Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Philadelphia is showing off a little bit, and that's fantastic

With just a few days before the arrival of Pope Francis, Philadelphia is already another place. Say what you will about the laughable abundance of port-o-potties, Philadelphia looks phenomenal. 

I decided to take the long way home from the gym this evening to pass through City Hall and Dilworth Park. Long burnt out bulbs in the bizarre orbs illuminating the building's corridors have been replaced, casting a bright light on every priceless work of Victorian Gothic craft adorning the grand building. City Hall's gates are up, at least the pair flanking Dilworth Park. The fountains remain on, despite the passage of Labor Day. Even City Hall's north apron, once packed with cars, is free of clutter.

Along North Broad Street, a tall stained glass window has been installed inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center's rarely used main entrance, and it seems to be finally seeing the usage it had always intended, almost as if the expansion is finally receiving its grand opening.

But more than anything that can be said for Philadelphia's recent transformation are the lights. The bright, white, glorious lights!

The dingy yellow street lamps, the dimly lit light posts that I can only assume were dully designed to detract moths, have been replaced by extremely bright LEDs and bright white lampposts. 

After twelves years in Philadelphia, this is the first evening I've managed to recapture some of the excitement of being in a city entirely new, and so much of that is because the evening streets don't look like the urban battlefields of the early 1990s. Last week, and for the last twenty years (or more), the sidewalks were awash in a foreboding sepia tone that cried, "these streets aren't safe." For years I had to inform visitors from back home, "trust me, this neighborhood is safer than Georgetown. It's just the lights. They trick you." 

For the last few months, Philadelphia has been checking off a long overdo to-do list and the end result of so many seemingly mundane improvements is staggering. Tonight's Philadelphia might be for the tourists, but next week it's for us. 

But this is bigger than just a cleaner, brighter city we'll enjoy long after the Papal Pilgrims have left. The city we see tonight is a living postcard that the world will see over the next few years. Unlike the last Papal Visit in 1979, one that saw hundreds of photographs, perhaps thousands, we live in the digital age. Images of this new Philadelphia will be immortalized on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, literally millions of photographs, online, and immediately available. 

Pope Francis won't be in Philadelphia for four more days, but already his followers have begun flooding in. Step outside and take a look. Tourists are everywhere, standing in awe, marveling at our architecture and history, and in doing so, reminding us just how marvelous and awesome our city truly is.

Images and places the world knows by heart, iconic monuments and monoliths like Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, and the Washington Monument are the stuff of 99 cent post cards right now because this week, this 300 year old city is something new, something the world has forgotten and most have never seen. 

Beyond Philadelphia's history - a City Hall clock tower that is, by the way, 250 meters taller than Big Ben and not much newer - tourists are witnessing a city that is building. On my walk to work, my lunch break, and walking home I saw dozens of visitors pointing up in awe at Comcast's Innovation and Technology Center impressively under construction. Around the corner, 1919 Market is rising. The future sites of the W Hotel and the SLS International have been fenced off signaling something new is in the works. East Market installed its crane at 12th and Market, the hub of Philadelphia's hotels.  Those who arrived by train or walked to the Schuylkill River saw the FMC Tower well under way and a University City skyline that looks less like the urban suburb it once was, and more like the extension of Center City it's becoming. 

No one is getting what they expected, and perhaps this is the one aptly timed moment where Philadelphia's tiresome national and international reputation will be its salvation. Those attempting to grab a glimpse of the Pope in New York or Washington, D.C. will be getting the New York and D.C. they're accustomed to seeing on television. But those visiting Philadelphia will be getting a city they only thought they knew, one they weren't prepared for, and one they will continue to talk about for months. 

Despite the headaches leading up to this week - mostly frustrations to those of us who live here - Philadelphia has done something very right: we're showing off. We're finally, after decades of Negadelphian rhetoric, bragging to the world about the things that make this city right. 

As annoying as the parking nightmares, traffic jams, shunted subways, and general mobs of people may be, it is but one weekend that stands to change the way the world views Philadelphia, and when we come back from whatever shore town we flee to this weekend, we might find ourselves living in a city with the World Class reputation it once owned and has always deserved. 

