Happy Thanksgiving from the Lovecopter, high over Fishtown. Ain't no dog dooty or barking dogs or ugly people up here . . . matter of fact, the silence is golden, golden like the leaves
on the trees when this photo was taken two weeks ago.
For this American beauty of ours, Philly Skyline gives thanks -- thanks to Fishtown for the good that exists here, thanks to the
great city this sometimes great neighborhood is part of, and thanks to you, the reader. So: Thanks.
We'll see you in December. Go easy on the leftovers, y'hear?
25 November 08: Coming attractions . . . are RED
Here we are, exactly one month away from Christmas Day, and Bee Love's finally getting his act together with the calendar that will be on your wall for Y2K9, three
hundred sixty-five days of Philly Pin-Up Girls . . . like Comcast Center!
All new this year, we're going with a red theme. Why? Well for one, 2008 has been a year for Change, and red
is a hell of a change from Philly Skyline's traditional navy blue. For second, the red solids and the red & blue text on white space make for a truly American experience, and by god
Philly Skyline is proud to be cheeseburger eatin', soccer hatin' American made. For C, okay you got me, the red is a tribute to our WFCs, the only sports team in this four-sport having
town worth rooting for, the Philadelphia Phillies, world champions of baseball. (That has not gotten old, and it will not get old.)
Anyhoo, Philly Skyline, The Calendar: 2009. It's off to the printer for proofing, and once those proofs are proofed and the proofs are approofed, we'll have an exact date for both
ordering and delivery (it will 100%, without any doubt, be in time for Christmas, as it has the past two years). More importantly, post-proofs, we'll have details on a happy fun time
celebration calendar launch party, with calendars and stocking stuffers to be held at a Northern Liberties clothing boutique with hot chicks near you.
We hope to see you there . . . and we'll let you know when to be there. (Ballpark: second week of December.)
PS: Yes, those are urinals on your new calendar -- waterless urinals!
24 November 08: Greetings from "Greetings from", or,
the great Shibe Park paper chase
This fabulous halogen-basking drop ceiling shone brightly this past weekend while keeping watch over an international cadre of card collectin' characters, the median age of which was
somewhere around 60. The York International Postcard Expo, held in York PA, is now fifteen years strong. While it's not exactly big enough to fill the Pennsylvania Convention Center's
show halls now, much less after its expansion, the annual York Expo is the largest of its kind, featuring over 75 dealers of postcards from California to Switzerland.
Postcard collecting is not unlike other nerdy collectible hobbies -- coins, stamps, action figures, baseball cards, spoons -- but it's unique in that the postcards offer an illustrated
glimpse into often irretrievable history. Depending on the demand of the subject, that illustrated glimpse is often itself irretrievable.
I've been collecting vintage Philadelphia postcards for about five years now; funny enough, my collecting of Philly cards goes back to my hometown Tyrone, where there is a three-story
antiques store. While the wife was off perusing the different dealers' collections of furniture, china, records and books, I stumbled onto a paper and ephemera dealer who had boxes of
postcards, filed by their location. The
Pennsylvania one was subdivided by counties (there were a couple Tyrone cards), and the Philadelphia section was three times the size of the next-largest, Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.
I spent maybe fifteen bucks on some early 20th century views of Fairmount Park, the Liberty Bell, the skyline from the
Art Museum, and the Delaware River (Ben Franklin) Bridge. The more we traveled and stopped in antique stores -- some in PA, some down-the-shore, some in small towns on our way to
somewhere else -- the more old Philly postcards I came across.
In the time since, I've obtained close to a thousand different cards in Philadelphia, shifting my focus from the obvious toward the irretrievable: Broad Street Station,
Cramp's Shipyard, the Delaware Avenue El, Baldwin Locomotive Works, the US Naval Hospital. The one that has always, always escaped me, though, is pictured at right.
Shibe Park, the longtime home of the Philadelphia A's and later the Phillies, has a number of postcards from the golden age of postcard production, the early 20th century, specifically
between 1908 and World War I, when postcard production severely dropped since so many of them were printed in Germany. Columbia Park, the original home of the A's, and National League
Park (better known as the Baker Bowl) each had a brief run of production, and the cards are extremely rare. Shibe Park, though, was a celebrated, state-of-the-art stadium when it
opened in 1909. Its French Second Empire design and the cupola at the main entrance at 21st & Lehigh made it the subject of many a photograph, painting and woodcut. But for some reason, copies
of this postcard are scarce.
This single card was the only goal I set for the York Expo. Different collectors have different specialties, ranging from simple city views to birds eye views to Coca-Cola to suggestive
'saucy' cards to the utterly strange -- massive fires, disasters and
freak shows, for example. ("They're selling postcards of the hanging . . .")
Ray Chase, postcard purveyor from Plainfield, NJ, has plenty of postcards, but none of Shibe Park.
