Tag Archives: Philadelphia

Artless City

There is an art to cities – in the way they are planned, in the way they are built, in the manner in which they develop both intentionally and organically, in the way they respond to unexpected internal and external forces, in the way they confront and respond to age, in the way in which the residents live their lives in relation to these urban plans, changes and vagaries. Some cities become fine works of art, others do not; some become both, consecutively, alternately, moving forward or backward, often repeatedly so, as the fates, citizenry and city fathers allow. The art-ness of cities is fluid, and can vary from block to block, decade to decade, administration to administration.

It is hard to tell if Philadelphia is a work of art now, on the way up or the way down. For the most part, its central core has seen much construction and advance, and especially impressive and comforting growth of those things that attract tourists, young people and empty nesters: music, theater, museums and galleries, restaurants and shopping. It benefits from the great number of single-family homes and apartments right in the heart of the Center City area and immediate in-city surrounding neighborhoods; it is a place that never has suffered that deadness of a downtown that empties after work hours. There seem to be a lot of bars and bistros feeding off the disposable income or the credit-card debt of hordes of twenty- and thirtysomethings, as well as Boomers and expense-accounters.

It is also a city of staggering poverty, of disturbing and frequent violent crime, of acres of empty lots and decrepit housing in rundown sections out of sight of the more bustling and cosmopolitan center. There is the natural tension where the two worlds of Philadelphia – the poor and the better-off – meet, along borders, in rapidly gentrifying areas, pushing the edge of the inner edge city, where abandoned factories and remarkably cheap housing entice artists and pioneers and the brave, threatening the turf and tax bills of the longtimers. There are also places in the downtown area where that poverty and decline pop up and encamp, as a sort of movable blight, creating surprising and dismaying stage sets in a kind of street-theater conceptual art that lacks aesthetics but instead is deadly serious doings. Market Street is one of those stretches.

1900

As one could safely guess, Market Street – or what has now been labeled as Market East – has been a commercial corridor at least from the time of Philadelphia’s earliest settlers, as their ships docked along the Delaware River shore and unloaded merchandise, which was then distributed on carts and in shops popping up and moving westward from the water, following the spreading population. Within living memory, the seven blocks of Market between 7th Street and City Hall were home to seven department stores, as well as dozens of shops of all sorts. Market was never the fanciest shopping street – parts of Walnut were more high-tone, sections of Locust were oddly exclusive – but it drew customers, and it was a family strolling street, going from Wanamaker’s to Snellenburg’s, Gimbel’s to Lit’s, Howard’s to Robinson’s, and to Strawbridge & Clothier. It was a street of rites of passage and city lore: here is where hundreds of thousands of Philadelphians went to see Santa, where they had their first grown-up restaurant meal, where they would go to the Grand Court at Wanamaker’s and hear the daily pipe-organ concerts and meet at the Eagle. It was more than a shopping street, or a destination – it was the stage set, a place of memories and where one became part of the great continuity that is city life.

market-street

Starting around the Sixties, Market Street began to change noticeably. The better stores disappeared, to be filled with t-shirt and sneaker shops, and low-end retail; whole rows of stores were demolished to make way for office buildings and parking garages. Lately a convention hotel has been built, and a landmark high rise has been converted into a hotel, as well. Stores vanished when the idea for an in-town mall came to fruition, and the Gallery – appropriately named, in this discussion about art and the city – like malls everywhere, became a big-box magnet and category killer. There are amenities for tourists and conventioneers, but not many.

And where once there were seven department stores, now there is one. It has gone through three name changes and, as a Macy’s, no longer has any hometown lineage, and except for the organ and eagle, no local DNA. Snellenburg’s died and departed long ago, as did Robinson’s and Howard’s; Gimbel’s has been a street-level parking lot for decades, and the site of dashed developers’ dreams for just as long. Strawbridge’s and Lit’s have been converted into office buildings, with a smattering of retail at ground level.

For one who works in one of those buildings and who exits onto Market Street five days a week when the sun is similarly making its exit, the art of the city is difficult to interpret, and certainly to appreciate. The street surface is filthy, foul odors emanate from a sewer system overtaxed by the flushings of shoulder-to-shoulder multi-story buildings, a deadening darkness pervades the streetscape as shops – those that are not vacant – close early or roll down their metal grates over the windows of their unlighted businesses. It is by no means “Blade Runner” but it is a vista that resonates with several layers of failure and many more layers of tolerance for what should be intolerable.

stores

So much for the set ­- now for the actors. A walk up Market Street more and more seems like a stroll down a byway in a third-world country, with the lame and beggars lined up, trying to snag some change from passing tourists and dayworkers headed home. These are people in dire shape and straits, and they are not to be ignored; but, not too long ago, there was a campaign by a local group with the poster tag-line, “The more you give change, the more things stay the same,” and that is the philosophy we follow. But we all play our roles: they ask, we politely decline, and that’s that. Some passersby behave as if these people do not exist, not acknowledging their presence. Very few of us actually give, and these are often visitors from other countries. But there is almost a dance of request and rejection, and both sides know their lines and, really, know how the scene will end. Indeed, some of the panhandlers ask for things – a dime for a meal, a quarter for coffee or a bus ticket – that are so patently ridiculous on the face of them that they are bound to lead to the failure that is predetermined even if their “pitch” were better. But there is, in that walk up Market, an element of danger, of some fear, of the possibility of a confrontation or an accusation, and then violence.

homeless

Market Street, once a benign place of commerce – not the city’s liveliest, or best, but certainly one of its most solid – has become emblematic of a changing urban “theater,” one we no longer wish to be in the audience of. We all, in the city, put up with too much to get what we think we need. When one no longer gets that, nor gets it in a way that is satisfactory – when one realizes that there is no reason to put up with so much unpleasantness, that one no longer wants to take it anymore, that what we believed to be the city’s placeness is mutated or gone completely – then it is time to say that this city as art is no longer to our taste, and that it’s time to direct our gaze elsewhere.

