed champions of sympathy love to love but refuse to talk about: hardship, crime, and homelessness.

As unfortunate as it is, the Westbury is collateral damage. But the Parker offered something unique: affordable housing in a city that still needs it.

For all that's been said of the Parker, I'd love to see someone rattle off the crime rates at 13th and Spruce relative to any other corner of Center City, even Rittenhouse. The Parker was a flea-bag hotel, sure, but that's all it was. It was as much a place of struggle as it was for insidious activity. 

People only want to see the worst in others.

Liberalism can be a blindly double edged sword. While many who proclaim themselves champions of cause pat themselves on the back for cleaning up their neighborhoods, they've ignored those they've displaced with nowhere to go. We liberals view community gardens as improvements, but turn a blind eye to those who strive for a warm meal from McDonald's.

What sickens me most about the Parker's closure isn't the building's closure, it's the hypocrisy behind the unofficial campaign to eradicate the occasional warm bed for those accustomed to sleeping on the street.

The Gayborhood of all places is Center City's last vestige of cause. We should know better than anyone. When a kid is thrown out of a suburban home for coming out to his parents, the Parker was a bed. Now he or she has a steam vent along Market East. 

Progress isn't measured in the superficiality of new condos and hotels, it's measured in compassion. The Parker may have been a den of inequity, but no one stopped to question why that den existed. Its drug abuse, prostitution, and suicides weren't products of the hotel, they were products of our society. Now that the Parker is gone, those atrocities won't vanish, they'll be relinquished to the streets where they'll be ignored. 

We shouldn't have been campaigning to close the Parker, we should have been campaigning to end the reason the Parker served a need. 

13th and Spruce may find itself with a new hotel, market rate apartments, or a vacant building. But erasing the Parker from Philadelphia did nothing for those who needed it. At best it traded a rare alternative to a homeless shelter for boutique hotel rooms. At worst, those who resided at the Parker will be living on the streets in exchange for an abandoned high-rise. 

Think about that, then pat yourself on the back. As so-called "progress" transforms American cities with upscale apartments and trendy cafes, is it any wonder that homelessness is on the rise?

Broad and Washington

Thanks to kidphilly on, we know a little more about Bart Blatstein's plans for the long dormant "Cirque Hole" at Broad and Washington. 

While many keep calling this "the next Piazza," I suggest we hang that up. This is not the Piazza. The Piazza is relatively detached from the urban experience. It's insular. If the plan for Broad and Washington happens in its entirety, it could be far more urban than the Piazza ever intended to be.

With two towers roughly thirty stories high, Broad and Washington could carry the city's skyline south while drawing upper South Philadelphia neighborhoods into Center City. One can hope it will also inspire improvements in the vastly suburbanized street scape between South Street and Washington Avenue.

At 750 parking spaces, it can provide some much needed parking for the Italian Market and mobile neighbors.

However, with 1600 residential units, the endeavor is ambitious even for Center City, let alone what is technically part of South Philadelphia. Also, in what are hopefully preliminary renderings, Broad and Washington lacks the Piazza's futuristic architecture brought to us by our own Erdy-McHenry. 

Seriously, the Piazza's concrete walls, angular windows, and Piet Mondrian-esque color blocks are straight out of a Battlestar Galactaca flashback. But at Broad and Washington, save a few floors and it would easily blend in King of Prussia. 

But will its most exciting components even happen, or are they simply being used to pitch what will essentially be a big box retailer on a city street? When the Gallery at Market East, a similar concept, was pitched it included two sleek, albeit bland, towers that never emerged. Will the same "we'll get to it someday" be true of Blatstein's Broad and Washington towers?

What the Gallery at Market East was supposed to be.


It seems like the arrest of Philadelphia's Michael Grant, a.k.a. #phillyjesus, has gone viral. Gee,
who knew that would happen?

I'm not really a fan of religion. It doesn't jive with my hippie upbringing. What I am a fan of is a man who managed to recover from two of the most horribly addictive substances - heroin and crack cocaine - and attempts to inspire others to do the same. How he got there isn't relevant. 

While the city's most unfortunate have been lining the streets in growing numbers, as the weather gets colder and less hospitable, so, it seems have our civil servants. Despite those who panhandle for change by holding doors, those who walk through train cars in military fatigues asking for money, Grant entertains and occasionally inspires. 