Philadelphia and the postcard have a long history -- the longest, in fact. Among our city's many
firsts, it can count postcards. Philadelphian John Charlton registered the country's first postcard copyright on
December 17, 1861. His printer, Hyman Lipman, purchased the copyright from him shortly thereafter and manufactured his Lipman's postal cards, mostly advertisements, until 1873,
when the government took over the fledgling postcard industry, mostly because of the difficulty in determining postage for the cards.
The US government held a monopoly on the production of mail-ready postcards with dedicated one-cent stamps -- hence the nickname "penny postcards" -- but allowed private printers to
manufacture "souvenir cards" that required two-cent stamps. The Columbia Exposition in 1893 initiated public interest in widespread color cards, which prompted a number of printers and
publishers to imitate their views of buildings and scenes. Finally, the Private Mailing Card Act of 1898 streamlined the process and allowed for standardized postcard production and
mailing. Still, the US Postal Service strictly forbade anyone from using the back of the card for anything but the address, forcing people to write on the images they were sending. When
this restriction was lifted on March 1, 1907, the Golden Age of postcards began.
In the Postal Service's fiscal year 1908, when the population of the United States was under 90 million, exactly 677,777,798 postcards were mailed. This was due to the fact that
attractive images -- of buildings, parks, entertainers, products, and "greetings from" big-letter cards -- were designed to take up the full front of the postcard, with a divided
back, "this space for message" and "this space for address".
In the 100 years since the USPS figured it out and the production and popularity of postcards peaked, little has changed but the technology: lithography to real photography; linen to
photochrome. Modern postcards, like modern baseball cards, don't have the prominent popularity their predecessors did, but collectors of the older ones are many.
And of those collectors of the older ones, the older ones are many. I was the youngest person at the York Expo by a good 20 years, with the exception of a few dealers, including this
This is Mary Martin, whose mother Mary Martin started the postcard emporium in Maryland mentioned here on Friday in the 1960s and
who started the York International Postcard Expo fifteen years ago. The younger Martin, a mother of four (including her twin sons who accompanied her to the York Expo), is the star
of the show that amounts to an Antiques Roadshow for postcard nuts. For dealing with printed pieces of cardboard, often in cents and not dollars, she does pretty well for herself. In
the few minutes I spoke with her, a number of collectors and dealers passed by, saying "see you in Phoenix" or "catch you in Orlando." Knowing her Pennsylvania audience, she also came
equipped with thousands of Pennsylvania penny postcards. . . . but none of Shibe Park.
Her son, a Baltimore sports fan who oh-what-the-hell attended the Phillies' clinching World Series Game 5 victory, confirms that Shibe Park cards are rare. "And now that they're the
champions," he says, "they're going to be harder to find. We had that happen [with Fenway Park cards] for the Red Sox in 2004 and again last year." Yet cards of the other hallowed halls,
Wrigley Field and Yankee Stadium, are a dime a dozen. The same even goes for the late Forbes Field (Pittsburgh), Ebbets Field (Brooklyn), and Detroit's Briggs (Tiger) Stadium.
I can't find this postcard anywhere. Cards of the playing field and stands? Check. Cheap reproductions? Easy. Original runs of this card? Impossible.
The Print and Picture Collection at the Central Branch of the Free Library has a vast collection of
vintage postcards. Market Street? The Wissahickon? Historic Sites? All there.
George Brightbill was Associate Archivist of Temple University's incredible Urban Archives from 1990 to 1999, during which time he assembled a collection of thousands of postcards of
Philadelphia. When he retired in 1999, he donated his collection to the Print Department at the Library Company of Philadelphia (LCP). It's available, like most of the valuables at LCP,
by appointment only, but it's so enormous that it's best to know what you're looking for before you go.
LCP has an introduction to the collection on its web site, HERE. The photo here shows the train station section -- note the eight copies of Reading Terminal, the same
image but manufactured by several different printers.
Amazingly, neither of these collections features a Shibe Park, whether the playing field or the hard-to-get exterior. Huzzah.
The search continues.
24 November 08: Jumbo dogged
and other assorted odds & ends
Welp, there goes that idea. Avram Hornik's proposal to refurbish the late Global Thrift store on the northeast corner of Front & Girard, giving it a rebirth as its original Jumbo Theater, is dead.
While it caused a minor stir among a small handful of people who preferred its continued emptiness, even as its sidewalks play home to the sale of bootleg shoes, hats and jerseys, even as
it stands next to more continued emptiness at the former KFC, even as it stands across the street from a go-go bar and another bar, a good deal of people in the neighborhood supported the
idea. Tonight was to be the night we found out just how many supported it, as the Fishtown, Northern Liberties and Kensington South civic associations were to host a neighbors-only vote . . . but WHOOPS, it was canceled. According to Fishtown Neighbors Association web site,
The FNA Zoning Committee was contacted on Friday, November 21 by the developer for the Jumbo Theater. He has decided to abandon the project.