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The Ghosts of Thriftness Past

It is said that you can’t go there again. That once you change and the world around you changes, that you cannot return – even to your home away from home.

Thrift ShopAs I was growing up, my mother and I used to frequent thrift shops. I can’t remember how we got started, but once we discovered their treasure trove-ness, we were goners. First it was clothing. So what if it was pre-worn? The money we were saving! And, face it, those whose clothing we were reclaiming obviously only wore things once before discarding them. Objects came next, and, depending on which shop and who the donations came from, well, their discards were always higher quality than what we could purchase brand new. The same could be said for furniture, although that was more my own interest than mom’s, since I was the one setting up house.

It was too early to be called recycling, but whatever we were doing, we enjoyed being the beneficiaries of an economic class system. Our world opened up and was enhanced by others’ wherewithal and their convenient top-bracket tax write-offs. My various apartments and, finally, house were filled with other people’s castoffs. I think, along the way, I developed an aversion to new, always aware that I could get better value in old.

My artwork took on elements that were used, and, eventually, my art was built entirely from found objects. A big piece of what I did was to hunt for the raw materials. Every place I lived, I learned the thrift-shop lay of the land. And, on vacations, too, I was going to parts of cities unknown to most visitors – to explore what the second-hand stores had to offer. When I settled in a section of Philadelphia with my own studio, my weekly routine was to scour the thrift shops for items of interest. For about 15 years, I made the trek of approximately 50 miles round trip out to the Main Line thrift stores. Many of them were owned and operated by the big hospitals in the city proper. But what caused them to be located in the older, wealthy suburbs was Machiavellian: the monied denizens of these communities had good stuff to donate to these shops; also, many of the volunteers who ran the stores were often married to the doctors who worked at the hospitals they were working to raise money for, and these very same volunteers lived conveniently near the shops.

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If you are at all familiar with Main Line Philadelphia from “The Philadelphia Story,” the residents were originally blue-blooded, off the Mayflower, Junior League/country-club types. Appropriate as the name might first seem, the derivation of Main Line really has to do with the Pennsylvania Railroad line that was built to serve the communities of large estates that were like the Newport, R.I., of the Mid-Atlantic. As you might imagine, wealth was still prevalent in the latter half of the 20th century – and I picked over its bones. I would go to the towns with the names that are still stops on the commuter trains: Paoli, Berwyn, Wayne, Bryn Mawr, Villanova, Haverford, Ardmore. Kind of like the Hamptons without the beach. The amazing thing is that nearly every town had a thrift shop, some more than one. A bank, movie theater, hardware store, thrift shop – some as close as just a couple of miles apart.

I look around my house and I can remember which items came from which shops. I hauled a lot of stuff out of those amazingly well-stocked stores. But there is a point when enough is enough. Or maybe, enough is too much. My regular route ended sometime in the late 1990s. The funny thing is, that at this point I probably have owned some of the furnishings longer than the original owners had them. I still value them, despite having paid very little for them.

So, this week, for whatever reason, I took the tour again. I guess I was looking for something, but mostly, I was just looking: at my past, at what would be out there if I was starting anew, at the old haunts. It would be a kind of reunion. These days, I search on Craigslist. I am reminded by this of how technology has altered many things, but in this sense, hunting. It brings to mind the difference between browsing and searching. I think I am a browser at heart, since it is the thrill of serendipity that gives the process so much placeness. Searching and then finding what you were seeking out is satisfying, but not thrilling.

Pennywise

So I made the circuit and found it disappointing. The shops are emptier of interesting, or even nice, stuff. Yes, that could be a difference of the generation that is unloading its stuff now as opposed to the previous one. Or it could be that the idea of thrift shops is a dated one when you can search online. Probably fewer donations are made these days. And the wealth level, even on the Main Line, could be lower now – diluted by other classes wanting to live in among. Also, now there are consignment furniture outlets that are drawing the goods away from these shops – allowing the nouveau riche to get something for their discards. The true blue bloods understood charity. Plus, the volunteers working now are possibly the originals, the same women who were there 20-30 years ago. In fact, one shop had a huge banner across its storefront that read, “Looking for Volunteers.” Again, the world has changed.

It is sad to see meaningful markers of your life reduced to ghosts. These hospital thrift shops are diminished now, but they once filled both my home and heart.

