Thursday, October 6, 2016

Pettifoggery on Jeweler's Row

In the battle for Jeweler's Row, the gloves were off between Toll Brothers and the city's Preservation Alliance. Philadelphia has a storied history of shouting matches in and out of the courtroom with a few fistfights between council members taking place within its own chambers. 

The debate over what our city is and should be is deeply rooted going all the way back to the Founding Fathers bickering over the same for our new nation. Our skyline has risen, fashion has gotten a bit more practical, and the streets probably smell a little better. But when it comes to being an opinionated bunch, we're still Philadelphians at our core, apparent when one Toll Brothers' lawyer, Carl Primavera, uttered the words "pettifoggery" and "poppycock."

I honestly wish I had more free time to attend these sorts of meetings because they sound like a hoot. Then again, I enjoy the image in my head, one of a man who sounds like a dish at Olive Garden in Colonial garb, pointing an ivory handled cane at the Preservation Alliance and shouting words that send most reasonable people to But perhaps Primavera was making a point by using antiqued words to describe the acts of an antiquated organization. In this instance, the Preservation Alliance's actions were textbook obstructionist nonsense. 

Like every Philadelphian interested in salvaging our city's history, I too would like Jeweler's Row to live on. There's just one problem: Jeweler's Row - despite the t-shirts - isn't historic, at least it wasn't last week.

When Toll Brothers proposed a high-rise at the corner of 7th and Sansom, there was nothing stopping them. While activists managed to appeal the project, in the end the law as it is intended to work, won. Two hearings couldn't prove that these unprotected properties were protected because those charged with protecting our history failed to do so. At this point, no campaigning, signatures, or screaming will retroactively deem these buildings historic. 

It's easy to paint Toll Brothers the cold Scrooge McDuck paving over the city to create some facsimile of what once was there because they're known for naming their McMansion communities for the historic farms that they raze. Whether they've done anything wrong or immoral is irrelevant, they've done nothing unethical or illegal. They're developers, and developers are in the business of making money. Yet somehow, preservationists in one of the nation's most historic cities, can't grasp that. 

To read quotes and comments from the hearings, it's as if the historical community thinks the collective will of every nerd in the tristate area can save every one of our historic landmarks. But that's not how it works. To win your battles you don't just have to know who you're up against, you have to know how they operate and why. Toll Brothers - and every developer - has a clear agenda and business plan. Where are the Alliance's?

If any property should have served as a lesson, it should have been the Boyd Theater. It was a designated landmark, and through a technicality, only the facade was salvaged. Legally, that was a preservation victory because we managed to save what was legally protected. But to those who love history, it was a loss because we lost what was historic about the Boyd, it's auditorium. 

We should have learned our lesson: We can win battles in favor of historic preservation, but we need to make sure all unprotected landmarks are protected, inside and out when necessary. Jeweler's Row is just another unfortunate lesson, and whether it will be heeded remains to be seen. Will we fight to protect what's left of Jeweler's Row? Will we fight for a district? And will preservationists get out in front of other potential losses before this begins to unfold all over again?

With all the energy, resources, and money spent on the corner of 7th and Sansom, is Robinson's Department Store protected? Is Spring Garden's Church of the Assumption still under the wrecking ball? Are there any other 'Jeweler's Rows' out there that might make trendy residences for New Philadelphians? Because I can assure you those buildings and neighborhoods are already on the developers' radars, and firms like Toll Brothers are just waiting for their market research to tell them the time is right. 

Groups like the Preservation Alliance need to be doing their own market research, their own due diligence. If preservationists continue to fight for properties immediately after they've become profitable, at the eleventh hour, preservationists will always be playing defense. And considering how unprofitable preservation is, it will always be an uphill and rarely won fight. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Get Away to Rainbow Mountain

If you're like most Philadelphians, you're eager for the dog days of summer to end. I've lived in Center City longer than any address, so I should be use to the heat, the humidity, and "that Philly smell." But I'm not. Like the farm I grew up on, "that Philly smell" is akin to a corporate chicken farm, and a smell you never grow accustomed to. It's just gross. But luckily for Philadelphians, we're a densely packed reeking city an hour or two away from beautiful beaches and untouched mountains. 

For Labor Day weekend I opted against the crowded shore towns and headed north to the Poconos. The Poconos - a word that can't be uttered without a rural Pennsylvania accent - is perhaps as unique as Philadelphia in that it is just as untapped. You might not find the gingham-clad socialites you'll meet in the Adirondacks or their signature chair, but you'll find the same wilderness, vistas, and lakes at a fraction of the price.

I chose Rainbow Mountain, an LGBT report equidistant from Philadelphia and New York, and a throwback to the retreats that inspired the movie Dirty Dancing. Gay, straight, trans, or anything in between, you need to experience Rainbow Mountain near Stroudsburg, PA because it is a unique something that might not exist for much longer. 

Today's mountain resorts are five star. They allow you to get away from it all while keeping up with your spa treatments and cross fit classes. Rainbow Mountain is not that. Rainbow Mountain, with its musty cottages and dorm rooms, is an untouched enclave that harkens back to an era when the middle class roughed it in basic cabins. 

Today, "roughing it" is one of two things: either in the woods under a tent Bear Grylls style, or in a "cabin" worth more than your house. Either way, it's an Instagram-op that has more to do with your bed than the nature around you.

