Saturday, May 28, 2016


When most people hear the word "disturbia," Rihanna's hit 2007 song likely comes to mind, or the thriller of the same name that came out the same year. What most probably don't know is the term has been around for about fifty years, and that both the song and the movie really play on the true meaning: a feeling of physical and emotional entrapment by your surroundings.

The subject of a mind-blowing essay by Amanda Kolson Hurley in Curbed this week, disturbia is specifically tied to the psychological and physiological affects of living in the suburbs. A lot has been said about the suburbs, both editorial critiques and comedies like Suburgatory and The Burbs. But little has been done in the way of true scientific research specific to the broader notion of life in the suburbs, at least since they emerged in the mid-20th Century. 

Hurley's article takes us back to the time of the Suburban Experiment and its first test subjects, when Richard and Katherine Gordon - a psychiatrist/psychologist couple - initially referred to the nation's first suburbs as a "disturbia" of social dysfunction. 

Curbed and other local and national real estate blogs are great sources of information, but rarely does an article delve so eloquently, and perfectly, into its subject matter. The subject of suburbia is a popular topic of conversation. Often contentious, most people have a very strong opinion about the suburbs. You either love suburbia or hate it. But there are cold hard facts about the reality of suburbia's isolation, facts that Hurley resurrects from midcentury studies, books, and even fishes out of a few dime store romance rags. 

It's an interesting read, lengthy, but addictive. I've read it three times, and ordered each of the books she references. She's harsh on the suburbs, but only because the literature out there is just that harsh. 

What's just as interesting, and perhaps left for another essay, is the evolution suburbia has undergone. She ends on a high note, and a true one. Today's suburbs aren't the Levittowns they were in the 1950s. No longer post-war reprieves for white middle-class starter families, they've diversified. The trees have grown in and - like their urban forefathers - they're full of generations of families of all racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.

Like any experiment, suburbia has been tweaked to make it work. What started as a reaction to dirty cities still struggling after the Great Depression can really only be understood in that context. In the thriving American cities of today, the suburbs only make sense because they're already there. The studies and stories mentioned in Hurley's article would have to be revisited in their own unique way to understand if today's suburbs are responsible for the adversity that plagued them in the mid-20th Century. Today's urban centers are cursed with the same heart disease and depression that hit the early suburbs hard. Did suburbia have nothing to do with it, or is the suburbanization of our city centers - fast food joints and convenience - to blame for the back flow into our cities? 

Hurley doesn't dig into the reasons the suburbs were created so much as their ill effects. Following the Great Depression and into the second World War, American cities fell into a deep decline. Part of that was due to a lack of resources, an inability to maintain mammoth structures built by the Industrial Revolution. But that lack was confounded when suburbia as we know it was invented, and the working class began to flee. 

Without a time machine it's impossible to know just how bad our cities truly got, and a lot of it has likely been trumped up by history and famous photographs of breadlines. Suburbia was a capitalistic endeavor. Its marketing wasn't shy in shaming urban centers, a campaign no city has truly managed to overcome. Even in our urban heyday, cities were extremely diverse in every way. There were mansions, slums, and everything in between. 

Those who fled to the suburbs in the '40s, '50s, and '60s weren't living in the Gilded Age mansions we associate with the 1890s, they were in humble row homes and apartment buildings. Had they stayed, had suburbia not offered - or marketed some apparent offering - of a better life, King of Prussia and Cherry Hill might still be farmland and the rougher parts of our major cities could have rebound on their own. Maybe.

20th Century urban Americana wasn't just hit by the Great Depression and two World Wars, but also riots in the '60s and outsourcing in the '70s. Disturbia provides a lot to talk about, and I hope Hurley is up for another article. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Highlight of My Day

From Marina Abramovic's A Minute of Silence to Millie Brown's puke, I have a hard time looking at modern art without rolling my eyes. Perhaps it takes talent to weave nothingness into a message, but I think it's far more likely today's outsider artists are simply laughing all the way to the bank. If that's the case, I have to applaud them. They know the game and how to play it.

Art critics on the other hand, and more specifically amateur aficionados, are amongst some of the most smugly arrogant out there. "Those who can't do...," right? Standing in front of a blue canvas for hours speculating on its meaning, ignoring the fact that regardless of the artist's creative inspiration for their field of blue, the artist has crafted nothing from those ideas. 

I likely share the frustration that asks, "Why didn't I think of that first?" But what I wish I'd thought of was the prank that humiliated dozens on Monday at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Seventeen year old TJ Khayatan proved himself more clever than those doting over the exhibit's drab installations by installing an impromptu one of his own. Discretely leaving a pair of glasses a few inches from the wall, it wasn't long before a crowd of guests surrounded his "work of art" in deep discussion, even taking photographs. 

The Museum was quick to respond with its own artistic interpretation, "Do we have a Marcel Duchamp in our midst?" The clever response was in reference to Duchamp, an early 20th Century "anti-artist" who created Fountain, a urinal turned on its side brandishing his signature and the date, 1917. The San Francisco Museum's response was incredibly apt. Although much has been written about Duchamp's Fountain, his message was simply a reflection of the art of his time and its community, just like Khatayan's prank. 

