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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Philadelphia's Managing Director's Dance: The Christmas Village Fiasco

For an embarrassing twenty-four hours last week, Philadelphia looked pretty silly in the eyes of the nation. It was, as they say, not the city’s finest hour, when a dismissive high level bureaucrat, City Managing Director Richard Negrin, took it upon himself to suggest removing the word ‘Christmas’ from the Christmas Village display in Dilworth Plaza in front of City Hall, and replace it with that all purpose generic word, ‘Holiday.’

The ignoble deed was done in the name of multicultural diversity, or not wanting to offend anyone with the [Jesus Christ-laden] word, ‘Christmas.’ Negrin, for instance (who denies specifically putting out an order to remove ‘Christmas.) stated on November 30 that changing ‘Christmas’ to ‘Holiday’ “is more accurate, makes more sense, and is more in keeping with the sense of the holiday.”

What? The word holiday makes more sense in describing a holiday?

Negrin attempted a retreat when he stated, “I never specifically asked for the word Christmas to be removed.”

There were even news reports of a Jewish father and daughter who wandered into the village whereupon the daughter asked, “Do we have a village?” In yet another media report, it was not a father and daughter, but a father and son.

Meanwhile, after the story broke, a couple of Jewish merchants in the Christmas Village told the news media that they love the word Christmas.

So what was this all about? Who were the complainers, and why don’t they come forward and announce themselves? It isn’t enough to say that they were some people who worked in City Hall, and a few residents.

Whoever they are, they are hiding out till this thing blows over. When the mayor reinstated the word Christmas, the farce seemed to backfire on whoever was responsible because now everywhere you go people are starting to say the word Christmas again. Whether it’s in the pages of The Philadelphia Inquirer or onscreen at Action News, reporters and anchors seem to be taking a special delight in seeing how many times they can say the word, which leads me to conclude that maybe this crisis was necessary to finally flush out the P.C. sewage that’s been kicking Christmas around for years.

City Hall’s P.C. coup took a nose dive, and now it seems that Christmas is here to stay—at least until those clever Holiday SS Storm troopers regroup and come up with another plan. Stay tuned.

In retrospect, I wonder how Negrin and even Mayor Nutter thought they would get away with it. Philadelphians may be apathetic about a lot of things, but you can count on big time blowbacks when you tamper with sports teams, the Mummer’s, cheese steaks, or Christmas.

Let’s face it; whether you’re Jewish, Muslim, atheist, Shinto, or agnostic, the mark that Christianity has left on Western Civilization is all encompassing. Even if you wanted to escape it, you couldn’t. And why stop at eliminating ‘Christmas’ if this fact annoys or upsets you? I mean, to really do the job right you would have to attack other remnants of Christianity that color the secular world.

Like the common calendar, namely the Gregorian calendar, instituted by Pope Gregory XII in a papal bull in the 16th century. This calendar, can be found in a zillion homes all over the world, even has an official nickname-- the Christian calendar.

We live in strange times, so I guess it is entirely possible that years from now there might be a group of people insisting that the world is under no obligation to mark the passage of time according to the invention of some Catholic pope.

As for our (sometimes) waffling mayor, he did a good thing when he restored Christmas despite his remaining firm about the tree in front of City Hall.

He has two names for that tree, holiday tree, or City Hall tree, both of which sound like sad sprigs dug up from behind the old Iron Curtain.

Thom Nickels

Friday, December 3, 2010

Suck in that Second Hand Smoke

Wherever I go in the neighborhood, I am chased by ETS’s. I’m not talking about extraterrestrials but something called environmental tobacco smoke. The fact is, our neighborhoods are filled with too many smokers. I don’t know why this is. The packs of cigarettes sold everyday at the local Wawa on Aramingo Avenue would fill a warehouse in Hoboken. People here are smoking as if there’s no tomorrow.

Maybe there’s not a tomorrow for them if they continue on the smoking path. As a libertarian might say, “That’s their choice,” but does that mean I have to breathe in those ETS fumes and become a kind of honorary smoker myself?

ETS fumes penetrate house walls (and turn them a sickly yellow over time), so if your next door neighbor smokes you more than likely know how ETS swirls into cracks and crevices around your doors and windows, and then penetrates the walls of your house. The “gifts” of ETS-- airborne tar, nicotine, carbon monoxide and ammonia components-- increase your chances of lung disease by 25%. The flow of ETS fumes from one row house to another is no doubt exacerbated by the cold weather months, when smokers who would normally smoke outside on the sidewalk are lighting up in their houses instead.

People explain their smoking addiction with inane rationalizations like: “Life’s a terminal illness, and you have to die of something!” (Translation: Let’s end things today by jumping off the Ben Franklin Bridge!)

While it’s true that nobody gets out of here alive, that doesn’t mean that we have to rush towards the angel of death with open arms.

The beautiful girl with unblemished skin who lights cigarette after cigarette outside Thriftway doesn’t seem to realize that the fumes from her Newport or Marlboro will cause her face to wrinkle early and look older than her age. Cigarette smoke reduces collagen levels on the skin and tends to cause “sagging” on both the arms and the face. It also yellows the teeth and the eyes, hardly desirable traits if your intent is to appear sexy.

That Thriftway girl naively assumes that the damages caused by smoking will be problems for a distant day in the future. Unfortunately, her small child not yet a year old in the carriage next to her has no such choice. While Mother thinks she may be making healthy concessions by blowing smoke away from baby, baby is still getting doses of ETS. And if Mother happens to be smoking indoors, not only is baby getting full blast ETS, but so is the family pet.

ETS also “soaks” into the house furniture, rugs and upholstery and creates a cocktail of toxins or another “gift bearing” offshoot: Third hand Smoke, meaning tobacco smoke that lingers long after the cigarette has been put out.

Third hand smoke fumes can gestate for hours and are potentially dangerous for infants and children.

Still, if your intent is to kill a beloved house pet, the best way to do this is to “smoke” it to death.

A Swedish study found that 6 out of 7 cats in a smoking home had pathological changes in the lungs. These changes often indicated the emergence of cancer in most of these cats.

A Colorado State University study indicated that smoking homes can cause long-nosed dogs like pugs to increased risks of nasal cancer. Short-nosed dogs like Collies and German Shepards are subject to increased risks of lung cancer.

What’s even more shocking is that ETS even affects the innocuous houseplant.
The website for Americans for Nonsmokers Rights declares, “Chemicals resulting from smoking can affect plants by diminishing their carbon dioxide intake and clogging up the pores on leaves…” ETS has a negative effect on photosynthesis, a crucial part of plant development.
The upshot to all of this is: If you want to smoke, smoke, but think twice about lighting up if you live in an apartment or row house with thin walls.

I know we all have to go sometime, but only a madman wants to arrive early for that “party."

Opting for Winter Solitude (From my STAR column)

Cold weather, as a neighbor of mine likes to remind me, means that people who live on my block don’t “see” one another until the spring. That’s a slight exaggeration, of course. We do see one another ‘quick glimpse’ style as this or that neighbor scurries back and forth to their car, the bus stop, or the corner store.

Winter means that the sidewalk conversations and impromptu meetings that occur during the warm weather months are at a minimum. Sidewalk gab fests and stoop sitting disappear. One can literally go weeks or sometimes months without seeing somebody they used to see everyday in the summer.

For some people in row houses, not seeing other neighbors on the street is a condition they’d like to make permanent. These Thoreau-style hermits are much like contemplative nuns in that when they do meet neighbors they keep contact to a minimum, offering a cursory “How do you do?” and then moving on as if further intimacy was a contagious virus. Some of these folks never even get to know the people next door. They live like those in detached homes in the suburbs rather than in a tightly knot fabric of row houses in the inner city.

While we all have occasional bouts of this sort of behavior, it does pay to know who you are living with.

Living in the inner city, after all, should mean that you are willing to experience a shared sense of community.

When I lived in apartments in Center City, I found that most apartment dwellers kept to themselves. Scores of people can be crammed into a high-rise but it’s not uncommon to find a tenant who knows no one in the building they can call a friend. Communication among tenants in large apartment buildings is often reduced to quick nods or ‘hellos’ in the elevator, nothing more.
But life on an urban street with row houses is different. This is the place where people put down real roots and can wind up living for years, even decades. Because this is the case, there’s a greater interest in knowing who lives across the street or next door.

Block parties are a great way to meet and keep the communication flowing with neighbors. While being neighbors with someone is no guarantee of a friendship, a superficial bond, especially in times of calamity and distress, is better than no bond at all. If a flood or massive hurricane were to devastate the area, not knowing anyone on the block could be a marked disadvantage. In disastrous situations, the man who is an island sinks rather than swims.

This “people need people’ cliché is true even in minor situations where house keys are lost or stolen and you need to walk through a neighbor’s house to get into your own. Ditto for borrowing your neighbor’s phone, or even a candle or flashlight when their lights go out.
Though every neighbor may not be your cup of tea (think personal chemistry, snob or socio-cultural background issues, etc.), building a bridge with those you may not necessarily invite to dinner is still a wise thing to do.