Nearly New

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The Journey Within

All Japanese gardens, if done well, done imaginatively and artfully but also done within tradition’s fairly rigid and proscribed parameters (or with an abiding respect for or creative spin on them) have placeness. In their sensitive tough-love partnership of nature and the shaping human hand, they are almost the definitive working model of arslocii. Though the inclusion of certain elements – pathways and materials and physical relationships – can be, need be found in all such gardens, the designers of them have found ways to be faithful and yet to be singular, to take the time-honored and familiar pieces and mold something that feels old and new, even renewed, formal yet comfortable, all at once. Without knowing much about such places, one merely has to go to one, a good one, and to sit in it, and to be in it, and one will know that it is right.

We have been to a few such places, most recently Shofuso, which began life slightly more than a half-century ago as an exhibit in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and which somehow found its way to a small carved-out niche in the westernmost portion of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. Shofuso is, like its not-too-distant neighbor Martin Puryear’s Pavilion in the Trees, an amenity – a throwback to a time when cities believed it was in the public good to provide such things, and when citizens felt that their tax dollars were well-spent in the providing. They are relics of a bygone era – in fact, two eras, from two nations – and in that way alone Shofuso would have placeness.

But, in any discussion of Shofuso and placeness – in fact, of most such amenities and their placeness – inherent nature can be less interesting than situation.

Where Shofuso resides, it is within a park but up against a busy road, and the park is within a hard-scrabble and rundown neighborhood, which is in a city, which is in a large metropolitan area, which is in a cohesive region. Like Charles and Ray Eames’ film Powers of Ten, one can start at the particular and zoom out to the general – from the lake in Shofuso up and out to view the expanse of the encompassing geography. Each element is within another; one exists because the other does.

 

Often, the placeness of a place is not so much the place itself but the place it’s in, and the place that that place is in, and so on. Much of what gives a place its placeness is the coming upon it. In this way of thinking, placeness is like nested Russian eggs, where, by removing the larger outer shell one finds a smaller one of equal or surpassing beauty within, and by opening this newly found egg, one encounters another. One egg gives over to another, smaller, until, finally, one arrives at the core egg, the gem most nested inside, like a cut stone in a jewel box. Often, what gives this final egg its specialness is not that it is so much more lovely than those that preceded it, but that they did precede it – that there was a process of discovery, a journey, and that coming upon this final egg was the culmination, a bestowed specialness. The prize in a CrackerJack box has little value; it is that it hides from view, and one must send fingers on a burrowing adventure to find it. It is the path of discovery, however messy, that makes the found item something of (even momentary) merit.

But what makes this placeness reductionism even more rewarding is that, unlike the nested eggs, there really is no endpoint to the focusing journey. Within Shofuso, say, there is a teahouse, and within the teahouse is the ceremonial room, and within the room are tatami mats, and one of these mats is a small rectangle, and it is upon this tiny spot that the teapot is placed, and where so much is done in the tea ritual. A place within a place within a place. You could stop anywhere along the placeness continuum and feel the placeness. But if you continue, you can find more.

 

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Arms and the Men

“Wouldn’t it be nice,” mused Lily Tomlin in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, “if all those people who roam the streets of New York, talking to themselves, were paired off so that they could walk around in couples and look like they’re having a conversation?”

This line came to mind, unexpectedly, this week when the news was filled with reporting of the ham-handed official removal of a statue of Penn State fallen hero Joe Paterno from in front of the stadium in which he spent his life coaching, following a report that implicated him in the coverup of longtime child sexual abuse by one of his staff. It wasn’t so much the yanking of the bronze figure or the material facts of the case that brought Tomlin’s one-liner to mind – as far as I know, the two never met, never had anything to do with each other, and this may be the first time in print that the two have been mentioned in the same story – but rather the photo of the statue itself. Here’s a view of it, pre-excision:

 

I’m not much of a college-football fan, nor have I had good or bad or, really, any feelings for or against Paterno. And the statue itself veers pretty far from anything that resembles the good or meaningful art that we try to discuss here; it seems to have had aspirations of competence but succeeded only in completion. However, applying some aspect of my arslocii empathy in considering the statue, I actually started to feel sorry for it. I mean, it had spent its life viewed by perhaps millions of Penn State fans, was the center of attention, had become a campus icon … and, now, it’s whisked away to be mothballed in some Citizen Kane-ish warehouse, next to Rosebud and the Lost Ark. I wondered if it would be lonely, with no one to glad-hand to, caught in unobserved suspended animation, “We’re Number One” finger frozen in the air for nobody to see or honk an air horn at.

Then it struck me (not the statue, but an idea): The Paterno statue, in pose and style, reminds me so much of another civic figurine, this one in Philadelphia, of former top cop and mayor, Frank Rizzo, whose barrel-chested likeness appears to be hailing a cab (or, perhaps, giving to go-ahead to a firing squad) from the steps of a municipal office building. It’s a memorial that, depending on your politics, is either an imposing thing or something that has been imposing itself on the public for decades. So, I thought: Maybe, for its sake – for art’s sake, as well – Philadelphia should acquire the Paterno statue and give Rizzo a buddy. Place them near each other, facing each other, Rizzo waving to Paterno, JoePa eager to make a point to Frank – balance, symmetry, dialogue. A bit of conceptual perfection.

But, no – perfect, or more so, would be to take these two and haul them about a mile up the road where a similarly crafted statue of Sylvester Stallone as Rocky anchors a corner outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Here’s what we had to say about that in an earlier commentary.) And, always the overachiever, he has two arms up.

 

To make it a fore-arm foursome, how about including Chicago’s Christopher Columbus statue? Do I smell some pinochle in their future?

