Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Happy John Delorean Day

It's 10/21/2015, and if you don't know why that's significant, your dial-up modem probably crashed. If you've been on Facebook over the course of the past twelve hours, you've probably seen a lot of hover-boards, self-lacing Nike hi-tops, and of course, DeLorean Time Machines. 

Today's the day Marty McFly traveled to 1989's then-future in Back to the Future II, and people are going bat-scat nuts. The sequel to the iconic 1985 movie Back to the Future wasn't well received at the time, and still really isn't a critic-favorite. It weighed too heavily on gimmick-laden future fashion, flying cars, and now-poorly rendered holograms. But in 1989, that's what made the movie so fun. 

Fans have been waiting for this day for a long, long time, and the internet has been abuzz with what the movie got right about 2015, and what it got wrong. 

But love it or hate it, there's a masterpiece hiding beneath the trilogy, one which, like the futurism of the sequel, overshadowed a work of art. If the trilogy had to be reduced to one word, that word would undoubtedly be "DeLorean," and the story behind the DeLorean is as interesting, if not more interesting than any of the films. 

Even under the skin of its Time Machine, the DeLorean is instantly recognizable. Other famous movie cars are summed up by their personas: Ecto-1 from Ghostbusters, Knight Rider's K.I.T.T., and the General Lee are mortal cars without their Hollywood branding. But the DeLorean Time Machine is a DeLorean first, and because of its iconic placement in Back to the Future shortly after the car company's premature demise, most fans know very little about the actual car, the DMC-12. 

Quick example: When Doc Brown tells Marty he's about to see some "serious shit" when he gets his time machine up to 88 miles per hour, it wasn't an arbitrary number. Despite the DMC-12's sleek appearance, it was sluggishly underpowered with, some will say, a top speed of 88 miles per hour. The car was the butt of the movie's joke.

Because of its stainless steel body, limited production, and sleek styling, DeLoreans are often paired with exotics like Ferraris and Lamborghinis. But owners will tell you they're poorly made, and enthusiasts who've finally found an opportunity to drive one often say, "never meet your hero." While many of the less than 9000 production models are still on the road, that's largely due to preservation, upgrades, and the fact that most owners don't use them as daily-drivers. 

As a work of art, though, the Delorean DMC-12 is in a category all its own. Other exotics of the late '70s and early '80s, while still sexy, and definitely dated. The DeLorean is something else. It isn't a creation born from '80s era science fiction, a car that those in 1981 might think we'd see in a not-so-distant future, only to be scoffed at from 2015. Instead, it's an artifact from an alternate future that never happened. One that, although it looks strange, is also timeless and still holds our interest more than three decades later.

So much more than "the car from Back to the Future," the story behind the DeLorean Motor Company could, should, and probably will be a movie of its own. Its creator, John Delorean was a man as unique as his car and a legend in the automotive industry.

Born and raised in Detroit, John Delorean was destined to be an automotive legend. And were it not for the scandal that destroyed his car company, he would have an honored place along side Henry Ford, Gottleib Daimler, and Lee Iacocca. 

Delorean did much more than design and produce the DeLorean DMC-12, and much the way Back to the Future overshadowed his crowning achievement, his crowning achievement overshadowed a resume that changed the American auto industry forever.

To auto enthusiasts, John Delorean is the father of the American muscle car. In the late '50s and early '60s, there was a considerable shortage of fast cars. When Delorean went to work for General Motors, the car company had placed a ban on "race cars," In order to qualify this regulation, GM essentially required that its cars be extremely heavy, the theory being heavy cars would be slow and safe. 

This made it difficult for Detroit to compete with the light and speedy Alfa Romeos and Fiats coming over from Italy in the 1960s, but John Delorean found a loophole: drop an extremely powerful V8 into an extremely heavy Pontiac LeMans.

The result was a car, one built long before oil crises and emissions standards, that could overpower its Italian rivals, and did it with the loud growl of American muscle. Ford, Chrysler, and the American Motor Company quickly followed suit giving rise to what would be dubbed in the '70s: Muscle Cars. 

But by the mid-'70s, the oil crisis killed the Muscle Car and dealt the first blow to the entire American auto industry. Glamorous land yachts were replaced with econoboxes and our steroid-infused muscle turned to flab. 

The Big Three didn't just lose its hold on the automotive industry, they also lost John Delorean. In 1973, Delorean - a man then as iconic as any soap opera star, or his soon to be realized DMC-12 - left GM to start his own car company, the DeLorean Motor Company. DMC only built one model, the gull-winged DMC-12, but if today is any testament to his company, one model was enough to secure a legacy. 

