Saturday, January 31, 2015

Give a Hoot

Bryn Mawr College found itself on the flip side of reason when it accidentally emailed an offer to the wrong student. OWLS, Onward to Weight Loss Success, a fun play on the school's mascot, is a fitness and diet program dedicated to helping students who wish to tackle their health issues. 

Unfortunately, confusing emails with something that requires costly postage, Bryn Mawr College sent out the offer solely based on information gathered from personal medical records. And in this politically sensitive age, it went viral from BuzzFeed to Jezebel.

While the compilation of a "fat list" is pretty insensitive, there is nothing insensitive about the email or the OWLS program. But even's own BeWellPhilly was duped by the hype, perpetuating the claim that Bryn Mawr College is policing its students' bodies.

Why is it okay to chastise smokers to the point of shame, treat alcoholics as pathetic and diseased, but whenever someone acknowledges the very real links between obesity and everything from heart disease to cancer, they're "fat-shaming?"

Somewhere along the way, obese Americans began confusing a plea for physical fitness with unrealistic body standards. It's exacerbated the problem to the point that so-called "gyms" have even begun exploiting the phenomenon by offering a cheap place for the overweight to exercise in "judgement-free zones" that are nothing more than pizza parties maintaining their illness.
From hypertrophy to anorexia, unrealistic body image issues are very real problems in themselves. But they're issues at odds with the fitness professionals operating programs like OWLS. Popping steroids and starving oneself is just as unhealthy as obesity. But programs like OWLS are simply designed to help the willing learn how to live healthy lifestyles. 
Unfortunately, in this 21st Century age of skewed rationalization, the fit and healthy are marginalized in favor of the copout  of "just being yourself." Be yourself, but be your healthy self.
There's a thin line between sympathy and reality, and there's nothing offensive about OWLS. Colleges are more that vacuums of academia. They're places where students become the adults they'll be for - hopefully - the next 70 or 80 years. It's where they learn to make their own decisions, and that includes what to eat and whether exercise will become the permanent part of their adult lifestyle that it should be. 
Not one word of OWLS' email is "policing" its students' bodies. It's offering a free alternative to pricy dietitians and personal trainers, something overweight college students will be happy to have around 30 when they're struggling with diabetes and hypertension.
  • 1/3 of American children are overweight or obese.
  • More than 1/3 of American adults are obese.
  • 29 million Americans have diabetes.
  • 86 million Americans have pre-diabetes.
  • 80% of American adults don't get recommended levels of exercise.
  • 75% of American teenagers don't get recommended levels of exercise.
  • The World Heath Organization predicts that today's children will be the first generation in American history that won't live as long as their parents because of obesity related illnesses.

This is why programs like OWLS exist, and need to exist.

The Slums of Center City

If you've lived in Philadelphia for a while, you might not see them. But look up. Pretend you've never been here before. Or visit a city like Savannah, soak up its manicured blocks, its considerable lack of surface parking, then return to Philadelphia and stroll through neighborhoods like Old City and Midtown Village. 

You'll see it, the slums of Center City. Along East Chestnut Street and throughout Old City, it's everywhere. Seemingly abandoned buildings in the heart of the city. Often, at best, a building is only as good as its ground floor. An Old City gallery capped with boarded up or broken windows, sometimes gaping maws open to the elements.

How has this happened? As the outer rung blossoms from Passyunk Square to Northern Liberties to University City, Philadelphia's heart - Center City - is perplexingly clotted. 

It's hard to complain. We're not Detroit. But we need to stop comparing ourselves to the worst. That's what got us here. 

In South Philadelphia and Fishtown, neighborhoods are so congested that cars take to the median to find parking and save spots with lawn chairs. But in Center City, where land usage begs for the most stringent of requirements, parking lots surround garages, across the street from even more. 

A surface lot faces City Hall, the geographic center of our city. New Philadelphians look at our city's smile and wonder why its missing so many teeth. But those at the source of the problem are looking at a city in disdain. Dinosaurs, whether they're in bed with City Hall or not, whether they're in City Hall or not, see another Philadelphia. One that is Detroit.

They acquired now-prime property when the city was on death's door. And now fifty plus years into their investment, these properties are monthly checks from a city they forgot about while they play shuffleboard in Palm Beach.

Unfortunately the slumlords and the surface parking lot owners enable each other, and City Hall grants them a pass. Slowly these properties are being passed down to their children, children inheriting the burden of a city they don't know is trying to thrive. From California to Texas to Boston, Center City is owned by the unfamiliar.

With some of the lowest parking taxes in the nation, our density begs for us to have the highest. But not just parking tax, land usage tax. Have you ever strolled down East Chestnut and looked up at the dramatic bay windows, empty and cracked, and thought, "If no one want to live there, I will!"

How can the city allow this? Because these owners took a chance on Philadelphia when no one else would? That would be like saying I took a chance on Detroit if I snatched up a few of their $5000 houses and let them rot for the next fifty years. 

