Total Pageviews

Popular Posts

Monday, March 16, 2015

Life in Philly's Riverwards

The Local Lens

• Wed, Mar 11, 2015

By Thom Nickels

The word on the street is that the neighborhood is changing. You only have to look at the housing construction on many of the streets here to see that this is true. Changing patterns are everywhere; on my own block there are three new and slightly out of scale houses (three stories) that dwarf all the homes around it. While I don’t like being "dwarfed," I like the change despite impending property tax increases.

When I first moved to "The Triangle" neighborhood bordering Lehigh Avenue, Aramingo Avenue and Richmond Streets almost 13 years ago, I had a sense of the area as being surrounded by an invisible wall that kept the rest of the city out. That sensation of isolation or remoteness, I think, was based on the fact that unless you had specific business in the neighborhood, there was no reason for you to come here. Usually nobody wanted to come here because, well, there was nothing here but Stock’s Bakery and rowhomes.

When visiting the general Port Richmond area in the 1980s to meet the mother of a friend of mine, I remember feeling that I was traveling to a radically different part of the city that I rarely had an opportunity to visit. I felt as if I was taking a road trip to a place like Palmerton, Pennsylvania.

Apparent to me then was the fact that the Richmond area was an affordable neighborhood with respectable, albeit simple, houses that very often changed hands within families so that "outsiders" rarely had a chance to intrude and change the demographics of the neighborhood.

Moving here from Center City in 2002 was a traumatic experience for me because I soon felt isolated from the city I left behind. The problem for me was that there was nothing to do in the immediate environment.

Hanging in Dunkin Donuts, at that time in the Port Richmond Shopping Center, and pretending it was a café, was not an option. Strolling along Allegheny Avenue and sampling the Polish eateries there cannot take the place of indulging in Center City activities. Today’s options are much more diverse because there’s more of a culinary arts and culture scene here than there was a decade ago. There are new restaurants, theaters, galleries, bars, markets, real cafés, and even Catholic parishes that offer traditional Latin Masses.

Ten years ago, I’d be waiting late at night at Front Street and Girard Avenue for the Route 15 or a taxi, whichever came first. But there was almost never a taxi because they were all in Center City where the money and the people were. That’s not necessarily the case today.

Let me tell you what I did before moving here:

I placed a call to the 26th Police District and asked about the safety of the area. I was told that the major crime issues in the River Wards were substance abuse and domestic violence. While this hardly qualifies as Shirley Temple movie material, it’s certainly better than getting shot while withdrawing money from an ATM machine.

So yes, The Triangle, along with parts of Fishtown and Port Richmond, are still one of the best and safest sections in the city. This area also has the distinction of having triumphed over the Northeast as one of the best places to live. That wasn’t always the case — not so long ago most people had the impression that to "improve one’s standing in life," or to move on up, meant a move to the Northeast. That’s no longer true. The Northeast, to the contrary, has proven to be a move on down.

For me, moving to the River Wards from Center City was a stressful odyssey. It was stressful, in part, because it involved changing my wardrobe, at least according to the advice of one friend who suggested that I shouldn’t walk the streets here dressed like a Center City person.

"How do people in Center City dress?" I asked, amazed at the comment.
"They dress to attract attention," he said.

"Attract attention?" I asked, thinking of my run of the mill conservative dress that a zillion other men wear.
Thinking he wanted me to put on an Eagles sweatshirt or a Phillies jersey, or even wear a backwards baseball cap, I was surprised when he said it was the leather jacket I chose to wear while house hunting on the weekends that would attract the unwanted attention.

"A leather jacket means only one thing," he said. "You are a snob from Center City."
While I didn’t ditch the jacket, I did notice that my friend was half right— there were few to zero leather jackets being worn in The Triangle.
Let me list a few things I’ve learned since moving to the River Wards.

1. Make eye contact and try to establish contact with neighbors: Do this regardless of educational or other perceived differences. No man or woman is an island; you never know when you are going to need the assistance of a neighbor.

2. Visit an "alien" bar: While I don’t regularly frequent bars, I think it’s a valuable life experience to visit a real neighborhood bar. I’m not talking about semi-upscale, quasi-hipster bars like Green Rock Tavern on Lehigh Avenue, which I actually like, but root-authentic places like Sam and Ruthie’s— a bar trapped in a 1969 time warp because it’s where people still smoke and where you can find a gritty Rocky Balboa atmosphere.

It’s easy to imagine Rocky walking into Sam and Ruthie’s and ordering a drink while eyeing the rack of 25 cent potato chip and pretzel bags tacked in front of the bar mirror. It’s much harder to imagine him going into Green Rock where, if he got the munchies, he’d have to forgo chips for something more expensive on the menu. While I don’t think it is the wisest choice to be one of those people who identify their self worth or status in life by the quality of bars they visit but a little Philly grit will add salt to your urban perspective.

As one seasoned world traveler told me after a visit to Sam & Ruthie’s: "This bar shows you the guts of the city. There’s a book of short stories here!"

