Friday, August 29, 2014

That Inflatable Rat

The inflatable "Fat Cat" has become a regular fixture at the Pennsylvania Convention Center's 12th Street entrance. The Teamsters and Carpenters at the picket line have brandished posters claiming a "lockout," that they signed an agreement with the center. But that claim leaves out one fatal detail, that they didn't agree to the new terms until after the deadline. 

"Buh-bye," said the center.

Their most recent protest, at least the unions' most prominent recent presence, was during this month's Veterans Wheelchair Games. A motorcade of large vans circled the block spouting worn rhetoric about diminished wages behind a clan of $20,000 Harley Davidsons. Others shouted from megaphones while many simply mobbed the sidewalks making it difficult for wheelchair bound veterans to enter the convention.

After the protest came to a close, a police escort led the motorcade along Race Street, through Chinatown towards the Ben Franklin Bridge, ferrying the "local" workers back to their homes in New Jersey.


The irony and hypocrisy is mind numbing. But the message and tactics behind many of the trade unions in the tristate area has become so routine that the numbed minds of many Philadelphians brush it off as white noise. 

Buildings continue to rise, businesses continue to open, many without union labor. "Crossing the picket line" has no significant meaning to a Center City swapping Baby Boomers for Generation X, even Millennials. They snap pictures of inflatable rats and the union members cheer, clueless that the photo winds up on Instagram hashtagged, "WTF?" New Philadelphians didn't forget about the union protests at MilkBoy and Goldtex, they never cared to begin with.

Given the disconnect between the local trade unions and their target audience, the inflatable rat has become a sign of progress. Both MilkBoy and Goldtex weathered the frustrations of daily protests, and both are now successful businesses. Boxers, a new sports bar opening in the Gayborhood is one of the most recent targets, specifically the Sheet Metal Worker's Union. The popular Manhattan and Brooklyn nightspot is opening its third location in Philadelphia and opted for market rate labor. Few outside the trades industries seem phased, and it hasn't impeded development.

Back in the day, City Hall turned a blind eye to some of the unions' more nefarious tactics. But increased surveillance, social media, and evolving popular opinion have put protesters in a place where they can't overstep their First Amendment rights. Even some politicians have denounced the unions' unscrupulous tactics where they manifest, or simply remain quiet on the subject if it serves their interest.

Meanwhile the media, once largely sensitive to the trade unions, hasn't shied away from stories about illegal union activity. In February, ten Ironworkers Local 401 members were arrested by the FBI and the local media aired their dirty laundry.

When your sole clique survives on whores to public opinion, never underestimate their willingness to turn in favor of that public opinion. And that is the exact problem with the trade unions' overall operation. It isn't just outdated, it sidesteps a community perplexed by their message, it refuses to engage with the developers who cut their checks, and it solely functions as a bully with friends in high places. 

Without a slick public relations representative or a fresh new image, trades unions in Philadelphia are DOA, resigned to collect the crumbs from developers that didn't get the memo, or can afford the luxury of a workspace free of an inflatable rat. A rat increasingly synonymous with a better, newer Philadelphia.

Outfitting Smallville, USA

My hometown, populated by roughly 30,000 residents and nowhere near a major city, just approved the purchase of the same MRAP used in Ferguson's recent protests.
I've lived in Philadelphia for ten years and I've never seen the same militarized presence in Ferguson or a MRAP in person. When the city rioted in 2008 the police largely gained control with billy clubs and horses. 
They policed. 
When Occupy Philly camped out their protest at City Hall, First Amendment rights were protected by police officers and leaders, many who likely disagreed with their message. 
They led.
When I return occasionally to Harrisonburg, VA, I hear more and more from friends and family a kind of rhetoric that seems dangerously fascinated with the prospect that something bad could happen at any moment. They seem beat down. Fatigued. 
"This is the world we live in now."
No, it's not. 

Ferguson is one small town out of hundreds of thousands, but social media fuels the delusion that Harrisonburg, or any other small town, is next. People become ever willing to trade their civic sense of reason and healthy communities for a militarized police presence. 

So why do small town residents seem to overwhelmingly live with a much higher level of fear than residents of Philadelphia or New York or Los Angeles? Are the bored? Is the prospect of imminent danger somehow morbidly exciting? Have residents of small, more conservative rural communities been duped by D-list politicians? Or are their small police forces truly ill-equipped and untrained in the event that something catastrophic does happen?

All are probably a little true, but in the case of the latter, the solution isn't outfitting any police force with weaponry and defense specifically designed for war. Police absolutely should have every resource at their disposal to serve and protect, but machine guns and tanks aren't designed to police. They're engineered to kill and defend against an onslaught of equally aggressive tactics. 