My neighborhood’s first block party occurred several years ago. While it wasn’t along the lines of a Northern Liberties Piazza spectacular, it did give everyone here a chance to roam from table to table and check out who lived where and introduce themselves. I joined the festivities by putting out a small café table and a bucket of wine and cheese. The music was tacky karaoke, but fun. While the party was hardly the social event of the season, I was at least able to see another “side” of my street.

There were no deaths, gunfights, arguments, untoward comments or glances, and this is why I was surprised when neighbors here turned down a request for another block party this summer.
Although I was out of town when the Streets Department petition came around to get 75% of the neighbors approval (or one signature per household), it bothered me when I was told that the petition handler couldn’t meet the quota.

That rejection, as small and insignificant as it seems, means that people didn’t want to be bothered, but why?

Closing off the street for one day or a long afternoon is not a troublesome venture, and should not be perceived as a threat to anyone, not even chronic party haters.

Likewise, small businesses on the street should also be willing to co-operate rather than object to an event that is essentially healthy for the neighborhood.

Closing the street once every four years for an afternoon will not destroy a healthy business, instigate a riot or, as Chicken Little so aptly put it, cause the sky to fall.

Thom Nickels

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Last Word (From December's ICON)

Anyone who has ever had business at City Hall knows that Dilworth Plaza, that desert of concrete masquerading as a “welcoming” municipal plaza, has been a wasteland since its installation in 1973.

Dilworth Plaza, which had some design appeal on paper—an airbrushed design always has a certain appeal--soon became a squatter’s village for drifters and the homeless after its construction. As a haven for the down and out, the plaza soon became known for its “aromatic assaults,” due in part to the absence of public bathrooms.

Despite the best intentions of architect Vincent Kling, people rarely used Dilworth Plaza except as a walk-through space on their way in or out of City Hall. It has never been known as a comfortable place to sit and “linger.”

Why would anyone want to linger in a quarry of concrete?

The prevailing aesthetic in Philadelphia architecture in the 1970s-- utilitarian and modern—resulted in many bad ideas. Not only were drop ceilings added to Romanesque banks, but the city’s 1976 Bicentennial Chestnut Street transit way design proved to be a financial and artistic disaster. The design of Dilworth Plaza can also be seen as a reflection of the mood of the city under Mayor Frank Rizzo: City Hall as an imperialistic, barbed wire camp.

The plaza’s disuse by everyday citizens—minus, of course, the occasional political protest--can also be attributed to City Hall’s isolation as a “fortress” situated on an island surrounded by traffic. People might pass through “the island” from East to West Market Street, but most are not going to rest their haunches on one of Kling’s concrete benches that seem to rise out of the cement like tombstones. These uncomfortable slabs make the casual visitor feel conspicuous sitting amongst the drifters. One inevitably gets the feeling, warranted or not, that anyone sitting there must be up to “no good.

That’s certainly not the ca se in nearby JFK Plaza, where in the warm months, office workers and passersby think nothing of eating their lunch by the plaza fountain.
Ignored by the general public, it was only a matter of time before skateboarders discovered Dilworth Plaza. When that happened, the area was overrun with the sounds of crashing wheels and somersaulting kids. While Kling’s plan didn’t call for an urban roller derby, at least the plaza was being utilized for something other than drinking alcohol from a brown paper bag. Skateboarding, however, is a “sloppy” sport that tends to have a lot of rough edges.

It also creates “damages.” In this case, the city had to shell out $8,500 to replace 7 plaza stainless steel railings, thanks to the “ride ‘em rough” antics of reckless boarders. Realizing it had a problem on its hands, the city then told the skateboarders to take a hike after installing new cleats and discs on the railings and benches.

Dilworth Plaza once again was back to being what it had always been: a magnet for the down and out.

Throughout its thirty-eight year history, the plaza’s sunken tree and shrub-filled transit way spaces near Suburban Station became conduits for trash that seemed to blow in from all parts of town. In the 1970s, I wrote the mayor several times about the collected dirt there but rarely received a response. Nobody seemed to care that these shrub-filled gardens were a dragging vortex for litter. People in those days, in fact, would look into these sunken “gardens,” and remark, “Can you believe this?” Occasionally the city would clean the trash, but then it would go right back to ignoring it for weeks at a time.

Sound familiar?

When I heard about the new 50-million dollar plan to finally reconfigure and “clean up” Dilworth Plaza, I felt some ray of hope. Thanks to a generous federal grant given to transform public spaces, the improved plaza will replace the concrete desert with a large lawn, more trees, (the obligatory) café, and a fountain which will double as a skating rink in winter. The project is scheduled for completion in 2013.

City planner Edmund Bacon’s-inspired Penn Center had a sunken ice skating rink in the 1960s and 70s. The rink was designed so that commuters could observe skaters while waiting for trains in Suburban Station. It was a marvelous bit of Rockefeller Center in then dour downtown Philly, where strangers became friends, or where friends could spot friends watching amateur skaters fall or glide on the ice. The rink was closed when somebody in power decided that a skating rink was no longer relevant, and the area was covered over with—what else?—concrete.

Dilworth Plaza’s new design, which will include striking glass structures, looks very attractive on paper. Certainly, the rebirth of a skating rink in the area will only work if it isn’t allowed to dry up in the summer months and become a magnet for litter and trash. If that happens, the city can expect a new influx of vagrants.
Skating rinks, just like those sunken transit way gardens, need constant maintenance.

Is Philadelphia up to the task?


When a major earthquake or disaster strikes a U.S. city or far off country, organizations and nations promise millions of dollars in relief funds. It’s a time when pundits tear up and when television news airs special reports about the tragedy. The intense talk dominates the public sphere to such an extent that the focus cannot help but fade as new disasters or concerns take center stage. The problem for the beleaguered country then becomes one of follow-up.

. When a devastating earthquake hit Haiti in January 2010, killing some 300,000 people, 50 nations pledged a total of 8.75 billion in reconstruction aid. The United States was especially responsive, sending in troops, aid workers and supplies. In March, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged 1.15 billion in United States aid for Haiti at a UN donors’ conference. While that money was released, United States money promised for the rebuilding of Haiti, some 500 million under the Haiti Empowerment, Assistance and Rebuilding Act, has been held up by a cantankerous Oklahoma Republican Senator.

Senator Tom Coburn, whom comedian Jon Stewart refers to as a “hole of mystery” because of his secret hold on this bill, objects to a minor provision in the legislation. Coburn has taken issue with the bill’s “unnecessary spending” in the appointment of a senior Haiti coordinator when there’s already one in place: U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merten.

What Coburn is doing, in effect, is sacrificing Haiti’s poor in the name of fiscal responsibility.

Currently in Port-Au-Prince, just ten months after the disaster, about I million Haitians live on the streets. Buildings are still in rubble while a serious outbreak of cholera has hit parts of the island. The situation is so serious that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in October urged the Francophonie group of French speaking nations to remain constant in their pledge to rebuild the small country. “Your friends in the Francophonie will never let you down,” he told the members of the French speaking Alliance.

One should be grateful, perhaps, that there are no Oklahoma Republican types in Canada.

The months-long U.S. funding deadlock, meanwhile, shows no signs of abating, even as the hurricane season threatens to do more damage to the cholera-stricken island.


Angry Americans upset at “socialist Obama-Dems” but enamored of new political faces with no solutions to the country’s problems remind me of that cryptic political slogan, “Throw the bums and replace them with new bums!” Do Americans really think that electing Tea Party Republicans will fix the economy? Do they live on Mars? What’s been said a zillion times before is no less true today: President Obama did not create the bad economy; that economic down slope began under a different president. In campaign speeches, the president was careful to state that economic recovery would be slow and painful. Americans, however, want instant gratification. Many of us also have a messiah complex about presidents, as if one new person in office can—overnight--offer remedies to all the nation’s ills. The truth is that as the world becomes an even closer interdependent network of nations, a president may have less power over the economy than we know.

Come to think of it, November’s sizeable Republican gains have emboldened far less mysterious “holes” than Coburn. In Kentucky, Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell recently told the Heritage Foundation that he and his fellow Republicans should work to repeal “funding for implementation of Obama’s healthcare measure.” McConnell wants to deny poor Americans any healthcare coverage they may be able to leverage under the Obama plan. While the Obama healthcare plan is far from perfect, it’s a small step in preparing America for what it really needs: universal healthcare.

This should not be shocking to Tea Baggers or to those who call Obama a socialist. After all, McConnell and his Republican bagger cohorts in Congress all have “socialized” tax-payer funded universal health care, not only while they are in office but for life. My taxes and your taxes are funding their visits to the doctor, while funding for the poor and almost-poor is looked on as the spawn of Karl Marx.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Author/journalist Thom Nickels is the author of nine books, including Philadelphia Architecture, Out in History and the recently released novel SPORE.


Friday, November 19, 2010

Few Public Potties in Philadelphia (Star Column)

I doubt whether there’s a man or woman in the City of Philadelphia who hasn’t felt the need to use a public restroom while out on the town. It can happen while shopping, clubbing, or while taking a casual ride on the subway.

But finding a spot “to go” is not easy.

“Restrooms for Customers Only” signs are popular in city bars and restaurants. Of course if you are “gifted” at “May I use your restroom” politicking, then you stand a chance, otherwise you are out of luck and may be forced to consider doing the unspeakable: Going behind a dumpster.

