Saturday, July 09, 2005

Impressions of Philadelphia

As I prepare to leave the City of Brotherly Love, I'm posting some impressions of the city gleaned (and edited) from my e-mail letters. Anything in italics is added comment.

"Last Week I went to Philadelphia, but it was closed," posted May 31, 2004

W.C. Fields may or may not have said that about his onetime hometown, but the week before last, I did go to South Street in Queen Village, the trendy neighborhood south of Center City Philadelphia, looking for a used bookstore, and it was closed. Actually, it had moved to Old City, the area just east of Independence Hall (or the Old State House, as Philadelphians call it). But since I was in need of exercise, I decided to walk west along South Street to the Broad Street Subway, and I came across one of the most amazing pieces of quirky urban art I had ever seen. It's called The Gardens--a derelict building transformed by mosaics, junk sculpture, and found art. Like all too many wonderful things in this world, it's threatened. For an online look at The Gardens and other works of its creator, click here. The Gardens hasn’t yet been destroyed. Isaiah Zagar has two years to raise $200,000. Though I can’t afford to give, I wish him well.

Mole Street: an oasis of urban beauty, posted June 13, 2004

Last Thursday, after visiting the Free Library off Logan Circle in Center City Philadelphia, I decided to take a different route back to the subway station. I walked east on Race Street (named for a racetrack which was once there, not for Philadelphia's race problem), surrounded by parking ramps, vacant lots, and modern architecture so ugly that it makes my old office building in Chicago seem inspired. (Mystery writer Sara Paretsky described that building--or a fictionalized version of it--as "sixty of the ugliest stories in Chicago.")

But as I crossed Sixteenth Street, I looked across another mostly-vacant lot to what seemed to be a miraculous survival--a block of brick row houses. I crossed Race and found, to my amazement, an oasis of urban beauty among the blight. Here was an entire block of what I guessed to be early nineteenth-century brick row houses. How it survived the "urban renewal" of the '60s and '70s, I don't know. And while I didn't meet anyone while walking down that narrow street, I could imagine that if I lived there, I would have friends on the block. There was a John Kerry sticker in the window of one house; the door of another had a sticker proclaiming, "My Philadelphia Includes Culture."

It was called Mole Street--an apt name for this lovely survival burrowed within one of the ugliest parts of Center City. You can find it between Fifteenth and Sixteenth Streets. It runs between Race Street on the north and Cherry Street on the south.

Two political rallies: 1972 and 2004, posted September 29, 2004

Political rallies have changed a lot since 1972, when Kathleen and I were at a McGovern rally at the University of Iowa. It was a bittersweet affair, as it happened on the day Henry Kissinger declared that "peace is at hand." While everyone was glad that the war seemed to be coming to an end, the announcement meant that McGovern's extremely slim chances of winning the presidency had just evaporated. The rally took place on the Pentacrest--the spiritual, if not geographical, center of the campus. McGovern spoke from the steps of the Old Capitol, and students crowded the grounds in front of it, while others watched from the windows and ledges of Macbride and Schaeffer Halls--two of the four limestone buildings which, with the Old Capitol, make up the Pentacrest. It was exciting for me not only because of the candidate and the crowd, but because I was with the beautiful, intelligent, and charming young woman I had met only a few weeks before.

The Kerry rally had the energy and excitement, but it was also far more regimented and commercialized. As soon as I emerged from the subway, I was confronted by hawkers of political buttons, bumper stickers, and T-shirts declaring such things as "Somewhere in Texas a Village is Missing its Idiot." (I wonder whether the same people are hawking anti-Kerry paraphernalia at Bush rallies.) The rally was at Hill Field, an area much larger than Iowa City's Old Capitol lawn, but access was both restricted and segregated. Those of us with "white tickets"--those printed off the Internet--were consigned to the outer reaches of the field. The people with the pink, blue, and green tickets issued by campaign headquarters got to stand much closer to the candidate. And we didn't just hear Kerry, but a whole retinue of Democratic candidates and officials, mothers of soldiers in Iraq, and, amazingly, middleweight boxing champion Bernard Hopkins, who presented Kerry with a pair of gloves to "knock out" Bush. He gave a better speech than some of the politicos. And unlike 1972, the candidate has a good chance to win in November.

Ah, back when we had hope for a new day in politics. In the debates, Kerry said we’d be getting “more of the same” under Bush. He was right. The deaths in Iraq keep accumulating, and the place is still a training ground for terrorists.

You Call it Madness, I call it Philadelphia--a trip to the Northern Liberties: March 28, 2005

I recently read Lenny Kaye's book," You Call it Madness: the Sensuous Song of the Croon." Kaye, guitarist for the Patti Smith group, has an incredible knowledge of music. The book focuses on crooner Russ Columbo, along with Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee. Kaye calls them the Holy Trinity of Croon. ("You Call it Madness. I call it Love," was Columbo's signature song. He died in a bizarre shooting accident in 1934, which is one reason he's not so well-known as Crosby and Vallee.) But Kaye will go off into digressions about musicians from Vivaldi to Eminem, and just about everyone in between. Strangely enough, Kaye doesn't mention the wave of Vallee imitatiors in late Sixties, such as "Winchester Cathedral" by The New Vaudeville Band, "Acapulco Gold," by the Rainy Daze, The Beatles' "Honey Pie," and "Loving You Has Made Me Bananas," written by Neal Adams, of comic book fame, and sung by Guy Marks. Its lyrics are, well, unique:

Your red scarf matches your eyes/You’ve closed your cover before stri-i-iking/Your father had the ship fitter blues, /and loving you has made me bananas./You burned your finger last evening/while my back was turned./I asked the waiter for I(o)dine/but I dined all alone.