3. The fence will always be crappy: I’m talking about the chronically dilapidated fence that borders E. Thompson Street and that runs behind Rite Aid on Aramingo Avenue. This fence has been falling down for years and it borders what is perhaps the trashiest stretch of property in the entire Triangle area. The curbside debris here never seems to go away, making you wonder who’s in charge here. When I volunteered with ORCA several years ago to help clean up this mess, the mood among the volunteers was hopeful despite a long time neighbor saw who told our group, "It’s hopeless! It’s not going to do any good!"

While I objected to the comment then as tacky negativity – why not at least try to make things better, right? – I knew she was right when the debris reappeared two weeks later. And reappeared four weeks after that, and so on until today.
The debris on E. Thompson and the broken down, spray painted fence gives newcomers to the area huge negative impressions.

I remember back to when a colleague of mine visited from Northern Liberties, saw the curbside E. Thompson Street trash and the broken fence and said, "I didn’t know that you lived in the ghetto."

Rocky would never hang out in a quasi-hipster bar where there were no 50 cent bags of potato chips. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Chester County Writer: Daniel P. Mannix

This is the story of writer Daniel P. Mannix IV, who had a farm about a mile from my family's home in Frazer.
The Mannix farm was a legendary place. Mannix was a writer who traveled the world with his wife, Jule Junker Mannix, in search of wild animals to bring back to their farm in an area then called Bacton Hill.
The Mannix farm was already well known throughout the region when I was 12 or 13 years old. The Mannix family also belonged to the local Catholic parish and we would often see them at Mass.
The word then was that actress Elizabeth Taylor had once spent time on the Mannix farm while filming her first movie, National Velvet. Apparently the adolescent Liz needed some horse experience, so it was decided that the Bacton Hill farm would be the ideal place for her to learn about horses. The farm also had pythons, cheetahs, llamas, an otter, a spider monkey and even a small elephant.
The Mannix family was listed in the Philadelphia Social Register; they were "society people," meaning they had a long and accomplished American lineage. Families like the Mannix family are also referred to as being from "old money," although if economic circumstances changed they might become known as "fallen aristocracy."
Because of the Liz Taylor story, my family observed the Mannix family with a curious eye.
We would take note when we'd spot Jule at Mass wearing ordinary slacks topped with a worn, but obviously once very expensive, mink stole. At the time this was the standard Saturday afternoon shopping dress for many Main Line matrons.
I ran high school cross country with Mannix's son, Danny. Danny would often invite me to run with him on his farm after school. The farm had tremendous acreage. Danny and I usually ran long dirt roads framed by trees and fields with the occasional winding brook. After our run, Danny would invite me into the house where he'd show me his pet snakes, one of them a python named Peter.
Before that, he introduced to his father, the writer.
Mannix was sitting in his study smoking a pipe in front of a wall of bookshelves. The prolific author was sitting by a window, dressed in a tweed jacket, the smoke billowing from his pipe like the steam from a vintage locomotive. This is what people used to imagine when they thought of (male) writers.
Danny introduced me as a friend "who wanted to be a writer." Mannix didn't seem too impressed. He might even have been thinking, "run from this life, boy, run as fast as you can."
I came away from that meeting thinking... Mannix smokes a mean pipe.
Next, I was introduced to Peter the Python. I already had experiences with snakes, especially when a fellow Explorer Scout taught me how to handle and hold his pet snakes. As a boy I liked to watch a snake shed its skin. To me, discarded snake skins resembled transparent piping or coils.
Danny encouraged me to put Peter around my neck. Since Peter was very large, this seemed risky. Don't pythons wrap themselves around their victims and strangle them?
In his autobiography, this is what Danny's father wrote about Peter. "Handling a big snake is an unforgettable experience. There is the gentle touch of the soft lips and delicate tongue, together with the strange feeling that you are holding a living electric current swathed in smooth scales."
Danny's father reminded his readers that pythons are not poisonous. "Peter, like all constrictors," he wrote, "kills by wrapping his coils around his victim, usually a chicken or a rabbit."
Pythons, Mannix continued, rarely kill human beings because "a man has hands and can generally unwrap a snake before he loses consciousness."
The important thing here, I guess, is to stay awake.
While I wasn't afraid of Peter, his size was daunting. At that time I had no idea that the family allowed Peter to slither around the house, and that very often Peter, being a semi-aquatic creature, would curl up near the plumbing in the bathroom or worse yet, go inside the toilet for a long, cozy nap.
"Peter strongly disliked having the toilet flush when he was inside," Mannix wrote, adding that when that happened he would rise up and give one of his long, loud hisses.
As for the house-guest who inadvertently sat on the bowl with Peter inside, well, that's another story.
Mannix wrote about his experiences as a side show act working in carnivals. At different times in his life, he was a sword swallower, a fire eater, a trainer of wild animals, and a magician known as "The Great Zadma."
In his book, Memoirs of a Sword Swallower, he describes his experiences while traveling with a carnival. He writes about the fat lady, the human beanpole and the ostrich man who ate broken glass.
(I'd certainly like to see the Ostrich Man at the next Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby).
In his book, Freaks, Mannix describes the love affairs of little people (called midgets in those days); the story of elephant boy; the amours of Jolly Daisy, the fat woman; the notorious pinhead who inspired Verdi's Rigoletto and the little person, only 34 inches tall, who was very happily married to a 264-pound woman. Then there was the human torso with a talent for sewing and typing.
As one reviewer commented, Freaks comprises "bizarre accounts of normal humans turned into freaks -- either voluntarily or by evil design!"
In the sword swallowing book, we are able to enjoy photographs from the 1930s and 40s (all taken by the author) and observe the forgotten world of circus performance artists. One reviewer said that the book "will appeal to all who speculate about the outer limits of pain, pleasure, and revulsion."
Mannix's book, The Beast: The Scandalous Life of Aleister Crowley, is about the English occultist and ceremonial magician. After the book was released, Mannix received an invitation to join Anton LaVey's Church of Satan. Mannix refused the offer; LaVey perhaps did not distinguish between the curious and sometimes sensationalist imagination of the writer and the realm of personal belief.
Mannix, as far as I knew, was still a member of our local parish and receiving Communion on Sundays.
Mannix's most famous book, Those About to Die, takes the reader into the bowels of the Roman games at the Coliseum; it was also a look into the daily lives of gladiators.
While I was running cross country with Danny, his father had already published The Hellfire Club, about the secret decorated caves in England where the country's once famous One Percenters, engaged in parliamentary style meetings and various forms of sexual debauchery. Eminent and respected men from the worlds of arts, letters and politics, including benign Benjamin Franklin himself, were said to be habitués of these dens of vice where everything was permitted.
Mannix, who was born in 1911 and died in 1997 at age 85, was survived his wife, Jule, by 20 years.
Today there's a renewed interest in his work, as many of his earlier, out of print books have been republished. And while I haven't set foot on the farm where Liz Taylor once groomed the National Velvet horses, during my research I did discover that Mannix had once teamed up with famed literary critic Malcolm Cowley when they co-authored The Middle Passage. This disturbing essay focuses on the mechanics of slavery, its origins in Africa, its European history and what happened on the slave ships that came to America.
We learn, for instance, that "the vast majority of the Negroes [Mannix's term] brought to America had been enslaved and sold to the whites by other Africans." These other Africans "were coastal tribes and states, like the Efik kingdom of Calabar, that based their whole economy on the slave trade."
The author's report that the slaves might have been prisoners of war, or kidnapped by groups of black marauders, or even sold with their entire families for such "high" crimes as adultery, impiety or, as the authors state, "stealing a tobacco pipe."
Slaves were shackled two by two then sent below the ship; although, women slaves were allowed to roam the vessel so that sailors could see which ones they could have their way with. Mannix writes: "All the slaves were forced to sleep without covering on bare wooden floors... In a stormy passage the skin over their elbows might be worn away to the bare bone..."
In the morning, the sailors would oversee the "dancing of the slaves," a ritual in which the chained slaves would be forced to dance around the deck by the cat-o-nine tail armed sailors. This happened while one slave pounded a drum or a sailor played a bagpipe. This therapeutic ritual was a precaution against "suicidal melancholy," although the authors report that many slaves suffered from a condition known as "fixed melancholy," an expression used to describe a state when a slave had lost the will to live, despite being well cared for.
Diseases like yellow fever plagued these ships, as did the smell of human excrement, which could be detected miles away, depending upon air currents. Mutinies were not uncommon, given the conditions on board. Sometimes the ship's crew would be slaughtered, but the problem for the slaves became where to dock the ship, because for them, there was no such thing as freedom.
If I wore a hat, I'd take it off in honor of Daniel P. Mannix.