Feeling the urge and finding a place to go may be easier in the neighborhoods, but if you’re in Center City, you may not have time to get to an appropriate spot.

When I was in Paris several years ago (a city that has public restrooms by the way), I was shocked to discover that hundreds of men relieve themselves late at night along the Champs Elysees. The French were oblivious to the sight; even police officers looked the other way. In Philadelphia, behavior like this can net you a one hundred dollar fine.

But honestly, what’s a gentleman or lady to do if there are no public restrooms?

“South Street,” Councilman David Cohen told Philadelphia City Council in 2004, “is the city’s second most visited tourist area—yet there are no public facilities available for all these tourists.”

The situation remains the same in 2010, although there’s no reason why Philadelphia cannot do what almost every European and Canadian city has done: install retractable urinals and toilets that are invisible during the day but quite obvious at night during the peak after bar hours.

It makes sense to me: If you don’t want tourists and urbanites to do “the nasty” in public, then provide public restrooms!

This month The Philadelphia Daily News reported on the lack of public restrooms in the Italian Market area. The paper quoted many restaurant owners who said that they would not allow the public to use their “employee only” restrooms. Exceptions to the rule might include extreme hardship cases, like a mother and child in distress, or that one-in-a-million customer with a good “Please let me use the bathroom” line. Ordinarily Italian Market customers are told to go to the public restrooms at the Capitolo Playground at 9th and Federal. Unfortunately, the Capitolo restrooms are usually closed at night and locked up during the day as a protection from vandals.

Like the homeless situation in Dilworth Plaza, many Philadelphia public restrooms have been closed because of the vagrant problem. It’s not uncommon to hear that once reliable city restrooms in city gas stations or mini-markets have been closed because the owners were tired of having them vandalized. Rather than constantly fix up the destroyed property, the owners opted to simply close them. As a result, everybody suffers.

Finding a public restroom is a little easier in New York City.

New York City has 468 subway stations but among those stations one can find at least 78 subway restrooms open to the public. 78 may not be much compared to what NYC had in 1940 (1,676 public toilets), but it trumps Philadelphia. There are no public restrooms on any of the stops along the Broad Street subway or the Market-Frankford El, minus of course, the new facilities at the Frankford Transportation Center and the terminal at 69th Street. But at the hundreds of small stops in-between, there’s nothing but a waiting platform and a private restroom for employees only.

But nothing is quite as scandalous as Philadelphia on New Year’s Day along the Broad Street concourse during the Mummer’s parade. Because Philadelphia lacks public toilets, hundreds of revelers line up every year the way they do at night in Paris. While the police discourage such behavior, the sheer numbers of law breakers makes handing out tickets impossible.

Under the Rendell administration, the city tried to do install self-cleaning public restrooms in the city but the deal fell through when the city and the manufacturer couldn’t agree on how they were to be funded.

Can a major tourist attraction like Philadelphia afford to wait any longer?

As a City Councilman said in Detroit, “We spend a lot of time and energy promoting our downtown-then when people get here, there’s no place for them to use the bathroom.”

The Chinese have the answer. The city of Beijing installed 7,700 public toilets in city streets because the government there feels that all travelers should find a toilet within an 8-minute walk in the business area.

But there may be good news on the horizon.

After decades of inaction, Philadelphia has finally installed a pilot pay toilet neat City Hall. Complete with a self-cleaning apparatus and piped in music, this large structure is almost too good to be true, as is the cheap 25 cent price of admission.

The only thing that could kill the installation of these gizmos is an invasion of vagrants with quarters.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

TOUCH SCREEN VOTING IN PHILADELPHIA (from my STAR column, November 10, 2010)

Change, say the seers, can be a good thing, but last week when I voted at my local firehouse, and then went into Center City for a Jury Duty call, I was reminded of change that’s not so good.

In 2001, the City of Philadelphia replaced its mechanical-lever voting machines with a touch-screen electronic voting system. The new 18.5 million dollar system was actually 15 years old when it was implemented. New York City considered adopting the same electronic system but then backed out after spending 17 million and 7 years evaluating this touch screen system. New York City took its time, and only adopted the newest and safest voting booth technology-- the optical scanning method-- in September. Optical scanning is rapidly becoming the norm throughout the country.

Philadelphia’s adoption of the touch-screen system was not without controversy. Computer scientists maintained that while the new machines were the most accurate devices on the market, they left no auditable paper trail for those rare occasions when a recount is necessary.
Even computer scientist Peter G. Neumann (SRI International) weighed in and said that with touch screen systems there is “absolutely no assurance that your vote is recorded in the way you intended it.”

That’s Orwellian if you ask me.

When I stepped into the touch-screen voting booth at the Aramingo Avenue firehouse last week, I found myself longing for the old 900 pound lever booths that not only had real curtains on them but which had a lever you could pull when you wanted your vote registered. Pulling the lever (which made a reassuring sound) not only registered your vote, it opened the booth curtain and left it open for the next voter. With the touch-screen booths, where the flimsy curtain recalls a shower stall more than a voting booth, you have to duck under the curtain before and after voting.

Once inside, you touch the name of the candidate you want to vote for, after which a light appears.

If a light appears, that is….

City and state-wide ballot questions on the touch-screen booths have been reduced in print size, making them almost impossible to read. This spells disaster for the unprepared voter who hasn’t read the ballot questions beforehand.

Then there’s the awkward positioning of the green “vote” button at the bottom of the booth. This placement is something first time voters might have trouble finding. The lever on the old machines was front and center. You couldn’t miss it because you couldn’t leave the booth unless you pulled it!

Some voters—like a friend in the neighborhood—reported difficulties with the touch-screen lights. When his screen didn’t light up, he had to call for help. Although the error was corrected, he says he wishes the city never got rid of the old machines.

People are always fixing and improving things that don’t need fixing or improving.

Take jury duty, for instance. I’ve been called for jury duty maybe seven times in my life. Out of the seven I’ve been selected only once, and then it was as an alternate. The other times I was dismissed because I confessed to being the victim of crime or that I worked as a journalist. Most lawyers do not like journalists. They don’t want somebody who writes for newspapers in the jury box. I don’t know why this frightens lawyers, but it does. This is why I am never bothered when I receive a jury duty summons in the mail.

“Once I tell them what I do for a living, I’m out the door,” I tell friends. I say this with some regret because I’d love to serve on a jury.

When I reported for jury duty last week (I was not picked), I noticed that the city no longer offers free soft pretzels for potential jurors. This may seem like an unimportant change. In fact, it may seem down right silly to even call attention to, but when you add up all the little lost things in life—a voting booth with a real curtain instead of a shower curtain that doesn’t part; a touch tone screen that sometimes goes on the blink; and now a jury pool room minus free soft pretzels from a grateful court system-- you begin to think that, little by little, all the small but thoughtful courtesies in life are being done away with.

What’s next on the chopping block is anybody’s guess.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Philadelphia Architect Alvin Holm (From the November 2010 issue of ICON Magazine)

Philadelphia architect Alvin Holm describes himself as a “once happy modernist.”
The affable white haired head of a small firm on Samson Street in Center City says he changed his mind about modernism about 20 years after getting his Masters in architecture at Penn. “I always loved the old style,” he tells me over lunch at the Irish Pub, a restaurant he designed in the classical manner. “… But when I began teaching architecture… something happened.”

Holm says that what he realized then was that continuity mattered. “And that was not what we were taught in any architecture school courses. We would look at these old buildings and ask our instructors, ‘Well, why can’t we do something like that?’ and they’d say, ‘Well, you can’t do that anymore!’”

Classicism at that time had become an untouchable subject for instructors who more often than not took great pleasure in making statements like, “Well, classicism isn’t practical because you can’t find stone cutters anymore,” or “The age of ornamentation is over.” Status quo evasions like this plagued Holm for years until he was finally able to see that these were not valid reasons at all but in fact were prejudicial aesethic judgments formed by a prevailing orthodoxy that just didn’t want to look back.

Holm’s conversion from a modernist ideologue to passionate classicist didn’t come easily. For starters, here was a man who once sat at the feet of Louis Kahn and who was mentored by the likes of Vincent Scully.

Holm remembers being charmed by Kahn. “He was a totally loveable human being. I don’t think there wasn’t anybody who didn’t like him—cab drivers, professors; he was charismatic, absolutely,” he said, biting into a classic Tuna Melt. “But I think he was wrong. I think he took us down a path that led nowhere. And I think that’s one of the problems with modernism in general. It’s idealistic without any particular ideal.”

Holm’s image conjures up T.S. Eliot’s hollow man, or Tom Wolfe’s view of modern architecture in “Bauhaus to Our House.” Wolfe’s view is unambiguous: the architecture world, like the art world and the literary world, is dominated by critics and academia, meaning that its buildings leave most people cold. Much of these “ideal-less” buildings, Wolfe says, are the products of architects who only want to out avant-garde the competition.

Though Kahn is credited with providing a link from classicism to modernism, many critics would agree with Martin Filler’s essay in The New York Review of Books that Kahn “possessed neither the inventiveness of Le Corbusier nor the elegance of Mies.” Filler writes that architecture remained a struggle for Kahn because, “he lacked extensive practical experience until well into middle age, and never mastered the appearance of effortlessness that many creators use to conceal their labors.”