With loans from Bank of America, Johnny Carson, Roy Clark, and Sammy Davis, Jr., Delorean built a factory in Dunmurry, Northern Ireland and assembled his cars in the United States. His facility was built on the border of Catholic Twinbrook and Protestant Dunmurry, with separate entrances on each side, often confused with religious segregation. In fact at the time, Delorean was praised for employing a religiously diverse workforce in a religiously volatile part of the world. 

It's hard to say if Delorean's DMC would have weathered the DMC-12's poor reviews and cost overruns. It's easy to assume a man as savvy and inventive as John Delorean would have been able to resolve the DMC-12's low performance and poor quality issues. But the world will never know. In 1982, John Delorean was caught trafficking 100 kilos of blow, and although he was acquitted due to entrapment, the trial bankrupted DMC. 

In the end, we've largely forgotten John Delorean's true contribution to automotive history, his GTO, leaving us with a quirky Hollywood prop and the legacy of a man who showcased the assumed invincibility of wealth and the desperation of risk.

Whether you remember John Delorean for his Time Machine and a car you knew nothing about, or for his ambition and motivation, his rags to riches to rags story has proven John Delorean, his Pontiac GTO, and his DMC-12 truly immortal.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Close Encounters of the Broad Street Kind

If you've wandered up North Broad Street recently you may have noticed a series of metal poles dotting the median, or what used to be a median. This is part of an Avenue of the Arts project dating back to 2007, and as Inga Saffron recently pointed out, the lights are the only part of a dormant master planned that survived. 

But I don't think the city duped the Avenue of the Arts into blowing $14M on pork. The Avenue of the Arts as an organization - I'd like to think - is a smart one that uses its funds wisely and efficiently. In fact, if we were duped by anyone, it might be the designers Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and James Carpenter Design.

About a year ago the public was shown flashy renderings of these magnificent torches, but we were shown them as the birds fly or through a telephoto perspective the human eye will never see. As they stand in reality, they are too sparse and widely planted to make any sense on an inner city street, at least not on the blocks north of Callowhill where they stand.

It seems the concept was similar in theory to the Ray King's iridescent Philadelphia Beacons at Broad and Washington: mark the Avenue of the Arts, and the arts will come. Despite whether you find King's Beacons an artistic triumph or not, they were a civic failure

The four torches never attracted the arts the Avenue had hoped for, and neither will BCJ and Carpenter's 41. Whether or not they're artistically bad is up for interpretation, from the critics and from those on the street. To date, neither installation has been applauded by anyone but the city, at least no praise that I can find. 

But what if either installation was a tad closer to City Hall, a bit more within the zone we regularly consider the proper Avenue of the Arts? If Ray King's Philadelphia Beacons were at Broad and South they'd pair well with South Street's funky image and similar shimmery installations on South Star Lofts and Suzanne Roberts Theater. 

Similarly, the 55 foot towers along North Broad Street look nonsensical juxtaposed against its low rise backdrop, and where their height makes sense - perhaps next to the Divine Lorraine - they're paired with an urban grit that makes them look like pieces of an incomplete construction project. 

Had they run from Arch Street to Spring Garden where the built environment routinely exceeds the height of the masts, they'd complement the glitzy Pennsylvania Convention Center and the illuminated Academy of the Fine Arts. 

And that's exactly what these masts, like King's Beacons, should be: a compliment, not definition. Because where they stand now defines nothing. In fact, where both installations now stand they detract from the built environment that exists, they shift your focus to these alien landing pads and away from what should be the focus: the street. 

In time, perhaps they will make sense. But the "build it and it will come" approach has failed too many times to excuse the current location of either installation, not when either could have been installed where they belong, and certainly not when the money could have been better spent on making North Broad Street the kind of place someone looking for the Avenue of the Arts would dare venture after dark. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Mystery of the Round Door Rolls

Few things pull me away from architecture, development, and politics, particularly where Philadelphia is concerned. But if you regularly read Philly Bricks, you know one thing that can tear me away is a fine ass automobile.

It's actually kind of ironic. Even though my dad was a mechanic and I grew up in a house full of spare engine parts, I landed in an insanely walkable city and don't own a car. But that doesn't mean I don't appreciate engineering, design, and panache. 

If you've never heard of the Round Door Rolls, just take a look...

I challenge any architecture geek to question that this work of art is not a worthy topic of discussion. 

This one-of-a-kind 1925 Rolls Royce, formally known as the Phantom 1 Jonckheere Coupe, is an unrivaled piece of automotive history. But that history is also as bizarre and unique as the car's appearance. 

In 1925, most automobiles still looked like the horseless carriages that they were. At best, stock models looked like small boxy rail cars. The sportiest looked like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang without the wings. 