Monday, September 21, 2015

It Begins

It's begun. If an abundance of lanyard-clad tourists haven't tipped you off, the port-o-potties should have. 3000 portable toilets, to be specific, have been placed along major and some not-so-major routes throughout Center City and the Parkway. If you don't feel like doing your math, that's about 1 for every 250 prospective Papal pilgrims.

If the sight of that many portable crappers isn't funny enough, social media has had a field day with the way-too-easy play-on-word musings:

"Holy Sh*t! Literally."

"It's gonna be a sh*tshow!"

"The streets are looking pretty sh*tty."

...or any of the endless things you can do with the word "Pope."

The projected numbers have been scaled back from a one-time estimate of 2M to somewhere between 800,000 and 1.5M, but with visitors flooding in as early as today, it's pretty clear that the event isn't going to flop. With many tourists already wearing their Papal Passes, it looks like the word of potential headaches got out and visitors came prepared. 

Those who arrived today got the special treat of a Philadelphia cleaner than it's been in a long time, and the opportunity to visit the Parkway's museums and the city's restaurants before the rest arrive.

For this Godless Yankee, I have a Hyundai at Enterprise waiting to take me to Rehoboth for an aptly timed beach break.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Local News Crews Strike: Do they have any leverage?

When CBS3's unions overwhelming voted to join NBC10's strike prior to the upcoming Papal visit, most Philadelphians probably asked, "what's CBS?" 

Following in the footsteps of SEPTA's usual modus operandi, 65 photographers and technicians from NBC and 75 from CBS are leveraging Pope Francis's visit to negotiate the new terms of contracts that ended in July. Perhaps a smart move for a utility like SEPTA - which has been relatively cooperative - do the local affiliates at NBC and CBS really have that much leverage?

Yes, both news networks obviously want as much coverage on the ground as possible, but with such a wildly publicized event, won't they already have it? It's doubtful either network wants to be run through the ringer for hiring scabs, but when your parent companies are the press, they own the ringer.

In fact, if no negotiations are reached by the eleventh hour, MSNBC and CNBC will already have staff in the trenches and CBS could have, oh, I don't know, the CW? It's not as either network is going to completely bow out of this event, whatever the outcome. 

Either way, there will be hundreds, perhaps thousands, of photographers and technicians funneling content and resources back to Philadelphia's local affiliates, with or without local staff. And as for any potential bad press: with all eyes on the Pope, is anyone paying attention to a local squabble and union rhetoric?

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Barely Human: It's Not Kim Davis

Say what you will about Kim Davis, the small-town Kentucky court clerk who was recently martyred into a prison cell for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. George Takei, social media's superstar, had some choice - and educational - words on the subject.

While he aptly points out that Davis's religious stance has no merit in civil servitude, he also addresses the media circus surrounding Davis and the conservative pundits who regard her as a modern-day Rosa Parks. 

The absurdity of comparing a private citizen like Parks, standing her ground to move a nation forward, to an elected government figure abusing her place to turn back the clock, is barely worth mentioning. I don't want to give the Extreme Right any ideas, but I'm surprised few have mentioned the bevy of court clerks and government officials, including Pennsylvania's own Bruce D. Haines and Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who refused to uphold their own sworn duties on behalf of progress.

Perhaps the Right knows the difference, and knows that attempting to draw a parallel would only expose the fact that those like Kane and Haines were standing their ground to extend rights to more citizens, not to encroach upon those rights under the unconstitutional context of religion. 

Whatever the case, Takei drew a profound parallel between Kim Davis and a character from the Civil Rights Movement, and it wasn't Rosa Parks, it was George C. Wallace. But Davis isn't Wallace. Wallace was a cunning politician, a monster, really. Our comic book villains wouldn't be nearly as enthralling if they weren't so smart, and Wallace was one of them. The Alabama governor who infamously blocked black children attempting to enroll in recently integrated schools was a savvy politician. Once endorsed by the NAACP, Wallace found more success in politics by dropping the N-bomb than embracing integration in the Deep South. 

As evil as you might think Kim Davis to be, she's a small-town court clerk with a spotty history plagued by divorce and infidelity, and she found a new sense of being through religious devotion. She's also not accustomed to the spotlight and, after landing on the splash page of every major news outlet in the world, was spoon-fed a to-do list by a powerful group of mercenaries using her for their own political gains. 

