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.