Perhaps, despite the fact that small towns like Ferguson find their way to the national spotlight, these towns are largely left out of the national dialogue. CNN and FoxNews lecture and debate, but they don't engage. When small town residents find their town on MSNBC, the subject of a crisis by pundits offering little in the way of solutions that don't devolve into partisan bickering, they find themselves in uncharted territory. Faced with the unheard prospect of violence on the streets of Smallville, USA, residents view their fate as dire and embrace unreasonable militarization.

Excessively arming any police department goes against the very core of our police force and our justice system. Like in war, it assumes guilt, that every citizen is a criminal. We live in a nation vastly consisting of just and honorable citizens, Americans capable of policing their own behavior. When the government turns on that self governance, reasonable people become less reasonable. Assuming everyone on the other side of a machine gun or MRAP vehicle is a criminal, creates criminals.

The tactics used by the Ferguson Police Department have been put into question both politically and publicly. But militarization in the broader scope of hundreds of other small towns has been ignored because it isn't newsworthy. When that kind of ammunition is warranted, the National Guard exists for that exact scenario. When that kind of ammunition is given to our Men and Women in Blue, it makes every citizen an enemy.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Monkey Business

Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys is debatably a classic. Written by David and Janet Peoples, the 1995 movie follows James Cole (Bruce Willis), a prisoner from the future who is sent to a pre-apocalyptic Philadelphia to retrieve an unmated form of a virus that destroyed most of his world. Finding himself in an insane asylum, he's cared for by psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) who begins to take a peculiar interest in the comments he's making, beyond simply being the ramblings of a homeless man who claims to be from the future.

Like a lot of time travel stories, Twelve Monkeys often questions the hero's own sanity. But it also delves into the possibility that a therapist may question her own if she becomes too personally involved in her subject.

The plot is often confusing, waxing and waning between the past and future as much as it treads between what's real and what's not, even the relevance of a past that's already happened. Using 1995's Philadelphia as a backdrop, the city is as much a character as any of the actors in the film. 

Other time travelers occasionally expose themselves as future prisoners who escaped to the dying past, homeless prophets in front of the derelict Met Opera House or along Frankford Avenue awaiting to relive the impending outbreak.

It's good. It's cerebral. Loosely based on the short French film, La jetee, it received the critical acclaim it deserved. 

But SyFy is turning it into a series. Without releasing too many spoilers (if you haven't seen the film, you probably shouldn't read any further), the premise of Twelve Monkeys can't be respectfully made into a television show. With Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett of Terra Nova having written the pilot, it's clear that those in charge of SyFy's Twelve Monkeys didn't get Twelve Monkeys

Like the CW, SyFy is a cable network that arduously employs viewer feedback to continuously retool a show's premise. But what made Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys so great is that it was upsetting, confusing, and never once offered the audience what it wanted or expected. Some of the best movies don't end neatly and happily, and aren't meant to be resolved.

While SyFy's Twelve Monkeys is meant to be a reboot only inspired by the movie, the trailer show's a pilot episode that recaps and retells most of the movie, leading those who enjoyed the movie to wonder how writers could possibly move beyond the final scene.

But why bother capitalizing on a movie with only an arguably cult following? SyFy's Continuum delves into a very similar premise and has obviously scraped content from Twelve Monkeys, particularly when the homeless man, Jason found another time traveler. Why not expand that? Why shoehorn the same premise into a new show that Terry Gilliam himself called "dumb" and "ridiculous."

If you've never seen Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys, SyFy's looks like it might be a fun ride. But if you have seen the film, and liked it, take a look at Continuum. You'll get the same thrill ride without the frustration of watching a well crafted and artistic movie get castrated.

Art and the Death of Culture

Between Sinead O'Connor's vendetta against the sexualization of the music industry and Madonna's refusal to grow old gracefully, Lady Gaga hiring Millie Brown to vomit dyed milk on stage and Casey Jenkins knitting from her vagina for 28 days, the final battle is brewing in a war inside the world of art. 

If you want to see the future, take a good look. This is it. Our world of tomorrow might look a little more like 1930, even 1830, than 2030. When one of the last vestiges of purported creativity is to lose virginity in front of an audience, it's safe to say that our era in art history is coming to an end.

"I was at dinner last evening, and halfway through the pudding, this four-year-old child came along, dragging a little toy cart. And on the cart was a fresh turd. Her own, I suppose. The parents just shook their heads and smiled...Now, I could just shake my head and smile. But in my house, when a turd appears, we throw it out. We dispose of it. We flush it away. We don't put it on the table and call it caviar." - Sir Gerald Moore, Bonfire of the Vanities

Say what you will about the film adaptation of Bonfire, but Tom Wolf is an accomplished and respected author. Although his comment on the "fresh turd" was directed at Bonfire's anti-hero, Sherman McCoy, it is a commentary on modern art theory reflected in Wolf's other writings including The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House.

