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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Philadelphia Police and Jail Time

If you’ve ever read the gospels or even the Sermon on the Mount, you know that one of the most charitable works of mercy you can do is to visit somebody in prison. While I don’t have any friends in prison, years ago I once spent a night in jail when a police van picked me up in Center City because the cops were looking for a red haired felon. Faster than you can say “melting snow in March,” I was ordered into the back of the van where I was shocked to find ten other confused-looking guys, all of them with red hair. Together we were taken to the Roundhouse, and then put in a lineup while an unseen witness behind a one-way glass panel examined our faces. I stood there nervously while the witness tried to identify somebody (she couldn’t). We were then summarily dismissed, and told to find our own way home.

Being in a lineup was everything I’d seen on TV: you stand on an elevated platform or stage with the other suspects. You look straight ahead. You do not smile or grimace. In front of you is the big dark glass panel behind which the victim or victims of the crime scrutinize you. Tension mounts like the build up of steam in a shower stall. If there are chorus lines in Purgatory, this was it. I certainly don’t recommend it as an “experience.”

In my travels around the hood, I’ve heard too many people comment that they know somebody on parole, or that they are on parole themselves. I find it a very sad thing that so many people spend time behind bars for drug related offenses, and that so many violent offenders go free.

While the United States accounts for just 5% of the world’s population, it houses 25% of the world’s prison population. Twenty-five percent is astounding. These numbers do not reflect a rise in violent crime but in the number of drug offenders. In fact, the numbers of incarcerated drug offenders has risen 1200% since 1980. Today there are over 500,000 people in the nation’s prisons for drug-related offenses.

Meanwhile, as the economy continues to wobble, petty (potentially violent) crime seems to be on the upswing. Just a couple of months ago a neighbor pf mine was stopped on our street by three people who lunged at her from a parked car. These intruders from another neighborhood pointed a gun at her and demanded her groceries, a small bag of snacks from the local deli. They also took three dollars. Had she resisted or screamed for help, the results could have been devastating.

The Mercer Street bandits, no doubt, are on other crime sprees as I write this column. Someday they’ll be caught. They’ll hold up the wrong person and then the ugly story will be all over Fox News. Perhaps they’ll even be a lineup where the victims can ID the crooks. These are the people who belong in jail, rather than the Susan Finkelstein’s of the world (Finkelstein, in case you forget, was the woman who allegedly offered sex in exchange for World Series tickets).

Jail the Mercer Street bandits, by all means, but send the hopeless drug addict nabbed in front of WAWA while copping a bag to get through the day, to rehab or a hospital, but don’t waste our tax dollars housing him in a prison for a year.
The booming state prison population in Pennsylvania has grown by 21% in just 6 years, from 37,995 in 2001 to more than 49,300 today, according to Marc Goldberg, deputy secretary for administration at the State’s Department of Corrections. Mr. Goldberg speculates that the state prison population is expected to grow at an average of 4% each year through 2012.

In 2009, I spoke with filmmakers Cindy Burstein and Tony Heriza about their documentary film, “ConcreteSteel&Paint,” about a group of Graterford Correctional prisoners and neighbors (some of them victims of violent crime) coming together to paint a Mural Arts Project mural dedicated to “healing.” Ms. Burstein, who also works as Adjunct Professor of media and cultural studies in the Film & Media Arts Dept. at Temple University, said that the documentary comes along “at the right time.”
“The number of people in prison since the late 1970s, when the prison population was about 300,000, is now up to two million. A lot of that has to do with the drug laws of the 1980s, as well as sentencing laws that are keeping non violent offenders in jail for longer periods of time,” she told me.
With that said, let’s go after the real criminals.

Thom Nickels

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Philadelphia Center for Architecture Talk


Book Talk w/ Thom Nickels: Sacred Architecture
date: 4/7/2010
time: 5:30pm - 7:30pm
location: Center for Architecture, 1218 Arch St, Philadelphia, PA 19107
organization: Philadelphia Center for Architecture
cost: FREE
registration: Required - Register Online
Local author Thom Nickels will discuss sacred architecture.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Dirty Snow, Awful Winter

