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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.