According to Grant, who frequently poses with visitors, he doesn't ask for money but he does accept "tips." After a free skate at Dilworth Park's new rink, Grant went to the aptly named LOVE Park to do what he does: spread his notion of the gospel and pose for pictures. 

This apparently enraged one Philadelphia police officer, one who, as Grant claims, has had it out for him since his days of crime and drug abuse. Grant was arrested for disorderly conduct and failure to disperse after refusing to leave the park. Handcuffed and escorted to the officer's patrol car, Grant served less than two hours behind bars. 

It's hard to imagine a reasonable arrest, even if what he does is technically illegal. Actors are routinely fined in Hollywood and New York City for illegally impersonating trademarked characters in exchange for "tips." But Jesus Christ isn't a trademark nor is Philadelphia a Hollywood overrun with Batguy and Elmert.

Attorney Charles Gibbs has decided to represent Grant. While Gibbs has made no bones about grandstanding, already using the on-the-nose word, "crucified," I doubt Grant actually faces any enforceable charges.

What's perhaps most offensive is the police officer's tactic. In an era in which one can go from a nobody to an accidental anti-celebrity with the click of a phone, I don't understand why police officers aren't better versed in handling potentially newsworthy situations with the utmost professionalism. 

I'm certainly not saying individuals like Grant should be given a free pass for illegal activity, but when that same activity is ignored in countless others soliciting throughout the city, step back and think, "is it worth it?"

Sunday, November 16, 2014

New York's Dirty Little Secret

Several residents interviewed for Lisa Foderaro's New York Times article, "Tensions Over Park Behavior as Homelessness Rises in New York City," have managed to define utter disregard for humanity.

As homelessness skyrockets, some are asking why, while others are demanding something be done to stop it. What few are actually concerned with are those unfortunately left on the streets. 

If New York's early 21st Century can be summed up by Sex and the City, it's 2014 is starting to get disturbingly Dickensian.

What's most unsettling about the article is its considerable lack of empathy for a very real epidemic. While hoards of transplants followed Carrie Bradshaw to the Big Apple, fueled by an affinity for runny eggs and bottomless mimosas, some of them apparently left their compassion back where they came from.

While one Brooklyn resident said that she felt compassion for the homeless, noting that the shelters may not be "a place that they want to go," that compassion seems lost on others, even Foderaro, who opted to discuss homelessness as a problem while ignoring the problems that lead there. 

Deputy Commissioner for the Department of Homeless Services, Jody Rudin stated that they've talked to the homeless, asking why the shelters are not an attractive option. Without delving into why each individual is homeless, the right questions aren't being asked.

Conducting the same survey a guest receives after three nights at a Hilton isn't going to get to the root of a very complex set of circumstances. And those circumstances differ from homeless person to homeless person, because they're people.

The growing number of homeless in New York and around the country aren't members of a union with a spokesperson. For them, life is anarchy, a distopic nightmare full of untold rape and violence. 

Curfews and citations mean nothing in this lawless world. Before anyone can understand why someone would choose a park bench over a cot in a homeless shelter, the reasons each one of them is homeless needs to be understood. 

Then I would suggest that anyone who thinks homelessness is a "problem" akin to traffic or litter serve two tours in Iraq, watch friends get murdered and several villages burn, then return to a nation full of protestors who want to do the exact same to you. 

That might offer better insight into why some homeless people need much more than a bed and a bowl of soup.

Homelessness is incredibly harsh and too few people want to recognize that reality. Empathizing with something so horrid instills guilt, especially when walking a Welsh Corgi up to a park bench to shoo away a war veteran and enjoy a $5 latte. 

Two decades removed from the New York that now only exists in myths and legends, the city has managed to replace much of its diverse populous with ingrates completely out of touch with the struggles of socioeconomics. Likewise, its government has apparently been replaced with politicians and officials better apt to run Smallville than Metropolis. 

From public urination to drug abuse, the rambling Times article inadvertently exposes a city that sees homelessness as another form of blight. Blight is a problem, homelessness isn't that simple. It is a psychosocial condition that deserves sympathetic consideration. Watch The Fisher King. Read Tomas Young's "Last Letter." 