 

And, lest this thing takes on the politically-incorrect parameters of a Bunch of Italian Guys With Their Arms Up Plaza, let’s throw in this fella, just because – he hasn’t been the recipient of much sugar lately.

The question is: What is this with arms up? Is it supposed to make these guys look commanding, or vibrant – something the artists aren’t capable of doing in other, more subtle, more artful ways via their limited talents? Of course, with some laughable hyperbole, these poses harken back to classical Hellenic and Roman sculptures of soldiers, emperors and the Ancient World equivalent of power-lunch guys – as if these current honorees belong in the same pantheon. But, think of one of the most powerful of such monuments – Mount Rushmore; those heads don’t even have bodies, and look how imposing they are, and what placeness they create – perhaps because they don’t have arms up. Michelangelo’s David has an arm raised, but it is kept close, and draws the viewer in, creating a circle, a campfire of controlled intensity – you could put it in a museum, in a courtyard, in a barnyard, and it would bestow arslocii life in situ.

The fallacy of these thrust up or outward statues is that our eyes follow the energy, such as it may be, up the body, through the arm and up away from the statue and the place it sits in. In other words, these figures, by directing our eyes elsewhere, are pretty much anti-place and, despite themselves, anti-art and anti-reverential. And by showing these men (and they’re almost always men) in the acts of waving or pointing or flailing or whatever, we diminish them, either by giving no sense of what it is they’ve done to deserve our memorializing of them or by reducing their lives to the patently artificial photo-op gestures of political persona.

Good sculpture, like safe geopolitics, needn’t be an arms race.

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Up Against the Wall

What sort of ego – or utter lack of it – causes someone to create a haunting bit of art and not sign it, or give any indication as to who made it? And what sort of reticence, or shyness, or insecurity – or, perhaps, even contempt – would make one create a public space, redolent of an irresistible and memorable placeness, that nearly everybody cannot find and few will see?

As all eyes in this city (and, it seems, of the entire art world) are on the reopening in new digs of the renowned and yet famously odd Barnes Foundation, and as most articles written about the event mention the collection’s idiosyncratically masterpiece-festooned walls (the inestimable pieces displayed as if merely web-page thumbnails) – as this is going on, our minds wandered to a quieter place, just across town, where other walls make their own odd magic, outdoors and mostly, as good sleight of hand always is, out of sight.

It is down an alleyway that you must go, or, more likely, stumble upon, accidentally – a cobblestoned byway you would probably not even think to walk down as you ambled near the Philadelphia waterfront. And, even if you did happen to let chance and curiosity rule your wandering, sans tourist map, if you didn’t happen to turn and look in the right direction at the right time, or were distracted by a couple of cute Colonial-era buildings or their facelifted and gentrified neighbors, you could easily miss this odd and wondrous spot, which we spotlighted (ALERT: shameless promotion ahead) in our book Hip and Hidden Philadelphia.

What you will see – if you are lucky – and resembling a found-object assemblage, is part of a complex of old commercial buildings dating back to 1759 and continuously occupied by a metal manufacturer/distributor for three centuries until some of the buildings became residences and artists studios, in 1986. But, during that time – possibly in the 1960s and ‘70s – someone looked at this inset area, this car-park opening begging to be a courtyard, and had a vision as to how to make a space into a place. He or she began applying stone and terra cotta and cast concrete reliefs & sculptural decorative pieces all over the bare, stuccoed facade – architectural design elements rescued from demolished office and theater buildings around town and attached there, with no knowable philosophy or reason behind it except a pure attempt at creating a placeness-filled mews, redolent of history and misty-past endeavors. The space feels as if you’ve come upon, or, after passing through some time-travel portal, awakened in an ancient amphitheater, or place of the gods, and that yours will not be the only surprise visitation. Though in no way museum-like, it has something about it – a something of having been saved, yet of something appropriated and removed – of the feel that one experiences in the presence of the Elgin Marbles. 

So many of the applied items look to be about music and/or theater; they could be (or we would like to imagine them being) relics and remnants, heroic or celebratory portraits of the now-unknown performers of their day (whatever or whenever that “day” might have been, if indeed there was ever such a what or when), or the deities overseeing creative invention among humans. There are also quite a few lion heads, giving the place an aura of power, and of kings. Mixed among the faces are moldings, wall caps, and many other figurative pieces  – the effect being like entering an old mask shop that has amassed an antique collection of bygone importance. It is, we imagine, what it must have been like to be the first modern archeologists to uncover Pompeii.

But this is the vision of someone who must have known that this would not be seen by many, but who felt compelled to do this, and in the process created a placeness unique to this city, a cloistered place, knowing but compelled by instinct, captivating for its purity of purpose and its gift to the unsuspecting.

To paraphrase Robert Frost, good walls make good arslocii.

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Come On and Take a Free Ride

Sometimes when our transit system gets bogged down and people are made to wait for an unreasonable length of time, the vehicle that shows up next has a no-charge policy. This courtesy, or apology, is expressed by the driver folding up a transfer ticket and shoving it halfway into the token slot. Such an act is not only a way of blocking payment but, in another sense, it is a tiny white flag displayed at the front of the bus – a sign of surrender to the angry waiting mobs, briefcases and lunch bags in hand. I think it is nice; a way of asking forgiveness and giving a free ride to the bus-weary.