But for the elite, particularly throughout the Gilded Age of the 1920s, cars were much more than they are today, especially for the 21st Century's wealthiest. 

Today, a bespoke Rolls Royce will get you custom finishes, leather, and chrome. But in the 1920s, bespoke engineering meant something else and it would get you an entirely unique car. The 1925 Phantom 1 was a fine automobile, and plenty of industrialists enjoyed it on its own. But Rolls Royce offered its refined chassis to be redesigned for for a select few. And the Round Door Rolls is inarguably its most unique incarnation. 

The Round Door Rolls began its life as an original Phantom sold to a couple in Detroit, but the couple backed out and it never left England. After that it was shipped to the Raja of Nanpara where it was entrusted to the Belgian coach builder, Jonckheere Carrossiers. This is where the Round Door Rolls became what it is today.

In addition to a new streamlined body, the engine and transmission were swapped out for more power capable of more than 100 miles per hour. 

But like all good Cinderella stories, the Round Door Rolls was never fully appreciated in its time. It continued to change hands throughout the 1940s and 50s until its beat down carcass was finally bought by an American, Max Obie, who covered in six pounds of gold paint and used it in a traveling show. 

In 1991, the Round Door Rolls resurfaced in an international auction where it was bought by an unnamed Japanese collector who put it in storage until it was purchased again by the esteemed Peterson Museum in Los Angeles.

The Round Door Rolls was restored to its former glory, and in 2005 entered into the Concours d' Elegance, a premier auto show for only the best of the best. But because of its unscrupulous past, and namely its long lost documentation, it could never, and will never be named Best in Show. 


Take one more look. This is a piece of art - and history - that deserves and exception.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Can Millennials, Gentrification, and Urbanism Ever Coexist?

In a recent Salary Shark blog, Keller Armstrong would like you to know why you should be afraid of the "Rising Millennial Workforce," at least that's what the title would imply. But if you bother to read her manifesto, particularly her lengthy list of things Millennials "don't," "refuse," and "hate," Why You Should Be Terrified of the Rising Millennial Workforce takes on an unintended meaning. 

It's hard to know where to start; with the oxymoronic phrase "rising Millennial workforce" or her cavalier use of the BuzzFeed buzzword "terrified?" Her article is clearly directed at those she believes should fear Millennials, presumably those of us in our late 30s and early 40s, but by the end of her rant she ends up proving Generation X's security in the workplace.  

What's most unfortunate about Armstrong's article is that she plays up the unfair stereotype of her generation, a stigma the media hasn't been shy about exploiting, and more than a few in the "selfie generation" are eager to embrace. Yet in the end, Armstrong doesn't offer anything uniquely Millennial, she only rehashes the mantra of any post-collegiate 20-something since the Baby Boomers began graduating. 

Between her assertions that those in her camp don't take life too seriously, prefer t-shirts to suits, and a collective disdain for cubicles, the only thing distinctly Millennial about Armstrong's article is a fifty point listicle, as if anyone under 30 can't comprehend journalism that doesn't culminate in a "definitive" or "ultimate" "list to end all lists."  

Whether or not Armstrong's poor form and recycled anti-corporate idealism speaks for her audience, her blind rhetoric isn't entirely embraced by her generation. 

In Holly Otterbein's recent article, The Death of Gentrification Guilt, she puts together a manifesto of her own, one that speaks to a different camp of Millennials. The headline may be a bit misleading. Otterbein in no way suggest that gentrification is excused from guilt. Otterbein turns the tables on the selfishness of her own "me generation" and exposes the hypocrisy and unfettered disregard of those Armstrong claims should be feared, perhaps even spelling out more accurately exactly why we should be terrified of Millennials, at least those in Armstrong's camp.

In a poignant, balanced, and most importantly, necessary article, Otterbein takes us to gentrification's Ground Zero, at least 2015's. The defunct Edward W. Bok Technical School and its pop-up summer spectacle, Le Bok Fin, has managed to drum up more polarized anxiety than a hipster on a unicycle in New Kensington. 

The South Philadelphia venue with sweeping views of the skyline has become this summer's anti-gentrification cause du jour, but through no fault of Philadelphians new or old, it exists. Bok Technical was shuttered several years ago due to state budget cuts, something the city has been struggling with for decades. But smartly, Otterbein doesn't criticize Le Bok Fin. Like anyone who experienced the view, she reveled in it. But to anyone who's known Philadelphia for more than a decade, she met Le Bok Fin with a familiar sense of unease. As she put it, the New Philadelphians atop the Bok Technical School "were fiddling while Rome burned."

Le Bok Fin is just another in a long line of gentrification gestures, a poster child that represents what's right to this city to some, and what's wrong with it to others. But it's also a chrysalis, and like Newbold or the Divine Lorraine, we're not yet sure that the butterfly won't turn out to be a moth. 