These are broken people who need help. While so many New Yorkers spend thousands on therapy to coach them through their upper middle class woes, many homeless people need sincerely reparative counseling. Those charged with "solving the problem" need to treat homeless people like the wildly diverse and dynamic anti-community that they are, not like a dysfunctional family with a one-size-fits-all solution.

That, perhaps, may be the entire campaign's most shortsighted flaw. These are not simply people from different backgrounds, races, and religions. They're people who have lost their families, their identity, and their faith. They are more diverse than anything one can fathom. To regard them as annoying would be akin to having a distaste for the universe. It's irrational, which is why so many residents are resigned to an annual donation and shutting their eyes. Understanding something so complex isn't just difficult, it takes you to a dark place.

Next time you turn a blind eye to the homeless person holding your door for change, visit the nightmarish reality they're dealing with all the time.

While New York's outer boroughs have awoken to new life full of community gardens and gastropubs, longtime residents have been priced out of their homes with nowhere to go. The strongest of them will survive New York's brutal winter while the elderly and sick will die on your streets, discarded in an unmarked grave. New residents who've taken their place are patting themselves on the back for improving neighborhoods someone else once called home. 

Others, shellshocked veterans who have been forced to self medicate with drugs and alcohol, are faced with a smugly idealistic public dialogue that knows nothing of the horrors of combat, a dialogue that has shamed many from returning to their families. 

Is it any wonder some homeless men and women trend towards being confrontational? They're stuck in a life you can't possibly imagine, and then you have the audacity to tell them they're not good enough to sleep on a park bench hours after you're in your king size bed.

Has America's once great melting pot become so superficially perfected that its heart has been buried under the pursuit of a utopian ideal that can only be met by discarding those most in need of the simplest sympathy and respect?

In a city that recently offered "ghetto" tours of its most blighted neighborhoods, exploiting its most unfortunate, can it ever recover from its own narcissism? People treat stray animals better. 

Next time you see a homeless person sitting on your park bench, if you don't feel threatened, join them. Share your Panera. Talk to them. They may not know where to find a shelter. They may be too proud to call their family. Offer them a shred of dignity. When the world treats someone like a sewer rat, that simple act of humanity may be exactly what they need. 

The Bioluminescent City

Say what you will about Genetically Modified Organisms: They're killing us with Frankenfood. They're feeding starving nations with hardier crops. Both are debatable, and both are probably true depending on the circumstance. 

The term "GMO" has been hijacked by pop culture. In that realm it's essentially meaningless because "genetic modification" can vary from anything that was selectively bred to something invented in a mad scientist's laboratory.

Humans have been genetically modifying species for thousands of years. Corn was bread from a type of wheat. The golden retriever cozying up to you at night is a wolf. And you, yes you, are a type of domesticated animal. 

But while dietitians and health enthusiast have hopped on the anti-GMO bandwagon, scientists have been using the process to create some wild species in their efforts to cure diseases. What's left behind are real, living plants and animals that would make James Cameron blush. 

Not PhotoShop

Have you ever heard of glowing cats? As part of a study aimed at combatting AIDS, South Korean scientists used jellyfish DNA to create bioluminescent cats. The protein that causes jellyfish to glow is used to mark changes in a cat's genetic makeup, namely that the cat is resistant to the feline version of the HIV virus. 

The effort is absolutely noble, but it's also shown the mind blowing capabilities of genetic modification when it's allowed to roam. Cats are not the only animals that are now glowing and they prove that the same could be applied to humans. Seattle's punk scene could be a little less dreary during the winter. I mean if face lifts and boob jobs are ethical, why not glowing hair? 

But deliberately creating bioluminescent organisms hasn't been limited to the animal kingdom. And that's where its relevance could one day apply to architecture and urban planning. A fully funded Kickstarter campaign is aimed at developing bioluminescent trees. Bioluminescence isn't unheard of in the plant kingdom. Various forms of fungi glow in the dark. But introducing Mother Nature's technology to large trees could one day light our city's streets.

For a century we've been looking at ways to use Mother Nature to power our built environment through solar, wind, and hydropower. Now, it seems, we have the capability to bypass harnessing Mother Nature's power by empowering Her to simply provide it through slightly altered nature.