It's your time to shine, baby. This weekend -- today and tomorrow -- the largest postcard convention in the country is happening barely two hours west at the Expo Center in York, Pennsylvania. The convention is organized by Mary L Martin Postcards, the world's largest dedicated postcard emporium, stationed in Perryville, Maryland (the
MARC Train terminus town that's a mere 20.1 miles from the Septa R2 terminus town Newark, Delaware but which, for some reason, is not connected to it). USA Today had a
nice feature on the store and its namesake around this time last year, online HERE. For vintage postcard collectors like myself, there's no better place to nerd out this weekend than in Peppermint Pattie City.
Back here on Philly Skyline, let's take a look at a postcard that is probably more accurately a quarter postcard than a penny postcard, the traditional moniker of
the golden era of postcard production, the early 20th century. (They were so called because the stamps to mail them cost a penny.) The one seen here was published in the
1980s from a photo taken in 1970 of a Septa route that's been on the
mind of PennDOT, the taxpayers who fund it, and the Inquirer's go-to transit guy Paul Nussbaum, whose story in Wednesday's paper, "$3 million trolley to nowhere on
Germantown Avenue," has sparked a discussion five pages and counting at PhillyBlog.
In these days of national and international banking and credit uncertainty which trickle down to the local level closure of 11 libraries and 68 pools, it's fair to ask
why over three million dollars is being
spent to re-lay trolley tracks that aren't in active use. (See also: 21 August 08: ALL ABOARD.) Or is the greater
question one posed to Septa: are you going to make good on your 1992 promise to bring back the 23 trolley? It depends on who you ask (as evidenced in the PhillyBlog
As Nussbaum said in his article, don't count on it. Even as Septa has seemingly taken a turn for the better under Joe Casey's direction, bringing back the 23 trolley is
not among its chief priorities. And even with the promise of a national infrastructure bank in the Obama administration, bringing back a clunky trolley -- charming and
nostalgic though it may be -- instead of hybrid buses, which Septa is spending money on, seems a major step backward, in spite of the Route 15's relative success.
But even that took forever to happen, mostly due to the efforts of West Philly ward leader (and later Councilwoman) Carol Campbell, who just passed away a few days ago.
The 23 is a far different beast than the 15 and the 56, the other trolley Septa 'temporarily' discontinued in 1992. Trolleys work in West Philly because people abide by
them and those who dare double park on their tracks are quickly ticketed and towed (and while everyone waits for that to happen, the trolley drivers honk those incredibly
loud horns either to ensure that happens or to embarrass the hell out of the person who returns to his/her double parked car). West Philly must be the only place people
are ticketed for double
parking. It happens on Girard Avenue here in Fishtown like a god given right, even when there is a parking space on the curb. Drive by the Police Department's 26th
District headquarters at Girard & Berks sometime. Matter of fact, just have a look at Google's satellite image of that building -- there are two cars double parked there even as there is room for both of them!
The difference is that Girard Avenue, largely, has room for these self-important parkers, the passing trolleys, and other drivers going around both to all
coexist. As does the 56's Erie
Ave, which has a dedicated right-of-way for the trolley for most of its run before turning into the more-normal Torresdale Ave at Frankford Ave. Neither the 23's upper
half of Germantown Avenue nor its lower half of 11th/12th Streets, on the other hand, have this luxury of width. Mike Szilagyi's excellent PhillyTrolley.org has a
virtual ride of the 23 trolley on its route in 1987 which illustrates how challenging the negotiation of a number of the narrow streets really is, with photos by Harry
Donahue HERE. (Note One Liberty Place nearing completion in the background.)
Especially in light of Nathaniel's Possible City yesterday, showing Merritt Taylor's
would-have-been high-speed transit lines -- including one following Germantown Avenue from Broad & Allegheny -- it's easy to wish for new, or renewed, rail service. Given
the options, though, bringing the 23 trolley -- that
streetcar of innumerable memories -- sadly, just isn't pragmatic.
The 23 is served by buses that follow its full 13 mile length, and few are the people who need that full 13 mile length to reach their destination. Meanwhile,
students at a major state university (West Chester) once served by regional rail service (R3) haven't been able to
ride the train into the city since 1986. Meanwhile, the Schuylkill valley hasn't had an alternative to its jammed up 422/202/76 highway corridor since the last train to
Reading pulled out in 1984. (Two alternatives -- an R6 extension and the Schuylkill Valley Metro -- have been loosely considered but have never gotten anywhere.) Meanwhile, the way-too-wide Delaware Avenue has only the 25
bus to sit through its gridlock, though there's room for a light rail from Penn Treaty Park all the way to the port, stadiums and Navy Yard.
* * *
The trolley in the first postcard is not the only major change since that photo was taken 38 years ago . . . It took me three attempts to figure out that it was taken
looking north-northeast at the corner of 12th & Arch. The handsome building that curves at the corner to the right of the trolley and the seven story red brick building
in the background were each demolished in the early 90s to make way for the Pennsylvania Convention Center. According to the Philadelphia Architects and Buildings Project, the 10 story Peoples
Trust Company Building at 1133 Arch Street (northeast corner of 12th & Arch) was designed by Sauer & Hahn, who also designed the Metzger Building, which last year met the
wrecking ball for the expansion of that same Convention Center. PhillyHistory.org has a single photo of the Peoples Trust Company HERE.