What's worse, developers that actually develop routine avoid these properties, likely because they know they're owned by cranky old-timers hoarding land to pass down to their kids. Perhaps as some of these buildings manage to outlive their owners, their children will take an ounce of pride in their part of a new Philadelphia. Unfortunately, if the city doesn't take strides to discourage land hoarding and slumlording throughout the city, particularly at the foundation of its skyscrapers, inherited land will inherit its blighted mentality. 

Friday, January 30, 2015

Philadelphia's Next Mayor

No word yet on Councilman Kenney's website...sorry, former Councilman. But Kenney has resigned his 23 year position to unofficially announce his candidacy for Mayor of Philadelphia. 

And it's about ****ing time.

For anyone who's lived in Philadelphia long enough to truly be a local (I think the standard is roughly six years), you know what a big deal this is.

Kenney isn't just a hotheaded, opinionated, and in love with all things Philadelphia. He's one of those rare folks who knows how to be both a politician and a human being. In all ways, he is the quintessential Philadelphian: temperamental, sarcastic, and unapologetic. 

After eight years of Mayor Street's antics and another eight years of Mayor Nutter's invisibility, Philadelphians are ready for a mayor who cares more about the city than his job and isn't afraid to say it. 

And Philadelphians are ready to vote.'s Holly Otterbein had some reservations about Kenney's late entrance into the mayoral race, but I'm not so sure she's on mark. Claiming he's late to the race assumes that the vast majority of Philadelphians have been following it. Kenney jumped in at exactly the right time. Like movies hoping to win an Oscar, you don't release it in January, you release it late in the year. 

Kenney's been a fan favorite throughout State Sen. Anthony Williams' and former DA Lynne Abraham's campaigns. Fans have just been wondering when he'd make the inevitable announcement. And they've been doing his campaigning for him.

Otterbein also wonders if his temper will be perceived as authentic, or embarrassing. I have to wonder if Otterbein is a Philadelphian. This is a city that still lauds the tactics of Mayor Rizzo, a man who said he'd make "Attila the Hun look like a faggot." While it's easy to look at Kenney's loyalty to a broad range of minority groups and peg him as the anti-Rizzo, Kenney's raw tenacity might just be the modern equivalent of Rizzo's dated vernacular. 

Truly dedicated to a city they love. 

After eight years of mediocrity dedicated to maintaining the status quo, Philadelphians - both new and seasoned - are fed up. Kenney brings a unique mix to the podium. One that understands the dinosaurs mucking up the system, but hates them as much as we do. More than that, Kenney is loud, opinionated, and he's not afraid to air the sometimes bizarre reasons he loves Philadelphia. 

We're a diverse bunch, Philadelphians. 

We ourselves our loud, opinionated, and love this sick and twisted city for our own bizarre reasons. And that's exactly why Jim Kenney should be the next mayor. He's us. He's Philadelphia - the good and the indignant - and he's not afraid to own that. 

Fashion Plates: Architecture Edition

Up in Port Fishington (I think that's a thing), Naked Philly found some interesting homes at Sepviva and Firth. Something about these houses makes me want to play Q*bert.


What can I say? They're fun houses on a corner that needed a flea dip. And if those plastic panels don't start to fade and crack in a year or two, they're pretty easy to wipe down with Windex.

But checkerboard court up in Kens- Fish- Port- ...that neighborhood, isn't in a truly vetted area. Architects can choose to be daring, or just cheap and boring. However, the use of these snap-on panels is running rampant in neighborhoods that demand better design and better materials. 

Okay, that's kinda cool.

From Goldtex Apartments to 1900 Arch to the proposed Hudson Hotel, we're being duped into confusing exciting architecture with the thrifty tactic of slapping multicolored plastic panels on otherwise dull buildings. 

Norman Foster's tallest-in-Philly on one corner, and...this, on the other.

Architects are dangling a shiny set of keys in our face and we respond with, "ooh, colors." But these quasi-futuristic row homes and apartment buildings aren't anything special. Most aren't even interesting enough to be ugly. Their best attribute may only be the fact that once the style has run its course, it will be that much easier to replace the facade with the next trend. 

In the case of the Hudson Hotel, that might be the deliberate plan. Once we tire of block long plastic barcodes, this shoehorned suburban Aloft is a ready built shell that can be refaced with whatever comes next. 

That's the same ledgestone veneer found on every suburban Bonefish Grill in the country, available at Home Depot.

Sheathing boring buildings with randomly placed color panels is probably the cheapest way to be trendy. But even Hudson's street-facing facade is riddled with already dated materials that scream "King of Prussia strip mall."

The sad truth is hotel goers rarely care about a hotel's architecture, just the amenities. Hudson is catering to people who don't care what Philadelphia looks like, just the spa treatments. That experience can be wedged into any structure, even one as piss-poor as the Hilton Home2 at 12th and Arch.

From Sepviva and Firth's monochromatic corner to pricy parcels near Rittenhouse Square, it's hard to wonder if these designs are simply the trends of the times, or if developers are commissioning something cheap and modular. I can hear the sales pitch, "Want to decorate for the holidays? Snap on some red and green panels, or blue and silver for Hanukkah. Easter? Mix and match!" 