Rainbow Mountain isn't about the accommodations, it's about the experience. It's a decent mattress and a good night's sleep that comes with a swimming pool and an old fashioned barn dance. To locals, Rainbow Mountain is the answer to a gay bar, and a pretty fabulous one at that.  To visitors, it truly is a comfy place to get away from it all. It's a short drive to the Delaware Water Gap, kayaking, bike trails, and frigid swimming holes. Stroudsburg is a charming town, surprisingly hip, with great shopping and restaurants. 

My only complaint is that it's a bit too close to New York, and New Yorkers. At about ten times the population of Philadelphia, New Yorkers are like locusts that ruin everything within a three hour path of their wake. Some trails are littered with Dunkin' Donuts cups and tagged with graffiti. Other nature trails house relics of the Industrial Revolution, unique in their own right, but not places of natural solace. In the resort itself, you'll be hard pressed to find a Pennsylvanian that isn't local to the county, but rather Manhattanites - or worse, Brooklynites - eager to namedrop their address. 

Still, Rainbow Mountain's cozy cottages, large swimming pool, its lake, and shows are well worth the two hour drive. You'll dance, drink, meet some incredibly friendly local drag queens, and have stories for years. Currently, Rainbow Mountain is for sale, so enjoy it while it lasts. Its location is a goldmine, and with a fresh coat of paint and a few trips to Home Goods, it could be transformed into something that could command twice the price. These '60s era retreats are becoming few and far between, and Rainbow Mountain is a time capsuled treasure. If you really want to get away - from it all - it's the place for you...for now.

Radnor Hunt Concours d'Elegance

If your a fan of high society, Sunday hats, and finely crafted automobiles, Philadelphia's backyard has been host to the mid-Atlantic's foremost car show for two decades. This weekend was Radnor Hunt's twentieth Concours d'Elegance, and it's one of the best places to see the most amazing automotive works of art this side of Pebble Beach. 

When the bar for events accessible to most is the BYO-everything Diner en Blanc, it's easy to see that Philadelphians are accustomed to settling for the status quo. Our urban renaissance is a clear indication that we are thirsty for more, but there is another world within the region that has never settled, and Malvern's Radnor Hunt and its Concours is emblematic of that world. 

In short, it's money.

The Concours d'Elegance isn't cheap. I snagged two general admission tickets for $40 a piece, but to attend the entire three day event will set you back more than a grand. I couldn't tell you if the black-tie gala, dinner, or road rally are worth a month of my rent, but I'm pretty sure that those who attend don't really care about a cool G. I can tell you though, as an enthusiast, the general admission is well worth it. 

Two gull-wing Mercedes SLs worth more than I'll see in my lifetime.

For those not privy to the everyday Main Line, you'll see dozens of cars you've only ever seen in magazines. This year's featured car was the Lancia, a quirky Italian carmaker many people have never heard of. I've always heard the Lancia referred to as the "poor man's Ferrari," but the classics on display were anything but poor. This year's show also featured three gull-wing Mercedes SLs, each worth about $1.5M. In fact, with more than a hundred classic cars on display, plus FC Kerbeck's stock of new exotics, the collective value of the show was easily worth more than the Comcast Center.

Again: money.

But you don't need to be rich, or an automotive enthusiast, to enjoy the Concours. For such a bougie event at such a restrictive venue, visitors and vendors were incredibly friendly. Owners were often on site and eager to talk about their investments. It's easy to look at a fully restored Packard and assume its owner is both loaded and snotty. But like any hobby, the enthusiasts run the gamut. Some are wealthy collectors, others sunk savings into their dream cars, and even more put time and energy into barn-finds.

Obviously the focus of the event were the cars, but there were also antique horse drawn carriages, motorcycles, and a fabulous musical trio called The American Bombshells that travel to veterans and perform at USO shows. And then there were the hats. Oh, the hats. What Sunday afternoon at a hunt club would be complete without a pageant of colorfully plumed, wide brimmed hats? The Sunday hats could have been a show of their own. 

So next summer, if you're looking for something a cut above the rest and want to catch a glimpse of Philadelphia's high society, take a short drive out to horse country. You'll see some things you will never see anywhere else, hear some great music, and get to sit behind the wheel of a car worth more than your house. Maybe next year I'll see what else the Concours d'Elegance has to offer - the gala, the road race, the dinner - perhaps if I start saving now.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Frank Furness on Jewelers Row

A lot has been said about Toll Brothers potentially demolishing a significant portion of Jewelers Row for a high-rise apartment building as well as the state of historic preservation in Philadelphia, much of it more eloquent than I could ever put it.

Jewelers Row is one of Center City's gems, our equivalent to South Philadelphia's 9th Street Market or Fabric Row. It's unique, old, a little gritty, and everything you'd come to expect from what Philadelphia's Historical Commission should be protecting. But surprisingly, it's not, thanks to an oversight

Well, one building within Toll Brothers line of site on Jewelers Row could stop the wrecking ball, or at least offer a stay of execution. Take a look at 710 Sansom Street. 

710 Sansom Street, Jewelers Row
The architect is unknown, at least according to the Athenaeum's Philadelphia Architects and Buildings site. But if you're a fan of Philadelphia architecture, the C.E. Robinson & Bros. building might look suspiciously Furnessian to you. 

Frank Furness worked within this neighborhood in the mid to late 19th Century, and 710's brickwork and carved crowns reflect his signature style. While this building may not be protected, Frank Furness is something of an architectural god in the Philadelphia area and any connection, particularly if this was designed by Furness himself or his firm, could be enough for the Historical Commission to intervene.