City Beat (ICON): Stolen Joan of Arc

City Beat February 2015

A article on the ‘man bun’ got us pondering famous hair bun styles in history. Ballerina buns, Emily Dickinson’s schoolmarm look, Princess Leia’s French rolls, or messy buns with chopstick antennas. Most of the man buns we’ve seen have been on male model types who have little to loose by going ugly. The man bun is really a contrived look on a par with women who dye their hair blue. The rugged PECO worker or neighborhood FIOS installer would never think of doing his hair up like a French maid. Should this cosmetic blight be allowed to continue?  Might we suggest fashionista vigilante action, such as gangs with hair scissors to send these knots flying?   

One good job deserves another. This seems to be the philosophy of PGW’s VP of Marketing and Communications, Doug Oliver, who wants to be mayor. The sharply dressed “go to” smiley executive says he’s ready to be a consensus builder.” His photo and logo,”DO2015” has the pitch perfect ring of Nordstrom’s gift wrapping but is there anything inside the box? Running for mayor, it seems, is all about product. Lynne Abraham’s product is her legacy as former DA. The other contenders--Anthony “Tony” Williams, Nelson Diaz, Ken Trujillo, Milton Street (and possibly) Alan Butkovitz—make us think of cold oatmeal sans cinnamon accents. It doesn’t help the city that Terry Gillen had to drop out of the race due to a lack of funds, while lesser lights like Milton Street continue to be bankrolled.  