Combined with Pro-Teq's unique pavement that absorbs ultraviolet light during the day and returns it at night, truly bioluminescent gingko, maple, and sycamore trees could make the pricy need for street lamps a thing of the past. Welcome to a Philadelphia illuminated by nature, the urban embodiment of Avatar

Thursday, November 13, 2014

What Happened to Manny, Moe, and Jack?

42nd and Market isn't known for much. As University City seems to be challenging Center City for its title, its ambition ceases at 36th Street. Beyond that are parking lots, suburban pharmacies, and remnants of what once was.

While 42nd and Market is nothing special, it did own something special: a unique statue of the Pep Boys: Manny, Moe, and Jack. Pep Boys, originally Pep Auto Supplies, originated in Philadelphia at 63rd and Market almost a century ago. The original location is long gone, but it's 42nd Street shop was one of the city's most iconic.

So where did Manny, Moe, and Jack go? In 2012, Pep Boys was acquired by The Gores Group for about $1B, after which many locations closed, including the one on 42nd Street. The boys vanished.
One of the company's statues was donated to the Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles but it's unclear where it came from. Could it have been the statue from 42nd and Market? Considering Philadelphia was the birthplace of Pep Boys, and one of the world's first automotive shops, it seems likely in its significance. 

It's fortunate that such a piece of history carries on in a museum dedicated to unique Americana. But it's unfortunate for Philadelphia to lose such an icon. I've said it before, Philadelphia is America's Gotham. We embrace defunct nostalgia. 

From the Divine Lorraine to the PSFS Building, to ghost signs and mosaics embedded in the sidewalks, Philadelphia is a narrative full of fictional business. We still refer to Macy's as Wanamaker's and Century 21 as Strawbridge and Clothier. The Pep Boys, slowly fading into the annals of history, is no exception to our appreciation for our robust history. Manny, Moe, and Jack deserve a prominent place in our city's public space.

A New Vine Street

With the new Mormon Temple taking shape on Vine Street and the LDS Church's apartment building proposed for the lot next door, Vine Street may soon look a little more like a street and less like a parking lot periodically interspersed with drab walkups and suburban infill. 

Mayor Nutter actually said that the Temple's addition will make the Benjamin Franklin Parkway “one of the most incredible boulevards anywhere in the world.” I appreciate his enthusiasm, but the claim is a stretch. Still, the potential is fabulous and the Mormon's are ferrying the grandeur of the Parkway onto Vine Street.

The LDS Church's 1601 Vine Street
For all that's been said of the mistake that is the Vine Street Expressway, it's more of a mental barrier than a physical one. Portland, OR is home to its own highway canyon, one barely noticeable because of the successful development flanking the east and west sides. 

Chinatown is inching closer to bookending Franklin Town's "Little Salt Lake City" with its own Eastern Tower which would contain a community center and apartments, and solidify Chinatown's presence in the emerging Callowhill neighborhood. 

The original design was fantastically wild and echoed modern architecture scraping the skies of Shanghai, albeit quite bit shorter. Nonetheless, the urban addition would be a breakaway from the sprawling parking lots, vacant lots, and dull infill that Vine Street is known for. While the urban concept remains, Eastern Tower's latest redesign has erased its edge. 

Take a look. What do you think? 

Is the new design good? Ugly? Or simply too boring to be bad?

Original design

If Eastern Tower needed to be downsized, a few floors could have been removed without stripping it of its uniqueness. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Through My Rosy Glasses

Forbes released yet another list and, not surprising, subjectivity landed Philadelphia pretty deep at #15. You know when Philadelphia finds itself behind Phoenix, something's off. 

Still, even if it's just morbid curiosity, these lists are fun to sift through. More often than not they foster a contrarian rant proclaiming why your city deserved a better position. So here's my rant.

This time Forbes ranked the twenty U.S. metropolitan areas with the most new construction. Right off the bat, the article delves into the oil industry's impact on Texas. That's valid. But the survey based is rank order on a city's percentage of spending compared to previous years. That is riddled with confounding variables. Namely, increased spending doesn't equal more development. Cities with a high cost of living have to spend more money on construction. Cities with powerful unions spend exponentially more on development than more development friendly cities. And, in the case of Philadelphia, relaxed union rules have made development potentially more affordable. 