So what do you think?

Could this have been designed by Frank Furness, his firm, or one of his students? 

Does the Historical Commission have the authority to intervene if it was designed by Furness?

And if this were hastily demolished, only to find out after the fact that it was designed by Frank Furness, would this be enough of a lesson in loss to truly improve how we address preservation in Philadelphia? 

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Be Proud, Philadelphia

Be proud and stand tall. The stars of last week's Democratic National Convention may have been Hillary Clinton, Barack and Michelle Obama, and those who echoed the humility and enlightenment of Freedom loving Americans in both their passion for our Democratic nominee or their right to dissent. 

In stark contrast to the Republican National Convention's hate fueled and reactionary rhetoric, party disillusionment, and fear laden anxiety over potential violence in Cleveland, Philadelphia's DNC was one fueled solely by passion from all points of view, and left the stage at the Wells Fargo Center, Center City, and Broad Street littered with optimism and insight. 

The Democrats did good. But Philadelphia did even better. As politicians returned to Washington, our elected nominees went on to campaign in Harrisburg and Ohio, and the national media returned to their own cities, the unsung heroes of the DNC are undoubtedly Philadelphia's Men and Women in Blue.

Police Commissioner Richard Ross said it best, "If you go in like you are preparing for a fight, that's what you'll get." A simple message that would be best heeded throughout the rest of the country. We didn't see walls of Men in Black, assault rifles, military vehicles, and intimidation. We saw our servants doing what they were trained to do: assisting, protecting, all with a smile that said "Welcome to Philadelphia." 

It's hard to say if the same would be the case had the RNC been held here. The Republican campaign is far more contentious, and insane. But that doesn't matter. Last week's convention was the complete opposite of 2000's riotous one, and all that matters is we pulled it off and looked good doing it.

Of course last week wouldn't be over without a critique of it all, and plenty of media outlets - both local and national - have both praised us and called out our faults. 

From the start, social media erupted with the expected knee-jerk Philly-hate. We're used to that. In a way, the national press's love-hate relationship with Philadelphia is a compliment to our city. Unlike more depressed cities, Cleveland is a good example, Philadelphia is large enough and powerful enough to be used as a punching bag. Kicking Detroit makes a reporter look like a bully. Kicking Philadelphia just makes them feel better about their problems back home. We can take it, and they know that. 

The criticisms were largely, if not exclusively, irrational. There were long lines of traffic getting in and out of the Wells Fargo Center. SEPTA's token fare system was dubbed "quaint." There weren't enough Ubers. And it was hot.

I shouldn't have to delve into the hypocritical irony of Left leaning delegates driving and seeking out cabs a block from a subway stop while snubbing one of the most expansive rail systems in the country. But I'll touch on it:

"CARBON FOOTPRINT!" "GLOBAL WARMING!" "Oh, hey, did you call an Uber?"

SEPTA was faced with the ultimate Catch 22. Show off a subway system a lot of Americans don't know exists while worrying how many riders will call out the odoriferous Broad Street Line. As if New York's trains smell like potpourri or the Washington Metro's cold Brutalism looks like something this side of a Pyongyang wet dream. SEPTA was prepared despite losing its fleet of Silverliner V trains, but probably relieved that the system wasn't overwhelmed. 

And the weather. It was hot. It stormed. And people shook their fists at the skyline, smartphone in hand, and Tweeted their ire at our city. If I could control the weather I would have, but only if social media hadn't been such a dick about it. Karma unleashed one last thunderstorm on Thursday night to wash away the hostility, offering an unseasonably autumnal Friday morning peaceful and quiet.

If last week taught me anything, it was that my two and a half years inside the Beltway were two and a half too many.

I may not be one of Philadelphia's native sons, but I'm local. Even with fifteen years under my belt and roots across the city and the region, I know don't need to be here that long to get it. We're urban, but not conventionally urban.

We're not in a hurry. We don't like being told what to do. And I know it doesn't always show, but we really don't like other people messing with our stuff. But despite our gruff stereotype, we're also extremely likable when you're not looking for the traditionally harried pace of an American metropolis. We smile at strangers. We hold doors. And we love it when visitors appreciate our hidden treasures. 

After the pains of the DNC's arrival began to settle, these gestures are what America began to appreciate about Philadelphia. We welcomed visitors to the city, not just in hotels and on tour busses, but on the streets. For some reason a city notorious for expecting the worst was brimming with quizzical excitement over the arrival of the DNC. Perhaps some of our anxieties have been quelled after last year's uneventful Papal Visit. Perhaps Philadelphia's voice is being passed on to a more optimistic generation. Or perhaps we are finally beginning to acknowledge our self-worth as an influential American city.

I prefer to indulge in the latter. We are still Philadelphia. Whether we're today's 1.5 million, 1950's 2 million, or 3 million in fifty years, we never have and never will function as a big city. We are a city taken care of by and for itself, and our leaders are accessible and as chatty on the street as a neighbor. 

When visitors arrive expecting the same red carpet they find elsewhere, this throws them for a loop. We want visitors, but we accommodate our own first. This doesn't just set us apart from tourism driven comparisons like New York or Washington, it also sets us apart from cities like the RNC's host, Cleveland. 

If delegates, the media, and visitors had any problems with Philadelphia's ability to host the DNC, it was with the fact that we are a working city with a working core, and both are growing. Center City and South Philadelphia can't be entirely upended to accommodate every creature comfort of our visitors. When any one of the media dipshits said Cleveland was a better host, what they meant was that Cleveland's downtown is dead, and a convention can be given carte blanche. 