Kim Davis is no George Wallace. She's not devious enough, and probably not evil enough. She's flawed, she made an errant judgement, and when that judgement hit the press, the Extreme Right nailed her to the cross of their own self righteousness and paraded her through the streets like a puppet.

Look, I'm as gay as they come, in that I'm a dude who digs dudes. But I'm also a human being, and as much as I shouldn't say it, I feel bad for Kim Davis. Not because of the scrutiny she's receiving for defying a Supreme Court order, not even because she was sent to jail. But because she's being scapegoated by the Left as everything that is still wrong with this country, and crucified by the Right as a martyr. 

The real muck, the real evil, the real bad-guys, are the politicians holding her hand. Those spinning her, brainwashing her and her fans into believing they're trailblazers that history will only remember as nothing but bigots. 

There is a fallout zone surrounding great shifts in social order, and the collateral damage isn't solely heaped on the formerly oppressed. There are those who are detached, confused, and uninformed, those like Kim Davis who need time to adjust to the change. The real monsters are those who exploit that confusion to incite fear for their own personal gain. The Huckabees and the Cruzs, the hypocrites like Wallace who pander to the sheltered and promise that change and tolerance is something to be feared. 

I'd like to share a beer with Kim Davis, and all the Conservatives who've been groomed to believe that same-sex marriage is un-American. It's unfortunate that in an age where "bully" is a Leftist buzzword, the Leftist press is so quick to corral small-town Americans into a corner and beat them to a preverbal pulp. If we could all just share a few drinks with each other, we'd all be better people.

I grew up in the South. I was born in Birmingham. I went to a small college that happened to be in the last county in the United States to cede integration, and the lingering effects of political exploitation are evident in Prince Edward County, VA to this day. But being a Southern born and raised gay guy, I've had the pleasure of meeting plenty of people like Kim Davis, people with principles - fractured as they might be - who've gone on to form new religious convictions that accompany those of us that they came to realize - through knowing us - are human: good, bad, and flawed like everyone else. 

Kim Davis is probably a very nice lady who's never been friends with a gay guy or a lesbian, and because of the press that lauds her, scrutinizes her, and the the politicians that abuse her, she probably never will. If she did, she'd be a better person. To borrow a line from a famous movie, "Sometimes all it takes is a fairy." 

Groundbreaking the Divine

To anyone who knows Philadelphia, the Divine Lorraine is more famous (or infamous) than the Betsy Ross House, the Liberty Bell, and Independence Hall combined. Once a beacon for Father Divine's followers towering over the crossroads of Fairmount, Ridge, and North Broad, the International Peace Movement Mission came to a crossroads of its own in the late 90s and early 2000s. 

Because of the church's unorthodox teaching: "no undue mixing of the sexes," Father Divine's followers, as well as Mother's, weren't known for propagating new followers. With few new recruits in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries (if any at all), the church has dwindled to all but a few who live out their days in Gladwyne, PA at The Mount of the House of the Lord

The fate of the Mount, known historically as Woodmont, has sparked its own questions. The mammoth Gilded Age estate is nestled in the cushy Main Line suburbs where history can be easily traded for million dollar mansions with indoor hockey rinks. If Woodmont estate were to be carved up for more homes, or worse, demolished, it wouldn't be the first time the Main Line lost something so grand.

But for now, Woodmont is safe. The Divine Lorraine, on the other hand, has had a recent history nearly as storied as its history with the church. Passed around for the last decade and a half like a pricy game of hot potato, the Divine Lorraine was gutted and left for dead. Open to the elements, the smell of rotting wood and spray paint can be smelled from the surrounding blocks. 

When local developer, Eric Blumenfeld purchased the building a few years ago, Divine Fatigue had set in amongst Philadelphians, and many of us thought the new ownership might signal the demise of the Divine Miss L.

Then someone named William "Billy" Procida got involved. The North Jersey based developer helped transform Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen into what it is today. And today, apparently bored with no corner of New York left to terraform, Procida has decided to join Blumenfeld in the herculean task of changing the way Philadelphians think about North Broad Street.

If any building were to signify North Broad Street's, even North Philadelphia's awakening from a long dormant hibernation, it's the Divine Lorraine. It's more than an architectural feat spoken by locals within the same breath as City Hall or the PSFS Building, it also sits at the confluence of three major arterial avenues and the gateway to North Philadelphia. With development taking place at major intersections along North Broad and Temple University's influence expanding into the neighborhoods, the Divine Lorraine is the key to getting Center City dwellers to walk north and explore a part of the city that really isn't that far away.