But, as so many of these ridiculous lists do, this survey seems to be more about image than quantifiable substance. So naturally, Philadelphia didn't do so well.

That might not be a bad thing.

We don't need Forbes to tell us we rock.

Do other cities have a better image? Yes. Thanks to Matt Damon and Ben Affleck setting every one of their ******* movies in Boston, our chief historical rival has a better national image than a city with three times the population and much better architecture. Yes, I'm being entirely opinionated about that because I can.

San Francisco, which surprisingly landed just ahead of Philadelphia, definitely earned its image. It's a beautiful city that managed to attract some of the most wildly innovative business markets. But it also has a notoriously narcissistic reputation few cities can rival. San Francisco is great because the Chronicle says so.

It's unfortunate, but San Francisco suffers from a similar reputable woe as Philadelphia. Their smug idealism is our throwing snowballs at Santa: a stereotype that exists in a fairy tale based on a select few, but far from wholly true. 

But that's what all major cities deal with and why these lists are complete and utter bull****. Unless you're talking about Farmville, VA, you can't even try to pigeon hole any city as successful, fit, sick, or young. There are simply too many people. 

However there are some things that empirically set Philadelphia apart from our more "successful" counterparts, if Forbes is to be believed. Our undoing is our saving grace. You have to ignore what you think of a city, what's being built, and how affluent its residents are. You have to solely think of a city's potential. And that's one area in which Philadelphia not only thrives, it's an area we are seriously tapping into.

High priced cities like San Francisco have nowhere to grow but vertically. Cities like D.C. have nowhere to grow but out. The populations of Forbes' "better" cities are growing, and in turn, so is the cost of living.

But Philadelphia is an anomaly. As opposed to cities like Detroit or St. Louis, we have a relatively stable business market. But we also share a built environment the size of Baltimore waiting to be redeveloped. We have land, abandoned apartment buildings, and shelled row house waiting to be revitalized and redeveloped for at least another fifty years. That will help us attract refugees out priced from New York, D.C., and other pricy cities as new development improves our image, both of which can attract new business. 

When you consider that, a city's image isn't relevant to anyone who's looking at a city's potential. In fact, a "good" image like San Francisco or New York might even signal that a city's being maxed out. When the nearest affordable apartment is in Queens, that's a very long train ride to ponder the better quality of life you could have in Philadelphia. There will come a time when retail employees, waiters, and artists can no longer afford cities known for shopping, restaurants, and art. Then what? When that day comes, Philadelphia is already the next best thing. It might even be the better thing.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Saying Goodbye to Letto Deli

The days are numbered for Little Pete's iconic 18th and Chancellor location, so I decided to take a friend who was in town for the weekend. It seems that the city has taken note of the impending loss because the line to grab a table trailed down Chancellor Street.

It's a diner, they're all the same, and Midtown III is right up the street. Aside from Little Pete's decor and signage, the menu and building itself are nothing special. Architecturally speaking, Center City was hit with a bigger loss as demolition of the Gayborhood's former Letto Deli began today at 13th and Chancellor.

Since Letto's closure, a rumor circulated that it would become a Jose Garces joint. That would be fitting. The building's Mike Bradyian design would serve as a great home for restauranteurs seeking unique space. 

Not long ago this strip was lined with run of the mill hoagie shops, strip clubs, and XXX theaters. The Gayborhood's Midtown Village is now busting at the seams with new restaurants, particularly on 13th Street just south of Walnut. While the space may very well wind up serving as another restaurant, it's unlikely the new building will command the same amount of kitsch. 

Progress is great and this neighborhood is experiencing one of the greatest renaissances in Center City in decades. But there's something about artisanal pizza and bottomless mimosas that's just so...basic

Letto Deli itself was nothing remarkable, with the exception of decent, affordable sushi. But its home was as unique as the neighborhood once was. Midtown Village seems to be slowly licking the icing off the Gayborhood one business at a time, replacing it with that trendy fondant stuff that everyone picks off their cake. 

No renderings of the building's replacement have been released yet. The lot is deep and narrow so it may find itself with another one story building. But why bother? Especially when the original building looked as cool as Letto Deli.