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Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Abortion Doc Vs. Eddie Savitz (from my STAR column)

Philadelphia hit the news big time last week with the still-evolving story of West Philly abortion doc, Kermit P. Gosnell. Gosnell’s “house of horrors” abortion factory is like something out of a gothic novel.
While most people and government officials expressed shock at the stories of poor, immigrant and minority women at Gosnell’s abortion mill, many were even more shocked to learn that during the 1990s the unsanitary death factory—with litter pans, animals, and unsanitary instruments in the clinical extraction rooms—operated freely and openly without so much as suspicious glance from then DA Lynne Abraham.
The early 1990s, if you recall, was a time when DA Abraham was busy prosecuting the notorious “Uncle Eddie,” or Alec Schwartz Edward Savitz, a University of Pennsylvania alum (Savitz was a social services honor student Penn), for allegedly molesting several hundred teenage boys in his Center City apartment house. (Many of these boys, by the way, were from Riverward neighborhoods). The date was March 1992, the time that historians refer to as the “AIDS hysteria” years when medical myth and misinformation often masqueraded as fact. DA Abraham, acting on leads and tips, had Uncle Eddie arrested for possible sex with minors and for (potentially) spreading the AIDS virus to his numerous contacts.
Uncle Eddie’s exploits, while scoring a place of honor in the Hall of Shame, did not—as the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania later ruled at the time—involve sex acts. Furthermore, the Project stated that the vast majority of Uncle Eddie’s contacts were above the age of consent. Uncle Eddie’s “crime,” then, was a rather peculiar and decidedly disgusting fetish for storing unspeakable things in pizza boxes.
So as the DA’s office and the Philly press fixated on Uncle Eddie, in West Philly Dr. Gosnell was busy performing second and third trimester abortions, operating with the blessing of the law as if he was running an ice cream parlor. This was happening despite the fact that a former Gosnell employee had already gone before the state’s Board of Medicine and described the horrors she witnessed inside the West Philly clinic.
The former employee’s report was ignored, however.
In the 1990s, Uncle Eddies’ stuffed pizza boxes ignited more curiosity and outrage than the possibility of fetuses being stuffed into toilets. It helped, of course, that in the 1990s Gosnell had the law on his side. At that time the murder of 7 (and possibly hundreds more babies that Gosnell is accused of killing) was probably legal.
The Partial Birth Abortion Law, which bars abortions in which the baby is delivered, wasn’t signed into law until 2002 by then President Bush. But until that time abortion was rather a free-for-all activity, when a woman’s right to choose was tantamount to “Anything Goes.”
This is why, when questioned by the press about the charges leveled against him, Gosnell said he didn’t understand the murder charges related to the babies (or ‘fetuses’ in Gosnell’s mind). Gosnell, obviously, is still living in the 1990s, and no doubt had come to believe that if you can kill a baby in the womb, why can’t you kill it outside the womb, especially when the original intent was the former?
The Gosnell case has given me new respect for young girls in the neighborhood who opt to keep their babies rather than have an abortion. While kids having kids is still a sad thing in my book (who wants to be saddled with a baby in the prime of youth?), at least these girls (and their boyfriends in some cases) have chosen not to end a life just because the timing of a pregnancy was inconvenient for them.
DA Seth Williams, whom I did not support when he ran for office, is to be commended for not avoiding the sensitive political football called abortion. He could just as easily have turned the other cheek like his predecessors and ignored Dr. Gosnell. But his decisive action has lead to a lot of embarrassment in City Hall and in the corridors of Harrisburg.
“How could this have happened? Who knew? We are shocked,” politicians are saying.

The evidence, however, was there all along but everyone opted to view Gosnell’s chamber of horrors as just another clinic in a land where abortion has become a casual, “get it over with” affair, like going to the dermatologist to get a blemish or a wart removed.
Strange but true, stuffed pizza boxes is child’s play by comparison…

Saturday, January 1, 2011

O Holy Kensington (From The Star)

A couple of years ago, while helping a friend to organize a moving expedition, I wound up near East Somerset Street in Kensington. It was a bright summer afternoon, so I didn’t think twice about lingering on the sidewalk for a cool twenty minutes. During that time I was approached by no less than five people offering to sell me heroin, crack cocaine, and an assortment of prescription drugs. The blatant, in-your-face salesmanship of the dealers went beyond being ballsy. It had an end-times sci-fi feel, like I had walked into a Philly redux version of Mad Max.

It was sad to see so many people on drugs, and to realize that little can be done to correct the situation outside of giving all the “problem people” one way tickets to a far-off island, then leveling the area and starting over.

How do you encourage people to change their lives when they have no interest in doing so?
Government-funded help for drug addicts is not coming anytime soon. The nation’s economy is well beyond any sort of new Marshall Plan or federal subsidy, and with the election of so many Tea Baggers and Republicans to Congress, they’ll be no new FDR-style programs to lend a helping hand. Private organizations and churches can help, but often this sort of assistance is nothing more than food, overnight shelter, or a short term recess from addiction.