That's certainly not to say we're incapable or failed, but that some visitors failed to recognize the everyday functional prowess of Philadelphia. Instead of expecting to be faced with the same headaches they'd find in New York or Chicago, they expected a city that could serve as a blank slate for every vice they needed. They were simply lazy and uninformed. Philadelphia is a big deal, and some had no idea. 

Still, despite some derogatory comments from the media and visitors, we succeeded. The true failures in past events have been put to rest. History won't remember the Tweets, but a DNC and a Philadelphia full of peaceful protests, brilliant speeches, and a police force that worked with the convention and all attendees, not against them.

In the end, history will remember two things: key speakers and the city's skyline. Visitors, lobbyists, pundits, and Beltway Lobotomites will all be quickly forgotten, buried beneath the heap of the internet and tomorrow's next story.

To us, some visitors may have been the world's worst houseguests. They showed up three days early, unannounced. They spent a week bitching about the house we just renovated. And I think one wiped his ass on our fine linens before clogging up the toilet, only to leave brandishing a middle finger. 

To those select few, I offer our collective "Fuck You." 

But they were a very select few. In the end, praise far outweighed the criticism, something Philadelphia is just getting used to. Al Roker tried scrapple. Mo Rocca ate a cheesesteak. And Ed Rendell attributed words to Philadelphia that could only describe America's Shangri-La. 

We did it. Be proud. Now go back to doing what makes Philadelphia the best city in the world: work hard, be real, and don't a shit what anyone else says about you.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

"Smart City Challenge"

Philadelphia's Office of Innovation & Technology recently launched "Smart City Challenge," a website designed to field innovative ideas from residents and tech pros through a lengthly and legal-laden government .PDF, ultimately asking innovative geniuses to email their thoughts to the city's Deputy Chief Information Officer. 

If that doesn't sound very innovative to you, welcome to 1995. 

To say this effort is at the very least an earnest one is gracious. The "Challenge" was launched by the stagnant Office of Innovation & Technology after Mayor Kenney reconfigured it, pressuring its staff to innovate something. It's a little depressing that after years of employing allegedly innovative minds, the best the Office could come up with was outsourcing their jobs to the general public, along with an amateur website.

The Office has been nationally decried as a failure, its only notable product being the defunct Wireless Philadelphia, a citywide broadband initiative that neither Comcast nor Verizon wanted any part of. Wireless Philadelphia hired EarthLink, because that's where you go when Comcast and Verizon shut you off, and Wireless Philadelphia found itself a bit too reminiscent of AOL 4.0 for its users.

None of that says Innovation & Technology.

Despite all the press that the "Smart City Challenge" is receiving, it's really just proving how ineffectual the Office of Innovation & Technology actually is. And the minuscule research the media has done regarding the Office is indicative of a time when the same publications were lauding Wireless Philadelphia. In fact, didn't even bother to mention that "Smart City Challenge" was launched by the Office of Innovation & Technology, only that it's being overseen by Chief Administrative Officer Rebecca Rhynhart.

CAO Rhynhart wears a lot of hats, overseeing everything from Human Resources to Public Property. Innovation and city bureaucracies are notoriously at odds, so new technology will certainly take a backseat to anything else that comes across her desk.

There's no question the "Smart City Challenge" will field some great ideas, but good ideas for streamlining cities are made over cocktails at dive bars across the country all the time. The city will still have to do something with those ideas, and the Office of Innovation & Technology hasn't proven itself capable of producing anything innovative.

It's unfortunate, but even cities synonymous with technology - be it San Francisco or Seattle - are saddled with bureaucratic entities struggling to catch up, even in departments solely dedicated to innovation and technology. You can hire the best and the brightest to innovate your city, but if City Hall doesn't prioritize those efforts, a city becomes saddled with a bunch of high priced bodies pushing paper, and posting .PDF documents on a website that could have been made in Geocities

The truth is, Philadelphia can innovate, and it will. But it won't come from City Hall. It will come from the same places that made a name for other innovative hubs: universities, hospitals, and private technology companies. It will come from the Pennovation Center, Drexel's Schuylkill Yards, the Navy Yard, even Comcast. It won't filter into the city through an email that the Office of Innovation & Technology won't even bother to read. Like too many bureaucratic paper-pushers, those people are just trying to keep a cushy job doing as little as possible. It's going to come from places where innovation is the bottom line, and then - hopefully - spillover into the streets. 

It will come from places like this.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Philadelphia's Polished Turd

In Inga Saffron's latest article, she refers to Brickstone's East Chestnut development as a "Cinderella transformation," and spends a lot of words gushing about Blackney Hayes traditional design for The Collins, named for the Oppenheim, Collins & Co. department store the developer partially demolished. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm one of Saffron's biggest fans. My mom referred to her as "a modern day Ayn Rand," and politics aside, I tend to agree. Her passion for architecture as art has helped elevate her readers' demands for quality design well above the expectations in bigger and "better" cities. And more to the point, her articles - including this one - avoid the academic mumbo-jumbo that plague architectural critiques and alienate lay readers in the Times.

But on East Chestnut, I don't see a Cinderella Story, at least not one that turns a peasant into a princess. A DelCo prom queen, maybe. East Chestnut Street's renaissance, one piece in the larger transformation taking place east of Broad, isn't a fairy tale bringing about something uniquely special. It isn't Walnut Street, Passyunk Square, The Piazza, or even South Street. From the Convention Center District to what I loathe to call Midtown Village, the change unfolding is textbook urban-suburbanization carbon copied from second rate cities around the country. 