Time will tell if Khatayan's jab at contemporary art will find its way into the annals of history. Like Duchamp's Fountain, I'm not sure Khatayan wants it to. But then again, if those glasses wind up fetching $200,000 on eBay, isn't modern art about laughing all the way to the bank?

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

We CAN Demand Better

Remember when we were supposed to get this...

...or this...

...and got this?

What happened? Well, the first two renderings were for a proposed W Hotel and Residences at 12th and Arch, now underway at 15th and Chestnut. The third is the Hilton Home2 Suites, a commercially branded turd of corporate anti-design meant to offer guests a sense of a Turnpike Pizza Hut-turned-Chinese buffet that everyone still recognizes as a Pizza Hut, and probably still smells like one.

Once the epitome of grandeur and high society, the problem with today's rent-by-the-week architecture is that it's designed for those who see a city for only a week. They offer a comfortable bed, free WiFi, continental breakfast, and a gateway to the action. But what they leave for locals is a concrete shell cased in trademarked colors and adorned with plastic signage that has nothing to do with a city.

And they honestly have no reason to care. Their investment isn't in Philadelphians, it's in schlepping rooms at a competitive price from architecture that requires the littlest overhead.

In fact, with the exception of a few chain hotels operating out of buildings that were too historic to demolish, we have no iconic, big chain hotels that were built in the last twenty years. We have the Courtyard Marriott, the Residence Inn, the Ritz-Carlton, and of course the Loews Hotel at the PSFS Building. But when it comes to new construction, even Marriott settles. 

The outliers of branded design are high-end hotels, and in Philadelphia, only when accompanied by condos. The Ritz Residences, the W Hotel and Divine Lorraine under construction, and the proposed SLS International all offer units for both visitors, and locals who have to look at Philadelphia every day. If you need proof that corporate hotel design is a product of its tenants, there you have it. 

Pearl Properties is about to drop the first meaningful deuce on South Broad since the '70s, the prestigious Avenue of the Arts. Where a grimy parking garage still barely stands, Pearl will build the Cambria Hotel and Suites. Cambria is owned by Choice Hotels, the company behind brands like Econo Lodge and Roadway Inn, and its design isn't surprising. 

Few renderings show the entire building because it's just that boring.

Fabrezing the site's former parking garage could have at least earned it the title of polished shit, but the Cambria Hotel isn't even interesting enough to criticize. Its boring facade is deliberately designed to fade into the background on an Avenue where everything else was born to shine.

Like them or not, everything built on the Avenue since the 1980s - the Doubletree, Kimmel Center, Symphony House, 777 - was built to impress; to reflect, compliment, or contrast the Avenue's historic beauties. Heinous as some may be to the modern eye, they were all built with a message in mind.

What's ironic is that while we're embroiled in battles over local projects like Blatstein's contentious monolith at Broad and Washington, bickering over towers near Rittenhouse Square, the powers-that-be behind this commercialized brand of corporate architecture know exactly how to play the game. They know the zoning rules, and they don't challenge them. 

Whereas Starwood's plans for a well designed tower at 12th and Arch once drew a bit of anxiety from neighbors because of its height, Hilton's Home2 didn't because it couldn't. It didn't challenge the rules, it played by them. There was, and still is, nothing in place to challenge truly hideous, or just plain boring design, as long as it jives with the zoning in place. The city's Civic Design Review can hold a meeting, but it's ultimate verdict is only a recommendation. And it rarely gets involved in projects that don't challenge the city's zoning ordinances. 

Pearl's Cambria Hotel probably won't have any adverse impacts on the Avenue of the Arts, at least not in terms of the street's vibrancy. The building is too boring to stand out as an eyesore, and in Philadelphia we're still of the mindset that something is better than nothing. The Cambria will put more feet on the ground and more people on the Avenue, and it will provide the litmus test Pearl thinks it needs to move forward with its stunning SLS International Hotel and Residences nearby. 

"Boring" hotels used to look like this.

But it does set a new precedent at an address where every developer has at least tried since the early '80s, a precedent that says commercially branded design is okay at one of the city's most coveted addresses. If we're smart, we'll look at this as an opportunity to learn from our mistakes, what the city allows, and decide whether the Civic Design Review should be granted true authority over what gets built. And personally, with the right people involved, I think it should.

There is a lot of developable land on South Broad and even more on North Broad, and unless we change our attitude and begin to demand better design, we can expect a lot more Cambrias and Hilton Home2s on our premier avenues. They're the ones with the money to make it happen, but they're also the ones with the means to offer Philadelphia the designs it truly deserves. And we do deserve better. We're Philadelphia, for crying out loud, and we need to wake up and realize what that means. 

Friday, May 13, 2016

Is Philadelphia Better Than It Was?