Was Joan of Arc burnt at the stake only to be stolen from the Divine Loraine Hotel? For some time now we’ve been hearing stories of how developers shell out cash to neighborhood youths to get them to climb to the roofs of old buildings and dismantle  prized features. The gold Joan statue that used to grace the portal above the Loraine’s front door was not a work of art like sculptor Emmanuel Fremiet’s Joan on the Parkway, but it was stunning enough. It can still be seen in old renderings and photographs of the place. The Loraine’s Joan disappeared sometime in the late 1990s.          

Has Latimer Street’s Pen and Pencil Club become the Mutter Museum of journalism? While it’s true you won’t find the skulls of Damon Ruyan, Red Smith or George M. Cohan behind any glass containers there, you will encounter a bevy of talkers who have opinions on everything. While deadline-conscious journalists cannot afford too many ‘till the wee hours’ boozy nights, “I just got off work” restaurant workers and other nocturnal party animals can. The expansion of P&P’s membership in recent years to include everyone but journalists has caused one observer to write: This place is a monument to the cigar-chomping, typewriter-banging old-school newspaperman who hardly exists anymore (outside of Hollywood).” We tend to think that when ‘theme bars’ like P&P attain comfortable status quo institutionalization (a place where politicians hold court and participate in panel discussions), it’s really time for adventurous journalists to look for a living museum.   

We celebrated with Paul Stinke when the former Reading Terminal Market head announced himself a candidate for City Council. Stinke’s impressive resume includes a stint as Finance Director of the Central Philadelphia Development Corporation. His family was on hand for the festivities. The 6’4” Stinke towers over nearly everyone he meets, including his small stature older brother who introduced Paul after Rep Brian Sims’ rousing opening speech. If we could make any campaign suggestions for Paul, they’d go something like this: Up the amp in your public talks. It’s okay to show some passion and to let your voice rise and fall like ocean waves meeting the shore. (2) If you really want a seat on City Council, you first have to win the hearts and minds of Mr. and Mrs. Philly Joe Average, so go light on ideological references to lgbt activists outside the mainstream.   

“The Body of an American” at the Wilma had us coasting in confusing boredom for the first 25 minutes but when the play picked up we were on the edge of our seats as much as we were when we saw Gone Girl at the Roxy. Our wish was to let Blanka Zizka know how much we enjoyed the performance but we were told she was in Chile for a theater conference. The same Wilma official told us that Blanka really didn’t want to go to Chile because she likes opening nights, but in the end the offer proved too enticing. The Body of an American is an intense, often uncomfortable look at what war can do to the human psyche. The drama also inspired the Wilma’s large stable of (cliquish) 20 something actors to break out into frenzied Whirling Dervish dancing towards the end of the reception. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Man Bun: French Maids with Beards

The Local Lens

• Wed, Feb 11, 2015

By Thom Nickels
A article from January 5, 2015 focused on the so-called "man bun," which is, essentially, when a man does his hair up in a bun.

If this sounds strange, it’s because it is strange. Not because a man, or woman for that matter, doesn’t have the right to wear their hair anyway they want but because of what the average hair bun has come to symbolize for many.
Let’s consider famous female buns in history.

There’s the ballerina bun, Emily Dickinson’s schoolmarm bun, the Princess Leia French roll bun and the messy hair bun with chopstick antennae. Then there is the top-knot bun, or a bun that sits directly on top of a woman’s head like a corn muffin or an apple.

On most women, buns have a severe and restrained look because the hair is pulled back very tightly on the head. This "pulled back" look exposes the bun wearer’s face to undue scrutiny. Everything is accented, like big noses or large ears, but especially big noses because noses always look bigger when the face is not framed by free flowing hair. Free flowing hair often acts as an aesthetic distraction or enhancement and can beautify even the humblest of faces.

Regarding noses, I’m reminded of what writer/novelist Muriel Spark once wrote. The nose, she said, "is our tether between spirit and substance." She quotes Genesis: "the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul," then adds, "The first thing that happened to Adam happened to his nose. Therefore the nose is an emblem at once of our dusty origin and our divine."

Getting back to buns: The majority of women, it seems, wear buns when they don’t have time to "do" their hair; the bun is the end result of a hair emergency. Sometimes a bun can be a work-related necessity. Ballerinas, for instance, do their hair up in buns to avoid getting hair in their faces during performances. Yet this does not mean that they have to keep the bun look while traveling home on Amtrak or Septa.

The advent of the man bun, however, is proof positive that western civilization has not only "ended" but is now in that anarchic post-apocalyptic phase known as the Theater of the Absurd.

Why a man would want to put his hair up in a bun is one of those questions that cannot be answered simply. Is it because he wants lots of eye contact in the street? Or does he want to be known as the pioneer of a new hairstyle?
Most of the man buns I’ve seen have been on male model types who have little to lose by going ugly. In other words, because these men tend to be extremely attractive, they can afford to take gross liberties with their looks.