Maybe this is the future of design in the ever changing and ever fickle new Millennium: Fashion Plates for home design.

1910 Rittenhouse

"Stop what you're doing," says, "1910 Rittenhouse Square just hit the market." Indeed it did, for $7.5M. And for another $7.5M you can try to get rid of about 5,000 square miles of wallpaper and...ceilingpaper? Yep, I'm pretty sure that's wallpaper on the ceiling.

Apparently once called "Philadelphia's Most Extravagant Townhouse," that should probably read "Eccentric." Scrolling through the photographs posted on begins with what looks like a grownup rich kid's dollhouse. 

1910 Rittenhouse Square

Overwhelming textures and colors, but mildly tasteful if the whole house was scaled down and set in the corner of a bedroom. Scroll a little further through the listing and you'll starting wondering if it was designed by one of the Real Housewives of...hell, any of them. By the last photo you'll be convinced it's the home of Christopher Lowell.

I honestly can't tell whether James Jennings of is a genius at comedic sarcasm, or if he's actually that guy right up there.  

Citing Charles Ross and his prismatic light displays was a nice touch, one I only wish was included in the virtual tour. I mean why just disorient your guests with clashing colors, dizzying patterns, and dangerous textures? After giving them all vertigo, send them down a set of marble stairs covered in rainbow projections? 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

AIDS and the Living Narrative of Philadelphia

While working on some #tbt ideas (because I'm so hip and current), I was browsing Netflix looking for some older films set in and around Philadelphia. Then I though, "huh, what about Philadelphia?" It was filmed exclusively in the city, plus both the title and Bruce Springsteen's Oscar winning theme share the city's namesake. 

Less than five minutes into the movie, I found what I was looking for. Scenes from a past somewhere between what we know now and the history books. But just as quickly, I found a reason to revisit this movie for more than its background. 

It's a perfect movie.

I last saw Philadelphia 21 years ago. As a closeted teenager, I remember anxiously sitting on the couch next to my parents, trying to fight back my tears as my mom, even my dad, shed theirs'. I heard them whisper my cousin's name, "Sammy..." 

He had died just two months earlier.

Watching it again as an adult, it didn't remind me of the closet. Instead, it brought back the emotional roller coaster I would experience during the height of the epidemic. More than 140,000 Americans would reportedly be lost to AIDS when I was in college. With those deaths came fear, sorrow, but also supportive camaraderie with many wonderful strangers. 

I learned a lot very quickly.

At face value, Philadelphia is a sad movie. But beneath the surface it's something else. To those dealing with AIDS in 1993, Philadelphia wasn't a movie with a sad ending, it was their unfortunate story with a bittersweet purpose.

For the first time in the disease's 11 year history, statistics were finally being given a face. Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, and a host of other Hollywood celebrities showed America a real disease afflicting real people. 

Philadelphia wasn't just a movie, it was a true story that played out on our city's stage. Over the last two decades a rumor has periodically surfaced regarding the production of the film, claiming that within two years of its release, more than 40 cast members had died from AIDS. It's not a legend, and today the number is likely 53. 

ActionAIDS of Philadelphia was sourced by director Jonathan Demme to cast 53 extras for the film. 

In 1995, Clifford Rothman wrote an homage to the 53 HIV-positive extras in the film and the 43 who had already passed. Similar in spirit, the Philadelphia Inquirer printed its own moving article prior to the movie's release. 

The national dialogue was evolving and the mainstream media was showing the general public a side of AIDS they didn't know, one of unbearable suffering and grieving families. 

Therese Frare's photograph of David Kirby's deathbed in 1990 is historically referred to as the "picture that changed the face of AIDS." Published in both Life magazine and by Benetton, the heartbreaking picture of Kirby with his weeping father elicited outrage, but for the first time, it also found empathy from many who had no personal understanding of the disease. 

AIDS had been humanized. 
The "picture that changed the face of AIDS." David Kirby with his father, mother, and sister, by Therese Frare.

Salt-n-Pepa's 1991 single, Let's Talk About Sex, came with an alternate version titled Let's Talk About AIDS. The music video's message isn't subtle, and it worked. 

People talked. 

By 1996, the AIDS Quilt made its last annual appearance on the National Mall until it would return once more in 2012. 

These articles, photographs, memorials, and songs offered the public a firsthand look at an epidemic - a public plagued with misconceptions about a community hiding in the gritty corners of our cities. It seemed - finally - that the public was ready to accept that AIDS was real.

Philadelphia is part of the broad story that AIDS continues to tell. At the time of its release, ActionAIDS serviced 500 HIV-positive men and women. Today it services about 5000, a testament to early detection, better meds, and compassion. But it also proves that the epidemic won't be over until the last cocktail is prescribed.

39 million people have died from AIDS since the epidemic began. But with the recognition of the disease's humanity comes the understanding that AIDS also afflicts the uninfected. There is no way to calculate the untold number of friends and family who've buried their loved ones. 