The Convention Center, designed by Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates, opened in 1993. Even before its current expansion, it was enormous, opting to just
straddle 12th Street rather than be interrupted by it. The tunnel it created is used for (tour) bus pickup and dropoff, a cab stand, and a decorative gong that rings
every minute and sets off a cascade of lights atop the tunnel on 12th from Arch Street to Race Street.
And the 23 runs its course, right through that gong-soundin' tunnel, as a trolley bus on its way from Chestnut Hill to 10th & Bigler
Broad & Oregon in South Philly.
For a Philly Skyline vs Penny Postcard before-and-after comparison of the Route 23, as seen at 12th & Arch, please click HERE.
NOTES & SOURCES:
• "Septa PCC Trolley No. 2789" postcard published by Parlor Car Enterprises, Hopatcong NJ. Photo by Henry Butz, 1970. Text on the back of the postcard reads:
PCC trolley #2789 heads south along 12th Street, in downtown Philadelphia PA, in March 1970. Route 23 was Philadelphia's longest trolley route, extending
almost 13 miles from Chesnut [sic] Hill to South Philadelphia. No. 2789 was built by St Louis Car Co., in 1947.
Sometime in the 1840s, and only in his twenties, and sporting a head of long hair and thick sideburns, and a velvet collar, the radical author George Lippard looked up at
the silver sky and saw a Paris, glimmering and ghastly.
The glare of many lights flashed out upon the winter night. Above, the clear cold sky of a calm winter twilight overarched the far extending perspective,
brilliant with light and life, which marked the extent and grandeur of that wide street of a gorgeous city.
Could this be Chestnut Street? Looking carefully, he "beheld the sidewalks lined with throngs of wayfarers, some clad in purple and fine linen, some with rags
fluttering around their wasted forms. Here was the lady in all the glitter of her plumes, and silks, and diamonds, and by her side the beggar child . . ."
Lippard wrote the vision as a chapter, "Devil-Bug's Dream," in his best-selling novel The Quaker City. Here was Philadelphia, a century on, in 1950, as ugly and
beautiful as the Paris Ben Franklin had entered in 1776. A white marble palace, under construction, occupied Independence Square. In the foreground, Independence Hall,
"a small and unpretending structure of brick," appeared as a tiny ruin.
"In the year eighteen forty-two," wondered Devil-Bug, "there was some fuss about a monument to Gin'ral Washington, in Washington Square -- can you tell me, stranger,
whatever became of it?"
In this 1950, a massive jail and gallows sat atop Washington Square.
Sometime in 1959, Philadelphia's planning director Ed Bacon looked out across the symmetrical gardens that now framed Independence Hall, and he saw emerging "the most
interesting and beautiful center city in the country."
Bacon's gleaming vision, "Philadelphia in the Year 2009," published in the October, 1959 Greater Philadelphia Magazine, revealed a city poised for pleasure. Here,
Philadelphia had seized an opportunity, the 1976 Bicentennial, in order to complete a transformation, from dirty industrial metropolis to satisfying playground.
But the great attraction will be the open-sided electric cars with their striped awnings that go up and down the length of Chestnut Street, which has been relieved of
automobiles to provide enough room for the visitors to the Fair. Chestnut Street is the backbone of the Fair . . . the Midway where the visitors spend their money for
food, drinks, mementos and all the various necessities and frivolities that go with such an event . . .
Some of the stores have removed their front windows and carry on outdoor activities, loggia-like half in and half out of the building. Sidewalk cafes and outdoor bazaars
add a festive atmosphere.
There are outdoor performances nightly in City Hall Courtyard of the world famous plays of many nations. Molière, Shakespeare, as well as Jedermann and the Kabuki
Dancers. Special exhibits are spread between the sculpture and flowers of Penn Center esplanade, Reyburn Plaza, and up the Parkway to the Art Museum.
Bacon's vision emerged at the height of the Cold War, when the United States sought to demonstrate the sustained power of its ideals. What better way, thought the city
planner, than to demonstrate American vitality and relevance to the world than to stage a world's fair amidst its brilliantly reconstructed original city? "In this way
the reconsideration of the ideas of 1776 will occur in the place where they were originally formulated," he explained, seeking confluence where Lippard found bitter
irony. His Washington Square prison was full of "the brave men who struck the last blow for the liberty of the land, against the tyranny of the new-risen nobility."
Lippard, who sometimes wrote like a Marxist, as Marx was coincidentally doing, may have found himself on the wrong side of the Cold War.
Both loved -- and must have been deeply, infuriatingly, disappointed by -- Philadelphia. Lippard came to Philadelphia during the depression of 1837, encountered
unimaginable poverty and then a few years later saw an economy booming quite literally on the backs of the poor. Devil-Bug's 1950 must have seemed a certain reality.