And Philadelphia is better than Indianapolis. 

Although East Chestnut is currently seeing a few quirky independent and local businesses emerge from the wreckage of 1976's ridiculous Chestnut Street Transway, the trend won't stick. Philly Cupcake already closed due to increased rent, MilkBoy is on its way to South Street, and I Goldberg is looking for a new home. The Collins, and NREA's East Market a block away, will put a lot of residents east of Broad and even more pedestrians on the sidewalks, but don't expect the kinds of locals that transformed West Walnut Street to be filling their beds. 

East Chestnut's transformation, and more broadly East Market's, is not one of local wizardry. It isn't the dynamic and uniquely Philadelphian approach that piqued the nation's interest in the early 2000s and put us back on the map. It isn't Susanna Foo and Alma de Cuba and Rouge and Astral Plane and all the weirdly fabulous places that made Philadelphia the "it" place to be for those in-the-know.

It's corporate. It's Target. And it's everything that demands more chains.

While PREIT's renovations at the Gallery may have stalled, there is no doubt in my mind that Market East is poised to take off. Curmudgeonly locals may claim that Market East will never be more than a Hooverville illuminated in LED ads for Dunkin' Donuts, but they'll be eating crow the moment East Market opens their doors. I'm not being optimistic when I say this. I don't like the model East Market and East Chestnut have chosen, but mark my words, there will be a crane on the Disney Hole in less than ten years. And it will be because of Target. 

Target is a beast, but it's a suburban beast, even when it's downtown. All you need to do is look to nearby cities to see what follows. The Target in Washington D.C. reinvented Columbia Heights, a neighborhood demographically similar to Market East, and it did so by cramming the trappings of suburbia into a mini-mall. The area surrounding it is chock full of luxury apartments, shiny and new, but in no way reminiscent of their environs. Columbia Heights now looks like its inner-suburban cousins in Clarendon and Crystal City, all thanks to Target, its only lingering urbanity the low income residents City Council requires they continue to house.

A block from our own City Hall without similar housing requirements in place, Market East and East Chestnut are poised to be even more bland because it will be empirically desirable to the Starbucks and beer swilling Basic B's and Bros. It will no doubt be lauded as "cool," but no one's really cool when everyone is.

Within a one or two block radius, Target will suck everything into its high-rent orbit. After its first Michael Graves tea kettle leaves the checkout aisle, it's only a matter of time before property owners begin upping their rent or selling out to national developers, before Cella Luxuria and Lapstone & Hammer start looking for other neighborhoods. We won't see the kind of organic transformation that created Walnut Street, instead we'll see University City downtown. Another Chipotle. A sushirrito joint. Another Starbucks. Then another. Then another. Then a Comcast Experience Store. Sure, that's just capitalism, but unchecked it eradicates diversity and creates neighborhoods for the most mundane un-individals. New Philadelphians who dedicate Instagram accounts to Chipotle despite what happens to their bodies seven hours later.

These are people who don't get cities, and don't get local businesses. These are people who look at the corner dry cleaner with disdain and say, "that would make such a great gastropub." These are the people who will be Market East. And they'll be the first to leave when their kids reach pre-k and realize just how bad our schools are, because they helped crowd-fund a beer garden instead of a library.

It's not necessarily bad for Center City, at least as a whole, or financially. Downtown Philadelphia needed a place to dump its suburban garbage, and ever since Kmart closed, people have needed a place to buy kitty litter and toothpaste. Target - three of them in fact - is our answer. But don't fool yourself into thinking that the 1100 block of Chestnut Street is some kind of Cinderella Story unless your notion of Cinderella picked up her gown under the fluorescent glow of a Target and chucked it into a shopping cart next to a box of Tampax and a plastic barrel of cheese balls. 

East Chestnut and the greater Market East vicinity is undergoing a transformation, but it's purely pragmatic. A place for auto-tethered Millennials to pretend they're being urban and conventioneers to find a little piece of Oklahoma City. It's going to be big, it's going to be shiny, and it's going to change Center City Philadelphia. But the only thing that will make it unique is that it will upend everything that has made our city so special. 

Our individuality. 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Why are the Toynbee Tiles back?

At least two new Toynbee Tiles appeared on the streets of Philadelphia last month, and given the length of their original creator's arm, those aren't the only new ones and they won't be the last. 

If you're unfamiliar, take a look at the 2011 documentary, Resurrect Dead. The Toynbee Tiles, which became a global mystery spanning continents and decades, are allegedly the work of a lone South Philadelphian obsessed with death and a harsh disdain for the media. If you live in Philadelphia, you've seen them before, linoleum plaques embedded in the streets and crosswalks usually mentioning some variation of a Toynbee idea, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and resurrecting the dead on planet Jupiter.

They could easily be mistaken for the work of a street artist or a hipster trolling pedestrians with weird words senselessly tethered together. But Resurrect Dead digs into the phenomenon few others bothered to question, and found that truth is much stranger than fiction...especially in Philadelphia.

A lot of the lore behind these tiles - pigeons preserved in concrete, padlocked doors, and a South Philadelphia street littered in linoleum letters - could easily be chalked up to tinfoil hats and conspiracy theories were it not for the research documented in Resurrect Dead conducted by Justin Duerr, Steve Weinik, and Colin Smith. 