A balding man with bifocals who struggles with his weight might be advised to stay away from the man bun, because, as is the case with women with top-knot muffin buns, it will only showcase his physical imperfections.

To understand the perversity of the man bun, let’s quickly recap the recent history of male hair.

When long hair first came on the scene, public reaction was not good. In the late 60s, high school students were expelled from school for refusing to cut their hair. Newspaper articles showcased debates on the "ethics" and "morality" of long hair on boys and men.

Long hair was associated with the Beatles and later with radical politics. It was a badge showing sympathy or identification with anti-war demonstrations and the 1960’s counter cultural movements. Animosity against long hair was intense; it bordered on outright hatred. Suburban home-dwellers, truck drivers, World War II vets, policemen and businessmen of every stripe heaped scorn and ridicule on long-hairs. Long-haired hitchhikers were sideswiped off the road, not hired or fired from jobs, or called fags or chicks. Intolerance ruled the airwaves.

Then, suddenly, long hair on men stopped being about politics. Yale-educated political conservatives with long locks began appearing on William F. Buckley’s "Firing Line." Those same truck drivers who used to run hippies off the road were now sporting hippie hairstyles. The same was true for those motorcycle gangs who used to castigate "peacenik" hippies. In the meantime, "dangerous" political radical types contented themselves with the retro-beatnik goatee.

Ira Einhorn, Philadelphia’s Earth Day founder and self-styled New Age guru, copied the long hair and beard styles of Abbie Hoffman and poet Allen Ginsberg. Einhorn, of course, was charged with the murder of his girlfriend, Holly Maddux, in 1979, and became the target of a massive FBI hunt after he fled to France to escape prosecution.

Charles Manson certainly denigrated the long hair and beard look with his nefarious deeds.\

"The culture of hair is most obvious in the United States," writes French journalist Hadrien Laroche in his book, The Last Genet, about the famous playwright and novelist Jean Genet. Laroche quotes Genet on hippie hair: "Any style would do, apparently: long; medium length; with a fringe; straight; black and greasy; flowing; all over the place, brown and frizzy; blonde and curly…This fashion, carried to extremes and even beyond in England, was born in California and grew out of the American army’s reverses in Vietnam…"

The contemporary man bun is ideology-free. If one were to reduce the man bun to politics it would be the politics cosmetic provocation, something that proclaims, "I’m different," when in fact man bun men are more likely to be far more ordinary than guys walking around with hair styles you don’t notice.

To illustrate my point, picture a man, nothing internal to rebel against, as "normal" as one can be. He would be completely unremarkable from others on the street. The man bun solves this problem by deviating from the established "normal" look.

The man with the Iroquois haircut who hates the anonymity that working as a bank teller brings; or the man who tattoos his neck or forehead because he never made it as an artist and he wants to be noticed somehow, or any way possible.
One good thing about the man bun is that it toys with notions of androgyny, although in a contrived, unattractive French maid kind of way.

After all, if most women don’t look good in buns, the numbers quadruple with men.

The Mayoral Race in Philadelphia

The Local Lens

• Wed, Feb 18, 2015

By Thom Nickels

The race for mayor has forced me to look over the field of candidates, as well as to ponder which person would be good for Philadelphia.

I wrote about Terry Gillen in this column before she dropped out of the race because of fundraising problems. It was unfortunate that this had to happen, as I genuinely liked Gillen despite the fact that many found her style to be formalistic and tight. At a small fundraiser I attended for her in Society Hill, I did notice that her campaign aides had a tight-lipped, robotic manner as if they were afraid to be too natural or animated.

Recently, I was found myself at another ‘meet the candidate’ night when I received an invite to attend Ken Trujillo’s State of the Union party in Center City. Trujillo, a former city solicitor, used President Obama’s speech as his campaign kick-off.

The Trujillo crowd was composed of mostly twenty-something people; this surprised me because I expected greater diversity in terms of age. Attendees nibbled on delicious thin crust pizza, soft pretzels and craft beer. Everyone seemed pretty excited to be there.

President Obama lorded over the party crowd on a big screen TV. As the president drove home certain points during the State of the Union– and the television cameras focused on John Boehner’s crestfallen face– the crowd went wild. Obama, obviously, was their hero. Meanwhile, I rank myself as a lukewarm Obama supporter, my opinion growing colder after the President’s disastrous Crusades comment.

When Trujillo addressed the crowd, he surprised me when he said he was happy there weren’t any old people present. Obviously he didn’t see me in the crowd, unless I was the notable exception. Trujillo explained that political campaigns mean nothing and never get very far without the support of young people.

I’ve heard this sentiment before. When Eugene McCarthy ran for President in 1968, almost every smart young person in the country was pro-Eugene. McCarthy, however, lost in a landslide. The so called young vote had proven to be a liability.
At Trujillo headquarters, the heavily partisan crowd applauded much of what Obama said. It was much like all partisan crowds, Republican or Democrat, when the applause is as predicable as canned laughter.