Until recently, there was little hope that a cure would be found. Treatments are improving, and advocacy is getting it to those in need. HIV-positive men and women are living full, normal lives. But the cost isn't limited to money. These drugs come with side effects. 

However, in the last few years, research in gene therapy has shifted interest back towards curing the disease. Now, more than three decades later, there seems to be more promise than ever that AIDS will be gone within most of our lifetimes. With strides coming from our own Temple University and Penn Medicine, perhaps Philadelphia's living story will return for its final chapter. 

It isn't over, and you can help:

Mazzoni Center
Philly AIDS Thrift

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Manspreading: A Very Real Problem

Thanks to New York's taskmasters and stealth photographers, the subway epidemic of "manspreading" has finally been brought to light. Of course, I'm not referring to those who need an extra seat for a purse or bums urinating on the platforms. I'm talking about a real issue: tall men with long legs letting their nuts breath.
What are women, or more respectful men to do? Ask a stranger to scooch down a bit? This is New York we're talking about. You don't talk to people, you save that for Jezebel or Gawker. And if you are going to talk to anyone, you bring a camera.
Knowing how trends spiral on the internet, I grew concerned that the plague had "spread" to Philadelphia. Worse, was I myself part of the problem? After all, I'm six feet tall, I have long legs, and depending on how cold it is outside, I usually have a pair of descended testicles. After pondering this, and cupping my genitals to make sure they were still there, I immediately decided to stand up during that fateful Broad Street subway ride. 
It's like chlamydia.
I was afraid. Someone might have a camera pointed at me just waiting for me to mess up. But then I wondered, "What else could I possibly be doing wrong?" Was I "manhovering?" I looked at the passengers below me, face to face with the faint scent of Axe body spray emanating from my junk...all holding phones just begging to be Twet.
Quickly, I exited and headed for the street, above ground where it was sunny and safe. Then I remembered, I recently posted my own blog about "siewalkspreading," a crisis that our trusty watchdogs from the north have renamed "manslamming." Was I guilty of committing a crime that I myself find so annoying? Was I...a manslammer?
Right then I wondered how my broad shoulders might be threatening, even misogynistic. As I traversed the crowded sidewalks, I looked at the Starbucks cups in the hands of harried commuters, both of my shoulders eager to spill coffee in those Kate Spade bags headed straight for me. I was a magnet for disaster. 
I tried hugging the walls of buildings like a kid clinging to the carpeted walls of Skatetown USA. "Be invisible," I whispered to myself.
Scaling the bricks and concrete along Arch Street, I was smacked in the face with a glass door at the Wawa. "How dare you?!" yelled a woman walking a dog in a raincoat and four little shoes...I was "manblocking!"
Manspreaders: PLEASE, think of the kittens!
I tried to get off the streets as fast as possible.
Climbing a fire escape, I leaped from rooftop-to-rooftop across Chinatown and beyond, constantly aware of the loathsome manhood dangling between my thighs. Those on the sidewalks below pointed and stared, filming and Tumblring, "Look! It's a bird! It's a plane! No, he's MANFLEEING!" 
And manflee I did!
When I found myself perched high above the streets, watching my fellow Philadelphians smoothly return to strides free from my disease, I realized I was no innocent resident, I was the villain, the Joker's syphilitic half-brother. A blight amongst the better.
How was I so blind to the chaos? I had no idea that, without my cojones, Philadelphia and New York were utopian ideals of pleases and thank yous, SEPTA and MTA sparkling trains brimming with courteous etiquette. I should have known better, it's not like anything bad ever happened on a subway before the outbreak of manspreading.
Defeated, I slid down a storm drain behind my small house, I "manbroke" into my rear window, "manstumbled" down my staircase, where I "manhid" with my "mancat."
Six weeks later, unshaven and living off "manhoarded" canned tuna, I sunk into a dark despair of evil undoing. I began to accept my fate, my gonads. This house, this "mancave," is now a reclusive lair for me to plot my next move on the good people of this city. A place for me to sit and "manwonder" how can my balls can next make this world grieve? 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Market East: Done With the Disney Hole

Ten years ago, Market East wasn't great. Strawbridge and Clothier, Gap, Guess, and a few mundane retailers managed to keep the Gallery afloat. The Disney Hole sat at 8th and Market reminding us of a more hopeful - albeit unrealistic - time. 

But things went from bad to worse. In 2005, the May Company consolidated with Federated Department Stores, resulting in two of its own stores competing for shoppers within a few blocks. May closed the historic Strawbridge and Clothier, sold its Lord & Taylor brand, and opened a Macy's at the Wanamaker Building.

The few reasons to visit the Gallery followed Strawbridge's. At best, it became an unofficial outlet mall, a bad one. What were once the worst of the Gallery's stores, low-end retailers expanded into vacant spaces while knock-offs and cell phone stores filled in the rest. 