The art war is nothing new. From architecture to music, critics have bickered about theory throughout the history of our culture. But what's taking place now isn't a simple division between the appreciation of craft and method. This isn't Warhol versus the Masters. The theories have become so polarized that today, a "fresh turd" can pass for art because the crap on the other side smells just as bad. 

We can't blame the Millie Browns and the Casey Jenkins' for doing what they do. Pop art, whether it's film, print, or music, has become so commercialized by think tanks, target audiences, and profit that in order to stand out, one must truly be shocking. 

But it's not art.  

There is nothing inherently artistic in reacting to the lowest common denominator. Vomiting as some sort of commentary on commercial art negates itself by admitting mainstream puke exists. Shitting on a wall will never be art, it's just more shit.

Mischa Badasyan is a 26 year old Berlin artist who plans to begin his performance piece in September by having sex with one man each day of the year. This may remind some of Clayton Pettet, a 19 year old London art student who claimed he would lose his virginity in front of an audience. When the time came, he asked each of the 120 people in the audience to put a banana in his mouth. 


Marina Abramovic is another performance artist who, although far less racy in her premise, was just as lazy. In 2010, Abramovic sat at the MoMA for more than 700 hours while more than 1000 people sat in front of her, simply watching. 


Despite the slovenly gyrations performed by commercial artists like Ke$ha and Mylie Cyrus, the mind numbing and inexplicable length of Madonna's career, or the fact that Justin Bieber has one at all, those on the self-assigned elite side of the art spectrum are just as hackneyed, commercial, and arrogant as those commercial artists who make no excuses for the checks they cash.

Meanwhile the audience is left to suffer through auto-tuned amateurs, or pretend to understand a narcissistic performance piece with a shoehorned message.

Before starving artists had YouTube, shock rarely found itself in front of the public eye. But today, anyone with more than 500 Facebook friends can post a grainy video of themselves defecating online and within a week, if it isn't picked up by Tosh.0, it will find an audience with some veiled excuse to call it art.

Throughout history, each culture or era can be defined by its art, its music, its architecture, and this is where our's comes to a close. This is where our art ends. The canyon between good and bad has become an ocean separating two mediocre ideals. Perhaps soon art can reborn as something more - better - than puke stained canvasses or Justin Bieber.

Until then we're stuck looking at a turd, or a turd pretending to be something its not.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Losing a Philadelphia Icon

Long before the additions to West Market and JFK transformed the skyline into one you'd expect to find looming over millions of residents and workers, Philadelphia's skyline was unique. I remember looking up at its monolithic office buildings, stone church steeples, and masonic adornment as a child and wondering which comic book villain had a lair inside City Hall's clock tower. 

But its uniqueness doesn't solely lie in our skyscrapers that line narrow streets, abutting 19th Century brownstones, or the three dimensionality created by the divide between the towers built before and after 1988, when our infamous Gentleman't Agreement was abandoned.

Our skyline has retained a uniqueness embedded in quizzical nostalgia without succumbing to the collective "ugh" typically prompted by worn nostalgia like 50s Rock Cafes.

From the Divine Lorraine to the PSFS Building, to Victorian signage offering hat and shoe repair or Automats; to outsiders, Philadelphia is a fictional city full of businesses and companies that don't exist.

Philadelphia is Gotham. It's Metropolis. Star City.

Fur coats are still advertised at Meglio's on South Broad Street. A city that refers to our flagship department store as Wanamaker's will likely dub the upcoming Century 21 retailer at the Gallery, Strawbridge's. 

I've watched tourists gaze up at the PSFS Building and declare it a 1960s eyesore unaware that it was completed just before the Great Depression and its original fixtures, designed by Cartier, remain intact and in place.

The glowing neon sign atop the tower is particularly troublesome to many who don't "get" Philadelphia. And maybe, in some ways, they're right. In isolation, perhaps it would be an eyesore. In a downtown like Los Angeles or Seattle, it would have been removed decades ago, long since replaced with modern corporate signage scraped from a website, recognizable to the world. 

Most cities are determined to exclusively modernize or restore, ignoring decades of evolution that transform our built environment into one full of inadvertent icons. Were the PSFS sign not surrounded by similarly defunct signage, were it situated on Pioneer Square in Portland, OR, it would look bizarrely out of place. 

But our eclectic mix of fictional businesses advertised in neon or hundreds of incandescent light bulbs create a cohesiveness that identifies this city. As these signs begin to vanish, how will the PSFS or Divine Lorraine signs be received when they're outnumbered by digital signage flaking Market East or Temple University's logos lining North Broad?