From my second floor study window, the view is nothing but a massive sheet of ice and snow. The drifts are so high on my kitchen roof I’m afraid that something will snap. Everything is so snowbound I feel trapped. The recent storms have caused life to stop in its tracks: events, get-togethers, even the daily mail has been cancelled as friends and neighbors barricade themselves in their homes. It’s as if the planet had slipped into an eerie End Time scenario.
The general inconvenience is lost on the kids who seem to delight in this blast of Antarctica. They huddle beside snow drifts and make igloos. They sled. They throw snowballs. They walk on planks of ice, giggling.
The adults, meanwhile, pack the aisles of the local Wine and Spirits store to stock up on their favorite beverage. They need a little something to help them cope, and who can blame them? This has been the winter from hell, when Frosty the Snowman has become the Abominable Snowman.
The month of February may boast Valentine’s Day as its signature calling card, but so far it has offered little except aggravation and stress.
Until this winter, I was never much of a believer in the Farmers’ Almanac, but when I had a chat with Judson Hale, editor of the Almanac at the Hinge Café in Port Richmond in October of last year, I got an early heads up on what lay ahead in the world of weather.
The Almanac has been in the Hale family since the 1930s, when Mr. Hale’s uncle, a tall man who resembled Abraham Lincoln, became the 11th editor.
An eclectic publication, in the past the Almanac has advertised returnable (if they don’t fit) false teeth for $100; glass eyes that do not rotate like a real pupil but which can be ordered in different colors ($50.00) Former President Jimmy Carter once had an advertisement in The Almanac about how to raise fish worms. Pre-Viagra pills were sold as Rooster pills.
Mr. Hale is a tall, quintessential New England Yankee—white hair, lean, angular face, a ready smile. He told me that the Almanac is the oldest continuing publication in America, founded in 1792. “It’s so old that George Washington used to read it, and its world famous weather predictions have over a sixty-five percent accuracy rate,” he said.
Predicting the weather for a given winter six months in advance is really going out on a limb, not unlike—I thought-- all those grown men in silly hats examining fat (non-edible) groundhogs for shadows.
“Does The Almanac use psychics for the weather?” I asked Mr. Hale.
“Well, the secret formula for weather forecasts has to do with sunspots. Right now we are into Sunspot cycle 24. It is very, very quiet, and there are few sunspots. Whenever it’s been quiet sunspot-wise for a long time, it’s been very cool,” he said.
In using the word ‘cool,’ Mr. Hale erred on the side of caution. He told me later, after we had finished our Hinge egg sandwiches, that, ‘cool’ really means a terribly cold winter with above average snowfall in January and February 2010.
February, in case you haven’t noticed, is only half over. So there’s still plenty of time for my kitchen roof to cave-in, thanks to Sunspot cycle 24.
In predicting the weather, Mr. Hale told me that his staff “uses the most modern, high tech information” for accuracy. Of course he wouldn’t tell me what these high tech methods were, because that would be giving away secrets. Whatever The Almanac’s formula is, it obviously works, and I have to wonder, as I guess you are wondering also, what took me so long to pay attention to what I had heretofore thought of as a corny little yearly journal that seemed more of a joke than something to be taken seriously.
Make no mistake, I’m paying attention now, and will be looking to see what’s in store for the winter of 2011.
To prove The Almanac’s accuracy, Mr. Hale told me a story about The Almanac’s 1816 editor, Robert B. Thomas, who used sunspots to predict the weather for 1816. Mr. Thomas wrote that it would snow throughout the summer. “He became a laughing stock after that,” Mr. Hale said, “so he tried to get all the copies off the newsstands, destroying everything he could, and had the Almanac reprinted. He remained the laughing stock till late spring when Mt. Tabora in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) erupted one hundred times bigger than Mt. Saint Helen’s, and the dust from Mt. Tabora circled the globe causing 1816 to be “the summer of no summer.”
In other words, it did actually snow in New England during the summer of 1816.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Death of Mary Daly

Mary Daly, it is true, started out as a kind of Catholic thinker. She earned degrees from three different Catholic colleges, studied in Rome, but then something happened. She adopted the fashionable radical mantle in vogue after Vatican II, and joined radical chic theologians Hans Kung and Edward Schillebeeckx in their campaign to transform the Catholic Church into a 'House run by Committee." The Catholic Church, with its claim that they have "the keys" of the apostle Peter, has never been a democracy. Ms. Daly, fed up, left the Catholic Church and embraced the "religion" of vegetarianism and antifur politics. One can add male-baiting and genderism to her resume as well. Ms. Daly, then, ended up as a non-Catholic feminist theologian. I might add that her legacy in the secular world of feminist politics is also suspect, for she is criticized heavily for her intense (and rather blatant) dislike of transgender persons.

Troglodytes in Fishtown and Port Richmond

The recent death of writer J.D. Salinger, author of ‘The Catcher in the Rye,’ got me thinking about why writers live where they do. Salinger, with all his eccentricities, was about as down-to-earth a fellow as it’s possible to be despite his international fame. Called “the Garbo of literature” because he refused most interviews and stopped writing years ago, the net effect of his self-imposed exile was the opposite of what he had intended: he became a “target” for literature’s paparazzi.

