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.

1 comment:

Peter said...

Gosh. You were posting even before you were posting. (Every now and then I read someone -- sometimes from centuries back -- and I impulsively think, "Why don't they blog?")

I enjoyed this mosaic -- a nice way to help let the city go, I bet.

Finally -- so that's the deal on that "close cover before striking" song. Thanks!