Suburban Station may soon be renamed Verizon Station and U.S. Representative Chaka Fattah found approval to rename 30th Street Station, William H. Gray III 30th Street Station. What will become of Suburban Station's iconic sign or its Art Deco signage along JFK? Verizon wants to show its corporate presence in a neighborhood synonymous with Comcast, so it's doubtful that they will be subdued in branding Suburban Station with modern, corporate logos.

Today, South Broad Street began losing its own icon. The large PNB letters at One South Broad which, like the Pennsylvania Saving Fund Society, represent a defunct Philadelphia National Bank, are currently being removed by helicopter.

Unlike the PSFS Building, the PNB letters were added to One South Broad in the 1950s and are not original. The building itself is stunning and perhaps to some, even more handsome than the PSFS Building. But despite being one of Philadelphia's many beautiful old office buildings, today it ceases to be any more than that. 

We've lost the Daily Planet. The PNB Building is no longer a character in Philadelphia's fictional narrative. 

Of course these iconic signs do more than tell the tale of a fictional city that doesn't exist, they're time travelers that tell the story of a Philadelphia that did exist. Say what you will about the Shirt Corner's garishly patriotic facade, but it too was part of the city's visual dialogue that reminded us of an era many would like to forget.

Aion Partners of New York purchased One South Broad Street in May. Unlike Loew's, Aion Partners has decided to remove any ambiguity.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Living in History

When I was in middle school, my family moved to a farm in rural Virginia. The house had been unusually divided into apartments for the extended family that lived there before us, the water well needed upgrades, and the massive tin roof was in disrepair.

I hate using that word, because disrepair doesn't mean what it implies. We repaired the roof, we restored the oak floors and cherry doors, and we modernized the home's water supply. 

It wasn't cheap, but it wasn't unheard of. 

Insignificant, but why not?

Throughout the South, older homes are readily renovated or simply restored. It may seem surprising, but some of the most conservative parts of the country abide by the creed, "the greenest house is the one already built."

Many of my childhood friends lived in homes without central air, and they weren't all poor farmers. Preserving the legacy of the past, some lived in tediously restored plantation homes which, with the exception of modern plumbing and electricity, existed exactly as they did prior to the Civil War.

I'm not simply regaling a lost era. I'm not that old. When I was in high school in 1993, a Mennonite family I knew purchased a farmhouse near my own family's farm. But they didn't purchase the land. Instead, they had the house lifted and moved to a new location. It may not seem unheard of when you consider the offer made to move the Main Line's palatial La Ronda all the way to Florida. But the Berry residence was a simple, late 19th Century farmhouse, one that can be found in abundance throughout Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.

So why bother? The house bore no family connection. It was a simple respect for history, and a nod to the fact that the greenest house is the one already built.

Another childhood friend of mine was the heiress to a massive poultry corporation. I remember practicing for my role in West Side Story at the Wampler house when my love for architecture kicked into gear. The simple farmhouse didn't just look original, it was original. When the Wampler's purchased the house - clearly with the means to raze the humble home for a mansion and swimming pool - they opted to restore the beleaguered and historically insignificant residence, going as far as replacing the rotten wood paneling with lumber farmed from the same region in which it originated.

So now ten years into residing at the pinnacle of American history, Philadelphia, I'm obviously perplexed by the region's willingness to discard its history at the mere mention of disrepair. Disrepair that simply cites broken gutters and detached stucco. I didn't just know people who lived in such homes, I lived in one myself. 

Sadly in Philadelphia, the apex of American history, a lack of central air can mean disrepair.

A century old home in Chestnut Hill is learning this the hard way. At 415 West Moreland Avenue, a handsome Colonial Revival mansion, well within the neighborhood's National Historic District, is slated to be demolished by Blake Development Corporation simply because the aesthetic challenges of renovating the property have deemed it to be in a state of disrepair.

415 West Moreland

Of course the fact that Blake wants to raze the property for two new houses exposes the transparent agenda. Obviously two Chestnut Hill homes are worth more than one, especially if they're new.

Still, like the fate of the historic La Ronda, the likely end to 415 West Moreland calls into question not just the irrelevance of any historic designation, but our own regional interpretation of what's worth preserving. 

In Asheville, NC, Biltmore Estate is a beacon of historic preservation and a source of regional pride, even though its namesake is derived from a region that might as well be its own country. In the North, its Gilded Age sister, Lynnewood Hall, is blighted abandonment just waiting to become another cul de sac community. 

That's not to say the South is without its architectural losses. Low County plantations have made way for golf courses and their own planned communities and cities like Atlanta and Charlotte continue to chip away at what little history that remains. But for every Atlanta mansion razed for condominiums, numerous mansions have been preserved throughout Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas. 

Perhaps we Yankees don't have the same respect for our history because we won the war, perhaps these locations aren't deemed culturally significant, just big buildings built for another time and place. We look at Lynnewood Hall and 415 West Moreland the way we looked at Pennsylvania Station when it was demolished in the 1960s: irrelevant and useless.