For a few years it was unclear how the mall would ever survive. Worse, many wondered what would happen if it were forced to close. Would it be a vacant eyesore home to squatters atop a transportation hub? Would it become a playground for graffiti artists? Would it become a massive parking lot spitting distance from City Hall and some of the nation's greatest historic monuments? 

One thing's for sure, despite it's reputation, had the Gallery officially died Market East would have gone down with the ship.

Luckily, perhaps miraculously, the Gallery seems poised to rebound. Century 21, a company that has redefined the concept of the discount reseller, has sent thousands to Market East. New rules at the Pennsylvania Convention Center have attracted attention from the events industry, and it's filling nearby hotel rooms. Most exciting is the massive project under development on the Girard Trust Block.

In a few years, Philadelphia's once-hub of consumerism may look like the modern-day counterpart it should be. Dazzling lights now crown the Lit Brothers building echoing the neon and incandescent signage that once advertised shoe repairs and alterations. And more is coming to the Gallery and East Market.

These changes will likely increase the value of the remaining properties. While little has been said of the remaining blocks or the Barbarella-esque Robinson's Department Store, improvements underway will only challenge property owners to up their game.

Disney Hole: We're done with you!

There is, however, one unfortunate hole in the unheard of changes taking place on Market East: The Disney Hole. When themed restaurants were all the rage in the 1990s - think Hard Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood, Rainforest Cafe - Disney decided to get in on the action. But Disney wanted more than a chain of restaurants, it wanted to bring its successful theme parks to America's inner cities. 

In all fairness, it wasn't a bad idea. Although indoor amusement parks are a largely untested concept, DisneyQuest would have brought more entertainment to our inner cities than Dave and Busters or pop-culture restaurant museums. And Market East is a good location for entertainment, especially twenty years later. 

Unfortunately the concept flopped, at least in terms of the broad scope of the overall plan. We never got a DisneyQuest at 8th and Market, just a vacant lot where Gimbel's once stood. And today, multiple variables make the land a hostile ass ache for potential developers. For one, it's owned and managed by some of the city's most notorious land hoarders, property managers that understand just how profitable the city allows surface parking lots to be. 

It's also a massive lot. Of late, the most realistic proposal was for the Market8 Casino. Although it was always unlikely it would have ever been built, an entertainment venue on par with the scale of a casino complex (or DisneyQuest) is likely the lot's best hope. Sadly, in Philadelphia it seems more profitable to demolish and then build than to build on cleared land, apparent by NREA's choice to clear the Girard Trust Block themselves to make way for East Market, rather than drop it on the Disney Hole. 

So what will happen to the Disney Hole? Will Market East become so valuable that its owners and managers will have no choice but to cooperate just long enough to cash a bloated check? Or will they make so much money parking Market East's upcoming flock of shoppers that they'll never let it go? 

Interestingly, in all the hype surrounding Market East's improvements, little has been said of the street's oozing cold sore. 

For a while it was rumored that the Sixers might be moving to New Jersey. Granted, Camden could use the boost, but I would hate to lose the only sport I can stomach to another state. 

But relocating the Sixers (and everything that comes with the Wells Fargo Center) might not be such a bad idea. And here's why: 8th and Market is the perfect location. As much as I like the fact that our professional athletics have fostered a unique "Stadium District," the Wells Fargo Center isn't just a seasonal arena. It's also a concert venue. 

When someone wants to see Madonna in New York, they head to Midtown. And that's how it is in most cities. In Philadelphia, we have to hop on the train and head towards the edge of Mordor. I'm not much of a concert goer, evident in the fact that the last time I saw an arena concert it was at the MCI Center in DC. And had it been in that (much smaller) city's end-of-the-line, I never would have gone. I love venues like the Trocadero and the Electric Factory, but were the Wells Fargo Center downtown and around the corner, I'd be much more likely to check out a concert. 

But 8th and Market isn't just downtown, it's perhaps downtown's most underrated parcels. It's not just on Market Street, it's atop a transportation hub, the largest in the city: PATCo, and SEPTA's regional rails and subways, and it's right off the Vine Street Expressway. You literally can't find a better transportation accessible location in the city without running Amtrak all the way to Jefferson Station.

So why hasn't this been formally, or even informally proposed? Well, like all things in Philadelphia, development and ideas move slowly. What's unique about the changes taking place on Market East are also unique to Philadelphians, City Hall, and national developers who occasionally check in on their local investments to make sure we're still begging for the status quo. 

Well, things are starting to change a little more quickly whether we want them to or not. And with national developers finally investing in the last frontier of Center City, we better get used to it. 

Surface parking lots are disappearing, and so with them are the land hoarders and slumlords that have plagued Center City for too long. If we can get rid of the Disney Hole, we can be sure a new era has arrived. 

And while locals may be able to turn a blind eye to a massive parking lot along our soon-to-be Corridor of Commercialism, national retailers and investors will not. 

So bring it on. Let's enhance the exciting changes along Market East with something even more exciting, and let's drop it right on top of the Disney Hole.