Kahn, Holm says, wanted to go back to the beginning, or to Walter Gropius’ Ground Zero, that ideal-less world where the history of architecture doesn’t exist. “Kahn would sit on a stool frequently and his disciples would sit on the floor, and he’d look down for the longest time and then he’d look up and say, ‘I’d like to remember that moment when the walls parted and the columns became….’ That’s quite a poetic saying,” Holm points out, “but there never was such a moment, because there were columns before there were walls, there were columns before there was anything structural. By going back to the beginning he erased 4 or 5,000 years of history. He erased the knowledge that was accumulated for a very long period of time.”

Holm compares what Kahn did to the kind of amnesia that old people get. “That’s what modernism did. How can you call that progress? That’s called losing your marbles.”

Tough words from a man who in the 1970s worked for Vincent G. Kling, at that time the most famous architect in Philadelphia. “I was an unapologetic modernist until 1976 Bicentennial got underway with its focus on looking back and taking stock. These were also the years when most architects had little respect for preservation and traditionalism. Architects, who celebrated Classicism, such as the work of Henry Hope Reed, were seen as part of a lunatic fringe.”

Holm has his own version of what constitutes a lunatic fringe. Take Frank Lloyd Wright, for instance. While insisting that he has admiration for Wright’s work, he faults Wright’s towering ego for taking credit for the prairie style when the opposite is true. “A lot of those buildings were done by his peers and in a lot of cases a little bit earlier, but Wright gets credit for it all around the world. The Arts and Crafts movement was an international movement long before Wright came on the scene.”

Perhaps the most bothersome issue for this 2009 Clem Laline Award winner—given to an architect for his/her advocacy of humane values in the built environment--is modernism’s grip on the architectural schools, where architectural history and classical architecture are simply not taught.

Today’s architectural students are not looking towards the classical world for inspiration. “To my eye,” Holm says, “the dominate style is continuity. And this was not what we were taught in architectural school courses. From a modernist point of view, all the old buildings are artifacts from a culture that doesn’t exist anymore. All the books in architectural school are written from a modernist point of view.”

Across the Schuylkill River on the Penn campus (where there are no Irish Pubs), William Whitaker, Collections Manager for the Architectural Archives Facilities at the University of Pennsylvania, reminded me that “modernism is not a fixed form, although in America it tends to be seen as such.”

For Whitaker, the finest examples of American modernism can be seen through residential works, such as the Levitt Brothers houses that sprang up in the early to mid-1950s. These homes, he says, were influenced by the prefabricated building methods utilized in the World War II era during the construction of bomber plants and Ford factories. “So before you condemn modernism, consider that the ever popular indoor/outdoor patio in homes was modernist development, as was the sliding glass door (developed from the sliding screens of Japan),” he says.
Traditionalists believe that when the moderns stripped ornament away, much of the soul in architecture was lost-- “And with it went the soul of our cities,” Holm would add-- while Whitaker says the two are not mutually exclusive.

“In some architect’s hands, when you stripped down the building to its bare essentials, it actually becomes a soulless expression, but in the hands of an able architect the placement of a window could never be more beautiful because it brings light into the room in a very special and distinguished way.

“In the classical tradition, in most cases you are designing from the outside in, but the modernists saw it as design by inside/out.”

One criticism of modernism is its insensitivity to history, but Whitaker says the same can be said of Roman and Renaissance times, “where they went in and essentially changed the reigning sensibility,” with a kind of “This is old and we want something new” attitude.

“I don’t accept the idea that this kind of change is solely a question of modernism, though the modernists did do that,” he says. “That’s an old argument over modernism, “but they certainly did that, there’s no question. Even in the building where my office is, the Frank Furness library at Penn, its bright red, incredible detail is everything folks generally detested—and they were not modernists—at the turn of the century when they wanted to knock it down. It’s the old giving way to the new, it’s part of architecture.”

But Whitaker, who graduated with a Masters in architecture in 1995, agrees that in more recent times there’s not so much an understanding of architectural history in the training of new architects.

“What is capturing the imagination of young student architects is the incredible transformation of a global world, issues of how one interprets all this diversity, of both people and information into a given architectural design. This is really what is fascinating them now. It’s certainly not something that’s looking towards the classical world for inspiration.”

And that’s a tragedy, according to Holm, who regrets that students are not learning about the fabulous architects who designed the old train stations and the big hotels. Architects like Kendall White and Bernard Sawyer have slipped into-- if not quite obscurity—at least disuse.
But even Whitaker is quick to point out that you don’t have to define modernism in strictly “for” or “against” terminology. A counterpoint to Kahn, he says, is Bob Bishop, a Philadelphia architect who studied with Wright in Taliesin. “Bishop brought back a wonderful sensibility about space, about forms, and about materials in the 1930s through the 1960s,” he says.

An example of Bishop’s work is the District Health Center at Lombard and Broad Streets in Philadelphia, a soft modernist building with a delicate, refined, and un-Kahn-like scale.
As for Holm, who says that City Planner Ed Bacon once patted him on the head in a kind of knighthood and said, “You’re on the right track,” God is always in the details.
And that, usually, spells ornament. “We embellish what we revere,” he says. “We adorn that which we love.”

But the truth is, they’ll always be people who want to minimize that.

Thom Nickels writes for many publications. He is the author of nine published books, including Philadelphia Architecture, Out in History and the just-released novel, SPORE.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

SPORE book review

SPORE, A Novel By Thom Nickels
Thom Nickels
Weekly Press

Wed, Oct 27, 2010
Review by Jackie Atkins

Down by the Southern Point in New Jersey people search for a Cape May diamond; religiously you can find them scouring the Sunset Beach sands for that one pebble that can be cleaned and polished and presented on your ring finger as a make believe opal. Many have gone blind or died before finding one, but usually they give up the chase and buy it in a trinket shop on the promenade.

Independent small presses offer the same titillating experience to an incorrigible reader, with even less of an opportunity to find a diamond in the rough novel. More often than not an unsuspecting bookworm buys from a small press and ends up thinking he is reading in Braille without having a handicap.

Before people who wish to discover a good read run off to Amazon to find a Kindle ready book on the bestseller list, they should try inspecting Spore by Thom Nickels from Starbooks Press. While some of the editing in the book is questionable, the end result needs very little polishing to be a readable gem.

This is Philadelphia author Nickels’ ninth novel. All but four of his previous eight have been fictions centering on the gay lifestyle.

However, this one is in a category all to itself. It is a part mystical, semi-biographical fantasy bordering on a sci-fi thriller.

Dennis, a young architect, is marrying Catherine because the pickings for his homosexual desires are getting slimmer. Naturally, this reason leads to a failed relationship, but it doesn’t take Dennis long to figure this out. On the limo drive to the reception, Dennis has his doubts about his commitment to Catherine and by the time the couple arrives in Hawaii for their honeymoon, Dennis has had liaisons with a bell hop in L.A., a boy on a beach, and his house host (a former lover of his from Philadelphia).

Then released from all realms bounding him to a real world, Dennis goes on his warpath when his wife leaves him two days after their arrival on the islands. Dennis becomes the antithesis of Terry Southerns’ "Candy," and instead of wanting to help others by using his body, he proceeds to help himself through the use of other peoples’ bodies.

After his Hawaii big adventure, Dennis returns to his native Philadelphia and begins to take his journey into denial and fulfillment from peep show adventures to bus stop pickups.
If Spore stayed on this path we would have one more boilerplate sexual fantasy, but Nickels skillfully guides the reader through Dennis’ flawed physiological makeup.

So self-absorbed is Dennis that Nickels has him midway through the book take on the mantle of preacher merely to exonerate himself of a possible murder attempt charge on his great aunt.
As Dennis wanders throughout the streets of Philadelphia, his journey toward self-fulfillment twists and turns, and he is surrounded with images of street toughs battling for turf by preying on homosexual victims—and with the presence of an insidious germ infecting people from all walks of life. This virus takes the form of a growth, which is shaped like a broccoli spear that disfigures its victims. Dennis is quick to claim that this menace will afflict all those who do not act on their latent sexual desires. Dennis preaches this even though he himself has contacted the ailment. But this contradiction, as with all of Dennis’ other ones, only make the reader question Dennis’ sanity.

Dennis, in the course of the novel, is disloyal to his wife, his best friend and lover, and his beloved great aunt. He even shows fickleness to the people who have put their faith in him as a prophet. In the end, though, his message of self-preservation and personal fulfillment only works against Dennis, and he saves the ultimate abandonment of all hope for the weary by granting himself his final betrayal.

Thom Nickels has been an inveterate Philadelphia writer since the early eighties. His columns and reviews have appeared in various publications over the years. With Spore he has managed to come out of the gay world press and has emerged into a greater crossover market.
Nickels skillfully reveals Dennis to us in thin layers with each facet of his personality piled on top of one another, until you feel you are not reading about a one-dimensional neurotic sex bumpkin, but a genuine person who is still too immature to find his way. Nickels makes Dennis, despite all his flaws, lovable.