Unraveling the history behind the tiles revealed a peculiar resident who longed for immortality, was convinced he discovered a Fountain of Youth in the works of Arnold J. Toynbee and Stanley Kubrick, and turned his sights towards the media when his ideas were scoffed at by the press.

Without a thorough analysis of something so quirky - and no X-Files department in the Philadelphia Police Department - we'll never know if the tiles laid down last month were the work of the same South Philadelphia curiosity. However, the new tiles don't bare the markings of the copycats that followed throughout the '90s and early 2000s, rather they share the style and simple message of the originals, as if they were carved out of a large stack under the many tiles fading beneath our feet.

That's not to say the original tiles didn't vary. While most were small and easily missed, a few notable examples deviated from his stock of cryptic messages. Those exceptions were often more lengthy, literal, and grim. While Resurrect Dead's diligence reveals the origin of the tiles, few have tried to tackle the motivations of someone so seemingly troubled. There is little to gather from the vast majority of the tiler's messages, but one pair of tiles stands out and offers the greatest insight into the mind of a potential madman, a pair buffed from 16th and Chestnut a few years ago.




Cozy bedtime reading, right? The tiles don't elicit the same funky, homegrown nostalgia when paired with the paranoid rantings of an anti-Semite convinced he's under surveillance by the FBI. Couple that with another tile begging the public to "Murder every journalist," and it's very possible that the tiler is in fact on a few government watch-lists. 

If he is back, his relentless hatred for the media could explain exactly why. In less than a month, the DNC will be in Philadelphia, with thousands of journalists in tow. And since his first run-in with the press, the mainstream media has ballooned into a caricature of the fact-finders he once loathed. An aging man obsessed with mortality, probably well into his 80s, is now faced with the reality that he never found death's cure, and that all of those who walk on top of his tiles have been looking at them through the winking eye of irony. A very serious message to one disturbed man - the secret to eternal life on planet Jupiter - has turned into a pop-culture fad, available for sale on t-shirts and lapel pins

He's probably pissed off.

If the tiler is still alive, someone so paranoid is undoubtedly scouring the web. He knows we're reading and writing about him, and he knows we haven't heeded his message. In less than a month, the world's eyes will be on Philadelphia to kick off the most divisive presidential election in modern history, all brought to us by thousands upon thousands of those the tiler hates most.

July could prove to be a very interesting month. Stay tuned. 

Friday, June 24, 2016

Mother Divine

To all those who love the Divine Lorraine, here's your Friday treat. In 2003, Temple senior Jeff Elstone was allowed to film his short, Mother Divine, in the North Broad relic then maintained by International Peace Movement Mission caretaker David Peace.

Set in an unknown era, the neo-noir film offers a glimpse into the Divine Lorraine that few ever witnessed, and even less experienced. It's dark, beautiful, and austere. 

I rarely know what to think of art films, but one thing I do appreciate is their production - beyond the confines of product placement, executive notes, and test audiences - of something that they perceive to be absolute perfection. 

And this one is perfect in its simplicity.

On its surface, Mother Divine may appear to be another story about love, life, and the impact of the decisions we make. But dig a little deeper, and it's a story that couldn't be set anywhere else. It's a story about us, what we chose to be, what's to come, and how the Divine Lorraine embodies all of that. 

Mother Divine from Jeff Elstone on Vimeo.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

They just wanted to dance...

I want to laugh.
I want to cry.
I want to be angry.
I want to be sad.
I am trapped in a thousand-yard stare.
Their's is a million.
Because all they wanted to do, was dance.
I have so many words, but so little to say.
I am tired.
I am hoarse.
I am weak.
But all they wanted to do, was dance.

Two Men Dancing by Robert Mapplethorpe


I am tired of reading about guns and terrorists and stories of dead women and men, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.

I am tired of the media. I am tired of the preachers. I am tired of the politicians. 

I am tired because I am enraged. 

And I am enraged, because of Orlando.

The fanatically devout have hijacked the Orlando massacre to suggest this senseless tragedy is somehow a threat to their distorted morality. The NRA thinks more AR-15s will stop more AR-15s. And the media - CNN, MSNBC, Fox News - purveyors of 21st Century Yellow Journalism, have called this an attack on "humanity."

Yes, this was an attack on humanity, a very marginalized piece of it. A community too few journalists are willing to mention, because ads don't sell well when minorities die. A very specific piece of humanity that hypocritical preachers and politicians are using to wage war, incite hate, push guns, ban guns, and claim themselves the victims.

They don't get this one. Like like this.

This was not an attack on a sanctuary for religious fundamentalists. It was an attack on a sanctuary for those persecuted by religious fundamentalism. To those in the media, the pulpit, or the congressional podium telling me to pray, and not politicize. You made this political.

You spent billions fighting my God given right to love. You used my community as online click-bait. You told me I needed to pray for my salvation, and now you dare ask me to pray beside you? How dare you? How fucking dare you?! Fear mongers and politicians don't want our prayers. They want our silence, while they figure out how to weave this into their own agendas. 

Make no mistake. This is not about them. This was an attack on the LGBT community, and all of those who have come to embrace the very notion of a love worth fighting for.


In case you didn't know, I want it to be clear:


Today, more than any since I came out 22 years ago, I think it is so important to say that. I am gay. I refuse to hide. I refuse to live in fear.