Having been so successful advancing his vision in the 1950s, Bacon, for his part, imagined the Bicentennial would be enough to convince the federal government to make
Philadelphia its bona fide urban jewel ("the key prestige city in the country"), and that the infrastructure build-up to 1976 would stimulate the farthest-reaching
transformation. Perhaps he thought that prospect would guarantee a continuation of the progressive and careful leadership the city was then enjoying, leadership that
would propel the city beyond the Bicentennial to "the year 2009 [when] no part of Philadelphia is ugly or depressed."
* * *
Completing that last exhalation, Bacon wrote, "Of course I actually know no more about Philadelphia in 2009 than does anyone else."
"I have tried to show, however, by looking backward, that a strong idea has a life of its own, and become a dominant factor if it is clear enough, and if the leadership
is stimulated to action."
It may be that Bacon suffered the pre-race riot, pre-suburbanization, pre-deindustrialization, pre-Vietnam, pre-Reagan hubris of the modern city planner; he couldn't have
quite seen what was coming. And yet despite this, many of his ideas persist, and some of his projections for 2009 are part of the present reality: among them, a unified
regional transit system, the Schuylkill Banks, the formation and growth of University City, the residential development and expansion of Center City, the elaboration of
Independence Mall, the emergence of the hospitality industry, the invigorating effect of the sidewalk café.
Bacon in 1959 would not have imagined the present scale of adaptive reuse -- factories and mills and firehouses and churches, garages and rowhouses and storefronts
retrofitted and re-commissioned for us, today. He wouldn't have guessed the depth and breadth of art-making, the growth of major institutions, the range and sport of
cuisine. Nor could he have imagined Philadelphia with nearly 600,000 fewer residents, the result of which -- so many devastated, wasted Ridge Avenues -- makes the 1950s
term "blight" sound quaint, like "senile" to describe someone with Alzheimer's.
Still, from 1959, he would have equated our politics with the landscape of his own period. Joseph Clark and Richardson Dilworth, the mayors he served during the 1950s,
aimed to professionalize and reform, and elevated city planning above parochialism.
There is another way that Bacon's imagined path to 2009 informs our own quest for a greater city: the hot breath of opportunity. Said Bacon of the Bicentennial, "It will
bring about acceptance of many ideas not otherwise acceptable, and accomplishment of many specific things that otherwise would not get done." We might say the same of
President-elect Barack Obama's response to economic and fiscal crisis. In a telling break from the past several administrations, Obama has long promised a White House
office on cities and a national infrastructure bank. Now, it seems likely that investment in the nation's troubled infrastructure will become a locus for revamping the
economy, not only to help the nation grow again, but as a mechanism of environmental sustainability.
If that's the case, like many old cities hoping to benefit, Philadelphia had better be prepared. But how should it direct such investment -- to fix the current physical
plant, or to implement ideas for the city of the future? To shore up housing or roads or transit or ports, parks or waterfronts or airports or sidewalks, green roofs or
insulation, architecture, or perhaps, demolition?
The answer will depend, in the first part, on vision. Let Mayor Nutter ask his favorite question, "What kind of city do we want to be?" and a direction, or several
competing directions, may emerge.
Among the possible directions, using a broad brush, I turn to these two:
The Delaware Waterfront. The river, and all its concomitant and pluralistic advantages, still sits there, 23 miles long, underused and
disconnected. It's costing us everything. I speak of opportunity cost, of the wealth and vibrancy not now generated. We can no longer afford to let it pass by.
Only major action -- the epic investment that might emerge from the Obama program and which was articulated, defined, and wisely evaluated by Harris Steinberg and Penn
Praxis -- can piece it together (or properly separate uses, when necessary) and weave it back into the fabric of the city. By doing so, Philadelphia will be forced to
consider the growth of the port -- improving its function as a multi-modal hub and weighing the vagaries and advantages of dredging -- alongside recreation, alongside
retail and residential projects, alongside wetlands, trails, and nature preserves, alongside the Navy Yard, that most telling unfulfilled resource. Here is an
opportunity to expand high-speed transit where it is badly needed and connect now disparate places; an opportunity to use vessels to move people, to delight them, to put
them in touch with the river.
Neighborhood Preservation. Allowing our rowhouses to suffer from deferred maintenance is costing us, and that too is something we can
no longer afford. As block after block declines, we waste materials and architecture, history and tradition -- and we waste energy. In some parts of North Philadelphia
especially, the loss is overwhelming. It clearly surpasses the rate of population decline (much in the way the opposite is true: in suburban areas the rate of sprawl far
outweighs the growth of population). The result is ugliness and danger and also vast inefficiencies in the distribution of government service. SEPTA works better, for
example, in the densest parts of the city. Depopulation is simply wasteful. But it continues essentially unabated. Should cities play a role in a new green revolution,
while it's still possible, we need a mechanism to preserve streets and neighborhoods. Here's one: fund homeowners to insulate and weatherproof their row homes, install
energy efficient windows, fix structural inadequacies, and preserve original materials and details. If a homeowner can afford the utility bill, she will stay longer, and
in so doing assert much-needed stability.