Whenever this gesture occurs, as it did recently, I am reminded of the massive transit strike that embattled SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) about 14 years ago. It lasted more than 40 days (like the flood) and it stranded people, strained relationships across the entire political spectrum and stained the reputation of regional transit, which people were annoyed with from the get-go. It was a pivotal moment for everyone, mostly for SEPTA. When mediation finally ended the stand-off, SEPTA offered free rides on the entire system for a couple of days.

This was nothing to sneeze at. Let’s take a look at the possibilities: regional rail, elevated line, subway, trolleys, a high-speed rail line, trackless trolleys, buses and jitneys. SEPTA is one of just two U.S. transit companies that provide all of the five major transit conveyances, the other is Boston’s MBTA. SEPTA’s reach is within five counties in Pennsylvania and it connects to two neighbor-states.

We decided to take advantage of the opportunity but had only one day to explore and chose to go to a place we had never been before, a far-flung town to the west: West Chester, Pa. It is about thirty miles from Philadelphia and only nine miles from the Delaware state line. We wanted to ride as many different vehicles through usually rate-changing zones as we could, experiencing new territories that we would have no other reason to explore. We mapped out our route and as Peter Pan might announce, “Away we go!”

Our first leg was on a familiar bus route that took us a couple of miles to a transfer-station stop, one of several hubs where buses and sometimes trains unite. There, we boarded a number 124 bus headed for the King of Prussia Mall, a 30-minute ride on expressway, county roads and a state route which deposited us behind the behemoth mall at its transit center – basically, a parking lot turn-around – to await our next leg. This was a totally unexpected jitney-style bus, number 92, the type you get shuttled about in when you pick up/drop off a rental car at an airport. Being in the city, the only time you see buses this small is when they belong to private residential towers or retirement homes. It felt like a private coach and we had a nice conversation with the driver.

Let’s just say, at this point, that there can be a big difference between drivers of city transit and drivers of suburban transit, in terms of chattiness. I am always friendly with city transit employees, but many people are not. And, since the city drivers need full concentration to maneuver through relentless traffic, they will likely not pay much attention to the throngs on their buses. But put a driver out in the sticks with a small bus and very few passengers and, suddenly, you have a new best friend or, rather, a country store on wheels. It can be refreshing or annoying depending on your state of mind. At least it was different, and it was experience we were seeking.

The mini-bus took us to our destination in about an hour’s time, we walked and explored the foreign territory and then, when ready, we hopped back on the next shuttle bus for our return. But this time we went only as far as the town of Paoli, about midway through the bus route. This landed us at the regional rail station and we hopped a train, riding through the renowned Main Line – famous for the horsey set of bluebloods that settled as landowners, the rail lines having been built to service them and to create new housing.

We stayed on the train, passing through all the communities – Villanova, Bryn Mawr, Haverford, each with its own college or university – and continuing through into the outer rings of city neighborhoods, each successive one shrinking in terms of its open space. Although, at some point, the open space started to reappear in the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods where houses had been removed like bad teeth or had burned to the ground. After twenty-some miles and about 50 minutes, we disembarked in downtown Philadelphia and spent some time there before catching our last leg, our bus home, landing us one block from our house.

If someone else had wanted to sample all the different track-based possibilities, that would have been fun to organize. But the fact is, we have used almost all of them many times and for many purposes. This wasn’t exactly PeeWee’s Big Adventure, but it was another taste of public transportation. This self-designed day trip took us to new places and allowed us to see old places from different angles. There is, for me, excitement in finding my way without a car, using a miraculous infrastructure of systems – the placeness of public conveyance. It’s what we did the first time we all visited Europe and found the self-satisfaction of wayfinding. Either there or here, there is exhilaration in reading maps and schedules and traveling your way through them. Discovery is part of the deal.

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Temple of Love

Valentine’s Day aside, February truly is an example of a love–hate relationship, a mixture of longing and dread. That it is the shortest month is both a blessing and a curse. It reflects so directly the paradoxical nature of the human condition as its daylight hours grow longer while, counterintuitively, its temperatures decline. February is a flirtatious tease, filling us with hope while reminding us, cruelly, that we are not in charge. Of course, February behaves differently depending on where we reside. Here, in the Middle Atlantic states, our winters register low on the harsh meter, and we are grateful for that, but February reminds us not to be too gloat-y or greedy, since anything can happen. Any time.

Despite my instincts of mistrust for February, by December I can’t help eagerly awaiting its arrival. The reason is, I yearn for something that only February can provide, a desire that it alone can quench. What it brings starts its yearly emergence mid-to-late January and disappears mid-March, like an extended appearance of our annual groundhog. However, it is not a roly-poly, fur-covered mammal that makes my heart go pitter-pat, exceedingly cute as it is; it is rather, a nearly round, shiny-skinned fruit: the Temple orange. It is my love apple.

I was introduced to Temples by my mother and, sadly, I don’t know how she gained her knowledge of them. They just became an annual event in our home, similar to what now, for others, Clementines have become for the winter holidays. But it wasn’t so ubiquitous as that, since, even though they were available for her purchase, they were not something I ever saw in anyone else’s household. She must have had the same love for them that I developed – maybe it is something in our DNA, or some pheromone we sensed in common. But we shared, too, the midwinter jones that only this citrus could satisfy. Thanks, Mom.