Retreating to Hawaii in the final pages of Spore, Dennis writes to his great Aunt Gertie, the one he tried to drown, and tells her he will return to Philadelphia one day to fight for "tolerance and justice." Hurry back, Dennis, Armageddon can’t start without you.

Spore is published by Starbooks Press and is available for $16.95.

Thom Nickles will have a reading of Spore on November 5, 2010 at the Barnes and Noble book store, Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, PA at 6:30 p.m.

Jackie Atkins lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Cape May, New Jersey.
She has been the art critic for The Key to Philadelphia.
Currently she writes for Seven Mile Island Publications, which publishes the Sea Isle Times and the Seven Miles News, and is regular contributor to the arts and culture commentary website Broad Street Review.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in the Jewish Community.

Balancing on the Mechitza Transgender in Jewish Community Edited by Noach Dzmura
North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California
250 pages $16.95

The transgender issue became a reality for me sometime in the 1970s when I met a guy in a Philadelphia public library. After going for coffee, we went to my place to become intimately acquainted. Almost immediately after disrobing and settling in under a number of quilts (it was a cold February) I noticed that George had what resembled emerging breasts. Since some male breasts contain excess fatty tissue which gives them the appearance of the female bust, I assumed that George had the fatty “gene” and left it at that.

No sooner did I think this then George looked at me and asked, “Would you mind calling me Becky?” His body stiffened at the question, as if he expected me to make a mad dash for the door.

I lied and told George that I didn’t mind while inside I did somersaults: I wanted a George and not a Becky. But since a name, after all, is just a name, we continued our romp without any mechanical difficulties. When it was over, it was over: I never saw “Becky” again.

Twenty years later a similar situation occurred when Milo, a twenty-four year old music student, answered a personal ad of mine. Milo, who described himself as being slight of build, agreed to a blind date and asked if I would meet him “halfway” at a local subway station. When I met Milo that October night, we boarded a bus for my house for an evening of pizza and movies. Three hours later, sitting side-by-side on my sofa, the truth came out. Although agreeable enough when it came to holding hands, when I later made the transition to “holding” Milo’s leg, he stiffened and became uncomfortable.

“I have to tell you something,” he announced. “I am a female to male trans person. I wanted to tell you earlier but I couldn’t.”

The announcement made me think of Becky, only this time I was actually making moves on a woman. “If you want me to leave, I will,” Milo said. I told her to stay because I wanted to hear her story. In fact, we remained seated for another hour or two talking about her transition, although the hand holding stopped. When it came time to say good-bye, conventional gender roles came to the fore: I walked and waited with Milo at the bus stop. Of course, I never saw her again, despite mutual promises that we would remain friends.

I mention these experiences because when the book “Balancing on the Mechitza, Transgender in the Jewish Community,” crossed my desk, I thought of Milo and how quickly the hand holding stopped once the sofa “mechitza” was firmly established. That division didn’t exist when we were operating as two males, but once the gender difference was announced, my attitude towards Milo changed considerably. Milo, you see, was a woman interested in becoming a man so that she could have relationships with men as a gay man.

The twenty-five contributors to this anthology include trans men and women from diversified backgrounds. Genderqueer activist, professors, Talmund scholars, rabbis, and seasoned writers reveal their personal stories in this book that will no doubt become a ‘must read’ in trans gender literature.

“Perception is crucial to Jewish notions of gender,” writes FTM Mechitza editor Noach Dzmura. “In fact, one minority Orthodox ruling on the ‘true gender’ of a postoperative transsexual is based on the idea that perception carries halacha. According to this possuk (rabbinic legal decision maker), a transsexual woman is a woman.”

Here we get into the nuances of ancient Jewish law, such as when Dzmura reminds readers that transgender people “force us to confront gender in a more complicated way, tacitly or overtly positing a hard to define ‘third space’ that exists outside the gender binary. It can be hard to categorize a person in a gender category, and harder still to remain certain about gender as a person transitions.”

I’ll say. After all, once Milo revealed his true sex, I didn’t know what to do. I was disappointed that there’d be no hot date, but on the other hand I knew there was a good story coming. It helped that I genuinely liked Milo.

Many times during the reading of Mechitza I found myself double checking the gender of the authors of the essays, proof positive that I had fallen into Dzmura’s “third space” where I had to figure things out.

In Jewish antiquity, for instance, something called the Mishnah Androgynos proscribed religious duties for a person with two sexes. As Dzmura notes, “True hermaphroditism is mythical…but intersex conditions (genitalia that exhibit some aspects of both sexes) are quite common. “ Hence (according to Dzmura) it is fitting to categorize some trans people in the same category as intersexed, meaning that although the authors of the ancient text may not have envisioned it that way, “there’s nothing to prevent readers of that ancient text today from thinking that way.”

Essayist Beth Orens writes, “…There was a time when I looked over the mechitza from the men’s section and wondered at the strangeness of a world in which I was trapped on the wrong side.” For Orens, transitioning within the Orthodox Jewish community was the only option; for her there simply was no option for an “easier” transition in the secular world.

“The thing about being Orthodox is, the law is the law, even when it’s inconvenient. I’d started electrolysis treatments, but the only way I could show my face in public without stubble or shadow being obvious was to apply what my friend called ‘big, thick, tranny makeup.’ But that sort of makeup wasn’t something I could use on Shabbat. So for eleven months, I spent every Shabbat alone, in my apartment,” Orens writes.

In ‘Queering the Jew and Jewing the Queer,’ Ri J. Turner, who was once “a frilly little girl,” writes about cultural stereotypes, how Jewish women and girls are thought to be assertive, argumentative and intelligent while the men and boys are seen as “shrewd, short, small-penised, and hopelessly awkward on the playing field.” Ri, who went through many transitioning stages (including shaving her head bald), writes that she never felt “quite female.” The only bra she could get herself to wear was a sports bra. She admits to having “failed” in “the girl department.”

“I didn’t wash my face often enough to wear mascara regularly. I was too short, too dirty, I was too informal, I shared too much information, I was too sexual…..And my nose was ugly.”

Today, Turner dresses in men’s clothing with her hair cropped very short. “I don’t attempt to pass as male, nor do I usually desire to,” she says. “I continue to feel shame and discomfort about my body and gender….My gender is certainly not ‘finished.’”

Jhos Singer describes himself as a “transgender person who as a child survived the 19060s,” who’s been a “tomboy, a firefighter, a butch dyke rock drummer, a deckhand, a neo-Hasidic androgyne, a Jewish lesbian spiritual leader….”

Singer’s journey, like the other personal stories in Mechitza, is about relationships—with the world and with God.

“Knowing who we are in relationship to the world and/or God and having a clear understanding of what is around us are flip sides of the same coin, and I would argue that being transgender is as well,” Singer writes.

Five thumbs up for a marvelously honest no-holds-barred anthology.

****** This review drew some fire from one or two or three online trans activists. They objected to my "treatment" of Becky and Milo. They stated that I should have referred to "Becky" as "she" (because that was "Becky's gender choice) rather than (the given) biological "he." Ditto for Milo. I was told that I was trans-ignorant and trans-phobic because I referred to Milo as a "she" when Milo told me that "he" was a "she." But I met "Becky" in the 1970s when trans issues were still in formation. "Becky," in fact, wanted to be referred to as "Becky" only in the bedroom, not in real life. We had a discussion about this then. When Milo told me "she" was in transition, the implication was that this process was still in formation, and that "he" was still a "she." There was no talk or mention of me calling Milo a "he" as we concluded our evening together. In fact, we got along quite nicely. I even castigated myself somewhat in the original story for falling back into conventional gender roles, and treating Milo like a woman who needed protection (walking her to the bus stop).

Unfortunately, the mysterious (and nameless or first name only) trans activist overseers did not even read the rest of this review. Had the trans activists read the full review, he/she would have walked away with a different feeling about the review. Calling me trans-phobic was a wake-up call. This sort of shrill paranoia and over-the-top paranoia doesn't do anything for dialogue.
Perhaps the trans movement has no place under the gay/lesbian civil rights umbrella.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Cat Hoarding in Fishtown (From this week's STAR column)

When I wrote about feral cats in this column over two years ago, a friend of mine expressed his displeasure at my choice of topics, and said, “Cats! Why are you writing about cats?” I was shocked at the vehemence of his tone, but later discovered the reason for his objections: He was allergic to cat dander, and hated cats. To each his own, of course, although I find it ironic that the second my cat Zoey entered my life, this friend went out of it, as if some unseen feline force had ushered him away on a slippery sliding board.

It’s no secret that cats and dogs are big business in the neighborhood. When I walk to Wawa every morning for my 24 ounce cup of Costa Rican coffee, I encounter innumerable dog walkers. Some of the dogs are big boned Border Collies, Huskies, Weimaraners and Boxers. These are dogs you’d expect to see in the country because big dogs need a lot of space. To my mind, however, a large dog in a small city house is comparable to stuffing a full grown carp into a gold fish bowl. It’s inhumane, but so is cat hoarding.

Cat hoarders have delusions of grandeur. By seeking to house as many feral cats as possible, they ruin the living environment for humans and inevitably destroy a quality life for the creatures they say they love.