If applied right and funded fully, the results will be far-reaching. Imagine shrinking Philadelphia's carbon footprint by properly insulating and weather-proofing
200,000 row homes, half of the city's stock. Just the work alone will sustain a constellation of small contractors. Now let's invent a way to capture lost architectural
elements, restore them, and make them available to the rest of the city. Now let's create new kinds of historic districts as a way to leverage and highlight what's
special about Frankford, say, or Nicetown.
The vision part, I think you'll agree, is relatively easy to form. I've provided but two ideas. In five minutes my in-box could be filled with dozens more. The other
part -- what must have tormented Bacon at the end -- political will, fortune, and capacity, is unfortunately a matter of another recurring Philadelphia story.
* * *
Ed Bacon began his 1959 article by searching for the modern origins of his ideas and in doing so looked back 50 years to 1909, at the start of the Parkway project. For
our purposes, we'll retract the gaze slightly to the end of 1911, and the election of Rudolph Blankenburg as mayor. Blankenburg, an immigrant born in 1843 (as Lippard
was writing The Quaker City) near Hanover, Germany, was a great Santa Claus of a man, known as the "Old War Horse of Reform." According to the New York
Times, "his election in 1911 was the climax of one of the greatest reform campaigns ever fought in this country," as it ended, at least temporarily, the hold of the
Republican machine already 40 years in power (the next to do so would be Joseph Clark, in 1952).
The same day Philadelphians surprised the nation by electing a progressive reformer (his Republican enemies jeeringly called Blankenburg a "socialist"), voters granted
the city the power to borrow an unlimited amount of capital to build new subways and to improve the port. Blankenburg rose to power with a mandate: to end the parochial
intransigence. He immediately fired political hacks, instituted civil service rules, and hired leading planners, technocrats, and engineers. Among them was A. Merritt
Taylor, a New Jersey railroad executive and planner, who had already begun a Philadelphia transit plan. By the spring of 1912, after methodically analyzing Philadelphia
population density and range of travel (for 5¢ , 8¢ , and 10¢ ) and having listened to localized opposition (the church leaders along Lehigh Avenue were
opposed to an elevated there), and the mayor himself (who insisted on a downtown loop to serve retail and theatre), Taylor's map had fully evolved: now Philadelphia's
system, as those in New York and Chicago, would capture -- and amplify -- the emerging urban energy.
"The plan," according to Michael Krasulski, a Philadelphia University collections librarian, "was not to service what the city was, but what they imagined the city would
That imagined city's skeleton was formed by a combined subway and elevated system on Market Street (already then in place), Broad, Front Street and Richmond Street (north
and south along the waterfront), Kensington and Frankford Avenues, West Passyunk and 28th Street in South Philadelphia, the Parkway and up 29th Street in North
Philadelphia, Allegheny, Henry, and ultimately Germantown Avenues, Chestnut Street, Locust, and Arch in Center City, Baltimore (altered to Woodland), Lancaster, and
Haverford Avenues in West Philadelphia.
Krasulski, who was kind enough to share his own complete collection of "Reports of the Transit Commissioners," richly detailed bound volumes discarded by the Harvard
University Library, had for a while kept a website of this imagined system.
Imagined, indeed. Despite access to unlimited capital, despite the amplified role of professionals, despite a mayor whose singular insistence pushed the plan forward,
despite bids in spring, 1912 to begin construction on the system's backbone, the Broad Street subway, by early 1915 nothing had happened. On January 14, thousands of
Navy Yard workers marched on Broad Street to a protest meeting they had organized at the Academy of Music. They demanded that construction start immediately. A Navy
Yard employee by the name of Archie Allen offered a resolution, then ratified, which began:
Whereas the people of Philadelphia are suffering intolerable hardships, and the future development of the city is imperiled . . . The city of Philadelphia is now legally
qualified, financially able, and properly equipped to proceed with the construction of the high-speed transit system . . .
On September 11, 1915, Mayor Blankenburg "turned the first spadeful of earth" for the Broad Street subway. The Frankford elevated was also underway. But little actually
happened on Broad Street; with war looming, the city sealed the excavation -- until 1924. The South Broad portion of the subway wasn't open until 1930, and that only to
Lombard-South. It never reached the Navy Yard, an error we should not at present ignore.
Click to enlarge 1913 transit plan.
Little else -- the Ridge spur, the Locust Street subway, the Front Street El south to South Street -- of Taylor's plan was ever built. And even some of that has
* * *
While other cities are quick to see the benefits to be derived from all the varieties of improvement, and rapid in their adoption, here in Philadelphia
progressive men are compelled to coax and struggle with a mass of inert and sleepy citizens, who don't wish to have their time-worn notions disturbed. Strange to say,
some of the stubborn class who visit other and "faster" towns are among the loudest in complaint of our want of spirit on their return; yet they are seldom more inclined
to put their shoulders to the wheel to help us along than they were before they traveled.