There is a learned kind of placeness in having a food as an annual event, of it being representative of the same month every year. And, too, having it create a cyclical yearning and anticipation makes for a visceral desire for the fruit. Its placeness every February becomes the only antidote. This seasonal nature of things like foodstuffs, let alone their placeness, is practically unheard of in the year-round availability of almost every other comestible. Of course, this makes the Temple all the more special.

A descendant of the original growers of the Temple orange, Ethel G. Hakes wrote a history of the fruit entitled, “The Romance of the Orange,” published in The Florida Grower around 1964. In her personal and factual account of her husband’s grandparents’ discovery of a single tree in their Winter Park, Florida, citrus grove, she relates the surprise origins of the parent tree that became the propagator for all the Temple oranges that followed – and how it was named: for William Chase Temple, who helped build the steel industry in Pittsburgh, Pa., and then the citrus industry, forming the Florida Citrus Exchange, in 1909. From her memoir: “Ranking among the handsomest of Florida’s fresh fruits is its luscious-tasting, easy-peeling Temple orange. Believed to have come from Jamaica before 1894, it was introduced to the public in 1917.” It generated much interest as a new “wonder” orange and its name was patented.

Declared “undoubtedly an accidental hybrid,” by Dr. David Fairchild, head of the Bureau of Plant Introductions, for the federal government, the Temple was one of those happy freaks of nature: a cross between a tangerine and an orange. The tree also had its druthers, preferring certain growing conditions, like rich hammock soil. “And today,” Hakes wrote, “the fruit market of the world is enriched by truly a miracle orange – the handsome, easy-peeling, luscious-tasting Temple.”

Hear, hear! The Temple hints at its power to entice simply by one’s sniffing the slightly cratered and bumpy skin. It’s pungent aroma permeates the air when you just break its thick but easily-penetrated outer rind. It has a deeper orange color than most other citrus, except maybe the tangerine. The citrus oil is as heady as pine oil can be. Tearing  through the skin, the orange itself has a slight bitter smell; the more of the fruit you reveal, the more pronounced is the subtle scent of the white inner-peel. Disengage a segment and place it whole in your mouth, because if you bite into it, its juices will land on your chin and clothes, not in your mouth. Beware of lots of seeds, but don’t let that minor inconvenience spoil the taste. And what of the taste? Spurts of tangerine and orange, and hints of something indefinable, sweet and sour, refreshing and tart, complexity, perhaps umami.

Remember that old slogan out of Florida’s citrus campaign, “A day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine”? I would do that one better: A February without Temples is a devastating winter. So, according to the PLU codes from the International Federation for Produce Coding (IFPC), the number to look for is 4387 (large) or 4386 (small) Temples – sandwiched chronologically between Navels and Valencias. Temple oranges were known as the king of citrus in the 1950s-‘60s, as well as a sign of spring in Florida. They are loved by more than myself. In the famous Philadelphia Reading Terminal Market, a former vendor, Ro & Sons Produce, would hang a banner every year in March. It said, simply, “Goodbye Temples, see you next year!” 

Hey, it’s Valentine’s Day. Get some love for the one you love. It’s round and orange.

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See me, Here. me

My intent is not to go all political on you, dear reader. My purpose is to discuss placeness because, lord knows, we all need it. The Occupy Movement is only a few months old and, yet, the participants have found a place in our minds and hearts. They are, as are we, the unhappy 99% of humans who are negatively impacted by an unchecked capitalist system-on-steroids that is destroying the very way of life it was intended to empower. My recollection is that the wealthy 1% used to provide many structures and amenities for the rest of us, maybe to keep our eyes focused off what else they were doing. But there is no pretense now for those who are able to steal away with all the limited assets on the planet, right under our noses, leaving nothing. Thanks for nothing. Hey, 1%, remember history and what happened to people like you in the Russian Revolution or La Grande Revolution, or all other overthrown repressive regimes and robber-baron-run countries eventually? The Occupy people are, at this moment, polite.

Shifting gears a bit, arslocii recently went to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to view an exhibit called Here. Intriguing topic for us, especially when the promo for the show starts with, “What is the role of “place” in art?” The intent was to explore the differences generated by regional influences and how those resultant expressions fit into the larger artworld, or, as they refer to it, Cultural Globalism. Funny, that many of the pieces in the show expressed a similar stance to the Occupiers’ own: representations, mostly explanations, of being “outsider.” And there were even artists in Here. who built makeshift shelters, so that we viewers started to confuse this prettied-up display with the real one happening two blocks away at Philadelphia City Hall. Being an artist myself, I can’t deny that the artists represented in Here. have genuine feelings or meaningful thoughts and, possibly, diplomas to prove that they paid their dues in art training programs in their specific regions of the country, but … I will answer the question of globalism versus regionalism – it all looks pretty much the same to me. It is more of the same “painted word,” even more so than what Tom Wolfe ridiculed nearly forty years ago. The artwork, as Wolfe writes, merely illustrates the text, “for Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.”

If I was spun around, blindfolded and set down in the gallery at Here., I would not be able to get any sense of place from it; no place as to where I am, no place as to where these works originated, and, certainly, no place within most of the works. Art, this art, whether regional or not, is not global, it is personal, the opposite of universal – to the point of masturbation, and – dare I say? – hooey. Generally, the artist statements are more well-fashioned than the works on display, and the works just seem like the necessary infill for the otherwise empty wall spaces between statements.