Lynnewood Hall: How is this abandoned in anyone's America?

But Penn Station should be proof that we shouldn't let progress run away from ourselves. There isn't a soul on this planet that wouldn't want to have New York's grand Pennsylvania Station in lieu of what replaced it.

While the South continues to learn from its mistakes, New York and Philadelphia continue to blindly eradicate our past on the assumption that we're too good to preserve our history, and in particular, to live in it because it isn't climate controlled.

La Ronda was a treasure. Lynnewood Hall, even 415 West Moreland, still are. If you want new construction or an indoor hockey rink, there is plenty of land within the tristate area to erect a grand estate. 

But there is no legacy to be made in eradicating history, only superficial gratification. Learning to love history, the history of our built environment, and being a part of that, that is what makes a great Philadelphian, and a great American.

Could the Low Line Actually Work?

About six years ago, PRA Development and Management Corporation began construction on The Residences at the Rodin in the pit behind the Rodin Museum. After the economy collapsed, the site was abandoned. Rusted I-beams still rise out of the construction site which now provides parking for the Ninth District Police Department.

But the recent uptick in development that followed the relocation of the Youth Study Center, a juvenile detention center situated oddly on our cultural corridor, has begun transforming the vicinity into something more than "that other neighborhood above the Parkway."

Investment in both the Logan Square neighborhood and nearby Callowhill have also spurred an interest in some of these communities' aging relics, most notably the Reading Viaduct and the City Branch Line. Both unused, the Reading Viaduct is steaming towards redevelopment as an elevated park similar to New York's High Line

But Friends of the Rail Park have also expressed interest in the unused City Branch Line which begins westward at Broad Street. The unique idea would connect residents from Callowhill and upper Logan Square to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by a greenway, ending at Pennsylvania Avenue near the Pearlman Gallery.

The proposed Low Line Park isn't necessarily an underground park, rather it treats an urban space in a three dimensional manner, utilizing the same principles from the early 20th Century that developed a network of underground rail lines. Although SEPTA is intent on retaining control of the land, the width of the space and public ownership can accommodate its future place in public transportation. In fact, renewed interest in the forgotten space and the residents and tourists it will attract could provide the demand this space needs for a light rail to be developed along the Low Line.
It's innovative, namely because the trail would utilize a defect rail line that could have served the same purpose. The Reading Viaduct was abandoned when Market East Station negated the need for Reading Terminal to act as a head house. Market East Station linked Suburban Station to neighborhoods in the northeast and a transfer was no longer necessary. 

When the Pennsylvania Convention Center was constructed and the Vine Street Expressway completed, the Reading Viaduct was demolished south of 11th and Vine. Although the Reading Viaduct is truncated at a stone stump along Vine Street, the proximity to hotels, Market East, and Chinatown provides the potential to carry droves of tourists along its line, provided the City Branch Line were to be opened to recreationalists. 

But is it too experimental? The Low Line, which would occupy the City Branch line would be unchartered territory. New York proposed a similar venture, also called the Low Line, retrofitting a defunct trolley tunnel in the Lower East Side as an underground park. Even with the success of New York's High Line, its own Low Line has yet to gain traction or the same level of excitement. 

The proposed Reading Viaduct Park would provide public greenspace in an industrial neighborhood devoid of parks. Connecting various apartment buildings above the street it would also introduce foot traffic at Broad and Noble, a block currently experience a rebirth in residential presence with Tower Place and the proposed Inquirer Building apartment conversion. 
Philadelphia's Low Line would be vastly different than New York's, with much of the tunnel already exposed to the sky and portions along Pennsylvania Avenue likely to be opened. Our Low Line would feel less like a dead mall and more like a long sunken garden.

Unfortunately for fans of the Low Line, SEPTA has yet to give any indication that it wants to relinquish the property. Despite the fact that SEPTA has no active plans to reopen the City Branch Line, Transit Agency Planner, Jennifer Barr points out a legitimate concern: the City Branch Line is an enormous asset to the city's transit network, even if it's unused. 

Right of way through dense urban cores is something newer cities like Seattle and Portland only dream of, which is why much of the rail oriented public transportation in newer cities exists as light rails and trollies that share the road. Unloading any piece of a network of underground rail lines is something the city will never get back and will no longer have if and when SEPTA wants to expand. 

Expansion may seem unheard of, but with new residents driving the demand for development between Logan Square and Girard Avenue, there may come a day when connecting the Broad Street Line to the Art Museum north will actually make sense. 

Until then, the City Branch Line will likely remain as it is, sparsely exposed to the city above and an attraction for urban explorers. But the absence of a Low Line isn't bad news for its overall objective of connecting Callowhill to the Art Museum. 