The long wait is now over, it would seem, as tomorrow afternoon, Eric Blumenfeld, Mayor Michael Nutter, and a few other City Hall big wigs will be hosting a heavily publicized groundbreaking at the Divine Lorraine. Obviously ceremonial as no ground need be broken, the event is long overdo and well worth the pomp. 

The event takes place tomorrow, September 16th at 1PM. Be sure to bring your camera and get some good pictures as this may be one of your last chances to see the Divine Lorraine in all its blighted glory. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

SEPTA: Still "Getting There"

I don't want to side with the Washingtonian rhetoric that dubbed Philadelphia a second-rate stopover, but Philadelphia and our city services have been making our town look like the Mayberry of major metropolises ever since the Pope announced he'd be dropping in. While a lot of the problems rest with the antics of the U.S. Secret Service, Philadelphia has been capable of handling this kind of influx since Day 1. And since Day 1, Philadelphia should have been working with the Secret Service to prove that. 

Street closures make sense. We deal with that on New Years, major conventions, and last week's Welcome America! concert. All cities close streets when they anticipate a bunch of road warriors inexplicably expecting convenient parking. 

Where Philadelphia failed was with SEPTA's reluctance to accommodate those who won't be driving in. 

Don't think SEPTA can handle it? 

Well think about this: Philadelphia's vast network of rail-lines have been handling throngs of residents, commuters, and tourists since the early 1900s. As one of the earliest mass transit systems in North America, Philadelphia's been ferrying passengers in and around the city since trolleys were pulled by horses. 

In the mid 20th Century, Philadelphia was home to two million residents, 500,000 more than today. And back then, a lot more of us relied on public transportation. To this day nearly every inner city rail-line is still in operation and the regional rail system has expanded to the airport. 

But instead of jumping in front of the task at hand, instead of using this event as an opportunity to showcase Philadelphia's massive transit system, rather than saying, "Yeah, we got this," SEPTA was burning the midnight oil to engineer ways to opt out of the ordeal. 

And what happened? Those two million pilgrims once planning to come to a perfectly capable Philadelphia started canceling their reservations, and now hotels are having trouble giving rooms away. 

Yes, we knew that the Papal Visit was going to be a royal ass ache. But Philadelphia is a massive city that deals with ass aches every day. We should have risen above it and proven that we were ready, willing, and able to deal with anything. But instead we cowered in the corner, gave the Secret Service carte blanche, and the national audience exactly what they already think of Philadelphia.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Innovating Laughter

Welcome to tomorrow. Welcome to Apple. Welcome to...the Pencil.

If you've never heard of a pencil, you're apparently in Apple's target demographic for what it calls "revolutionary" and "unlike anything" Apple's ever developed. And it is...to Apple. Eight years ago, Steve Jobs famously said of the stylus, "over my dead body." Shame on you for snickering at how befitting that statement would become. 

The Twittersphere was having a love/hate affair with the press release and Apple's typical product launch complete with a pair of Silicon Valley bluejeans and marketing-ese like "precision input device." It's hard to tell if it will succeed, that is in being a practical tool. After all, everyone knows that Apple could launch a Ford Pinto, and as long as it was loosely tethered to something prefixed with a Myriad fonted "i," consumers would line up around a city block to throw money at it. 

I can't wait to see what the South Park boys do with this one.

Before the reviews start showing up on Amazon, you can buy Apple's "not a stylus" for $99 and turn your iPad Pro into a PalmPilot. But keep your beeper close, I hear rumors that Tim Cook will be announcing the release of a revolutionary new social media network called Friendster sometime in the spring, right after Apple's launch of the iTrapperKeeper Lisa Frank edition.

Enjoy more yuks at Mashable...

Friday, September 4, 2015

A Little War of Words

Philadelphia's a hard sell. It doesn't seem to matter how far we go - never mind how far we've come - many in the mainstream press still seem determined to watch Philadelphia fail. We might be on the verge of curing AIDS and cancer, but we can't seem to shake our reputation as a "second-rate stopover" town. Those aren't my words, but the words of Washington Post journalist Frances Stead Sellers in a harshly penned article about Philadelphia's upcoming preparations - or lack thereof - for our Papal Visit. 