As with all things, there are exceptions; interestingly, the digital photographs by two separate artists – Scott Hocking and Tim Portlock – have a similar sensibility in their Photoshopped surrealistic prints.

These, the flattest, most illusionistic and unreal pieces in the exhibit have more placeness than all the others put in a bag and shaken, including videos, objects, paintings, constructions, installations, etc. Sadly, what we have mostly discovered is that art shows with themes such as this often display what the artist-participants would do for any venue and, rather, the statement is crafted to speak to the theme or grant.

The artists, Hocking and Portlock, have rendered post-apocalyptic visions of two decayed cities, Detroit and Philadelphia, places with a soulless soul that illustrate, as artwork is wont to do, a sense of location, loss and betrayal – plus beauty. The human condition. Much like the Occupy sitters have done in real time.

But here sits Here., and my mind wanders to outside the gallery. Where is the here here? So much of it in this show is terribly narrative, literal, uber-personal or inaccessible except for the spelled-out printed word on the walls. Art, at its very nature, should be place-making. But in this show, of all shows, which defines itself as a repository of place, Here. is mostly just a definer of place for “art,” as gallery. Nothing more. Better, it should be called I Am Here, because it seems just another extension of the usual Twitter/Facebook fascination with self than anything else. The Occupy movement has expressed itself as being here and being heard, and despite its message being a bit expansive and difficult to be slogan-ized (the point, I imagine), it has presence: physical, social and political. It is here and now and it tries to create a dialogue. Where is Here.?

P.S. As of last night, the Occupiers have been dispersed and, now, there is no here there either.

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The Bottom Line

We are slogging through the underbrush, the vines and weeds grabbing at our legs, sharp-edged bush branches snapping at our faces – think jungle movies you’ve seen, minus the machetes. The ground is crunchy in spots, spongy in others, and in places a swampy stretch meanders alongside us. The sky is vivid blue, and clear, made more so by the dark, penned-in area we find ourselves in. And it is quiet. In a forest, this quiet would not be so unusual – but we are, despite the wild, untouched nature all around us, right in the middle of a city. Ninety-nine percent of Philadelphians don’t know that where we are – under their feet, beneath their cars, almost entirely out of sight and lost in the veldt – even exists; and of the one-percent who do, 99.5 percent of them have never been where we are now walking: a canyon carved into the metropolis, nature taking back what the city-builders and titans of industry bulldozed away.

In New York City more than a decade ago, some visionaries noticed abandoned, elevated train tracks stretching north-south near the Hudson River – and, finding their way up to that level, saw that, left to the elements, the tracks and bridge structure were now a thriving meadow of native plants, shrubs and flowers. Today, after years of work and millions of dollars, the High Line has become a ribbon of accomplishment, a tourist magnet, an exotic and expanded pathway to and from work and play, and a blueprint for others who, in their home towns, have a rail relic with the potential for renewed greatness.

In Philadelphia, there are two. One is called the Reading Viaduct, a mile-long bridge of north-south track that once carried passengers to and from the Reading Railroad Company’s grand Center City terminal. There is a group trying to emulate the High Line there; at the moment, neighborhood politics – it runs through Chinatown, and some are not happy with the development prospects – are putting, at a minimum, a speed bump into the planning.

A less publicized, and at the moment more monumental, project is what has brought us into this urban Amazon. It is called, by its small group of hopefuls, Viaduct Greene, and what the Reading Viaduct is to rehabilitating old passenger tracks, this has its eye on a nearly four-mile swath of left-behind land that once funneled freight trains into town. Most of it is below street level, defined and contained by soaring old stone walls topped by delicate iron railings; the key proponents of the dream – Paul vanMeter and Liz Maillie – hope to take this “inconspicuous, intimate submersive space of mystery, wild excitements,” in their website’s words, and turn it into a nature path connecting the burgeoning Loft Area just north of downtown to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway’s cultural zone, and especially to the new Barnes Foundation building. The two envision numerous access and egress points along the way, leading to, perhaps, a boardwalk or grated walkway that would allow the walker or bicyclist to travel among the untouched greenery without disturbing it (or kicking up clouds of whatever has permeated the ground-surface over the years). The two also envision money from various deep pockets coming forward to make this a reality.

And now we are with vanMeter, as he leads us through this eerie and wondrous conduit, occasionally stopping us at a spot to show us, on his iPad, where exactly we are in relation to the “real world” above us, and what it all looked like back when where we are standing would have put us in danger of being hit by a locomotive. We push on, from the eastern end, emerging from the darkness of a tunnel underneath what is a parking garage into the improbable lushness of this ad hoc city wilderness. We are in another place from what we could even imagine experiencing – except when, from time to too-frequent time, we are yanked back into the reality of our location by piles of plastic bottles and aluminum cans, some tossed with uncaring abandon from cars passing along the overpasses above our heads, and some from the homeless (one who accosts us with the belligerence of a property owner who has caught poachers in his field) who have found this to be an area far more amenable (and, perhaps, safer) than steaming sidewalk grates and stairwells.