Philadelphia is #1...Again

Philadelphia just keeps getting better, at least that's what the national press is saying. In less than four months, Forbes, the New York Times, and Conde Nast put Philadelphia atop some pretty outstanding global lists.

It's not over. 

Travel + Leisure, the magazine that once dubbed Philadelphians some the nation's "least attractive" people, they couldn't help but deliver the news with a caveat. When their list found us to be less than attractive, they went on to rave about our art scene and restaurants.

They're back this month, and once again on our side. Travel + Leisure has ranked Philadelphia #3 on its list of cities for the Best New Restaurants, #1 in the United States. 

Just for a little perspective, that means we beat New York, London, and Hong Kong.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Is Old City Lost?

With NREA's East Market steadily demolishing the Snellenberg stump for its exciting mixed use project, and the Gallery at Market East booting tenants for its upcoming renovation, urbania is rolling towards Old City for a 7-10 split.

But what about Old City? At the height of the building boom, riding the coattails of Sex and the City, this neighborhood was the "it" place to live, work, and be seen. Once Philadelphia's "downtown," Old City was ripe with the walkups, warehouses, and refined urban grit that defined the American City.

With our collective attention transitioning its fix towards neighborhoods like Midtown Village, Market East, and University City; Old City is starting to feel like a has-been. It's Sex and the City, and Philadelphia is busy binge-watching Friends on Netflix.

Please, stop. We're done. Friends is on Netflix. We want to know how to get Monica's apartment on a caterer's salary, not splurge on a pair of Manolos for a night Bleu Martini. McGlinchey's and flannel are back. 
"So it's a show about three hookers and their mom?" -Brian Griffin, on Sex and the City.

Despite the fact that Old City was once the hub of Philadelphia's commerce and industry, it is now one of those neighborhoods on the fringe of our city's core. And like many of those neighborhoods - Society Hill, Fitler Square, Logan Square - it comes with its own built-in identity crisis.

While Midtown Village and Market East are focused on enhancing the "downtown" experience with mixed used projects, some of the largest since Liberty Place redefined our skyline, Old City seems stuck in the 90s. Or at best, it's focused on competing as if it were plunked down in Northern Liberties or Passyunk Square.

Unlike Society Hill, or at least unlike what Society Hill has become, Old City has never been a next-door-neighbor neighborhood. It is the city's last vestige of our oldest urbanism. It was mixed use 300 years before mixed use was cool.

This isn't Center City thinking.
But with several row-homes under construction on the 200 blocks of Arch and Race, Old City's rigid desire to embrace a quaintness it never had may soon come back to bite it in the ass. When is the last time a single-family row-home was built in Old City? Aside from Elfreth's Alley, the Betsy Ross House may be its last notable example. 

Investing in residential land in a neighborhood that is primarily condo may be both a wise and poor investment. If Center City continues to grow and develop at its current pace, Old City will truly become Philadelphia's East Village equivalent. These row-homes will surely escalate in value, but will anyone be willing to pay the price for a home built in 2015 a decade from now, especially when they could get an historic mansion in Society Hill for the same price? 

Old City is a dense neighborhood, but their rigid stance against added density and love of parking is going to be a thorn when its residents are forced to face the fact that they live in a very urban neighborhood. While developers are just kowtowing to the neighborhood's demands, those demands aren't thinking of the neighborhood's future. A future where these now-sleek row-homes are subdivided into apartments with useless curb-cut sidewalks facing gerrymandered studios.

We're a big city. New row-homes belong above Vine and below South. In Center City, we need to be looking up.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Farewell, Old Friend

As Philadelphians, we've all enjoyed watching University City transform into Center City's towering sister. Ugly midcentury disasters have made way for their modern equivalent, architecture that will likely be just as abhorred by future generations. Some may even remember a time when West Philadelphia's universities proposed building a wall to separate students from once-dangerous neighborhoods now adorned by preserved mansions, renovated condos, and Victorian twins. 

Architecturally, it's been great. And University City and its West Philadelphia neighbors have managed to evolve without accommodating the suburban ills that tend to play out in isolated college towns. The University of Pennsylvania, Drexel, even Temple don't just cater to their students, they embrace the city of Philadelphia by indulging our rigid adherence to urbanism and sustained walkability. 

Universities are no stranger to change. They exert enormous political influence and have the cash to build what they want, where they want. Historic preservationists have abandoned all but the most historically significant of colleges. And even in those instances - William and Mary, Harvard, Penn - those charged with protecting urban heritage largely assign the task to the universities themselves. 

We've see buildings fall in University City - the good, the bad, and the meh. But there's more to a building's legacy than bricks and mortar, be it Colonial or academia's wild fascination with Brutalism. These places also hold a significance for a vast portion of the public who experienced the most poignant piece of personal history within these buildings. 

Just today, an old college friend of mine posted a link on my Facebook page. The link? An offer to buy a piece of my college dorm, recently demolished to make way for a new Student Union. Now, I know this is a blog about Philadelphia, but it's also about architecture and history. Plus, it's my blog, so I'm going to stray from my adoptive city for a moment or two.