To me, this was not "another shooting," albeit how sad anyone should ever have to write those words? This was not something that "could have happened anywhere" or "to anyone." Whether Omar Mateen was a closeted homosexual disgusted with his own orientation, or a card-carrying terrorist disgusted with mine, this was an attack that happened in one place, to one group of people.

The pious preachers and career cronies who have called this an attack on "humanity," on "America," have spent their lives deeming that humanity inhuman, and their careers trying to legally shut me out of that America. If you're wondering for a moment why this is so personal to me, or any LGBT people you may know or read about, why I am so angry, distraught, and physically tired from thinking so much over the last seven days: think about how tight, and small, our community is, and how much that requires us to depend on one another.

Heterosexuals live in a detached world of Six Degrees of Separation. We, whatever letter in LGBT you want to pick, have about two. None of us can go on Facebook without reading a story about a friend or friend's friend who lost someone they knew in Orlando last weekend. When we read the news on Sunday morning, each of us was filled with dread, running through our mental list of friends and acquaintances, wondering who among them was in Orlando last weekend.

Pulse was a very popular nightclub, and Orlando is a very popular destination for the LGBT community. We always know someone who is there, and until Sunday, we always thought it was safe, at least in the relative terms that any member of the LGBT community can ever feel safe.

And yes, Pulse was a nightclub. Some people have brushed this off as a "nightclub shooting," something not as sacred to anyone as a church or school. But to the LGBT community, these are our sacred places. It's unfortunate it has to be like that, but the LGBT community is unique in that we are not a religion or a race, we don't have deeply rooted communities or churches to lean on. We are born to anyone, everywhere. Sometimes we are born to families and communities that abandon us. And those that don't, families that choose to love us, often don't completely understand. We lean on gay bars and gravitate to cities like Orlando because they are places where we can find people to relate to. Our nightclubs aren't just places to get drunk or get laid, they're places to make friends, and they build communities.

To have that torn open and violated is deeply personal, as personal as any disturbing attack on a church or a mosque or a synagogue or a school. Whoever Mateen was, and whatever his reason, this was an attack on a very specific and marginalized group of people. I can't even say "citizens" because too many of the preachers and politicians who have seized this massacre to serve their own agendas would have LGBT people deported if they knew how. 


I've watched many of my friends relate to heartbreaking stories about Sandy Hook, Aurora, Charleston, and too many instances where we should never have to utter the phrase "another shooting." I've read their requests for prayers when their loved ones are sick, and I've prayed. Some, even the most conservatively religious I count amongst my friends, have prayed for Orlando in the religious ways they know how. 

To those of you who have done the same, I thank you. From the bottom of my big gay heart, I truly thank you.

Social media can be obnoxious. I get that. It's a lot easier to talk about a dead gorilla than 49 children and their weeping parents. I get that too. It's hard. In fact, it's downright gut-wrenching. But I've seen others, some of the most outspokenly devout, I've seen them talk and pray across the walls of social media when the fallen are soldiers, Christians, children, teachers, or strangers in movie theaters. Yet this week, they've been silent.

Where is the rage now?

If the massacre of 49 people has you morally conflicted because they were gay, you need to reevaluate your morality. If you're worried that the person next to you in church might judge you for speaking out against the massacre of 49 people because they were gay, you need to reevaluate your church.

"Gay" is not a curse word. Ever. We are your brother, your son, your cousin, your neighbor, and your friend. And all we want is the ultimate of human rights: to love.

But if you truly are ambivalent over the senseless deaths of 49 people - of any orientation - well, whatever heaven you think you have waiting for you, I strongly suggest you wear sunscreen.


Last Sunday I was angry at a madman who tore through more than 100 of my brothers and sisters. But today, politicians, preachers, and media pundits - on both sides of the political spectrum - have added insult to injury by using this massacre to push guns, ban guns, sell ads, and ask me for my moment of silence. Fuck silence! I am enraged, and anyone who has ever known or loved a member of the LGBT community, been to a gay bar, or claimed to be on our side as we've fought something as ingrained as the fallacy of "American normality" for our rights, should be enraged as well.

I don't have any answers, and right now, that's what gives me the slightest bit of relief. There are so many layers, complexities, divergent opinions and motivations following last weekend's massacre, none will be resolved by bickering online, from the pulpit, the news desk, or the spin room. None of it will be resolved in the character limit of political or religious or media Tweets. And none of it will be resolved in any of the Presidential debates to come.

It is just profoundly sad. Every bit of it. The deaths. The reactions. The abuse. The support. The anger. It's too much to make sense of, so much it can't even be described as confusing. I can't look at anymore pictures. I can't read anymore stories. I don't want to read about terrorists and ISIS and Islam and guns and politicians and preachers. It is just sad, and right now, that's all I want it to be. I want to stop crying because I'm angry. I just want to cry because I'm sad.

And all they wanted to do, was to dance.


If you have any LGBT friends or family out there, I strongly suggest picking up the phone or sending them a message. You have no idea what that will mean to them. Because this, all of this, is almost too much for any of us to bear.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Twin Peaks: 25 Years

It might seem odd that I've written about David Lynch and Twin Peaks more than a few times on a blog about Philadelphia. But in addition to Peaks' characters Dale Cooper and Gordon Cole hailing from an FBI office in Philadelphia, Lynch credit's his years studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts as influencing him more than any filmmaker. Living in what's become Philadelphia's cushy Callowhill Loft District, in the early 1970s Lynch described Philadelphia as "the sickest, most corrupt, decaying, fear-ridden city imaginable."