Otterbein's fiddling analogy is apt, and not just for Le Bok Fin or the evolution of South Philadelphia, but also for many in her generation. The press can't get enough of Millennials, but what comes from the source is often found on Reddit, Tumblr, and buried in YouTube comments. This anonymous voice has left us unfairly suspect of an entire generation, even if the anonymity should be expected of a generation raised online. Armstrong and Otterbein both share a uniquely earnest insight into their people, and their opposing positions demonstrate a rift between those who deplore their superficiality and those who embrace it. 

To delve into the psychology of those Armstrong believes "have technology on (their) side," is to understand a sense of self that doesn't exist in the mirror, but in meticulously perfected selfies on Instagram hash-tagged "wokeuplikethis." Armstrong's arm of Millennials don't recognize their own face-value, they see what they want others to see through a filter. And through their conflicting need for both validation and anonymity, Otterbein shows just how tricky it is to shoehorn them into an urban environment and exactly why they're failing on anything positive gentrification had left. 

As seasoned urbanites roam the sidewalks with blinders, self-aware but without concern, New Philadelphians, particularly Millennials, struggle with the opposite, unaware and overly concerned. These are the antitheses of urbanism.

Showcasing the unique advantage of her generation, Otterbein didn't shy from citing the small blog of Kayla Conklin, Conkin's first post in fact. Rather than trudging through the virtual pages of, Otterbein went to the source, one that went viral on a local level. 

Conklin attemped to legitimize the woes of gentrification and the ills of its cohorts, but it backfired. To the New Philadelphians she was criticizing, her bad press was merely attention. And as insignificant as that attention was, her antagonists took to Twitter with near sociopathic levels.

Many of the reactions to Conklin's post demonstrated an unrivaled lack of empathy. Their exclusively reactionary agenda would almost sound like Republican rhetoric if those anonymously screaming from Twitter weren't arrogantly masturbating to every critical word Conklin had to say about them. 

Delving deeper into the skewed agenda of this faction of Millennials and New Philadelphians, Otterbein cites floods of 311 calls about faded bike lanes and blocked sidewalks, even one politician who admitted receiving more calls about beer gardens than schools. 

But for all that Otterbein exposes of her peers, she falls into the trappings of her own generation by referring to New Philadelphians as "urbanists, through and through." One thing all Millennials - and New Philadelphians - seem to agree on is that good urbanism is about beer gardens and bike lanes. 

Let's get one thing straight right now. Beer gardens and bike lanes are superficial tokens of urbanism. They are the nice-to-haves of a successful city, and it's not surprising that the selfie generation would confuse what looks like a successful city with a city that works

Cities are complex organisms made up of traffic jams, happy hours, homelessness, unemployment, poverty, excess, and above all, diversity. In even the best democratic cities in the world, beer gardens and bike lanes are kind of the Yoko Ono of urban planning. They're new, different, and distracting. And part of you wonders how long they'll last.

No city can be Babylon without dictator, which is why larger cities tend to wade through the discourse, indulge in corruption, and land somewhere around the status quo. With more than a million residents to appease, Philadelphia can never be one person's utopia. That's the harsh reality of urbanism, and diversity. 

Unless you were reared in a major American city, true urbanism is a tough pill to swallow. It took me a good twenty years to understand that Philadelphia - or any other major city I've lived in - will never be the Renaissance Paradise I see through my rosy glasses. 

But Millennials and New Philadelphians aren't there yet. When the papal visit left the streets of Center City a pedestrian's dream, many took to the pavement to enjoy the bizarre anomaly and have already begun petitioning the city to clear the streets again next summer. Like a lot of things Millennials, New Philadelphians, and gentrification advocates have brought to the table, it's a fun idea. And like other urban tokenisms, it ignores the harsh reality of urban diversity. 

Does such a disruption really benefit Philadelphians, or just those digitally vocal enough to sign an online petition? The selfishness of a generation and those who have yet understand a working city is apparent in a narcissism that echoes: "If I think it's a great idea, everyone else must." Online petitions become the, "I want it, I want it, I want it!" tantrums that make it all happen, and Millennials get their Babylon forgetting why the city fell.

True urbanism is about confronting the mucked up reality that our cities are an organized chaotic mess of ideals, microcosms of Americana, in which compromise is the only path to success. Despite the urban caricature, true urbanists are empathetic and compromising, even if we spend a lot of time complaining. Urbanism isn't sustained by two dimensional tokens that work in New Hope or Cape May or through selfish dictation on behalf of a vocal minority. It's in understanding that true urbanism doesn't strive for a utopia, but revels in the grit.