While observing the crowd, I was reminded of the ideological loyalty I witnessed at the start of the Iraq War when I listened to a George W. Bush speech calling for an invasion of that country. I recalled attending a party at my sister’s house when I let a mild objection slip and the guests slowly turned and looked at me in a censorious way. Likewise, during the State of the Union speech, when a man in the back seemed to take issue with something Obama said he was subject to a collective stare.

The day after his party, Ken Trujillo withdrew from the mayor’s race, citing family issues but not going into specifics. What happened in the twelve hours between the end of the party and the fateful email from his campaign the next morning is any one’s guess.

Whatever happened, there were no "young people" to save him.

Continuing with the mayoral theme, a friend of mine, Riv, who happens to be black, told me that he thinks the city needs a white mayor this time around.

"The racial pendulum has to swing back," he said, "It will be good for the city. It’s a healthy thing to do."
My other black friend (we were three friends having lunch) agreed with Riv’s sentiment. Both friends discounted Anthony Williams, mostly because of Williams’ controversial and allegedly corrupt father, Hardy Williams, whose city legacy is anything but good.

"Is there an elected position Mr. Williams won’t run for?" one comment on asked. "Other than former [retired] city employees, he doesn’t have to risk his other job to run for Mayor. And if he loses, he’s just raised his recognition factor. Only Jim Kenney has the most to lose by putting his money where his mouth is, resigning a cushy City Council job to run for Mayor. I just wonder what Williams thinks he can accomplish as Mayor, working ‘with’ city council is something he couldn’t do when he was part of the same City Council."
The three of us agreed that Jim Kenney is probably the best candidate and certainly a safer bet than the venerable Lynne Abraham who, as District Attorney, almost gave the police too much power and neglected to pursue police misconduct cases when they surfaced.

Riv pointed out that if Abraham were elected she would be Mayor Rizzo in drag. He was referring to the hard time that minorities had on the streets of the city when Rizzo was mayor. While it’s true that Rizzo’s obsession with law and order had its good points– and while it’s also true that he was very charming if you found yourself in his company; he once put his arm around me and invited me to lunch despite my writing not so flattering things about him in a Center City newspaper— he did overstep his bounds when it came to allowing the police to do pretty much what they wanted to do.
During the Rizzo administration, black and gay friends of mine were routinely rounded up on the streets and put in the back of police wagons for no other reason than they were walking in "suspect" sections of the city or that they looked "suspicious."

The level of police harassment that people dealt with back then cannot be comprehended today, as the police generally do not ride through the streets "collecting" people they don’t like and then making them spend a night in the Roundhouse before releasing them in the morning.

I don’t know what Rizzo was thinking when he allowed these things to happen but I don’t think that this sort of harassment ever helped fight real crime. It was a trying time. People were picked off stoops in Center City for tying their shoe laces at 2AM or for talking with their friends (post-midnight) in a city park. This was a time when Center City was like East Berlin; when people had a real fear of the police. On the other hand, this was also pre-September 11th, so one could enter City Hall and go to any floor on a whim, walk past the Mayor’s Office and say "hello," to His Honor, or even take unorthodox sightseeing trips into City Hall’s basement, which I did on many occasions with a City Hall worker as my unofficial guide.

Today, of course, there’s this perception that there’s far too much crime in the city and that a tough cookie like Abraham will fix that problem fast. But this isn’t what most of us who have lived through Philly’s East Berlin stage in the 1970’s want to see happen.

The other mayoral candidates didn’t register much interest with us. Nelson Diaz, for instance, failed to stir any passion, but Jim Kenney did, despite the fact that, sadly, Anthony Williams has been cited by "journalists" (not this journalist) as the front runner.

We concluded our discussion with a mention of Michael Nutter’s mayoral style. The three of us agreed that that style can be broken down this way: Because black people, traditionally and historically, are still relatively new to the reigns of American political power, black elected officials generally exhibit a more formal style when they govern; formal meaning slightly more rigid and by the book.

Riv put it this way:

"When Ed Rendell was mayor, he’d swagger into a news conference or an event with his constituents with Midge, his wife, and a small jazz band in tow, always clowning, always casual and informal and yet always serious underneath. This doesn’t happen with Mayor Nutter and it didn’t happen with Mayor Street. What we have here is formality, or the mayor’s entourage– all those suited men and women traveling with the mayor in line processions where acts of spontaneity are alien."

I knew what Riv was talking about, as I’ve often noticed Mayor Nutter’s entourage, that procession of second lieutenants who surround him like a Philly version of the Swiss Guards.

With the Democratic National Convention coming to Philadelphia in 2016, this would seem to be the time for a substantial change. Ignore Bob Brady’s endorsement of Anthony Williams, and think of Jim Kenney.
Vote for a new city and a new attitude.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Challenge for Philadelphia City Candidate, Paul Steinke.'

The Local Lens

• Wed, Jan 21, 2015

By Thom Nickels

I don’t like to hang out in places where politicians and their friends rule the roost. When there are too many political-types in a room the atmosphere gets thick and tense.