Harsh, right? But to the master of modern day film noir, "it was fantastic at the same time."

Visually, the town of Twin Peaks is about as far removed from Philadelphia as you can get. Set in a fictional northeast Washington that looks more like the outskirts of Seattle than the high desert it is, the town is nestled in the picturesque mountains of the Pacific Northwest. To Philadelphia's explosive 1.5 million residents, Twin Peaks has little more than 5000 (the 51,201 printed on the sign is allegedly a mistake). On the surface, its denizens are those you'd expect to find in small townships throughout the Poconos and the Pine Barrens. Teenagers teeming with anxiety, bumbling police officers, and small-town big shots auctioning off pristine wilderness to the highest urban bidder.

But Twin Peaks has a seedy underbelly, and like everything Lynch aims a camera at, nothing is as it seems. From Blue Velvet to Mulholland Drive, Lynch has set the duality of nature - human and not so human - against the backdrop of an all-but-lost cinematography that delivered Vertigo and Sunset Boulevard. But he's more than just a neo-noir filmmaker: he weaves elements of daytime drama, horror, and comedy into his art; all of which when combined can make the most benign scenes far more disturbing than they really are.

Today is the 25th anniversary of the Twin Peaks season finale, a disturbing cliffhanger which left our hero, Dale Cooper, trapped in the Black Lodge, and his doppleganger possessed by the demon BOB. After bashing his head into a bathroom mirror, he chillingly echoed Cooper's own concern for his girlfriend, "How's Annie? How's Annie? How's Annie?" 25 years ago, Laura Palmer said we'd see her again in 25 years. And 25 years later, here we are with Lynch's production of a third series wrapping up. 

Lynch is nothing if not a man of many mediums. To call him an outsider artist would simplistically undermine the breadth of his art. His works range from paintings recently displayed at PAFA, cinematic shorts like Rabbits, original television shows, feature films, and even a regular voice role on Seth MacFarlane's The Cleveland Show. But more than any of his outlets, the ways in which he's managed to tether so many together may be his greatest, and most unique, masterpiece. 

One can watch Mullholland Drive and assume Betty is actually Audrey Horne, a young woman destined for bigger and better places than Twin Peaks, but lost in a grim Hollywood few outside Los Angeles ever see. After all, the idea for Mullholland Drive began as a spinoff of Twin Peaks, with Audrey's Sherilyn Fenn in the lead role. 

Over the last 25 years, speculations of a revived Twin Peaks have run amok. Whenever fans were ready to resign themselves to their own imaginations, a new rumor would emerge. Not long before the Twin Tweets from David Lynch and Mark Frost - Twin Peaks' co-creators - that announced Showtime's interest in a third season, it had become seemingly apparent that David Lynch not only had no interest in returning to Twin Peaks, but that the show itself might have been a burdensome bore to the man. 

But when those Twin Tweets came, Lynch did what Lynch does best. He made something so incredible banal - Twitter, the internet, social media - into an art form no one had ever known before. Suddenly, we the Tweeters, the Facebookers, the Instargrammers, were interacting with veterans of the cast. Some had moved on from acting, some were still working in minor roles, others were big. But for a brief moment before the resurgence of Peaks Mania broke out, we were speaking with Sherilyn Fenn, Madchen Amick, and Dana Ashbrook as if we were rekindling a long dormant high school relationship through social media. 

To those of us who grew up with Twin Peaks, we felt as thought we were part of their world. And the cast of Twin Peaks told us they felt the same way. The world Lynch created in Twin Peaks, WA was more than a television show, it was a work of art his actors and fans have carried with them throughout their lives.

Since its finale, and its under-appreciated prequel, Twin Peaks has had a wide array of fans. Cop drama fanatics were drawn to the procedural elements brought to Twin Peaks by Hill Street Blues' Mark Frost. Fans of Blue Velvet, Dune, and Eraserhead were curious about Lynch's foray into television. Throughout its various DVD releases, new audiences have come to appreciate the world of Twin Peaks.

Today, the biggest divide between Peaks fans seems to be between those who regard it as a work of art and those who view it as nostalgic '90s kitsch. While there is ample arrogance in the former camp that says you had to live in the '90s to "get it," there is a frustrating level of exploitation in the latter that has used a story about incest, rape, and murder to peddle hipster fashions and ironic photo-shoots. 

How Season 3 will be received is likely more predictable than many think, and those who view Twin Peaks and its inhabitants as quirky caricatures of a bygone era will likely be disappointed. Much of the show's most superficially campy episodes came from Season 2, when Lynch and Frost were all but absent. It had devolved into the Spelling produced soap opera that it was, with Lynch returning for the series finale that brought it back to its roots. 

Lynch has directed every episode of its revival for Showtime, so don't expect any of the shallow drama from Season 2 to rear its ugly head. Those who don't get its prequel, Fire Walk With Me, likely won't get Season 3, and they'll likely find themselves frustrated. There is more to the town of Twin Peaks than a murder and the decadently reckless behaviors of its inhabitants. 

There is something greater, something that has to do with the darkness within all of us, the BOB all of our dopplegangers carry with them. Twin Peaks was never meant to end with the revelation of Laura Palmer's killer, the questions answered in its prequel, and I doubt Season 3 will wrap much up. The lives of those who live in Twin Peaks, detached as they may seem, are our lives. And ours' are never neatly wrapped up in a bow and concluded. They carry on, in and out of the dark recesses of and out of the Black and White Lodges. That's Twin Peaks. That's us