Hoarding, of course, always begins as an altruistic measure to save one homeless kitty. Inevitably that one kitty becomes two kitties, and so on. In a house not too far from my own, I counted 11 cats. Among this collective of diverse sizes, calico, black and long hair, there’s of course a first among equals, the King Ferdinand or Queen Bee cat who gets most of the owner’s affection. And while the owners of these 11 cats more than likely can distinguish among the various feline personalities, a visitor would just see a room filled with multiple cats and then compute that as a confusing mass—or mess.

Having just one cat can be a handful, but seeing the unleashed pandemonium that I witnessed when visiting this house, made me realize the insanity of hoarding.

Walking through the door caused three cats to run upstairs, two to race under furniture, two to leap onto the dining room table, three to head for the kitchen and the rest to claw up the side of a dining room cabinet and then plunge into a hole in the ceiling, where they could then be heard racing back and forth under the ceiling tiles.

I don’t know about you, but all this reminds me of a terrible B-movie I saw as a kid titled “The Shrews,” in which armies of furry rodent-like creatures terrorize a family on an island.
I tried not to judge my friends too harshly. “Maybe these cats have to get used to me before they calm down and do the sniffing thing,” I thought. When this didn’t happen, I knew there was a permanent disconnect between these cats and their owners. I could plainly see that this community of felines didn’t really need the owners when it came to affection. They don’t need people because they have one another. At least with my single cat at home there’s an “emotional” connection, but with this hoard the resident humans were merely feeding and kitty litter “devices.”

The scene in this Fishtown house reminded me of the Philadelphia Zoo’s once notorious Monkey Mountain, an outdoor rock sculpture about as big as a skating rink with planted grass and trees where scores of monkeys and their young could enjoy the outdoors as visitors watched their antics from a side amphitheater. In the 1960s, Monkey Mountain was the Zoo’s most popular exhibit because you got to see how monkeys behave in large groups-- without human interference. What visitors to the zoo saw was not always “family friendly,” however. Indeed, much of it countered socially accepted codes of human behavior, especially “normal” notions of acceptable sexual conduct. Eventually, Monkey Mountain was abolished for smaller, more sterile cages. The monkey shenanigans show was over.

In this house of cats the air was thick with dander and kitty litter. Fur balls lined the rugs like rolling tumbleweed in the West. I began sneezing and itching. My hosts, oblivious as the day is long, dutifully watched cable TV, with one of them periodically throwing pieces of chicken (from a bag of Kentucky Fried) onto the floor for three kittens took this as a game of catch. Unfortunately, the floor was rife with thrown food particles that somehow didn’t make it into the cats’ mouths.

Sitting there, I tried to understand why anyone would want to create an overcrowded feline farm, especially in this economy (the occupants, by the way, had an empty refrigerator). Having eleven hungry felines to feed is no cheap endeavor.

Having said all this, I was not ready for what came next—fleas.

Through osmosis, or a transfer from one of the occupants’ trouser legs, Zoey was re-infested with fleas. Almost a year ago I wrote in this column about Zoey’s persistent flea problem, so the reoccurrence brought me to the edge of an emotional cliff.

“You have too many cats!” I told the occupants, “You need to trim them down to 2, or I will order everyone in your family to disrobe and put on zoot suits whenever you visit my house!”

You’d have thought that I was calling for the extermination of their grandmother, or an aged aunt who supplied them with weekend beer.

“I couldn’t live without my babies,” the biggest and strongest of the two sons said, scratching a flea bite on his arm. “I would cry and cry!”

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

School Bullies? Blame Teachers and Administrators--and Parents.

My first experience with a school bully occurred in the fifth grade when a red haired classmate took an instant dislike to me. At recess he’d wait until I was in a remote corner of the schoolyard, then force me to the ground and sit on my chest. He never held me down for long, since there were always strict (religious habit wearing) Saint Joseph nuns patrolling the yard. But the experience was humiliating.

When I finally worked up enough nerve to tell my father about the incident, he taught me several methods of self defense. He said the next time the bully sat on my chest I should bring my legs up behind him so I could then wrap them around his neck and bend his body back.
“Then you’ll have him trapped, and you can escape,” he said. Together my father and I tried this exercise until I could do it in my sleep.

Lucky for me, the school bullying stopped before I got to use Dad’s Repel-a-Bully trick. Still, I had waited too long before asking for Dad’s help. Years before, I’d been taunted by another bully, an angry kid who was also into “applied pressure” chest sitting. Like the school bully, the neighborhood bully attacked me one day for no apparent reason. He’d chase me down like a rabid German Shepard whenever he saw me in the neighborhood. Telling my parents about him was not an option because boys were expected to handle their own affairs without getting adults involved.

“Just sock him one,” my brother told me once, but I could never do that.

Fighting one bully is hard enough, but in schools today there are often many bullies who gang up and attack one student. Bullied students are attacked for many reasons: Obesity, race, gender, and sexual identity are the most common reasons. In many cases, the kids who bully are aping the attitudes and opinions they hear around the family dinner table. This suggests that bigoted parents can do just as much harm to a kid’s mind as the worst sort of Internet predator.
The epidemic of bullying incidences in the news today suggests that many parents are not doing enough to teach their kids civility, tolerance, and respect for differences.

Fortunately, the Philadelphia School System’s passage of an anti-bullying policy in September put Philadelphia way ahead of the federal government when it comes to addressing the problem. On a statewide level, Senator Bob Casey has even co-sponsored a Safe Schools Independent Act because of the situation. Senator Casey’s bill would require schools getting federal money to have effective bullying prevention programs, as well as codes of conduct that would eliminate or diminish harassment.

But new laws can only do so much. Like some parents who may unknowingly help their kids become bullies, teachers and administrators must also look within and begin to speak up when they witness blatant examples of bullying. In the past, too many teachers have looked the other way.

When 26 Asian students were repeatedly attacked in South Philadelphia High School in 2009, where were the teachers and administrators? The inclination to “not want raise uncomfortable issues” can often have tragic consequences. It’s fortunate that this did not happen at South Philadelphia High School, but it took a U.S. Justice Department investigation to shake up that school’s status quo.

Too many times in the past, teachers and administrators have been reluctant to speak up when students are bullied because they’re lesbian or gay. Some fear addressing the problem because they don’t want to mention the “dreaded” ‘g’ or ‘l’ word. They do not want to anger the religious conservatives who believe that any mention of “gay” or “lesbian” is an attempt by the school system to influence young people’s view of homosexuality.

But this is like saying that mandating a policy of anti-bullying for obese kids is an endorsement of obesity.

As for that bully in the fifth grade, I should mention that a couple of years ago while attending a pharmaceutical convention in CC with a physician friend, I discovered that one of the on- site representatives was none other than my chest sitting tormentor. His red hair was a little faded but his childhood snarl was turned upside down into an unmistakable, handshaking smile.
But all bully stories don’t end so happily.

A Friend's Wedding Day Surpirse

I may be getting superstitious, but it seems to me that after a reading engagement at Port Richmond Books, I receive some sort of “surprise.” Last year, after I read from my Star columns and various published books, I received word that my novel Spore was accepted for publication.

This year I was hit with another surprise, even if the good crowd that came out to take part in manager Greg Gillespie’s Spore reception of soft Philly pretzels, cold white wine and beer, was surprise enough. The other surprise, however, was major.

It all began when somebody at the bookstore asked me why I was dressed in a suit. The black suit, which I bought at a top drawer thrift shop in Center City (“Immortal”) has served me well for several years, even if some people joke that it makes me look like I’m going to a funeral.
“I’m going to a wedding after this,” I said, “a good friend is getting married.”
That good friend is a woman named Dolly.

Dolly attended last year’s reading. I met her years ago when we both worked as low level supervisors for a university fund raising center. At the time, Dolly was in med school but spent her free nights confirming telephone pledges that came through the calling center. On Friday nights after work we’d often team up with a few other co-workers and head to a local restaurant where we’d munch on bacon omelets, hot turkey sandwiches, or hamburgers.

Dolly, as a single lady in search of a husband, would call me and tell me about the men she was dating. “Do you think I’ll ever get married?” she’d sometimes ask. “Of course I do,” I said. “When it happens it will be like a thunderclap, fast and furious.”

When Dolly finished med school a couple years ago and became a practicing psychiatrist, I was glad she hadn’t lost the sweet, vulnerable quality that made her ask me what I thought her future would be.

The best way to describe Dolly is to imagine a person who never seems to get angry or carry a grudge. Imagine someone who laughs a lot, who puts up a funny, superficial front but who’s as smart as a whip.

At last year’s reading she told she was dating this guy who drinks too much beer. She was worried that he may be alcoholic. “He drinks more than a six pack every day,” she said. Dolly, whose family hails from Pakistan, was never much of a drinker herself. Her love is diet Coke. Years ago at work she told me she was a Unitarian but that her family was Hindu. Dolly, however, always made it a point to wear a small gold cross necklace.

After leaving the bookstore, I jumped into a friend’s car and headed to Dolly’s wedding. Forty minutes later we were inside a party room at the Palace of Asia restaurant. There was Dolly in a full Indian sari, covered with thick gold ornamental jewelry, her face framed by a long free flowing veil. The man standing beside her in a bejeweled Nehru jacket did not look like a beer guzzler by any means. In addition, the “wine” they were serving at the pre-dinner reception was not wine at all but sparkling apple cider as well as a variety of fizz juice drinks that mimic champagne.