Salinger, who could have lived anywhere in the world, chose to live for a long time in Cornish, New Hampshire, a small town with about as much “international allure” as Fishtown or Port Richmond. But that’s just the way he wanted it. Salinger often said in interviews that he didn’t want to be around people he got “a smell” from, meaning those upscale fussy- wussy English professor types whom he called “scavengers.”

(‘The Catcher in the Rye,” in case you don’t know, is the story of a 17 year old boy, Holden Caulfield, who travels to New York City after his expulsion from a prep school. Set in the 1940s, Caulfield’s adventures in the Big Apple set the stage for his disillusionment with the human race, most of whom he classifies as “phonies.”)
Salinger, the author, hated phonies in real life. He also loathed the way successful writers become vain. (He once mentioned to writer Lillian Ross that celebrity writers “get puffed up by the same authorities who approved putting monosodium glutamate in baby food.”)

His adversity to pretense and perennial ‘hipsterism’ is one reason he refused to live in New York City, although he loved to visit the city about once every six months. That was enough for him. “A community of seriously hip observers is a scary and depressing thing,” he told Ross, meaning that he preferred communities where (as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said) “a man has aunts and cousins, must buy carrots and turnips, must have barn and woodshed, must go to market and the blacksmith’s shop, must saunter and sleep and be inferior and silly.”

Emerson’s description sounds like life in the Riverwards, if you ask me. While there may be no blacksmith shops or barns here, we do have plenty of carrots and turnips (Greens grove), occasional graffiti and probably more litter than Cornish, New Hampshire. Salinger would probably have felt at home here. Perhaps he would have noticed how many of us in the Riverwards exercise Emerson’s dictum that it’s okay to be “silly.” Consider the numbers of teenagers who walk around in funny looking hooded sweatshirts, or those gigantic Eagles blow up player “dolls” in front of some houses, or those big neon Valentine hearts in scores of bay windows. Then there’s the way we line our streets with cigarette butts, our penchant for Arctic Splash, and so on.

The lack of pretense in a small community like ours explains why, when people say, “We’re going to the mall,” they don’t mean the designer outlets at Franklin Mills but the Dollar stores at Port Richmond Village. This is a far cry from the shopping atmosphere in Rittenhouse Square (where a glass of red wine will cost you $8.00), an area that staid author Henry James once described “as perfect,” meaning, of course, the opposite of imperfect or, possibly, ghetto.

Ghetto, you say? A few times I’ve caught my wealthy Center City friends refer to my neighborhood as “ghetto.” Of course I resent it, but what can I do? I explain to them that the area is not only nice but among the safer neighborhoods in the city. Dropping me off in front of my house, they’ll ask, “Will that tough looking guy sitting on your stoop beat you up?” Once, while driving through the neighborhood, a Center City friend spotted boys playing basketball in the street and said, “Oh God! Are we safe? Will they attack the car?” One woman acquaintance even referred to the women in the Riverwards as “Troglodytes.”

A troglodyte, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is a “person characterized by reclusive habits or outmoded or reactionary attitudes.” It can also mean a caveman, or in this case, a cavewoman, or even the humanoid monsters in the game, Dungeons and Dragons.

“If you took the time to find out, you’d see that most of these people here are very nice,” I said to this friend. Most of my friends do eventually come around and learn to appreciate the area, although a few—the same sort of people Salinger had in mind when he decided not to live in New York City—remain skeptical.
But having lived in Center City for 15 years, I’ll opt for a troglodyte over a fussy- wussy scavenger any day.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

MOMA Bauhaus (from ICON Magazine)