Parking lots are being replaced by apartment buildings throughout Logan Square, including the Latter Day Saint's proposed high-rise at 16th and Vine. Neighborhoods both east and west of Broad are shoring up the kind of density befitting a true extension of Center City. That in itself will play a pivotal role in encouraging people to walk the streets north of Center City that they would otherwise ignore or breeze through in a car.

David Blumenfeld, Eric Blumenfeld's brother, of Cross Properties has proposed a new mixed use apartment project for the abandoned site of PRA's Residences behind the Rodin Museum. The rendering released by architects Barton Partners is a simple massing study and doesn't look that exceptional. But Blumenfeld is awaiting input from Logan Square residents before releasing anything solid.

While preliminary, Blumenfeld noted that a greenspace perpendicular to the street will offer restaurants a view of the Rodin Museum through a publicly accessible park. Parking will be provided underground eliminating the need for a parking podium and SEPTA's right of way will be preserved. 

However none of this necessarily negates the potential for the Low Line, it just alters the logistics of an already lofty proposal. If the Low Line Park were graded upward at 20th Street it could open into a garden behind the Rodin Museum and return underground at Pennsylvania Avenue. 

It's no crazier than the notion of an underground park.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

What's Next for the Shirt Corner?

Four months after the dust settled at the site of Old City's Shirt Corner fire at Third and Market, we finally have our sidewalk back. 


But the question now is, "what's next?"

The restoration and reconstruction of the Suit Corner across the street was supposed to help the corner transition into a handsomely quaint Old City intersection. 

But the end result of the fire has traded cheap yellow suits at one corner for scorched abandonment at another.

Despite Old City's pricy lofts and upscale restaurants, the neighborhood is no stranger to abandoned buildings and empty lots. It may be some time before this property changes hands, but the soon-to-be vacant lot entered the real estate market by accident. When derelict property vanishes in Philadelphia, the fallout often makes way for a surface parking lot.

But six decades into Old City's love affair with parking lots, can we finally know better? Old City has been one of the most vocal voices when it comes to opposing new development, but when it comes to screaming "Not In My Back Yard," parking lots are rarely mentioned until after they've been laid. 

Six decades later, the city still looks at parking lots as an acceptedly interim use for vacant land, but six decades in we know that "interim" is defined by a parking corporation's bloated asking price. 

Sadly, in Philadelphia, it costs less to level a building to build something new than it does to acquire a ready-to-build parking lot for the same project. 

Just look at the Disney Hole at 8th and Market. 

In a city full of bike lanes and park improvements, residents are telling City Hall, "we don't need more parking." Old City has fought tooth and nail to stop the development of a vacant lot at 2nd and Race citing shadows and traffic. Pressuring property owners to smart-sell their vacant land is long overdo. Basically, find someone with a plan to build or be burdened with the property tax until you do.

Unfortunately neighboring voices tend to be reactionary. They'll oppose development but won't proactively seek an alternative. This mentality is detrimental to the growth of any city, not because it stymies development, but because it settles for the status quo. And in Center City, the status quo is a parking lot or a vacant building.

It's interesting that those actively advocating against potential development are doing so in what they perceive to be their neighborhood's best interests, while not actively seeking ways to make their neighborhoods better. Old City in particular, full of new residents, shouldn't be a neighborhood saddled with Negadelphians who assume the worst in every proposal.

It may seem odd that I'm harping on NIMBYs because community activists haven't said one word about the future of the site of the Shirt Corner. But that lack of involvement is exactly why I'm harping on those allegedly invested in their neighborhoods. 

Where are they?

Anyone concerned with the future of Old City should be actively trying to block the sale of the Shirt Corner site as a surface lot now, not after a deal is in place. But that's the flaw in Philadelphia's abundance of neighborhood organizations and their reactionary approach. It's easy to throw a wrench in the development of a building we'll see, but a noble effort would include a voice that attempts to groom a growing neighborhood into what it should be through developing vacant land. 

And in a neighborhood with ample parking for both residents and visitors, that starts with derailing more designated private parking.

Forbes Ranked the Coolest Cities. Forbes. Yes, Seriously.

Forbes has taken a shot at pegging the nation's coolest cities in the internet's latest irrelevant list. And they've done so in the most un-cool way possible. I mean nothing says "cool" like the U.S. Office of Management and Budget and phrases like "six data points," especially when Forbes' coolness data was so corrupt they had to exempt the home of Disney World.

If it isn't ironic enough that Forbes itself has attempted to set the measurement for cool, Washington, D.C. ranked #1. Then again, the hipsters hacky sacking in DuPont Circle love their irony.

Okay, it's pretty cool.

Philly, you didn't make the Top 20. In fact we're less cool than Sacramento and Bethesda, MD, the latter being a suburb so inconsequential that I had to affix a state, both bumping Chicago and Portland out of the running.