Before leaving Port Richmond Books, Greg joked about a “dry” Mennonite wedding he attended years ago. Listening to his story, it never occurred to me that Dolly’s wedding would be just that. “Well,” I told Greg, “Dolly’s Unitarian.”

Unitarians, as far as I can tell, are free to believe and do almost anything they want.
“Hey, something’s different here,” I said to the friend who accompanied me to the wedding. I was referring to all the women in the hall wearing exotic head scarves. As if on cue, my confusion ended when a man in a suit introduced himself as the Inman and went on to explain the rubrics of a Muslim wedding.

Like the Spore wedding scene I’d read to the audience at Port Richmond Books, where the bride leaves her husband during their honeymoon trip to Honolulu, an even more radical U-turn had occurred in Dolly’s life.

Dolly’s mother told me that her daughter had converted to Islam two weeks before the wedding. As for her husband, no, he was definitely not the out-of-control beer guzzler but somebody she’d recently met in Chicago. “Things clicked between them very fast. They both knew….” Dolly’s mom added.

The thunderclap I’d predicted for my friend had come!

As happy as we were that our friend had finally found a mate, a small group of us felt that apple cider, as delicious as it is, doesn’t quite cut it when it comes to wedding toasts, and so, just like Greg at the Mennonite wedding, we found our own fizz tributes in another part of the Palace.
Alla salute!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Philadelphia: Can the Nation's Poorest City also be a World Class City?

When I was in Montreal last month I read in the local newspapers there that there was no recession in Canada and that unemployment was low. “What a difference a border makes,” I thought, even if the view outside my hotel window told a different story.

Every morning I’d see a group of street beggars, all young adults in their twenties, congregate in front of a McDonald’s so that they could ask passerby for change. Some wore their bedding on their backs (heavy blankets), while others seemed to be part of the heady youth culture on Saint Catherine Street.

A closer look at the group revealed what they really were: drug addicts scoring either drugs or money to buy drugs. Indeed, the scene outside my hotel window every morning reminded me of the people (mostly men) I see begging outside the neighborhood Wawa or Thriftway in search of money to buy heroin. The local vagabonds have it tougher than their neighbors to the north. Sometimes they sleep on large flattened cardboard boxes behind the fence that runs along East Thompson Street. These sleeping enclaves were not there last year, but this year, as Philadelphia dips in status to the poorest city in the nation, the area has become a rustic bedroom community, home to users, alcoholics and the jobless.

Another “tent” city is located under I-95 near Cumberland Street and the Girard Street turn. It was a booming “It takes a village” operation during the warm summer months.

When the U.S. Census Bureau rated Philadelphia as the poorest city among the ten most populated cities in the nation, my first thought was what kind of impact the rating would have on Philadelphia’s desire to become a world class city.

Can a world class city also be the country’s poorest city?

Detroit suffered for years with the label, “America’s poorest city,” despite the recent transformation of that city’s waterfront area. Detroit’s chronic poverty caused it to suffer population loses until it was no longer even qualified to be included on the list of America’s top ten largest cities. Today, it is number 11, and poverty there hovers around 33%.

Will Philadelphia suffer a similar fate twenty, thirty years down the road? Will home owners here one day bolt, and head for the Pocono’s, Johnstown or Altoona?

“Philadelphia’s poverty rate has been growing for thirty years,” noted University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice Professor, Roberta Iversen. Iversen blames job losses in manufacturing, but she also points to the “relegation of minorities to dense neighborhoods of moderate to high levels of poverty and very little job creation.”

But does this explain the poverty in (mainly) non-minority populated Fishtown and Port Richmond? While I agree with Iversen that the poorest sections of the city are “isolated socially,” poverty today has become trans-racial. Indeed, as the U.S. Census notes, one out of four Philadelphians lives below the poverty line, compared with the national average of one in seven.

Ironically, the designation of Philadelphia as the nation’s poorest city is not the public relations nightmare it could be when one considers that the city’s main tourist attraction is Center City. Center City is its own tidy town, with its Friends of Rittenhouse Square Balls, its Old City horse and carriage rides, overcrowded sidewalk cafés, transient students, and wealthy retirees. Slide into most of the neighborhoods surrounding Center City, however, and you see another city altogether. What you often see is a city that is hurting.

But there’s another factor here that is being overlooked. Philadelphia’s land mass is a relatively humble 135 square miles, while other cities in the top ten list have land masses of 300 square miles. As demographics experts have noted for quite a while now, if the land masses of the other cities were reduced to 135 square miles, their poverty rates would be as Philadelphia’s. Other major cities, such as Phoenix, Arizona, have extended their borders in order to incorporate the surrounding suburbs (where there’s a comfortable middle class). These municipal “swallow ups” can change a city’s “most populated” rating overnight.

Unfortunately, no suburb in Philadelphia’s multi- county region is likely to turn over its suburban keys for a city classification (this is a phenomenon common in the West), so it looks like Philly is stuck, for the time being anyway, in the 135 square mile bracket.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Last Word (Thom Nickels) from ICON Magazine

The global economic crisis has put many of the world’s skyscraper projects on hold. In Philadelphia, architects Gene Kohn and Bill Louie of Kohn Pedersen Fox architects, creators of the city’s Mellon Bank Center with its iconic pyramid top, will have to wait a while before their 1,500 foot high American Commerce Center becomes a reality.

The project, which was to include a 26-story hotel and 6-stories of street accessible retail along 18th and Arch Streets, not to mention a striking 300 foot spire (described by most who have seen the design as “iconic and breathtaking”) that would make it taller than the Empire State building, is now in the limbo of lost skyscrapers. The American Commerce Center joins a number of “on hold” skyscrapers worldwide.

Included on the “on hold” list is the 72-story Torre Gran Costanera in the Chilean capital of Santiago, which was slated to become one of the tallest buildings in the southern hemisphere. Another shelved skyscraper, the 150-story or 2,000 feet tall Chicago Spire, was slated to be completed by 2012, but the only thing visible to date is the building’s completed foundation, a hole reminiscent of an archeological dig.

The global building crisis is also affecting a city like Dubai, where there’s always been a happy, unending money flow: the city’s 0.6 mile high Nakheel Tower has been put on ice until conditions improve. According to Emporis, a German Company that tracks development, 11% of the world’s skyscraper projects (29 of 301 U.S. projects) have been tabled.

For Philadelphians excited about the prospect of mega-skyscraper as potentially changing Philadelphia’s reputation from a “connecting” city to New York and Washington to a world class destination, this is not good news. The project’s resumption in the near or distant future (barring a complete global collapse, of course) will provide over 2,000 construction jobs to the city over the 3-year period.

Philadelphia developer Garrett Miller, Vice President of the Philadelphia division of Hill International, Inc., told me that when the ACC finally gets built, it will create a dynamic new environment for Philadelphia.

“Cities are dynamic environments,” Mr. Miller said. “They either improve or they get worse. Philadelphia needs to put itself in a position to change for the better. Although we have a great historical past that we should respect, it’s important for us to realize this and embrace our future. Cities don’t stay the same. When you choose to live in an urban environment, you choose a dynamic area that is always evolving.”

After the tower’s proposal a small but formidable opposition group was ACC’s biggest problem. These were mainly older Center City residents who wanted the height of the tower reduced significantly. Opponents feared a taller tower would block views of the city from their Kennedy House Blvd. windows, or cast “unsightly shadows.” The group also suggested that the building’s height was out of scale with the neighborhood, despite the fact that the proposed project was not in the Fairmount neighborhood but smack in the middle of Philadelphia’s financial district.

The global skyscraper squeeze has created a fair amount of frustration. Mr. Miller, for instance, didn’t have much to say on the present inactivity surrounding ACC.

“Who knows what’s going on with the economy and with the American Commerce Center,” he said. “When will the economy come around? When will the world get better? Who knows…!”

But one city’s skyscraper Requiem is another city’s hallelujah chorus.
In New York City, Anthony Malkin, owner of the Empire State Building, asked New York City officials to block the construction of a 1,216 foot skyscraper at 33rd and 7th Avenue, less than ¼ of a mile from the Empire State Building. Malkin wanted Vornado Realty Trust, creators of the new project, to scale the building back to 825 feet and put a 17-block buffer around the Empire State Building to protect its viewing province. While Malkin never mentioned “shadows,” he doesn’t want the iconic structure that many know as “King Kong’s perch” to be outdone by a competitor.

But Vornado Realty Trust, unlike the city of Dubai, seems to have no worries about money. They just want to build.

New York’s Mayor Bloomberg, the voice of ill-reason on some issues, encapsulated sound logic when he said, “One guy owns a building. He’d like to have it be the only tall building. I’m sorry, that’s not the real world. Nor should it be.”

The Social Security Trust Fund is a vulnerable baby: imagine Moses lying in a crocodile-filled Nile.

That’s the feeling I get anyway when I read of the attacks against the system that Franklin Roosevelt initiated on August 14, 1935. Assaults against the Trust have been mounting steadily since the presidency of George W, Bush. The arrows no longer only come from Republicans, either. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, for instance, joined forces with House Minority Leader John Bolhner, in calling for a higher retirement age of seventy.