A short film made in the 1960s shows Susan Sontag in sunglasses driving a convertible through mid-town Manhattan. Sontag is on her way to meet architect Philip Johnson for a brief tour of the just completed Seagram’s Building. “I moozied over to Philip Johnson’s modest stash on Park,” Sontag says, clutching a large purse as she enters the building’s foyer. “The Seagram’s building gleamed like a switchblade in the autumn sun…the elevator swished up like a gigolo’s hand on a silk stocking.”
At the top of the Seagram’s a youthful Philip Johnson explains that unlike Le Corbusier’s ideal of a skyscraper standing alone on a vast plain, this New York skyscraper will soon have all of its marvelous views blocked. “In New York this can’t be helped, New York is a chaos and we enjoy it,” he says.
The Seagram’s building, like the PSFS building in Philadelphia, was among the first examples of the so called International Style, the American derivative of the Bauhaus school that began in Germany with architect Walter Gropius’ 4-page 1919 Bauhaus manifesto. In that manifesto, Gropius called for a “new guild of craftsmen,” which would end “the arrogant class division between artisans and artists.” Gropius’ idea was to eliminate the traditional hierarchies of the arts by placing the fine arts, architecture and design on an equal playing field, sort of like those New York’s skyscrapers that do not stand alone.
Gropius believed that a “collective” of artists and artisans was necessary because the arts had become “isolated” in modern times. To forge this new unity among the arts, he founded (and designed) the Bauhaus School in Dessau, Germany, in 1925.
Much like Andy Warhol’s New York Factory, the Dessau Bauhaus School was a hydra-headed endeavor. Students and teachers worked together on the design of buildings, furniture, teapots, wall hangings, table lamps, photography, toys, advertising posters, lettering, even stage design and choreography (ballet). In a short time, Gropius’ vision of a synthesis of the arts became a startling new reality.
The current exhibit at MOMA documents the 14-year old reign of the Bauhaus school before its closure by the National Socialists in 1932. The exhibition is MOMA’s second look at the Bauhaus phenomenon. In 1938, the museum invited Gropius to help organize the first Bauhaus exhibit. This first exhibition was limited in that it did not include developments in the world of Bauhaus after Gropius’ departure from the school. MOMA’s founding director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., who visited Dessaur in 1927 (the design of MOMA reflected Gropius’ design of the Dessau building) would later recollect, “I regard the three days which I spent at the Bauhaus in 1927 as one of the important incidents in my own education.”

Gropius’ “art synthesis” meant the “revamping” of the lost traditions of handicraft, or manual craft. The current MOMA exhibit demonstrates that nothing escaped the Bauhaus eye. Items such as Marianne Brandt’s 1924 Coffee & Tea Set remind us of kitchenware in “IKEA.” The small Bauhaus table lamps (Wilheim Wagenfeld and Carl Jakob Jucker’s 1923 Table Lamp) have an unusual economy of form that cast no shadows. In fact, the tightly controlled sectioning of light in these table lamps has been compared to a “socialism of vision,” or a conjuring (in handicraft) of something “collective,” hinting at, as Frederic J. Schwartz notes in the museum catalog, a white light that is “objective, diffuse, everywhere the same…..The Bauhaus lamp serves as a symbol for a moment when politics retreated into visual form.” The 1917 Marxist revolution had a significant influence on Bauhaus design. This influence is seen in other common household artifacts. In radicalized or reduced shapes these items promulgate the same synthesis: a call for something like “collective consciousness.” Although the word ‘socialism’ would soon take on a different sort of meaning with the rise of National Socialists (or Nazis) in the 1920s, the buildings and the common household items on display exude a feeling that something big and numbing is on the horizon, for one can see in Bauhaus the seeds of what later has been termed the fascistic architecture of The Third Reich.
In this remake of everything according to the laws of function and efficiency, there is a surgical pairing down with a de-emphasis on the cosmetic.
Bauhaus toys, for instance, have a rustic, unfinished look. They were not supposed to resemble the highly polished goods sold in retail stores. The Paul Klee designed puppets (the artist designed them for his son Felix) point to ideas of play, creativity, and experimentation. A handsome African chair, reminiscent of a Coptic bishop’s throne, inspires us with its regal lines even if its Bauhaus designers took certain liberties: chairs in Africa were never designed with backs. And even a game like chess, which was all the rage in the first half of the 20th century and which Duchamp felt had “all the beauty of art—and much more”-- is represented here by geometric and scaled down stereometric figures that fit neatly into a Bauhaus-style box, a neat and comfy, “game on the run.”
Even newborns get into the act, what with Peter Keler’s oversized cradle (1922), a work that calls to mind really Big Babies or offspring of the Bride of Frankenstein. Marcel Breuer Club Chairs, with surfaces of chromed steel, are so minimalist that they “disappear in the liberation of sitting.” On the other hand, the Gerrit Rietveld Armchair (1919) recalls a wooden rendition of the electric chair or a Pennsylvania Dutch torture device.
Even the alphabet becomes a ready catechumen in the Church of Bauhaus.
Bauhaus lettering in books, promotional materials and advertising posters meant the obliteration of capital letters. As Herbert Bayer, the designer of the Bauhaus universal alphabet, stated, “Capital letters had no phonetic purpose and thus violated the functional premise of the Latin alphabet: to translate sound into graphic marks. Speech reveals no difference between uppercase and lowercase—so why does written text?” The Bauhaus print style was to write everything in lower or upper case, although writing small or in lower case was the preferred method since, as Bayer, remarked, “We wrote everything small in order to save time.”
The works of Paul Klee are amply represented. “Separation in the evening,” (1922), a watercolor and pencil on paper and cardboard, transforms sunset into Bauhausian patterns. Another delight to the eye: Josef Albers’ glass fragments in grid pictures with glass, wire, metal and paint combining to form a new kind of stained glass. One must examine the intricate workings of these marvelous gems up close.
The mainstay of Bauhaus, architecture is represented in full. “Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space,” der Rohe once said. “A building should be a clean and true statement of its times.”
The exhibition includes a plague commemorating the three pioneers of modernism: van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Gropius. Van der Rohe of course famous for his Chicago skyscraper designs (he co-designed Seagram’s); Gropius for his housing projects in Berlin, Karlsruhe and Dessau; Le Corbusier for his “scorch and burn” approach to architecture.
Le Corbusier once described New York as hideous. In “The Architect as Totalitarian,” writer Theodore Dalrymple, states that Le Corbusier willingly served both Stalin and Vichy. “He wanted to start from Year Zero: ‘Before me, nothing; after me, everything.’ By their very presence, the raw-concrete-clad rectangular towers that obsessed him cancelled out centuries of architecture. Hardly any town or city in Britain (to take just one nation) has not had its composition wrecked by architects and planners inspired by his ideas.”
Harsh words indeed, but how could it be otherwise for an egomaniac who dreamt of “cleaning and purging cities,” and who wanted to level Paris, Oslo, Moscow, Berlin, Algiers, and Buenos Aires?
Pioneer der Rohe believed that “buildings should show themselves rather than be concealed by ornamentation,” while Gropius wanted architecture to be stripped of its historical frippery so that its materials could “breathe in new ways.” Gropius wanted the skeleton outside the epidermis. He longed for transparency, the building as X-ray. But if the old is cast aside because it’s thought to bear no relevance to the present, what’s left?
The Bauhaus prescription calls for little or no organic connection to the past.
Tom Wolfe in “From Bauhaus to Our House,” posits that modernism (or Bauhaus) was developed after World War I because of the need to recreate the world from scratch. Bauhaus, Wolfe writes, is a form of ascetic extremism that has worked devastation on American cities. In Wolfe’s view, even Louis Kahn is a “box maker,” although he finally managed to “break free” when he designed the Bangladeshi parliament.
(These days it seems that everybody has an opinion on Bauhaus. In 1984, Prince Charles, in a speech during the 150th anniversary of the Royal Institute of British Architects, described the proposed Sainsbury Wing expansion to the Gallery in London by architect Peter Ahrends, as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend. “ The project was eventually scraped in favor of a postmodern design by the Philadelphia firm of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. )