But fret not. While cities like Austin, San Francisco, and Seattle truly are list-worthy, and have been for decades, there is a level of coolness that flies above a statistical algorithm, and that is in being part of a city that honestly doesn't give a shit.

That's us.

Enjoy your spot, Denver, Los Angeles, and New York, you deserve it. We knew you were cool long before the internet. But those of us deemed less cool than Sacramento's four exciting "areas" - cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh - can rest well knowing we're too cool for the high school cafeteria.


In a similarly nonsensical vein, The Today Show ranked the nation's friendliest cities, and it's no surprise that the South reigned supreme and that Charleston and Savannah found themselves amongst the Top 5. If you've ever traveled to the East Coast's Sun Belt, you know that they're friendly. Very, very friendly. 

But if you've ever had the "pleasure" of living in the South you know that there's a lot of racism and homophobia behind that comfort food served with a smile. "Bless her heart" is never followed without a capital "But..."

I'll take the real deal.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Dîner en Noir

If you don't know what it is, Dîner en Blanc is a for-profit pop-up dinner that takes tediousness to new levels. Dating all the way back to the year Critters 2 came out, Dîner en Blanc commemorates the day François Pasquier found his friends in a park by asking them to wear white.

It's an event that has spread throughout the world, but unlike most public dinners that require a city's resources, Dîner en Blanc contributes nothing to society but a smug sense of satisfaction in those lucky enough to pay for the BYO-Everything event, solely profiting a team of event planners.

Chris Nowaczyk, a cancer researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, was fed up with the process of finding a table at the who-you-know event and decided to create his own. But Nowaczyk took it one step further when he created his Dîner en Noir, he gave it purpose. Unlike Dîner en Blanc, Dîner en Noir's proceeds will be donated to Philabundance. 

The event is limited to 250 guests. But it won't be limited to connected guests like Dîner en Blanc. Dîner en Noir is only limited to those quick enough to purchase a ticket. Guests who can enjoy a meal knowing that someone less fortunate will enjoy one of their own.

Dîner en Noir

Center City's Final Frontier

Despite its approval by the Historical Commission, Baywood Hotels' proposed addition to the historic NFL Films headquarters has drawn the attention of preservationists to a forgotten pocket of Center City, perhaps the district's Final Frontier.

Inga Saffron's recent Inquirer article regarding the project paints a colorful depiction of this neighborhood - my neighborhood - and focuses on the liveliness of an area few know without dwelling on our overabundance of unwanted surface parking lots.

Unfortunately the piece sinks into the bystander effect of architectural journalism, praising the area for its quaintness and charm without really understanding anything about those of us who call it home.

While it's true that little has changed in this neighborhood's built environment since the early 20th Century, it's the unbuilt environment that has scarred it irreparably. While two or three streets managed to survive midcentury demolition, it's hard to say if the district's potential survived as well. Trinity courtyards and narrow alleys that once looked like those in Washington Square and Society Hill now stare blankly at surface lots or towering windowless walls. 

In a city addicted to its history, this may be one case where reality is all that remains.

But having lived in the neighborhood bound by Chinatown, Broad Street, the Vine Street Expressway, and the Convention Center for more than five years I've come to understand that reality is what my neighbors want. We will never be the extension of Old City we could have been before the I-676 and the Convention Center eradicated our lofty potential. We're ruins of what could have been stuck between being a towering extension of Philadelphia's true downtown and a fight to preserve a sinking vessel preservationists don't understand. 

Just two blocks from City Hall, we're neither quaint nor relevant. The Chinatown Drift of the Expressway keeps us up at night because there is no architecture to buffer the noise. Surface lots create endless garbage that finds its way into our community gardens. A lack of late night business and our minimal population means absent security and an abundance of prostitution and open air drug use. 

It's easy to look at quaint alleys like Winter Court and see potential in the provincial charm. But what I see are used heroin needles in my flowerbeds. 

Baywood Hotels' proposed tower near 13th and Vine has been contested by local historians, most notably the Friends of the Boyd because of the building's historic status as the first home of NFL Films. While many, including Saffron, have accused it of being a "not-so-subtle" interpretation of the PSFS Building, the most recently released rendering looks more like 1706 Rittenhouse plated in materials that echo the original Streamlined Moderne office building.

Deja Vu

Truth be told, neighbors are also concerned about the project. Another hotel means more parking. In any other neighborhood I'd say the claim is absurd, but in this neighborhood we understand just how expendable our buildings are, and just how much the asphalt prairie can expand. 

The fact that Baywood Hotels is interested in preserving the facade of the existing office building is astounding in a neighborhood where row homes disappear overnight without so much as a whisper. While the hotel may bring more surface lots in the near future, it will also increase the value of those lots and attract the attention of future developers. 