Everyone has their college stories, or stories from a pivotal point in their life when they start their next act. I might think mine are unique, but no matter how hard I try, I know they're not. But sometimes good stories are those most relatable. And that's exactly what I experienced living on the third floor of South Cunningham for the bulk of my college career.

The building was dated. The architecture has been replicated across Longwood College's (now University's) campus. There was nothing significant about the Cunninghams other than our own personal experiences, and that's why it was so sad to see it go.

This is the building where I (sorry, Mom) lost my virginity. This is where I spent countless nights crying with friends in the laundry room, coming to terms with my sexual orientation. It's where I spent even more nights crying in that same laundry room with friends - still some of my best to this day - struggling with the same.

It's where we somehow managed to cram forty students and a DJ booth into a dorm room for an epic Christmas party, one graced with performances by my then-drag persona, Empress Savannah of the Fourteenth Shue. 

It's where we would strut down to the hall perfecting our "Model Walk" to the Sugar Cubes. It's where we watched the O.J. verdict. It's where we sang Seasons of Love at the top of our lungs. It's where we watched Kimberly Shaw blow up Melrose Place. It's where we realized that Murder She Wrote's Cabot Cove had a murder rate higher than Honduras.

It was more than a dorm or a was a friend. 

Anyone who's been to college knows what it's like to sit outside their dorm until 3am deconstructing the nature of existence, solve all of the world's problems, and declare that we'll own this world by the time we're thirty. This is where we did that.

But most of all, this was the place where we laughed, cried, smoked, drank, and looked to the new millennium, clad in flannel, with relentless optimism. It's where we fostered friendships that have endured marriage and pregnancy, distance and divorce, and substance abuse and recovery. 

The Cunninghams created the people we are today. And while I think it's fantastic that the campus of my alma mater finally resembles, well, a campus, I am sad to see the Cunninghams go. But their legacy will live on through the people its inhabitants have become, the stories we tell, the stories I continue to tell throughout my thirties and will continue to tell well into my forties and beyond. 

Farewell, old friend. 

With that said, enjoy a little 90s awesomeness...

Friday, January 16, 2015

Delaware Station Hotel

Developer, Bart Blatstein, ever the optimistic visionary behind Northern Liberties' Piazza and a grand proposal for Broad and Washington, isn't afraid of diving in headfirst. If you thought his proposed casino in the old Inquirer Building was outlandish, the next stop on Blatstein's Philadelphia Dreamin' tour won't disappoint you.

Along with Joseph Volpe, Blatstein has agreed to purchase the Delaware Station power plant from Exelon. The plant is just north of Penn Treaty Park in Fishtown.

Volpe's Ceachaphe Event Group organizes lavish wedding receptions throughout Philadelphia, and the pair plan to capitalize on the power station's unique architecture, cavernous interior, and prime location. Housing two hotels, each with its own massive ballroom, the venue might even come with its own marina. 

It's a winning plan for both the historic building and the neighborhood, but its location on the Delaware River might be its most positive attribute. For decades, Philadelphia has struggled to embrace our rivers. Park improvements along the Schuylkill have transformed residents' relationship with our waters, and the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation is struggling to follow suit.

But unlike cities such as Chicago or Seattle, heavily developed along their shores with both parks and skyscrapers, Philadelphia's developers have largely shied away from marketing waterfront properties.

With the exception of Manayunk, the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers are parks, ports, or parking lots. Where the built environment does meet the shores, it's vastly suburban or abandoned. Perhaps the financial failure of Waterfront Square and the massive outpouring of resistance against SugarHouse Casino have discouraged developers from getting their feet wet.

Redeveloping, and rethinking the Delaware Station might signal the beginning of a new trend, one our rivers should be eager to receive. As the DRWC continues to improve the river's public space north and south, turning on the lights above Penn Treaty Park helps break the mental barrier between Center City and points north. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Not Your Father's Philadelphia

Five days ago, the New York Times declared Philadelphia the #3 place to go in 2015, just behind Cuba and Milan. It wasn't an isolated fluke. Conde Nast recently published a reader survey that elected Philadelphia the world's second shopping destination, only outranked by Barcelona. Late last year Forbes called Philadelphia one of three great cities for solo travel along with Boston and Milan.

The weight of this praise may be hard for some locals to comprehend. We live this city every day. Like a New Year's resolutionist staring at a scale, we don't always recognize the heaping improvements this city has made in relatively recent years. But the New York Times, Forbes, and Conde Nast have pointed out the apparent fact that, yes, Philadelphia's world class vitality has been resuscitated and we're charging headfirst at becoming the nation's premier city.

"The City of Brother Love is having a moment." - Forbes

Looking at Reading Terminal Market and Old City boutiques, even chains as unique as Uniqlo and Century 21 or as benign as Nordstrom Rack, Conde Nast explains why hardcore fashionistas are heading to Philadelphia's tax-free cash registers. And the Times and Forbes are telling them why they need to stick around.