Wolfe harps on Bauhaus as a political force. The “collectivity” that Gropius advocated—“Let us collectively desire, conceive and create the new building of the future,” Gropius stated—sprang from a desire to incorporate art into design in a socially useful way. While function and efficiency has its place, there’s no reason why contemporary architecture cannot also have intrinsic, aeasthetic value. One has only to consider the romantic historicism of Edward Durell Stone or the graceful expressionism of Eero Saarinsen as examples of a more classical yet still modern sensibility.
Bauhaus evolved under the direction of Hames Meyer, who directed the school at Dessau. Over time, Gropius' ideas were expanded and amplified. The MOMA exhibit follows this progression. We see individual houses, including Gropius’ own boxy Master House, and even the Dessau Bauhaus building itself, with its surprisingly curiously handsome Northeast view. There are hints of a charming aesthetic but in almost every case that is over ruled by function, reminding us that in 1930 Dessau was reorganized to conform to the thinktank organization of the communist cell. This all but mandated a sociological basis for all artistic activity. As Meyer stated, “Building and design are for us one and the same, and they are a social process. As a ‘university of design’ the Dessau Bauhaus is not an artistic but a social phenomenon.” This thought led to the creation of row houses, and whole districts of buildings where there was a social need, a Utopian model city concept that in the end produced ultiliarian structures one can almost describe as Stalinesque or pre-fascistic. Again: Bauhaus as the pre-cursor the architectural style of the National Socialists or the Nazis, despite the fact that the Nazis termed Bauhaus architecture as “degenerate and un-German.”
While this exhibition is a fantastic tribute to all things Gropius, it would be wise to remember that Bauhaus was a way-station, rather than the final stop, on the road to architectural heaven.

Thom Nickels

Frank Lloyd Wright in Elkins Park

(from ICON magazine)

When Rabbi Mortimer J. Cohen wrote to architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the early 1950s, he said that envisioned a wholly modern “American synagogue, a Mt. Sinai of light…wrought in modern materials.”

The rabbi’s vision produced Beth Shalom of Elkins Park, the soaring concrete and glass building of space age proportions, the great architect’s only synagogue out of at least 1,000 projects. Completed in 1959 shortly after Wright’s death, this year marks the building’s 50th anniversary, an historic milestone for most buildings, but for Beth Sholom an especially important time because for half a century there have been no real restorations to the building save work on the synagogue’s glass ceiling, which has been subject to leaks over the years. This summer Philadelphia’s Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates (VSBA) initiated a new project: the carving out of a Visitor’s Center within Beth Sholom’s Robin Lounge, a heretofore unremarkable space that over the years had been crammed with memorabilia-filled display cases.