Whenever one of my fellow Philly-philes posts an article on Facebook about a new building, business, or emerging neighborhood, I get a little giddy - and indulge in a bit of pride - that my adoptive city is finally getting the recognition it deserves. 

Those in my former city to the south are eating crow as they claim to forget the snide comments they made when I relocated here in 2003. But the thing is, I didn't move to Philadelphia thirteen years ago for an investment, at least not in the financial sense. I moved to Philadelphia because it's the city I truly love, and have loved since I first saw it in 1982. And as anyone who saw Philadelphia under Rizzo, Green, or Goode can attest, to love Philadelphia in its darkest days is to love it like family, to love it at its worst.

Today that pride is waning. Sure, I'm proud of our humbling skyline, top-notch restaurants, and award-winning architecture. I'm proud of Mayors Nutter and Kenney who have and continue to set the nation's bar for LGBT equality. And I'm proud that this once forgotten city tucked between the country's political and financial capitals has finally found a place amongst the world's greatest travel destinations.

But in today's urban renaissance, it seems impossible to balance what made our cities great with what's making them appear greater. The rally cry of amateur real estate moguls, "this city's about to pop," sums up the callous notion that cities aren't homes, but investments. 

Ten years ago, MySpace posts would rave about Philadelphia's unexpectedly amazing restaurants. Friends from New York or D.C. would nod, but pay little attention. Philadelphia was still Philadelphia, and at the time, the country's best kept urban secret.

Now that we've "popped," the posts and raves read like those of any other city: food trucks, bikes lanes, beer gardens, beer gardens, and more beer gardens. These are tokens of a great city, but they are tokens nonetheless. They aren't defining anything uniquely Philadelphian like the restaurant scene Steven Starr fostered more than a decade ago, but they're defining a city just like any other. 

That homogeneity is unfortunate for a city as diverse as our's, but it also explains the nation's interest in the city. Like conventioneers looking for Applebee's or Fuddruckers, those new to Philadelphia are seeking familiarity, and they're finally finding it - or creating it - in gourmet french fry joints and free yoga.

Does any of that make us better than we were? I can get a beer on every corner, but I can't find a local coffee shop open after 9PM anymore. We're not necessarily becoming a better city, we're becoming a boutique city, the very idea that transformed every gritty American city into a bubble for wealthy consultants. Once upon a time new residents moved to cities to become part of an existing, Seinfeldian experience. But now every inch of a city has to be terraformed right down to our alleys and viaducts at the behest of one very specific kind of person. The investor. 

Rather than engaging in the character that's left, they are blind to what is right with a place, or was right with a place, and fixate on perceived problems that need to be solved. Instead of becoming part of the city, they regard longtime neighbors as townies, mingle solely amongst themselves, and wait for the day when their neighborhoods are flooded with the suburban trappings they begrudgingly think they need.

Moving to a city no longer comes with the caveat that you'll buy tools at 10th Street Hardware and forage Reading Terminal Market for produce, not when we're about to get blitzed with three Targets. The unique venues, diversity, and locally owned businesses that allowed Philadelphia to survive the bleak days of suburban flight are being transformed into tourist attractions, tokens in their own right instead of the assets that they are.

Old habits die hard, and those who flocked to the suburbs in the mid-20th Century are returning en masse, and they're bringing their ilk with them. Many want the idea of a city, one they can watch like a Netflixed rerun of Friends from their table at Green Eggs Cafe, without engaging in the diversity that gave the sitcom its robust setting. 

I'd be the first to tell you that cities are constantly evolving, and if you expect one to stand still, you're not going to enjoy it. All cities are constant construction zones - literally and figuratively. Despite the best efforts of Brooklyn refugees, Millennials, and retirees driving change towards a perceived completion date, the project will never be done. 

The Great American City hasn't seen this kind of resurgence since the Industrial Revolution and the Roaring Twenties, eras fraught with similar divisiveness that's been lost to glossy photographs of Gilded Age mansions. But the transformation is divisive. Real estate developers like to claim that business isn't personal, because it isn't personal to them. But it is personal to everyone else.

Today's Philadelphia is just another crescent in the ever rolling coaster of its prowess. As cities like San Francisco and New York are - or should be - starting to learn, the peaks are unsustainable. Bike lanes will fade, beer gardens will close, and cities will return to their most pragmatic purposes.

Philadelphia survived the grimmest hours of American history, so I'm optimistic our identity can survive brunch. So are we better today than we were ten or twenty years ago? Is Philadelphia better than it was when I first saw it in 1982? My answer, is "No." But only because those of us who truly love Philadelphia know we didn't need to be. We love it like that crazy cousin you laugh at, complain about, and whose life we're obligated to be a part of because down deep we know she has a heart that pumps our own blood, and because - despite all her flaws - she's the most interesting person we know. 

We were always better than so many other cities for more reasons than not. And if we deserve recognition for anything, it's our perseverance, our inherent uniqueness, and not the complements that make us "as good as" any other city. That's my Philadelphia, and I'll still be here when the roller coaster starts to fall. That's the most exciting part.