Politicians can be genuinely insincere despite the face they like to wear. A casual conversation with a politician can be stilted because the things they say are usually carefully measured and controlled. What you wind up with during conversations like this are approved sound bites. To get raw, unadulterated feelings and opinions from a politician you’d first have to have those opinions sanctioned by their public relations machine and staff. This is necessary because the politician has to be sure that what he or she is saying is the right thing. On a human scale, this makes for a lot of insincerity.

Despite feeling this way, when I received an invitation to hear former Reading Terminal head Paul Steinke announce his intention to run for City Council-at-Large, I headed over to the Field House on Filbert Street to be a part of the event.
While on my way to the Steinke kick-off, I happened to fall alongside a young family walking with their young children near 11th and Market Streets. The family seemed to be rushing as if they were late for something. The mother, in fact, paced out ahead of her husband with one of the children running on her heels.

"Where’s the fire, lady?" I said to myself as we all crossed an intersection at the same time. But when I heard the mother say, "Here’s the Field House!" I knew they were going to the Steinke event. What I didn’t know (but would discover later) was that the father of the family was one of Steinke’s brothers. When this fact came to light I thought how lucky Paul was to have the total support of his family.

When I attended Nutter-for-Mayor events years ago it always amazed me that there were still so many people around who believed that "our" candidate— the "right" candidate– will change the world and that Utopia would be right around the corner when he or she wins. People keep holding on to this myth despite the fact that once these politicians get elected they inevitably fall short as their Utopian dreams come crashing down to earth. Still, we like to delude ourselves with the fanfare of political campaigns: the shiny candidate buttons or colorful placards to put in our windows.

At the Field House sign-in table there were Steinke candidate buttons and placards galore. Political-types in suits and name tags smiled like morticians. The room was crowded so it was hard to move about easily. I recognized a number of people— political faces I’d seen in years past at rallies or at City Hall events. I watched their lips move as they talked to others in attendance. TV crews readied their big cameras as some in the swelling crowd bought beer at the bar. A small table off to the side (but hidden by a portion of the crowd) offered pizza and pretzels. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the small table until the end of the rally, so my evening was a mix of politics and a growling stomach.

Anyone who has ever met Paul Steinke knows that he’s a "go to" nice guy. The Northeast-born Philadelphian is smart and accomplished. People like Steinke because he seems to be a genuinely humble man despite his accomplishments. He was the Finance Director of the Central Philadelphia Development Corporation as well as the first Executive Director of the University City District. He was also the head of the Reading Terminal Market from 2001 until 2014 when he resigned to run for City Council. At the Reading Terminal Market, Steinke’s tenure has been nothing short of phenomenal. He brought the market into the 21st Century and out of the doldrums of leaky ceilings and the smell of mildew to its current status as one of the top city markets in the country. Steinke also seems to have the ability to talk and listen to many different types of people. He’s not a business-only-type of candidate. If there are traces of arrogance in his personality, he keeps them well hidden.

At the event’s start, Representative Brian Sims of Philadelphia County addressed the crowd in his confident, humorously prickly style. He mentioned Steinke’s accomplishments while advising those in the crowd to pick up a placard and applaud vigorously at the right moment.

Sims had commented that introducing Steinke was like introducing a movie star and as Steinke came on stage he looked like a Kennedy clone or an actor in a Christopher Isherwood drama. The crowd applauded when the candidate took the mic and then listened attentively as he began his speech.

Kool-Aid was not passed around.

Steinke talked about the historic importance of Philadelphia, Independence Hall, the Constitution and all of the fine historic events that happened here.He then enumerated his positions on a number of issues, both local and national.
As the first openly LGBT candidate for City Council, Steinke had yet to play the sexual orientation card although this fact was (appropriately) mentioned by Sims during his introduction. It is doubtful whether anyone in the room had not been aware of this fact but it came out like fireworks at the end of Steinke’s speech when he thanked a number of LGBT activists for making his candidacy possible. He even mentioned the name of Frank Kameny, a Los Angeles based activist who left an important legacy in the area of LGBT civil rights.

At this point during the proceedings I was thinking a number of things.

My first thought was to send a message to Steinke and suggest that he "up" the volume and amplification in his public talks. After all, when making a speech, it is perfectly okay to speak up and show some passion and let your voice rise and fall like ocean waves meeting the shore.

Then I might suggest to him that if his talents are to grace the corridors of City Hall, perhaps he should first concentrate on winning the hearts and minds of Mr. and Mrs. Average Philadelphia and not focus too heavily on obscure (from a mainstream point of view) ideological personalities like Frank Kameny.

"After all, Paul," I might say. "As composer Ned Rorem once said, ‘It’s not Walt Whitman’s sexuality, but his universality that made him beloved throughout the globe.’"

We Are All Shane Montgomery

COMMENTARY: We are all Shane Montgomery

Weekly Press
• Wed, Jan 14, 2015

By Thom Nickels
Contributing Writer
We are all… Shane Montgomery.

Why am I saying this? Let’s start at the beginning.

