Total Pageviews

Popular Posts

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.