The weary progressive, poor fellow. He -- she -- emerges every generation, only to meet the "drag-weights;" only to compromise endlessly, and put up with constant
failure. "Our Drag-Weights" is the title of an unsigned editorial in the January 28, 1858 Evening Journal, from which the above passage is taken. The late 1850s,
as the late 1950s, felt like an era of delicious promise. The Pennsylvania Railroad was finally completed, around the Horseshoe Curve and across the Alleghenies to
Pittsburgh, in 1854. The city consolidated its border districts the same year. There was intensifying talk of a new City Hall, to meet the needs of a professionalizing
government, and of a vast city park, one that would exceed New York's Central Park, just then under construction.
And yet, would any of these ambitious, visionary, and necessary things ever happen? It had begun to feel like they wouldn't. Anti-urban Harrisburg wasn't too
interested, but that was only one drag-weight. The rest was corruption, in-fighting, parochialism, and ambivalence, and so both projects stalled -- all this
intransigence despite the city's status -- still preeminent in engineering, technology, science, its vast wealth under-pinning much of the nation's growth.
The Evening Journal continued,
Yes, let the truth be flatly told -- we are slow. Miles of houses, and six hundred thousand inhabitants, are grand things to contemplate; but, in our case,
they only render our laggard spirit more conspicuous . . . .We are slow -- we are provincial -- and we must shake off the sluggish influence of Pennsylvania Conestogaism,
and rouse the class who are now mere drag-weights to an active sympathy and co-operation with our public-spirited men, or we shall never attain the rank of a genuine
metropolis, even if we spread our houses over a wide a space as that occupied by London.
Today, a different nation, a world of cities measured not so much by London as by Shanghai and São Paulo. If Philadelphia is to pull off any portion of the
infrastructure plan I mention here, or another, and seize the brilliant opening, it can no longer rely on status. It has little standing. It -- we -- can't afford
drag-weights, for too much is already stacked against us. Let's not deceive ourselves as perhaps Ed Bacon did, in 1959. Americans don't care about the vitality of the
nation's birthplace; they see no particular advantage to preserving it. The impetus to make the Delaware work for us again, to serve our needs while regaining a sense of
its own nature, the force by which we stem the apocalyptic scale of neighborhood decline and put an end to demolition by neglect, these things are really up to us.
"When," asked the men of the Evening Journal, "shall we exhibit an energy commensurate with our size and resources?"
For more on The Possible City, please see HERE.
For Nathaniel Popkin archives, please see HERE, or visit his web site HERE.
NOTE: the author thanks Rob Armstrong of the Fairmount Park Commission, Scott Knowles, director of the Great Works Symposium at Drexel University and editor of the
forthcoming Philadelphia in the Year 2009 (Penn Press, 2009), and Michael Krasulski, architecture and art collections librarian at Philadelphia University for
lending the materials from which this essay is derived. For more information on Mayor Blankenburg's infrastructure plan, see The Necessity For Ruins' March 2007 archive
19 November 08: Singin' yeah (yeah), yeah (yeah), yeah (yeah!)
Thank you . . . for a real good time
A big Grateful Thank You to all of you who came out to Johnny Brenda's last night for maple porters, dry stouts, and good ol' fashioned conversation with the city's
Director of Sustainability, Dr Mark Alan Hughes. It was actually pretty great - two hours of talking budget, talking green, talking ideals, and probably most importantly,
A big thank you also goes out to the folks who made it out to the Parkway for yesterday's Planning Commission, and especially to that agency for voting to approve common
sense -- the rezoning of the 1800 block of Arch Street for the building of American Commerce Center. The Planning Commission's recommendation next goes before City
Council's Rules Committee in December, who'll vote on the rezoning bill. Tom Walsh has the full account of the (wildly long and meeting-like) meeting at PlanPhilly HERE.
For this good day of gratitude, enjoy some Philly Skyline American Commerce Center Skyline.
18 November 08: Philly Skyline Bites
Today's the day we find out if the building of Philadelphia's first supertall skyscraper will take its next step on the city's time.
It should -- the biggest item on today's Planning Commission meeting is so big that they've moved the meeting from the normal conference room in 1515 Arch to the
auditorium at Friends Select School at 17th & the Parkway. The meeting's agenda,
which also includes information-only presentations on the Boyd Theater Hotel proposal and a 'Station Square Urban Design Concept' by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, features the
final presentation of American Commerce Center to the Planning Commission, who will vote on whether or not to support rezoning of the current surface parking lot on which
ACC is planned.
Other recent ACC coverage includes a piece by Natalie Kostelni in Friday's PBJ and a story by Thom Nickels which
looks into developer Garrett Miller's back story, over the weekend for The Bulletin.