Shane Montgomery disappeared after a night out with friends that included a stop at one of Manayunk’s most popular hangouts, Kildare’s Irish Pub on Main Street.

While I’ve never been to Kildare’s, I know that there are scores of places like Kildare’s all over the city.
At 21, Shane Montgomery was still a kid, a boy with some "man growth" but essentially still in adult formation mode. At age 21, few of us have a firm grip on reality, even if many 21 year olds pretend that the opposite is true.

Being 21 is not easy. For most 21 year olds, for instance, the tendency is to judge the world, our friends and family, harshly.

I’m not saying that Shane Montgomery judged anybody, but at 21 he undoubtedly found himself in that "almost mature" formation space described above.

When I was Shane’s age I was often in hyper critical overdrive. When I look back on those days I sometimes feel a little embarrassed. Was I really so critical and arrogant?

The twenties is a time when emotions and mental attitudes go up and down like an erratic seismograph. At that age we are on the hunt for what mature philosophers call a centered personal equilibrium.

Shane Montgomery lived in Roxborough, Manayunk’s next door neighbor, so Kildare’s on Main Street probably had a home turf feel for him. When Shane’s friends (and cousin) left him alone at Kildare’s, they probably thought nothing of it. Being alone in a bar is not necessarily a bad thing. People sometimes go to bars alone to meet a special someone because that’s harder to do in a group situation.

Quite a number of people, upon hearing the news that Shane had drowned in the Schuylkill River, offered theories as to what they thought may have happened to him.

Some suggested that he may have accidentally fallen into the river because he was drunk, while others offered the bizarre theory that he was a victim of a so called Smiley Face serial killer.

One off-the-wall theory even suggested suicide.

Shane, the rumor went, had drowned himself in the river because his family was unhappy after he told them that he was gay. This rumor is obviously bogus because had it been true a friend or two of Shane’s would have known this fact long before his parents did. Nothing like this ever came up in the investigation.

What is significant for me is the love and loyalty shown by Shane Montgomery’s family as divers spent almost 2 months searching for his body.

The television news reports were painful to watch, especially the clip of his mother speaking to reporters after his body was found near the Manayunk Brewery.

The magnitude of his parents’ sorrow indicates that they felt only unconditional love for their 21 year old son.
Most of us have encountered risky life situations where we could have wound up as a fatality.

Whether this means stopping your car on the side of a busy highway to change a flat tire, and then getting hit by a passing car; or waiting for the 15 bus outside the Gold Coast bar on West Girard Avenue in Fishtown as that January 3rd shooter fired a gun, wounding two men, and then (for the purposes of this column) innocent bystanders—you or I-- who happened to be standing nearby.

Or how about narrowly escaping (or not escaping) getting hit by a car while crossing Aramingo Avenue?
In some ways, we are all Shane Montgomery because unusual coincidences, like being at the wrong place at the wrong time, can alter our lives forever.

This is true even for those of us who take great pains in avoiding possible mishaps and disaster.
Consider the following family story I heard over the holidays.

My sister-in-law recounted how her fear of flying got her to talk my brother into taking the train, and not the plane, to Florida for a family trip. For my sister-in-law the train appeared to be a much safer mode of transportation despite the fact that the train ticket cost three times what it cost to fly.

Feeling confident that she had life’s unexpected disasters minimized, she packed her husband and two kids into a southern bound Amtrak train, not in the least minding the fact that the sleeping berths for the four of them were very small.

While the first leg of their journey went smoothly, something happened after the train left Baltimore and Washington and headed further south.

As the train crossed a highway, the road toll gates stopping traffic failed to go down and the train hit a car or two, killing one of the drivers. My brother’s wife and kids were thrown out of their berths as smoke poured into the train. For a time they had no idea what would happen to them.

Would they live? Would they die?

By avoiding the "dangerous" airplane, my sister-in-law had experienced a possible loss of life by taking the safer ("I’m being extra cautious") train.

People say about poor Shane: Why didn’t he go straight home? Why didn’t he leave Kildare’s with his friends? Why this and why that, but when we’re really living life or in the throes of a party with favorite friends, we rarely think that one inconsequential choice made along the way will lead to tragedy and death.

I remember the time I hitchhiked near Paoli when I was Shane’s age. With my thumb out standing on the side of the road, I was happy when a Volkswagen stopped to pick me up. But no sooner was I inside the car when the driver looked at me and growled, "We’re going straight to hell!"

What a relief it was when I discovered that the threat was a joke, but what if it had been real?

Suppose the driver had driven me to an isolated part of Chester County and disposed of me in serial killer fashion?

Would my family and friends have asked why I went into a strange car? Why I couldn’t see that the driver was dangerous? And why I just didn’t walk home?

When you’re 21 you don’t think of death as something that could really happen to you. Death is an abstract idea, more remote than watching a Good Year blimp flying out over the ocean and into the horizon.

Any number of things could have happened to Shane Montgomery that night-- small inconsequential events, like taking the train instead of a plane, that somehow put him along the river’s edge and led to his untimely demise.