You can get the essence of "You Call it Madness" by listening to Terry Gross interviewing Kaye on "Fresh Air," which you can find at I was so taken with the interview that I had to find the book--even though it meant going to a branch library in a rough Philadelphia neighborhood called the Northern Liberties. Originally, this area was parceled out to veterans of the Revolutionary War. It's now a sort of Third World neighborhood, mixing the poor of various ethnic groups with the wealthy gentrification crowd. Walking west on Girard from the El station, I passed a storefront Albanian mosque, a statue of Don Quixote donated by the government of Spain in 1995, along with the bars, tattoo parlors and sex shops you'd expect. In the center of this mix of urban decay and new condos is a huge Catholic Church, St. Peter the Apostle, where St. John Neumann is buried. In spite of, or perhaps because of the neighborhood, the librarian was the friendliest I've encountered in the Free Library system.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Northeast Philadelphia and the Memorial Church of St. Luke

In the next few weeks I‘ll be able to return to my beloved Midwest. I just accepted an offer to transfer to that most punned city of Illinois, Normal. Even before I received the transfer offer I began putting together highlights of my year (actually year and a half) in Philadelphia. I’ll begin with a look at the Far Northeast Philadelphia, taken from the prologue to a novel I hope to write. The narrator may be a lot like me, but he's still fictional: I came to Philadelphia for financial reasons only. No failed marriage, no love affair, and I'll withhold judgment on the job. But St. Luke's Church has been a refuge for me:

I had come to Philadelphia for escape--to flee a failed marriage, a dead-end job, and the memory of a love affair that had doomed both marriage and career. The city I found was not the Philadelphia of William Penn, Benjamin Franklin or Edgar Allan Poe, but Far Northeast Philly, a vast suburban sprawl which happened to be inside the city limits. That’s not quite true. There was beauty in Northeast Philadelphia. One just had to look for it. There was Pennypack Park, that lovely stretch of forest and stream which meandered through the Northeast. There was of Bustleton, the Civil War-era village now surrounded by post-World War II development. And within Bustleton was the Memorial Church of St. Luke, an English country church in all but location.

St. Luke’s provided solace for me that first year after I left the Midwest for the City of Brotherly Love. I found out quickly that I did not belong on the East Coast--that I was what writer Hamlin Garland called a “son of the middle border.” But the little Episcopal church was a refuge from the stresses of living alone in a strange city.

Like many small urban parishes, St. Luke’s was struggling financially. I regret that I could only afford a few dollars on some weekends and nothing on many. And because the parish didn’t have a lot of money, it had trouble keeping a rector. When the last rector transferred to a wealthier parish, there was a temporary rector, and then a series of visiting priests--retired clergy or priests who worked outside the church.

It was January--the feast of the Epiphany. I was struggling with depression and did not want to get out of bed that morning. But I told myself that this was an important day in the church year, and dragged myself out of bed, ate my usual breakfast of fruit juice, peanut butter toast and instant cocoa, dressed, and walked the six blocks from my apartment over to St. Luke’s.

It was a cold day, but bright, and I began to feel better as I breathed in the crisp air. Walking up Old Newtown Road, I passed the one holdout Victorian house at the corner of Gregg Street, and tried to imagine the neighborhood as it had been when St. Luke’s was built. At the top of the hill, I headed west on Welsh Road, and made my way to the red door of St. Luke’s.

The red door was once a sign of sanctuary. Because Christ’s blood had been shed for all, the red door was a sign that no blood was to be shed within that door. I doubt whether the church would be able to offer sanctuary today, though why such thoughts entered my mind, I didn’t know.

I found my usual pew, just behind the choir, and had time for a brief prayer before the organist began the processional: “Songs of thankfulness and praise, Jesus, Lord to the we raise…” A young black girl led the procession, carrying the cross in front of her. I bowed to the cross as she passed by. The other two acolytes, a white boy and girl followed, and joined the cross-bearer on the altar. Then came the lector, holding the Bible high above her head. The choir followed, filing into the pews in front of me, singing, “Anthems be to thee addrest, God in man made manifest.”

The priest, a woman with graying black hair,was last in the procession. It was only when she turned to enter the pulpit that I recognized a face I had last seen behind the doors of Trinity Episcopal Church in Iowa City, where she had sought sanctuary from an enemy I did not then understand. As we sang the third stanza, those intense brown eyes focused on me. Was I imagining it, or was she singing it for me--for us?

Manifest in making whole
Palsied limbs and fainting soul;
Manifest in valiant fight,
Quelling all the devil’s might;
Manifest in gracious will,
Ever bringing good from ill;
Anthems be to thee addrest,
God in man made manifest