We plod on, like the sailors and film crew looking for the beast on Kong Island. We look up, but, in a bit of disconnect, it’s not mountains we see but office and condominium buildings, and the Community College of Philadelphia campus. And always, even as the sun hits us, and the leaves and branches caress us and whack at us, we are constantly aware of the monumental walls of giant cut-block stone, gray and still sooty after all these years, and not going anywhere. We are, in a way, cowed by these giants (in movie serials of the past, they would begin to move towards each other with an ominous rumble, threatening to squeeze us to bloody pulps at the episode’s cliffhanging ending), but in a way elevated by them – they have an emotional impact not so different from the great walls of cathedrals, or of the Pyramids: they seem prehistoric, the work of early humans in thrall to some ancient gods, and that once a year the sun aligns with the tunnel in some religious denotation of the Heavens’ power over us. Of course, the “early humans” in this scenario were underpaid immigrant laborers, the “ancient gods” were robber barons and railroad capitalists, and the streaming “sun” was the gravy train of good old American commerce. But, these days, that sort of financial strutting confidence does seem prehistoric. And we’ll take our resonant monumentality where we can find it.

We emerge, finally, after a six-block walk that takes well over an hour, into a parking lot and then up to the surface, where pedestrians and drivers tootle along, unaware of the amazing bit of natural placeness below their feet, just over the bridge railing, a place they note, if they note it at all, with minimal curiosity. Another amazing, endangered  Philadelphia treasure, that deserves the hard work and good intentions that vanMeter and Maillie are applying to it. But, whether they win or lose, whatever happens with their Viaduct Greene project, it is somehow comforting to know that it represents what will happen when all of us silly anthro-creatures bite the dust and nature has the last laugh, rolls up its sleeve and gets to work.

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The Book

Around about 2005, six years ago if you are not good at math, we began a process of writing a book. This was not intended to be our only book, merely our first, but from this perspective of it being not-yet published, well, it is looking rather lonely.

In a nutshell, the process so far has been something like this: there, in a flash, was an idea (that’s the easy and cheap part). Admittedly, it was an ambitious project from the get-go, every aspect time-consuming, but we are not talking Tolstoy here. This is non-fiction and does not require a life’s perspective or commitment. We had a fondness for city architecture, mostly uniquely designed houses (since we live in a city that actually has houses) that spoke to us in a meaningful way because they were fashioned with personality, verve even. The first months of the project required a lot of looking. Then there was the weeding – of choices and of thinking. More looking, more weeding, rethinking. Followed by months spent in records rooms, gleaning information about the properties. Databases were built. Photographic shoots were done in various excursions, mostly in seasons where the houses were visible through trees, but not too bare looking. Two different cameras were used, no special lighting except how luck found it. We walked and stared and took notes about what we were seeing.

Then the actual writing. More weeding. How to organize? Categorizing and grouping based on our impressions – this is a book of impressions as well as facts. A layout was needed, a page design for the generated text and images to do justice to a very thoroughly considered idea and execution. More months of design work, inside and for the cover. Quark and Photoshop became our best friends, fonts were selected. When it reached a presentable stage, we offered it to a large university press, one whose interests tend toward urban topics. They liked it, we were thrilled, we felt the investment was worth it on every level. We had many emails to and fro with the editor in charge; this person, who had encouraged us, then kept our book as a hostage for two years. After those two years, he turned it down.

Devastation was an understatement. Disappointment colored our efforts. It wasn’t that we were not familiar with rejection, but like a bad relationship gone south suddenly and unexpectedly (always because it is the other person’s fault, of course), we were set adrift. Gathering our wits and strength, we sent it to other potential publishers. Naturally, the university press had held onto it until just about the time that the economy had tanked, thank you very much. The rejection continued and not a few publishers said (and this is hard to write), “if only you had submitted this a couple of years ago, it would have been a go.” Damn that university press twice now.

We sat frozen for a time on this project and moved forward with other things that we had put aside for our commitment to this, our lifelong project. In 2010, we decided that we had put so much into it that we had to finish what we started. Out we went again, this time revisiting the properties to see if they had altered during the lapse of time, or if our feelings about them had diminished. We added some things new, removed a few that had been renovated out of recognition and interest, found some additional information about a few places in the new technology-ized city databases and on websites that weren’t available in the first go-round. We rewrote, reshot, reconfigured, redesigned. We are going to have it printed ourselves. Why? Because we like it. And we still, six years later, think it is worthwhile to put out there. How many things can you say that about in this everything-is-replaceable world?

So, all of this preamble is to talk about the placeness of process and problem-solving. Of having an idea, acting on it and seeing it come to fruition, no matter the hurdles. It is finding resourcefulness and determination in yourself and your ideas, making them develop when they are worthy of pursuit. It is a place of self that wants to share with others: show and tell – it seemed like a great idea in grade school and it still is now. It is the creative urge and the not giving up that makes things possible. Maybe it won’t be the best book out there but it will be the only one exactly like it. Unless, of course, the university press has come up with their own version of our book that they claimed not to want to publish. Then we will be discussing the placeness of lawsuits.

Our discoveries of placeness can often be external but they are always put through an internal filter, the great determiner of placeness. But here we are, faced with finding placeness within ourselves, the placeness that moves us forward in a process of creativity: at first it is a dream, then the struggle happens, now, soon, it becomes a reality. The book.

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