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Sunday, July 7, 2019

High Life Of The High Line At Philly’s Louis Kahn Award

The New York-based architect runs the firm with partners Ricardo Scofidio, Charles Renfro and Benjamin Gilmartin. Co-Founder Elizabeth Diller on the right. Photo: Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro

By Thom Nickels• Philadelphia Free Press,
Wed, Jul 03, 2019

The annual Louis I. Kahn Award has been an important part of Philadelphia’s architectural landscape since 1983. This year’s event was held at the University of Pennsylvania’s Irvine Auditorium. The 2019 special honoree was the New York-based design/architecture firm of Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Sponsored by AIA Philadelphia, Center for Architecture and Design, the sold-out crowd of hundreds lined up outside Irvine in what would become a precursor to another line: descriptions and images of the magnificent High Line in New York and Moscow, brought to you by the honorees.

Elizabeth Diller, who is married to Ricardo Scofidio (there are two other partners, Charles Renfro and Benjamin Gilmartin) was introduced by Robert Ivy, CEO of the American Institute of Architects. Diller’s inexhaustible verbal energy was evident from the moment she was introduced. But unless you have been following every development in the design and architectural world, you would not have necessarily known anything about the High Line except that it covers a large section of NYC where the meat packing industry used to be—in a place where, as Diller pointed out, there used to be a lot of sex work going on. After Diller’s comment, I could see that this wasn’t going to be your standard architecture lecture. Diller’s firm, after all, is multi-disciplinary and works on installation art, theater, digital media and print projects.

Diller, who co-founded the firm in 1981, is also a Professor of Architectural Design at Princeton. She originally wanted to pursue film studies but got into architecture serendipitously.

So, what’s a High Line anyway? NYC Parks describes it as “an elevated freight rail line transformed into a public park on Manhattan’s West Side. It is owned by the City of New York, and maintained and operated by Friends of the High Line.” Expanding on Diller’s statement, in the 1970s the area was considered a social/sexual sanctuary for people on the fringes of society.

A September of 2014 article in the New York Times, ‘The Climax in a Tale of Green and Gritty,’ explained: “If the newest, last stretch of the High Line doesn’t make you fall in love with New York all over again, I really don’t know what to say.” The elevated park has been described as “a heartbreaker,” swinging west on 30th Street from 10th Avenue toward the Hudson River, “straight into drop-dead sunset views. It spills into a feral grove of big-tooth aspen trees on 34th Street.”

The reviewer compared the High Line to Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim museum in Spain. “It has spread a dream, albeit largely a pipe dream, around the world: how one exceptional design — in this case, a work of landscape architecture — might miraculously alter a whole neighborhood, even a whole city’s fortunes.”

In 1846 the area was home to the Hudson River Railroad with tracks running down 10th and 11th Avenues to a large terminal near Hudson Street. The trains were long then and clashed with crossing traffic. The Times reported that pedestrian deaths were common. There was a victim a year beginning in 1851, 1852, 1853, 1854 and 1855. One victim, it was reported, was “shockingly mangled.”

In Irvine Auditorium, Diller made some remarks on architecture in general. “Architects are control freaks,” she said, “but we can’t control our work after we finish a project. We control very little, ultimately.” She said how in 2004 the High Line was a mile and a half of industrial railroads. But even in its industrial incarnation it was already an iconic place. There was a High Line perfume that had “the scent of wildflowers and urban renewal.” The High Line area was the home of the topless Poets Society and for a brief time the scene of an open-air opera that took place high on the ledge of a tall building until the city said the unconventional stage was breaking the law. While going through the history of The High Line, Diller quickly segued and mentioned the Kavanagh hearings, the first political cue of the evening and pointing to where she stood on certain issues.

The most interesting part of the talk was how Diller Scofidio + Renfro beat out the competition to design a High Line in Moscow. Initially, Diller said there was some discussion within the firm about the wisdom of taking on a Russian project, given the current political climate. But good sense prevailed; the firm went forward and they found themselves the winner. The Russian victory was truly remarkable given the landscape change that would have to take place in Moscow before the project could be built.

The six thousand-bed Rossiya Hotel, just off Red Square in the old Jewish ghetto and built mainly to house Communist officials, had to be demolished. The hotel was already hopelessly out of date and falling apart, rife with cockroaches, bad food and (as Diller noted) “key ladies who spied on guests.” In the hotel’s main dining room there were elevators with doors that wouldn’t stop opening and closing. There were also loose and sometimes hanging wires in many of the hotel rooms, remnants perhaps of old Soviet spying days. Daily wake up calls consisted of matrons pounding on your door with their fists. The hotel had to be taken apart room by room. There was no demolition implosion because Moscow’s electrical grid and sewer lines lay beneath the structure, and then there was the question of the beautiful surrounding architecture such as Saint Basil’s cathedral.