“The building is the same age as the Guegiehameim in New York, which was just restored,” says James Kolker, principal at VSBA, who heads the creation of a new Visitor Center within the building. “The project has two components. One is taking a lounge that is used for many different purposes and restoring it. We took out these cases that have been put in it, bring back the original color and appearance. Within that space we added the exhibition components. The display cases were really just dumped there,” Mr. Kolker adds.

Mr. Kolker says his participation in the project has special significance for him because he was Bar Mitzvohed at Beth Sholom some thirty years ago. “There’s a sentimental attachment here,” he says.

VSBA worked with Picture Projects of New York since July to create a Visitors Center that is much more than plaques on a wall. The final product includes interactive videos, exhibits of the architect’s ink drawings, as well as the correspondence between Wright and Rabbi Cohen. A gift shop now sells Wright-related housewares, stationary and jewelry. The project was completed and opened to the public on November 15, 2009.

“Beth Sholom is a living and breathing institution, not a dead historic artifact,” Mr. Kolker says, “but it’s a very inaccessible building for wheelchairs or elderly people because it has steps all over the place, so one of the major structural changes was replacing a little stairway with a ramp.”

Alison Bectal, who founded Picture Projects 13 years ago “to use technology to look at social issues and focus on oral history and story telling from multiple perspectives,” says that part of the interactive history of the synagogue is an 18 minute film in the screening room area, where visitors will see the famous architect at the groundbreaking patting the heads of two little girls in blue coats and red hats.

While not noted for gracious displays of public affection, Mr. Wright certainly enjoyed dressing in opera capes and walking in public parks while swinging his cane to clear pigeons from his path. Children, however, have the power to soften the hearts of even the most hardened architects.

“A family has given us an amazing Super 8 footage of the groundbreaking. These were people driving by and they saw the big happening at Beth Sholom. I don’t think they were congregants. They stopped and got out. They had two adorable girls. Wright saw the little girls and saw a kind of photo op. The film shows Wright patting them on the head,” Ms. Betchal said.

Beth Shalom historian Emily Cooperman says that the history of the synagogue has found its way into myths and legends over the years. “This is not necessarily a bad thing,” she says. “Like all myths there are some grains of truth in there.” One myth in particular blames low flying jets from a nearby military base as being responsible for breaking portions of the synagogue’s glass roof. “There was some concern during construction about jets going overhead. Rabbi Cohen was concerned about that. A couple of years after the dedication, however, a storm or a tornado—they don’t know which—caused the breakage of a number of individual panes of glass. Something also could have hit it, tree branches, or perhaps it was a combination of weather damage, jets and leaks,” she said.

While most Wright buildings have a flaw, compared to the genius of the design they are small, manageable defects. Beth Sholom’s flaw lay in the building’s initial double glazing system that Ms. Cooperman says was covered on the outside by corrugated wire glass, and sand blasted on the inside to make it translucent. The fiberglass panels, which were also part of the original design, did not prevent the building from leaking substantially. As a result, Wes Peters, the Wright office point man and a group of Tallyhassen architects, headed back to Elkins Park to fix the problem. “They designed and installed an internal gutter system between the 2 layers of glazing to correct leaks. It still leaks some,” Ms. Cooperman laughed.

Beth Sholom’s construction might be compared to greenhouse technology. Greenhouses, however, have their drawbacks. “Have you ever been in a greenhouse in summer? Well, it’s the same effect in the synagogue,” Ms. Cooperman tells me, mentioning also that the building’s two sanctuaries ensure that during the long winter and warm seasons, congregants are generally more comfortable in the smaller, underground space. The main sanctuary is too large for regular Sabbath services outside of special holy days. “If you don’t have 1,000 people in that room, it looks funny,” Ms. Cooperman added.

The Robin Lounge, where the new Visitors Center is located, is underneath the main sanctuary. The newly curated exhibit has five components: architecture, the congregation, Rabbi Cohen and his relationship to Mr. Wright, a timeline of events leading up to the building of Beth Shalom, the influence of the building on contemporary architecture, and an oral history of congregants. The Visitors Center is the first stop on all tours of the synagogue.

Rabbi Cohen’s relationship with Mr. Wright began serendipitiously enough when a friend of the Rabbi’s, the dean of the nearby Tyler School of Art, made it known that he was a friend of the famed architect. Rabbi Cohen then wrote a long letter to Mr. Wright, explaining how Judaism was democratic and American in values, and that his desire was to build a “new” American synagogue. “In November, 1953, the two men had a meeting of the minds in New York, and Wright agreed to do the project,” Ms. Cooperman said.