The suggested age of seventy years is perhaps a comfortable concept for workers in offices where there’s no physical labor involved, but for blue collar workers in the restaurant and construction fields, roofers and house painters, working so many years may be far beyond what the physical body can endure.

President Obama’s bipartisan 18-member Commission that’s slated to come up with a solution for the nation’s public debt (the report is due in November) is expected to recommend cuts to Social Security. The suggestion of cuts is expected because the Democratic co-chair of the committee, Erskin Bowels, a Wall Street CEO, is on record as saying, “Well, we have to cut Social Security.”

But according to Dean Baker, Co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “Nothing needs to be done about Social Security.” Baker told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now that the program could pay all scheduled benefits “well into the future, at least twenty-seven years into the future,” and even then “it could still pay the vast majority of benefits, assuming that nothing is done.” While Baker believes that something will have to be tweaked somewhere down the road, the idea that the sky is falling is absurd. “People have paid for those benefits. So, in effect, what we’d be doing is defaulting on the bonds that are held in the trust fund to pay people their benefits. Nothing,” he repeats, “needs to be done.”

If that’s true, what’s all this talk about a new retirement age and cuts to the system? And where is Maggie Kuhn when we need her?

Kuhn, if you recall, argued that politicians who wanted to cut or do away with Social Security had created an intergenerational war over federal funds in order to divert public attention from the nation’s real financial issues: extravagant tax breaks for the rich and overspending on the military.

A march on Washington, or something far more drastic, should be employed if President Obama’s Commission gets its way.

Baker said: “…You have people running around Washington saying, ‘You know, we can’t do anything on healthcare, because we tried that and the insurance industry was too powerful, the pharmaceutical industry was too powerful, so therefore we have to cut Social Security.’ This should have people, very, very worried.”

In the 1970s, Europe agreed to trade crude oil with Arab countries in exchange for promises of unchecked immigration (Strasbourg Resolution 492, 1971). As controversial Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci noted in her book, “The Rage and the Pride,” after the agreement, the streets of her native Florence were flooded with immigrants selling pencils and chewing gum.” Likewise, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and the Netherlands also permitted unchecked immigration from Morocco, North Africa and the Middle East. This was not a sensibly paced immigration process, but an open door policy that led to the establishment of large Muslim enclaves in progressive, modern democracies. Unlike other immigrant groups, the new citizens tended to avoid assimilation into the culture of the host country.

Bruce Bawer, author of Surrender, Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom, noted that that this transformation “went almost entirely unmentioned in the American and European media,” although it was first spotted in the Netherlands by Pim Fortuyn, author of Against the Islamization of Our Culture. Fortuyn, before his assassination by a religious fanatic, was a candidate for the Dutch parliament and made it a point to state that fundamentalist Islam would always be irreconcilable with Western democracy. Fortuyn warned his countrymen to rethink government subsidization of Muslim schools, mosques and community centers. For this he was called a fascist by multicultural progressives, and he was often compared to Hitler.

In the United States, objections to the Ground Zero mosque and Islamic Center have had multicultural progressives up in arms. Fairly predictable “America means freedom of religion” editorials have appeared both in The New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. These editorials implied that anyone who objects to the Ground Zero mosque is an Islamophobe or a neocon.

But nowhere in these oatmeal-laden tomes is it suggested that Islam prove its love of peace, fellowship and world harmony by allowing Christians and Jews in predominately Muslim countries the freedom to worship or openly wear crucifixes or the Star of David.

Nowhere is it suggested that Islam give a few inches in return for the respect that it demands, even if that means that the Reverend honorable Imam Rauf of New York, in a gesture to win the hearts of skeptics, offer to rebuild the tiny Greek Orthodox church of Saint Nicholas, the only Ground Zero-based house of worship destroyed on 9/11.

Perhaps a gesture like this would go a long way in defusing some of skepticism around the building of a House of Prayer near Ground Zero.

Thom Nickels

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Homosexuality as an Import Item

The idea that homosexuality can be imported from one country (or continent) to the next like a bag of exotic coffee beans, is a persistent fairy tale that won’t die. The myth has especially strong roots when it comes to the continent of Africa.

We’ve all heard the charge: Africa never had a “problem” with homosexuality—e.g., there were no African gays and lesbians—until those nasty French and English colonists, decked out in those imperialist safari hats, “planted” sodomy seeds on the continent. This persistent argument, coming, as it has, from the lips of otherwise intelligent (and perhaps well meaning) African race relations “experts” and politicians, has more to do with prejudicial views of homosexuality than with objective truth.

As long as people refuse to see homosexuality as a universal component of human nature, occurring everywhere from Antarctica to Australia to Bombay to Providence, Rhode Island, there will be crackpot researchers who view homosexuality as a kind of “imported” product.
“Heterosexual Africa? The History of an Idea from the Age of Exploration to the Age of AIDS,” by Marc Epprecht, explores how Africa’s singular identity as a heterosexual continent came about.

Mr. Epprecht’s 230-page explanation, however, is far from simple. Rather, it is a Kafkaesque labyrinth of the stories of researchers who either ignored evidences of African homosexuality, or were in fact blind to it or chose to gather the data and then suppress what they found because of the hostility in research circles to “the truth.” Field data suggesting widespread homosexual or lesbian activity was at one time thought to be in league with the forces of sexual perversion. Combine this fact with the “character” of the African continent itself—a huge world of tribal secrets (regarding homosexuality) that are not supposed to be revealed, especially to foreign researchers with note pads and pencils, and you have a real conundrum.
The idea of homosexuality as a carry-on piece of luggage, like a foreign virus ripe for implantation on new soil, is hardly a new one.

“Gibbon,” as Mr. Epprecht explains, “made the point in a passing footnote to his explanation of how ‘the primitive Romans were infected’ with homosexuality by the more civilized Etruscans and Greeks. Gibbon had never been to Africa, and knew virtually nothing about it…”

But you get the idea…..

The early explorers to Africa saw the continent through a Rousseauesque lens: Africans were seen as barbaric and sexually savage but only in a raw heterosexual sense. “The missionaries had their hands full challenging the array of what they regarded as heterosexual immoralities in African societies, including polygamy, child betrothals, marriage by cattle, female genital cutting….More secretive and presumably rare homosexual practices fell low on the list of priorities,” Mr. Epprecht writes.

In other words, adding the homosexual ingredient would have brought the stew to a nasty boil.

Mr. Epprecht tells of researchers like Ferdinand Karsch-Haack, who investigated hunter-gatherers in Angola and Namibia, and who came to the conclusion that homosexuality was innate to all humankind. “We should finally give up the fiction that Sodom and Gomorrah are only in Europe and that everywhere else holy customs reign….The most unnatural vices, which we regard as the most recent ways of stimulation of an over civilized culture are practiced there in the light of day, in the open, as common practice.”

Slivers of truth like this were all too often buried under avalanches of other “research” that hid the facts because of the fear of [homosexual] glorification.

On one level, the depth of sexual secrecy among Africans when it comes to homosexuality calls to mind contemporary African American manifestations of living life on the “down low.” This link certainly begs the question: Are there certain “cultural” propensities inherent in the African mind set when it comes to homosexuality? Might that be something along the lines of, it’s okay to “do” the deed but one must go mum when it comes time to talk about it?
What I gathered from Mr. Epprecht’s book is that discerning the truth about African homosexuality is really a researcher’s nightmare. On one hand, researchers reported uninhibited African sexuality in the heterosexual world— a total acceptance of “outrageous” heterosexual behaviors outside normative definitions of respectability, but then attitudes clam up—Salem witch burning-style-- when it comes to same sex behaviors.

But since nothing is simple in Africa, one cannot even take reports of heavy persecution at face value. “Universalist claims about extreme intolerance of sexual diversity or gender variance clearly flew in the face of considerable other work,” Mr. Epprecht writes.

Fortunately, the evidence for this positivism is significant.

Mr. Epprecht writes of mine marriages of males among migrant labor Africans, in southern Africa, French North and West Africa.

“In mine marriages men took younger men or boys as servants and ‘wives’ for the duration of their employment contracts….These temporary male-male marriages often served to strengthen traditional marriage with women back in the rural areas. Boy wives allowed the men to avoid costly and potentially unhealthy relationships with female prostitutes in town.”
When HIV/AIDS became well entrenched in Africa a couple decades before the disease surfaced in Europe and the United States, Africans knew that both men and women were equally affected, especially in Central Africa.

“The equal ratio between men and women in Central Africa thus suggested a very different and far more dangerous pattern than that in Europe and North America,” Mr. Epprecht writes.
While the HIV/AIDS crises brought the African lgbt population into the limelight, it also had a negative effect.

Mr. Epprecht: “Visibility in turn precipitated a flurry of demagogic attacks on gays and lesbians by African leaders. By so dramatically raising public debate and by so implausibly linking African lgbt to Western gay imperialist conspiracies, these attacks stimulated new research into same sex practices in Africa.”

This is not a book that one races through in a week, and one could hardly call it a page turner. In sober academic prose riddled with statistics and referential footnotes, the reader ploughs through sentences much the way a farmer tills difficult soil after a harsh winter.