This brings me to the recent media focus on Kensington because of the ‘Kensington Strangler.’ The hunt for this killer has created a lot of commentary about what’s wrong with the area. On one hand, you have busloads of Penn academics traveling through Kensington streets on sightseeing tours. As reported recently by The Philadelphia Inquirer, a group of professors and anthropologists took a ride through “rough and tumble” Kensington to get a first hand look at prostitution and open air drug transactions.

Images of an Ivory Tower bus filled with Margaret Mead and Jane Goodall types staring at the natives through binoculars would be amusing if it weren’t such an exercise in futility.

“It’s not hidden from view. You can see it along many streets. People scattered as the bus passed,” The Inquirer quotes one “in the bus” professor as saying.

Of course the natives are going to run. Nobody likes to be on the statistical end of an anthropological study. “Oh, look at that one will you!”

“Get a load of her—no teeth!”

\ While I realize it’s the business of universities to do studies-- often these tomes wind up in glossy binders or as graphs in textbooks where the print is too small—they rarely if ever produce any kind of change.

So what kind of change would ‘the experts’ want for Kensington?

Some say that Northern Liberties should be Kensington’s role model. Kensington advocates, in fact, like to talk about “tipping points,” and a “positive transformation of the area led by artists and entrepreneurs.”

It amazes me how people are so quick to call for a massive immigration of artists, as if this group constituted a financially stable demographic. Generally, the opposite is true.

Artists, as a rule, don’t have much money, so if a thousand artists move into an area you’re going to have people looking for a cheap lifestyle. Artists may be peaceful and creative, but they are not likely to help the locals find jobs. A neighborhood filled with only artists would quickly fall apart. Kensington needs a vibrant business influx.
Even a Wall mart would help.

Northern Liberties, or Philly’s “New Hope-style” neighborhood, has become an upscale enclave filled with stock brokers, lawyers, physicians and other “young” professionals. It’s an area where even the corner restaurant is pricey—gone is the classic and cheap “mom and Pop” diner. Pop into a Northern Liberties or Girard Avenue Fishtown bar and chances are you’ll pay $9 to $10 for a glass of wine. I don’t know about you, but I call these, “stockbroker” prices.

A Northern Liberties woman friend of mine often complains about the cost of getting her hair done in the neighborhood. “The second a hairdresser moves here they up their prices 30% because they acquire a Northern Liberties address,” she says.

I’d like to see Kensington change in the manner of Port Richmond. In Richmond, you have clean and stable neighborhood businesses without the overpriced “chi chi” Liberties elements.
You also have a good cross section of people, a seemingly harmonious blend of new residents and old.


While the 90-mile divide between New York and Philadelphia would seem to suggest a close resemblance between the two cities, that’s hardly the case at all. Yes, there are streetscape similarities that often excite the Hollywood film industry, but any relation other than the strictly cosmetic is in large part imaginary.

The world of politics offers ample proof of this. New York’s strongly Democratic electorate has a fluidity Philadelphia’s Democratic majority lacks. New Yorkers can vote for an urban liberal Republican like Bloomberg and then go back to voting for a Democrat. Philadelphians, however, find it much harder to switch-hit in the voting booth. They prefer staying put in a machine-dominated political vortex that rarely thinks outside the box.

Consider the political legacy of Sam Katz, three-time liberal Republican candidate for Mayor, three time loser and a one-time ‘almost ran’ in the 2011 Democratic primary against Mayor Nutter. Katz’s aborted 2011 mayoral stint came sometime after he realized he wasn’t going to get anywhere in Philadelphia as a Republican, so he switched political parties. In the end even that didn’t work. The machine in charge had its own hierarchy of “favorites,” and Katz wasn’t among them, despite the fact that nobody seems more suited for the mayor’s office. Well read, articulate, conversational (sans arrogance), tall and urbane, Kat has all the exterior attributes that would put him in the running in any big city in America--except Philadelphia.

Philadelphia’s Democratic roots, after all, go back to 1951, a year when the local press made a point of lamenting 60 years of boss Republican rule. Republicans were the machine then, with Mayor Bernard Samuel’s ten year term as mayor ending a cycle that was largely broken by FDR’s New Deal and the ensuing massive immigration of southern blacks into the Quaker City. Realizing that the influx of new residents could provide a windfall of votes, city Democrats courted the newcomers to help win city elections. The strategy worked and helped elect Democrat Richardson Dilworth as mayor in 1951 and presto, a new machine was born.

. Katz’s political withdrawal from the 2011 mayoral race had the markings of a NASCAR race car coming to screeching stop. The press reported he was dropping out for “personal and political reasons.”

“But never say never,” the man himself told me in his offices in the beautiful Frank Furness-designed J. Gardner Cassatt house of the Library Company of Philadelphia. The mild mannered Katz has done what few seem to manage successfully: He’s reinvented himself Arthur Rimbaud-style: “You must change your life,” the 19th century French poet once wrote.

“Philadelphia is my passion,” he asserts, a slight redness around the eyes seeming to indicate overwork, perhaps exhaustion.

