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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A City Hall Press Conference

The Local Lens
Published • Wed, Feb 19, 2014
By Thom Nickels

I don’t usually attend City Hall press conferences, but last week I was advised to check out the mayor’s 12:30 announcement in Conversation Hall about a new Mormon Church construction project at 16th and Vine Streets. I had about two hours notice, so I wrapped things up at my desk, dressed appropriately, and headed for City Hall via the 15 bus and the El.

This was just one day prior to the big storm so the mood on the El was bleak. Winter weary faces were everywhere, my own included. On the El I saw the usual sights: the guy selling cookies for a dollar a pack; the ex-veteran Marine who saw combat in Afghanistan who wants to return to Oklahoma; the guy who announces, "I am not a drug addict. I am not an alcoholic. I just need your help—for a simple sandwich." Then there’s the guy who announces that he has AIDS and needs help with rent and food money, and of course the robed Muslim guys selling scents and colognes. Taking the El these days is a bit like going to the circus—you never know who is going to stand up and announce what. Traveling to City Hall is almost as much fun as walking into City Hall, especially now when the usual entrances are blocked by construction.

Before the rehab of Dilworth Plaza, there was always a quick way to enter the building, but now that heavy construction has the West portal blocked, it is necessary to walk in the street (if you’re coming from Suburban Station) to get to the North portal. No construction site is ever pleasant to look at, unless of course you are an engineer and appreciate seeing the guts of a new building. Walking to the North portal was a chance for me to observe the changes in the plaza, so I studied the new addition, a structure that somehow reminded me of a cheese grater made from white plastic like those white patio chairs one buys from Home Depot or Target. The new structure concerned me, not only because of its ugliness, but because it didn’t look very sturdy. My sense was that the structure would age quickly, and that in twenty years it would resemble a ruin. At the very least its patio furniture resemblances put me in mind of summer.

Entering City Hall, for those of you who don’t know, requires a show of ID, as well as your signature in a log book after which you can take the stairs to the second floor (or the elevator if you hate steps). There’s a security detail near Conversation Hall, where the mayor’s office is also located, so you are "checked" again by security guards. Once passed "the gate," you are free to amble about, or look at the grade school art behind the glass cases in the hall. If you walk a little further, as I did, you might run into a press conference other than the one you’re meaning to attend. On a heavy press day, the conferences can occur in clusters.

At any press conference, the broadcast journalist people always set the tone with their heavy cameras, testing of lights and sounds, and the constant changing and moving of cameras to different angles in the room. Since I arrived early for the 12:30 event, I was constantly changing my seat as different broadcast cameramen (they are usually men) kept moving their cameras about, repeatedly blocking my view of the podium. This became an ongoing game of musical chairs, until at last I found a safe seat towards the front, where I didn’t think a cameraman would go. Watching other journalists assemble in the room, it was easy to locate the talking heads with their stamped NBC 10 jackets which of course reminded me of a pile of Ralph Lauren logos at Macys. Compared to the invisible note-pad holding print journalists, who wore no logo jackets or name tags, and who for the most part didn’t have identifiable "faces," the broadcasters seemed like 1st class passengers on the Titanic compared to the print ruffians in 3rd class. (Perhaps this is one reason why most journalism school students today have their sights set on broadcast journalism.)

The big moment comes when the mayor’s entourage enters the room. This is a single file procession of bigwigs, all the usual suspects in dark, somber suits. Like a chorus line of trained dancers, they know how to assemble themselves around the podium so that they form an attractive "fan" around the speaker. They spill out like a bureaucratic form of The Rockettes. In the mix was a Mormon official or two, although most of the Mormon chieftains stood off to the side.

The mayor spoke first. He’s a good public speaker; you have to hand it to him. I like speakers who are able to make eye contact with various people in the audience. Standing directly beside the mayor was City Council President Darrell Clarke in his trademark Clark Kent glasses. At the Q and A, the mayor’s tone was politician sharp. There’s a specific style in delivering one word answers, like a "Yes" or a "No," and then saying no more so that the delivery sounds like the snap of a whip.

I call this press conference speak, and I think most seasoned politicians adopt this way of talking to the press. Clarke is a very tall man, so seeing him standing beside the mayor made me think-- for the first time, actually—about the mayor’s height.

If you are a reporter at a news conference you have to be prepared with your question before the Q and A is announced. The time allowed for a Q and A is short. I like to compare this time to watching people fire guns at a firing range. The same rapid fire dialogue happens at Presidential news conferences.

The big news at this conference was the unveiling of the Mormon Church’s redevelopment of the block of 16th and Vine Streets, including the building of a meeting house and a high rise apartment house. A mammoth project like this caused me to wonder if the LDS Church sees Philadelphia as a potential Salt Lake City of the east. In all the years that I’ve lived in the city, I don’t think a Mormon missionary has ever knocked on my door.

At the press conference, I wanted to ask Mormon Church officials if there was something special about Philadelphia that appealed to them. Could it be the simple fact that so much of Mormon history happened here?

After leaving City Hall, I headed for the El and another ride home with the veteran ex-Marine talking once again about finding his way back to Oklahoma. Like a boomerang that always comes back, the one dollar per cookie package guy was once again making his rounds but missing were the incense-scent canvassers, the guy with one arm, and the old guy asking for a sandwich, be it liverwurst, cheese or chicken salad.