“Rabbi Cohen, who was associated with a synagogue in the Logan neighborhood in North Philadelphia, noticed that around WW II many members were moving to the suburbs like Melrose and Elkins Park. He realized if the synagogue didn’t move, the membership would, so he persuaded the board to move. Lots of congregations were doing the same thing. Rabbi Cohen wanted to ensure this greatness of his congregation into the future.”


Cats and Fleas

The problems associated with owning a pet could fill volumes. As a relatively new cat owner, I did not expect my life (and my house) to be turned upside down with the invasion of Flea eggs and Flea Larvae.
It began when my cat Zoey contracted fleas the night she escaped into the (feral) terrain of Mercer Street. Rescued a mere twenty minutes after her foray into freedom, it wasn’t long before Zoey began to scratch herself St. Vitas dance style. What I had assumed was just a simple feline itch turned out to be a major infestation. A friend came to my rescue and transported Zoey to his house (where she was shampooed more than once) while I began the long process of fumigating the house.
Flea larvae, unfortunately, can stay put in rugs and furniture for up to six months. Zoey, therefore, was put on a long range sabbatical until my house was safe. At Thriftway, I bought several bottles of Hartz Ultra Guard Plus, a Flea and Tick home spray. I washed, scrubbed, sprayed, vacuumed, and then repeated the process many times over. But just when I thought I had the problem licked, a handful of fleas would leap from the floor onto my hands when I used the computer.
“They’re still here!” I said to the friend who had Zoey. “This house is as clean as an operating room but the bugs still manage to jump on me from every angle.” (Fleas, by the way, cannot fly; they take leap frog style jumps from the floor or where they’re nesting to what they hope will be a warm furry host. Since I am warm but not furry, they wound up, as the Rolling Stones used to say, ‘Under my Thumb.’ But random killings didn’t deter the more unruly, hungry ones from finding ways to jump into my socks.)
While I was never reduced to Zoey’s excruciating St. Vitas dance experience, I’d sometimes wake up in the middle of the night with an intense urge to scratch. Were the fleas, like those Verizon Fios advertisements, everywhere?
But just as I was on the verge of giving up and domesticating the invaders, the fleas vanished. Arrangements were made to bring Zoey home, but then something else happened: my friend’s mother, an elderly woman in ill health, had fallen hopelessly in love with Zoey and told her son, “I cannot live without the cat.”
Taking Zoey away from someone who claimed to love her wouldn’t be easy. I did not want to go on record as having killed an elderly woman, so the son and I had to come up with a plan.
Following Ernest Hemingway’s dictum—“One cat just leads to another”--we devised a plan to find a look-a-like cat and exchange the felines on the sly. To do this we contacted a local Port Richmond woman known as the “cat lady.” Now, the “cat lady” specializes in finding cats for families and individuals who want pets, so we put her to work to find a Zoey clone for a midnight transfer.
A transfer cat with black and white tuxedo markings, a virtual Xerox of Zoey, was located. “The cat lady is a genius,” I told my friend, mindful all the while that no cat, like any human being, is ever perfect. There’s always the fly in the ointment, the unsightly blemish, the unfortunate…”but.” This, despite Alexander Dumas’ observation that, “the cat, an aristocrat, merits our esteem, while the dog is only a scurvy type who got his position by low flatteries.”
Snoopy’s problem wasn’t just her name, it was a personality ravaged by the discomfort of a skin disease so advanced that it was all she could do to not act like a little mouse, scampering this way and that, afraid of her own shadow, or doorbells, footsteps, or the on and off click of my kitchen night light. At first our inclination was to “save” Snoopy, to bring her to a good and honest vet (in 2010, this seems to be an oxymoron) , who wouldn’t taunt us with fear techniques until we maxed out our credit cards on Hocus Pocus tests, biopsies, injections, and God knows what else.
The vet we found crushed any hopes we had of finding “one good honest man or woman in Dodge.” In the long run, it didn’t matter anyway, since Snoopy’s prognosis wasn’t good. Regrettably, she was sent back to her former home with the vet’s dire summing up that her failing health began with an old infestation of fleas and mites.
So it all comes back to fleas, invaders not from space but from the feral world of the city. Call the flea connection the down side of serendipity, I suppose, but there was no way I could throw in the towel. I had no choice but to get out the Hartz Ultra Guard and spray the area where Snoppy had remained frozen for the better part of a week, and then make plans to head back to the drawing board in my quest for a Zoey Xerox.