‘Passion’ in this case refers to a new project, “Philadelphia, The Great Experiment,” which will consist of a series of documentary films focusing on the history of the city and possibly expanding to include historical subjects outside city and state boundaries.

The endeavor has received a significant amount of press these days. The showing of the pilot film, “The Floodgates Opened, 1865-1876,” in a theater in Radnor last year was one of twenty local screenings. To date, the response has been robust and enthusiastic, and the former politico “also ran” couldn’t be happier.

“The Floodgates Opened,” concentrates on a divided Philadelphia immediately after the Civil Wars years, when Irish immigrants and former African American slaves came to blows on South Street. The film covers the time when the city was planning its most ambitious architectural endeavor yet, the building of City Hall. The story ends at the 1876 Centennial Exposition but does not include that story.

“There are a lot of different ways you can contribute to your city besides running for mayor,” he adds.

The sentiment, however, sounds a little bit like a self-help mantra in light of his reinvention of himself as a film producer.

With Katz, the subject often returns to politics.

“When I ran against Mayor Street in 2003, things were on their way to being a close election until they found the bug. It turned out not to be a close election. But had there not been a bug we would have been closer than 15 points, which is what I lost by.”

I ask him if he would care to get specific about those “personal and political reasons.”

“I kept those cards pretty close to my vest,” he says, the word ‘vest’ somehow conjuring visuals of classic Republican dress accruements like Brian Tierney’s bow ties or the “Chestnut Hill” suits of Thatcher Longstreth.

“It was my wife who suggested this was not a good year to run, and I’ve learned to trust her instincts. But now that we’re finished the pilot we’re going to use it to raise money for the other films. But we don’t currently have that money in the bank.”

Talk to Katz long enough and you’re likely to detect a not so subtle boyishness. He yawns and rubs his eyes occasionally, the result, perhaps, of media overexposure. He leans forward when a question, in this case about money, strikes a nerve.

“My wife loves the pilot film, and she would like me to make money. I’m not making money, not a lot of money, but I need to make money. I did put money away and if I was seven years older the answer might be different. But having lived through what happened in the last 3 years and what could happen again to assets…. My children are grown and I don’t have the private school tuitions, and even though I don’t have the lifestyle that needs a lot of money, I need to make it.”

He believes that the films will be successful, given the near- absence of historical films about Philadelphia. With his staff of one, namely son Phil, and two project workers—writer Nathaniel Popkin and Gregory Nickerson, a research assistant—it seems more than likely that this will happen.

Son Phil is stationed at a computer on the far side of the project’s war room, a resplendent book-lined Victorian office that’s a dead ringer for the interior of the former The Poor Richard Club, just across the street at 1319 Locust. Phil and company are busy at work chatting about actor resumes and debating who might play this or that historical character.
It’s painstaking work making movies, especially when you do commissioned films on the side to pay for the mother project.

The commissions include a short film for the Union League, another short film on the life of Stephen Girard for Girard College, and yet another short on the life of Richard Allen for Mother Bethel AME Church. These ten-minute snippets, while not part of the Philadelphia Experiment, could still become classic showpieces.

Katz traces his first thoughts about the project to 2005-06, with plans solidifying in 2007. Much like running for mayor, there were stumbling bocks, what Katz calls “the lack of a sustained, overview of the history of Philadelphia done by a historian who taught and did scholarship out of the local universities.” There was not, he says, a “definite narrative” on Philadelphia.

“New York and Chicago both had historians who taught and wrote this way, but not Philadelphia. Even the book, “Philadelphia, a 300 Year History,” is more of a reference book than anything else. It’s also the work of some 20 authors who specialize in different areas of history, like Dennis Clark from Temple who studied Irish history in Philadelphia. When you don’t have that voice that speaks with continuity throughout, there are problems.”

‘Philadelphia, The Great Experiment,’ will skip all-inclusive generic overviews for specific times in the city’s history.

“The Floodgates Opened, 1865-1876,” will be followed by “Capital in Crisis,” about the city during the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793.

“We had two full days working with historians, notably Rob Armstrong, who helped us figure out how we were going to do the first pilot. With the Yellow Fever episode we had to ID 15 historians to be our “go to” people both in script writing, research resources and also as camera experts. They will significantly shape what our thinking is about the story.”
“Capital in Crisis” will tell the story of how both Jefferson and Hamilton fled Philadelphia, along with Congress and the Secretary of State.

“We are looking for those stories that become pivot points,” Katz says, mentioning how Yellow Fever was probably brought to the city on slave boats from Haiti a la Stephen Girard. “In 1793 there was a huge shift from earlier colonial times. The city was deserted, and the capital was permanently moved to Washington.”

Visual ‘footnotes’ from the film, known as Websodes, will be posted on the project website (

Right now, the man who was almost mayor could be making an historic legacy of his own, but that depends on promotion.

“It’s all about promotion, especially if you can get commercial TV to promote this film to its audience. I think we’re really going to create a good show geared to audiences of all ages. I hope it’s going to be quite good,” he says.
At least, as far as one can tell, there are no machines to beat.