Improved work rules at the Pennsylvania Convention Center are already evident in the droves of conventioneers mingling around 12th and Arch and future development is exactly what we asked for when the center first expanded. This neighborhood was always expected to be its collateral damage. 

Still, Philadelphia has managed to do a great job of juxtaposing sky scraping towers with Colonial charm. There's plenty of room to grow, to fill in the gaps, for towers to sidle up to courtyards. Baywood Hotel, dull as it may be, is a catalyst this neighborhood needs to truly be the part of Center City that it is.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Frank Gehry: Under the Radar?

If you visit Making a Classic Modern, the Frank Gehry exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, you'll discover that it's no more an art exhibit than a Hyundai kiosk at the Philadelphia Auto Show. 

Complete with an eager sales representative, a few pixelated photographs of Frank Gehry's work are paired with an enthusiastic guide who might as well be saying, "I want to put you in a Daytona time share unit today!"

Each photograph is accommodated by quotes from critics - notable academics who don't need to endure Frank Gehry's architecture on a daily basis - raving about the man's genius.

A streaming video shows a man who's been practicing his craft for far to long, and a man immune to criticism. Speaking about himself, he says, "What I like about it is you're going to pass by and you're not going to know Frank Gehry was there. I love that, I love being under the radar like that."

Aside from the smugness of a third person narrative, the absurdity of Gehry "being under the radar" is solidified in a gift shop dedicated solely to the man himself.

Gehry has managed to transform architecture into a marketing machine, a big box department store full of twelve dollar Kandinski prints that would look great hanging over your living room sofa. He's IKEA. 

He uses the same modern technology that creates Hollywood sets to allegedly create feats of modern artistry, but just like the Colonial Street backlot at Universal Studios, his buildings are hallow illusions. 

Whatever you think of Frank Gehry's most notable designs, he may do the most damage flying "under the radar." Instead of erecting one of his signature balls of foil along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Gehry will be toying with one of Philadelphia's most iconic landmarks, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and its Great Steps.

As you weave your way through Making a Classic Modern, no marketing gimmick can prove the man's genius. Displayed on the walls are various incarnations of his plans for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, juvenile experiments that cut the steps in half or simply ask, "how many skylights should I embed in the plaza?"

While his larger projects may be controversial in their own right, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the EMP Museum in Seattle are at least interesting to look at. But the plans displayed within Making a Classic Modern show a lack of skill when it comes to integrating interior and exterior spaces, especially when a space already exists. 

It's not surprising. His otherworldly exteriors are often met with unnecessarily claustrophobic interiors retrofitted to accommodate an aerodynamic skin. So we should expect the opposite to be true when he designs an interior that will find its way beyond the confines of a building's existing walls.

Unfortunately for Philadelphia, we aren't getting a Jetsonian building masking an anxiety inducing warehouse like his Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. His thoughtlessness will be exposed on the Great Steps of the Museum.

But Gehry's arrogance may be even more astounding than his inexplicable success as a starchitect. Even Lex Luthor knows who he is and his place in Metropolis. Frank Gehry, who had admittedly never been to Philadelphia until he was asked to remodel the museum, knows as little about our city as he does his own reputation. A fact made clear by a man who thinks that demolishing part of the Great Steps is "under the radar."

Saturday, August 2, 2014

William H. Gray III Station

As Philadelphia inches towards regaining its reputation as a world class city, local politicians have taken the city's recently publicized success stories as an opportunity to remind us that they had nothing to do with it. 

Continuing to do what they do best, politicians have opted to couple our improving corporate environment with governmental tokenism. U.S. Rep Chaka Fattah has proposed renaming 30th Street Station after his predecessor, William H. Gray III. 

Despite the silliness of renaming a station that's been known to the Northeast Corridor by one name for eight decades, it's a costly move that will require the city, state, and Amtrak millions of dollars rebranding every sign and map in the country. Money that could otherwise be spent renovating and restoring a train station that is beginning to show its age, particularly next to the recently renovated IRS Building across the street.

An online poll showed just 10% in favor of renaming the station and a petition to keep it as is has emerged.

A few years ago an idea to rename the station, Ben Station was floated until someone pointed out that Ben Franklin had nothing to do with the invention of railroads which wouldn't appear until long after his death. 

Blind spending is an unfortunate side effect of a successful city. When Washington, D.C. was trading its reputation as Murder Capital to simply be our capital city, Virginia renamed the liberal city's closest airport, National Airport, after the conservative Ronald Reagan in a similarly shallow political gesture.

On the corporate side, Verizon has been campaigning to rename Suburban Station, Verizon Station, likely trying to air a presence within Comcast's domain. As absurd as that may seem, corporate branding brings with it maintenance and renovations. The William H. Gray III Station brings nothing to Philadelphia but more debt to the city and region.