Dated storefronts are being replaced with exciting window displays and an endless supply of local restaurants, pubs, and entertainment venues. Faster than you can say "beer garden," you could have your hand wrapped around a local lager on nearly any block in Center City.

But it doesn't end with a few listicles. If Philadelphia can earn high marks for shopping and travel, just imagine where we'll land when the most cynical amongst us are finally willing to admit we deserve it. Let's face it, we're a pessimistic bunch. Despite our fierce loyalty, we tend to take praise like a Greek yia yia at Easter. We hide our pride behind burden.

That doesn't matter. In fact, it's charming that our city has a collective personality. But the influx of travel, growing population, and new destinations are bringing more. Park improvements along both rivers are signaling neighborhoods to bring their A-game. Once a pipe dream, the proposed Reading Viaduct Park is no longer inching towards reality, it's actually happening.

And we're not just following in the successful footsteps of other cities. From BYOs to our universities and hospitals, Philadelphia is trailblazing emerging industries and ideas. 

CHoP will soon be rising above the South Street Bridge and University City's skyline is about to be home to the city's sixth tallest skyscraper. The Schuylkill Banks is on its way to Bartram's Garden on the west bank of the river. We're using smart urbanism to build tall and embrace pedestrians, connecting commuters and challenging what we consider "downtown." 

The Girard Trust Block is currently one of the largest redevelopment projects since Liberty Place gave our city a skyline, and it's begging the Gallery at Market East to get in line. And the Gallery has responded. 

We're pumped up like Danny Bonaduce, growing fast with a subtle hint of roid-rage.

Things are snowballing, not because national publications have decided to recognize us, but because we gave them something to look at. No longer the Oldsmobile of America, this is not your father's Philadelphia. So move over Chicago and San Francisco, there's another big player in town. And with thousands of acres of affordable, sustainable, urban real estate north, south, and west, we can house out-priced refugees from New York and D.C. for decades.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

An Epidemic of Basic Proportions

After the epidemic of "manspreading" was brought to our attention by New York's Metropolitan Transit Autority, Philebrity and Gothamist have finally called attention to the equivalent for us urbanites who traverse the city above ground: "sidewalkspreading."

What I've always called "double-parking," sidewalkspreading is what it sounds like. You've seen it, and you've cursed it. You've been behind it, in a hurry or not. You've come face to face with them, pushed to the curb or through the middle of a group perplexed by your mere existence. 

Sometimes it's a family from Nebraska ogling the skyline. But others should know better. Stuck behind a hoard of tiny hipsters who inexplicably manage to monopolize the entire sidewalk with a collective weight of 150, you think, "how?" Or a tragic incarnation of Carries and Mirandas who haven't yet learned how to walk in their Manolos, "you must know better." And sometimes it's just one with a Starbucks cup in one hand, a cell phone in the other, and a Michael Kors granny bag draped at the elbow like she's Victoria ****ing Beckham.

You know who you are and you all know better. End the sidewalkspreading.

Stop it. Just...stop.

Mom's Organic Market

It looks like Mom's Organic Market will be moving into the 11th Street component of the massive East Market project currently under development on the Girard Trust Block. While it's great that Philadelphia will finally have a supermarket on par with Whole Foods, or even SuperFresh, closer to the core of its residents, what's even more exciting is the facelift the former Family Court Building will receive.

Once a warehouse for Snellenberg's Department Store, the old Family Court Building is faded and its facade is cracked and worn. Rather than restore the building's exterior, developers will be refacing it to include modern elements and large windows.

The new skin could have been as dramatic as that at Goldtex Apartments, but given the sum of the parts of the overall project, it doesn't have to be. The high-rise that will be anchoring 11th and Market looks sexy enough to carry the entire block. By slicing the block bound by Market and Ludlow in half for a pedestrian promenade, East Market isn't afraid of sacrificing land for a quality experience. 

They're carrying that theme over to the old Family Court building by opening up a good amount of the building's square footage to the outdoors. Center City's most exciting project (sorry, CITC) keeps getting more exciting.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Roman Catholic Expansion

I was just gushing about the recent improvements and proposals for Vine Street, namely the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints' decision to embrace one of the street's least desirable lots for a residential high-rise. 

Others are following suit. What's ever better, the development will replace yet another surface lot that scars the cityscape leaving Vine Street a hostile avenue for pedestrians.

Roman High (quite possibly the most badass named high school in the country, with a building to match) has acquired a neighboring lot, and has released preliminary plans to build a much-needed gymnasium. It also purchased another parking lot on north 13th Street that currently stores U-Haul trucks, for the school's fine arts expansion. A fitting location considering this lot was once home to Eraserhood's own, the renowned creator of Twin Peaks and the neighborhood's namesake, Eraserhead, David Lynch.

I'm not sure how the Catholic church feels about Lynch's creepy and deliberately offsetting creations - or nightmares - but maybe the school could dedicate a dark corner or a janitorial closet for a Lynch Museum.