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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

THE PRESIDENT'S HOUSE (from ICON Magazine, February 2011, The Last Word)

Not only does the President’s House at 5th and Market Streets resemble a half constructed modular home but this skeletal tribute to Washington and Jefferson might also double as a SEPTA subway stop. The structure’s minimalist frame, while pretending to take smart cues from the (nearby) Robert Venturi-designed Franklin House, is a disaster on all fronts. The 10.5 million dollar design tragedy, which incited an eight year ideological war between the National Park Service and various black community organizations, could have been a success if political squabbling had taken a back seat to architecture.

This Kelly/Maiello Architects & Planners structure should be laid bare and another architect, like Robert A.M. Stern, brought in to redo the project. Stern, the recent recipient of the 2011 Driehaus Prize for Classical Architecture, could at least be counted on to deliver a substitutive building that would give Philadelphians and tourists alike a “real” Presidents house.

The present structure with its nine open air slave reenactment videos, and grade-school like “teaching” storyboards fastened on the brick and granite walls, is an intellectual embarrassment. Visitors get quick Readers Digest-style sound bites about the lives of presidential slaves. That’s pretty much the entire enchilada. Call it the President’s Slaves House, but mixing oil and water like this comes close to false advertising. As it is, the only “President” we get is the down under, glass enclosed archeological dig showcasing the foundations of the real house built sometime between 1790 and 1800 (but demolished in 1833). While the framed “dig” works very well as a centerpiece, everything else on the ground floor—the representational door, window and fire place frames of the original house—points to a curious flip flop as the slave narrative dominates and “enslaves” the story of the presidents-- or the evil oppressors in the archeological hole.

It’s not that the story of slavery in Philadelphia shouldn’t be told. Tell it by all means but don’t superimpose it onto another story. The design-message of the President’s House seems to be nothing but a judgment of 19th century pro-slavery views by “enlightened” 21st century standards. As a result, the visitor leaves knowing nothing about the important people that lived in this house, namely Benedict Arnold and Robert Morris.

If the mission of the architects was to cast aspersions on the presidents the house is supposed to honor, then they succeeded in equating the guys in wigs with rabid Klu Kluxers. But even this message is delivered with overblown evangelical zeal. Visitors are hit with one hammer blow after another in those instructive billboards. The most egregious, “The Dirty Business of Slavery,” wins the Captain Obvious Award for its feel of a ruler-holding third grade teacher standing by to make sure that every visitor pays attention.

Philadelphia deserves better.


Just before the hard won Senate victory relegating “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to the trash heap of history, something else came out of Washington that was virtually overlooked by the mainstream media. The so-called Obama compromise tax bill, which extends tax cuts to the wealthy for another two years, and which reduces the Estate Tax (which benefits the wealthy) was passed with huge Democratic Party support. Besides increasing the costs of maintaining our society onto the backs of middle income and lower income Americans, the bill also addressed Social Security. The president and his advisors proposed a 2% Social Security tax cut (from the standard 6.2% rate) for one year. While the average American paycheck will now see a slight increase, the Machiavellian move to dismantle the financially healthy Social Security system is built on the insidious presumption that the American public will be in no mood to reinstate the 2% loss on the 6.2 % tax a year from now. Why? Because at that point people will be used to the extra money in their paycheck and they’ll balk at giving it up. Republicans in 2012 will address Obama’s promise to return to the 6.2% tax by insisting that the Democrats want to raise taxes.

Political support for Social Security will then begin to diminish.
This almost surely spells death for the Social Security system as know it, because in 2012 Republicans will suggest making both the tax breaks for the wealthy and the Social Security adjustment tax, permanent. “Obama wants to raise your taxes” will become the new Republican campaign slogan, and from this we will see political support for Socials Security diminish.

“This is the nature of compromise,” President Obama said in support of this bill. But some things are not negotiable. For our seemingly Trojan Horse of a president to use Social Security as a bargaining chip is a major betrayal of progressive values.


The hunt for the so called “Kensington Strangler” has caused a lot of people to offer opinions 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 in 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 Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties neighborhood 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. If a thousand artists move into an area you’re going to have people looking for a cheap lifestyle. A neighborhood filled with only artists would quickly fall apart. Kensington needs a vibrant business influx. A lot of people sitting around in “green” spaces making pottery won’t be enough to change a neighborhood.

But Northern Liberties, or Philadelphia’s “New Hope-style” neighborhood, is populated by stock brokers, lawyers, physicians and other “young” professionals. It’s an area where even the corner restaurant is a pricey affair. Pop into a Northern Liberties or Girard Avenue Fishtown bar and chances are you’ll pay $9 to $10 for a glass of wine. If you’re a woman and want your hair done, the typical NL hair salon will charge you $40 more than a “normal” salon in neighboring Port Richmond.

If Kensington is to change it should change in the manner of (humble) Port Richmond. In Richmond, you have clean and stable neighborhood businesses without the overpriced “chi chi” Liberties elements.

(From the February issue of ICON Magazine, The Last Word.)

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