Thom Nickels can be reached at

The Age of the Diva Chef

The age of the temperamental chef—the diva chef who acts like an opera or a rock star—has been with us for quite a while. Television Chef Gordon Ramsay wasn’t the first to claim culinary infallibility, and he certainly won’t be the last. Mr. Ramsay, of course, has the over-the-top temper of a redhead (some say redheads have the worst temper in the world). To my mind, Chef Ramsay is a screaming heart attack waiting to happen. Any man who has a nervous breakdown because soup—in this case the Potato soup at the Hot Potato Café on Fishtown’s Girard Avenue—is a little lumpy, or because it tastes like glue, needs a little therapy.
In case you haven’t heard, Chef Ramsay visited the Fishtown eatery for his TV show ‘Kitchen Nightmares.’ When he tasted Hot Potato Café’s potato soup, he went ballistic. Since the purpose of the show is to get the down-on-their-heels restaurateurs to clean up their act, the chef did succeed in getting Hot Potato Café to eventually correct the quality of their food, according to the latest reports.
Fair enough, but why does it take a lot of screaming and shouting to get restaurant owners to “see” common sense things? Conversely, there are many restaurants and cafes that survive with passable, mediocre food. It’s also true that at many of the so called hip restaurants it’s not uncommon to go away hungry, since today’s fashion is about presentation and “minimalism” rather than quelling the appetites of the hungry. (Think burly contractor types who prefer hearty servings over sparrow smatterings arranged artistically on delicate plates).
The Hot Potato Café owners, Claire and Kathryn, although initially driven to tears by Chef Ramsay’s tirade, now realize that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Today the whole nation knows about Fishtown’s obscure little restaurant, and for that the sister owners should be proud. But while Chef Ramsay’s tantrums make for fun TV, the diva chef who throws a tantrum is a common phenomenon in today’s world.
One of my first jobs in Center City was a busboy gig at the Barclay Hotel. The chef at that time was a soon-to-be famous local TV chef who later became an international celebrity. His tirades in the Barclay kitchen included acting out with butcher knives and screaming f-word invectives that filtered out into the sea of white linen-covered tables. In those days, I thanked my lucky stars that I was just a lowly busboy (hence out of the chef’s firing range), and not one of the haggard looking, psychologically beaten down waiters, wounded from Chef’s verbal bullets.
“Chef is having a bad day,” the maitre-de would announce then, as if describing the acting out of a mental patient in a hospital isolation ward. In those days I could well understand why an artist like Cezanne or Picasso might throw his paint brush against the wall or even destroy a canvass or two, but I couldn’t wrap my mind around the same sort of emotion spent on creating food items. Food is something you consume at a rapid pace; it was never meant to be art form.
Art, after all, is something that lasts, not something that winds up in city sewers.
The Barclay of course had its perks. In the dining room I met many of Philadelphia’s movers and shakers. (Years later, while a waiter at John Wanamaker’s Crystal Tea Room, I met Margaret Hamilton, the bad witch from ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ whose lined face still conjured up images of munchkins and swirling broomsticks). One day, Civil Rights pioneer Cecil B. Moore, the politician known for desegregating Girard College, turned to me (in between long puffs of his cigar), and said, “Boy, get me another glass of water.” True, I was a boy, but Mr. Moore’s use of the word ‘boy’ that afternoon seemed to have a special significance. In fact, I had the distinct impression then that Mr. Moore went around to all the restaurants in town and made it a point to call all the white boys ‘boy.’
No doubt Mr. Moore was out to prove a point about Civil Rights, and I fell into his firing range.
At the Crystal Room, I barely noticed the chef there, which suggests that he was most definitely not a diva but more of the chief line cook, a first among equals. The Crystal Room’s biggest draw was tea sandwiches and soup, an item with about as much chic ambience as the standard giveaway in homeless soup kitchens. The Crystal Room chef still wore the classic tall white hat, although you’d never catch him walking around the restaurant shaking hands with VIP diners as the “creator” of marvelous dishes. Today when a famous Chef walks among diners, he shakes hands like a politician despite the fact that his creation has already disappeared into scores of digestive tracts.
When I met celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck several years ago at a press event in Atlantic City, there was so much fanfare you’d have thought that an ex-President was in the room. As fellow journalists clamored to devour Mr. Puck’s latest creation—Flat Iron Steak with Peppercorn Sauce and Blue Cheese Butter—I found little difference between Puck’s creation and a “normal” Beef Kebob found in most Asian eateries.. An equal comparison, in fact, might be how blogging has come to be seen as its own profession on an equal par with serious journalism, rather than as a sideline or adjunct pursuit.
As for Chef Ramsay and his ilk, I say this: Cool it. Your message will still be heard.

Thom Nickels