Criticism is deserved, and no media has been more critical on the subject than our own journalists right here in Philadelphia. Local articles wax and wane between maniacal assurances that the event will be "incredible" to borderline panic, while regional memes employ pterodactyls and swamp monsters to protect the Pontiff. The local media has done everything it can to give us the words we want to read - along with some much needed comic relief. But with information lacking in sensical substance and often contradictory, we're still left wondering if the city outside the #popefence might wind up looking like the Zombie Zone we keep joking about.

But Sellers' article didn't focus on the problems our local media has been discussing, and barely treaded into the reality of the event's sheer size, as if a swell of more than 1.5 million pilgrims was just an average boat show. 

Instead, she condescendingly stated that Washington and New York will host Pope Francis "in stride" ignoring that neither city will be hosting a public Mass. In terms of His Holiness's visit to the United States, D.C. and New York are the second-rate stopovers.

To be fair, Sellers - despite a few choice words - seemed to attempt diplomacy. She also fired off a small journalism war between our two cities. Holly Otterbein of Philadelphia Magazine accused the Post of trolling PhiladelphiaDavid Warner used the City Paper to remind Washington that it's built atop a swamp, and in the casual nature of his paper, that our dick is bigger. 

Neither did much to counter Sellers' claim (a claim that would have been taken in stride had she not gut-punched us with that "second-rate stopover" thing) and Washington's counter commentary was just as classless. 

Benjamin Freed of Washingtonian unearthed an aptly Philadelphian "pugilistic" from his thesaurus and fired back at Philadelphia, referring to the Constitutional Convention as a "small political" gathering and the assertion that every Papal pilgrim will be coming from New Jersey, then delving into the tired fallacy that Philly has a Rocky fueled inferiority complex. 

Warner's City Paper commentary is a rant if I've ever read one, but he was one of the few journalists to point out that the vast majority of Philadelphia's preparation headaches have been caused by the U.S. Secret Service, the authoritarian overlords from Sellers' and Freed's Washington, D.C. 

Despite the smug nature of Freed's Washingtonian article, he quotes Sellers as a Philly fan. Rising above the words of Freed, this former Powelton Village and Italian Market resident had gushing words for Philadelphia's "rowhouses, restaurants, and theaters" and goes on to refer to Washington as a "government town" with "large parts of which close down on the weekends." 

Although Freed ignores - or perhaps is simply oblivious to - Seller's thinly veiled categorization of Washington as an industry town with a dead downtown, Sellers seems to get Philadelphia and ultimately ends up on top of the bitter exchange of words she obviously never meant to start, likely wishing she'd reserved a bit of print to point out her local roots and affinity for Philadelphia. 

As for Otterbein and Warner, well, Philadelphia's renaissance is something none of us are accustomed to, here or elsewhere. Yes, Philadelphians are a bit combative. We're no longer a "second-rate stopover" but we aren't completely removed from our bleak history. Those words strike a nerve in any seasoned Philadelphian and that should be expected. 

Philadelphia has received an enormous amount of praise lately, but the praise is new, and new things are fragile. Philadelphia is a very real city with very real people, people who've been here a long time and know how much hinges on - or stands to be lost at - the hands of this renewed global interest in all things Philadelphia. 

However unfounded, editorialized, or just plain made-up: media matters, and flip words from jazz-handed journalists - journalists in industry towns that reinvent themselves at the end of each national election, or powerhouses that continue to reach further into the belly of the 1% - have profound implications for cities that have to autonomously foster our identities. 

We aren't a government town, and we're not going to handle the Papal Visit like a State Dinner, a Presidential Inauguration, or Ryan Seacrest's New Years' Rockin' Eve. We're going to handle it like the very real, diverse, and economically integrated city that we are.

On September 28th Pope Francis will leave. CNN, MSNBC, FoxNews, and every major newspaper in the United States will be spinning a few isolated incidents into a frenzied disaster, incidents that any reasonable person would expect amongst a crowd of 1.5 million people. Freed will feel vindicated and can go on justifying his bloated Beltway mortgage, the Otterbeins and Warners will retort, and a week later, the media will move on to the next story when they realize that the only people with a vested interest in Philadelphia's nonexistent failures are journalists with nothing better to talk about.