The meeting today begins at 1, so try to get there early.
* * *
Top o' 10
While ACC might eventually be the tallest building in the city, the living architecture museum that is the perimeter of Rittenhouse Square does have a new tallest
10 Rittenhouse Square was officially topped off in the rain Thursday afternoon with the raising of its final beam, signed by laborers and dignitaries and affixed with the
customary evergreen. CBS3 has footage from the ceremony HERE.
* * *
Changing signs . . .
Last weekend, right next door to Two Liberty Place, which (rightfully) was denied a sign at roughly the same height, PNC Bank changed out its old sign (inset in photo
above) for a new sign, dropping the "Bank" from the marquee and adding their newish logo. While updating their corporate branding is not strange, doing so on top of a
building hemmed in by One and Two Liberty Place on the lots next door, and Centre Square and Five Penn Center across the streets in opposite directions is. The photo
above, from Love Park, is one of the few places you can see the top of PNC Bank Center, and barely at that.
The figure-8 shaped, 40 story, black glass tower opened in 1984, a few years before the Liberty Place buildings would forever obscure the crown of the new building (where
corporate signage was designed to go). Meanwhile, there are no plans to update PNC's signage on the street, where people who don't work in the highrises right next door
will actually see it.
In news related to PNC, that bank -- a relatively stable one considering the performance of its peers in recent months -- became the first bank to use government bailout
money to buy a weaker competitor, Cleveland's National City Bank. (Heh heh. PNC : National City :: Steelers : Browns.) While that is not exactly what the bailout was
designed for, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson isn't opposed to it being used for mergers -- see US News & World Report's story on the deal HERE, and their follow-up on the call for
an investigation by Ohio Congressman Steve LaTourette, backed by Senator John McCain HERE.
In news related to corporate signage in Philadelphia, the Four Points by Sheraton Philadelphia City Center (NOT Center City, as we like to call it
around here) officially opens on December 4th. The
former Polly Esther's nightclub at 12th & Race has been transformed into Starwood Hotels' latest addition to Philly over the past year and a half, including the addition
of two new floors. Those new floors are the pedestal for the new "FOUR POINTS" sign that stands out from the westbound Vine Street Expressway (near the entrance at 8th
* * *
New Market No Mo'?
Down in Society Hill, the preservationists who've campaigned long, hard and loud to save the empty lot with the fence around it have tragically lost their battle. The
Philadelphia Historical Commission voted 18-0 -- unanimously -- on Friday to approve Stamper Square on the site of the former New Market complex. That's the final
approval for Bridgeman's Development's complex, designed by H2L2. (The Historical Commission also okayed Hal Wheeler's proposal for the Boyd Theater.) No word yet on a Stamper Square
groundbreaking, but Philly Skyline will be there when it happens.
* * *
Philly Skyline will be here tonight: Johnny Brenda's. Frankford & Girard in Fishtown. It's our home bar. This
evening, we're hosting a friendly discussion with the city's
Director of Sustainability Mark Alan Hughes. It's free, and it's early (doors at 6, discussion at 7), so you can come straight from work and still have time to
stay late and get drunk go home and take care of business.
* * *
One final note for yr Tuesday: the final touches are being put on Philly Skyline, The Calendar: 2009 as we speak. As usual, it will be ready for Christmas (with
online ordering here) and we'll have a big ol' calendar launch party. Details on all of that will be posted here just as soon as they're ready for consumption.
Hope you're doin' all right out there. The sun, she's a shinin', but over the weekend the foliage blitz took on the fog and Comcast Center with a view from Mellon Bank
Center's winter garden . . . look a lil' something like this:
17 November 08: Some warmth for the chill
With a weeklong forecast which doesn't even make it out of the 40s and which includes the prospect of our first snowflakes of the
year, I'd like to take a quick look at two inadvertent Philadelphians who recorded one of the most famous songs of all time in the
Saxophonist Stan Getz's parents had immigrated with their family from the Ukraine, bypassing New York for The Meadows, the
rural area of Southwest Philly that would eventually become Eastwick. Astrud Weinert was married to João Gilberto for four
years, long enough to take her husband's name and sit in on the recording of his benchmark bossa/jazz album with Getz in 1964. Though not a trained
singer, Astrud sang the vocals for "Corcovado" and "The Girl From Ipanema", the latter of which made her a worldwide star.
Getz moved to New York early on and remained there for most of his career as one of jazz's most formidable tenor saxophonists
before dying in Malibu in 1991. João Gilberto, now 77, still records and is based in his home Brazil. Though 'recluse' may
be too strong a description for his ex-wife Astrud, she definitely stays out of the spotlight . . . in Philadelphia? Joey Sweeney
tried to find out in a cover story for the Weekly in 2002.
Anyway, with a chill in the air and potential snowflakes outside, warm up your coffee like the young ladies in the audience from
Get Yourself a College Girl as Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz, the inadvertent Philadelphians, YouTube this 1964