Diller, in another political aside, said that President Vladimir Putin was so taken with the park’s beauty after the design became reality that he took immediate credit for its creation. A ripple of laughter shot through the audience when she said this, but afterwards I discovered that Putin had in fact ordered a park to be built back in 2012. Putin, I suppose, was taking credit for coming up with the idea.

The Moscow project was a world wide instant hit. CBS 3 commented:

“Filled with light and life, this park is a prime example of how much Moscow has changed. Two decades ago, the site was home to the hulking Rossiya Hotel – a Soviet landmark famous for its 3,000 drab rooms, and its cockroaches. Finally, in 2006 it was demolished. “

Diller Scofidio + Renfro worked with their Russian partners, Citymakers, to reinvent 32 acres covered in native plants and trees.

But in a sort of reversal of New York City’s High Line region which was formerly a shadowy lover’s paradise before the Diller Scofidio + Renfro transformation, Zaryadye, Moscow’s High Line, became an in your-face lover’s paradise after its transformation.

The Jewish Tablet reports that, “Zaryadye was so popular that it became a lover’s paradise which caused the City of Moscow some concerns. The former home of artisans, traders and fortunetellers, and the one time Jewish area of Moscow destroyed by Stalin, was now a green alterative to Red Square but in that context, it was being seen by some as being ‘almost too romantic.’”

Irony of ironies, New York and Moscow had traded places. One of Diller’s own screen projected images showed a couple getting married in Zaryadye park while two burly Russian men, face down on the grass beside the bridge and groom, slept off a horrendous drinking binge.

As for NYC’s High Line, Diller once said in an interview that, “We expected, conservatively, that 300,000 people would visit the High Line annually. It turned out last year to be six million and probably growing. What we’re seeing beyond the specifics of the High Line — we see it in museums today and all over — is that mass tourism has generated a handful of places that everyone feels very attracted to, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Met, as well as the High Line.”

“A lot of our work,” she added, “attempts to reread the past, to reinvent it. We’re not preservationists. We don’t believe in mummifying old structures. We do believe in breathing life into old things where we can. Sometimes it’s not possible. “

Is the Gay Zeitgeist Really Over?

Thom Nickels, age 18, on the right side with friend, Lee Robins, at the Christopher Street March NYC 1970
By Thom Nickels• Philadelphia Free Press,
Wed, Jul 03, 2019

Everybody seems to be writing about the 50th anniversary of Stonewall so I thought I’d offer my own contribution.

I was not at Stonewall, so I never saw the first brick or rock being thrown, but I was miles away in Boston where I heard about it the next day in the Sunday Times. Sometime later I read what poet Allen Ginsberg said about the Stonewall riots. The poet, a New Yorker, had rushed to the scene after the riots broke out and was quoted by the press as saying that Stonewall had caused homosexuals to lose “that wounded look.”

1969 was the year I went looking for Judy Garland in Boston’s Napoleon’s Club, one of the singer’s hangouts. It was the year that I heard Anais Nin lecture at Harvard while working as an operating room orderly to fulfill my alternative service contract as a conscientious objector. My days were filled with observing autopsies, brain surgeries, mastectomies, amputations and countless therapeutic abortions. It was the year that Trappist monk Thomas Merton was electrocuted in Thailand and when I met and escorted famed Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius to the operating room—an operation that would lead to his death several days later.

It was the year that I first started to go to gay bars. Just where these gay bars were, was anybody’s guess. There were no tourist brochures, no gay guides. My only recourse was to go into one of the adult bookstores in Boston’s Combat Zone and ask a clerk. He directed me to the Punch Bowl, a favorite hangout of actor Robert Mitchum and dancer Rudolph Nureyev when they were in town. Dancing was forbidden in the Punch Bowl and sometimes everyone was told to stand still and be quiet when the lights went on. That meant that the police, or undercover mafia, were in the bar for their payoff.

The same thing happened at Sporter’s Bar on Cambridge Street near Massachusetts General Hospital. When the lights went on you knew to disengage if you were holding hands. We’d watch as the pay off guys went into a back room or the manager’s office. The lights would go out again after they left.

After the Stonewall riots, gay publications began to appear among the counterculture underground newspapers at the MBTA Harvard Square station. Underground newspapers like The Old Mole called for a revolution, an end to the Vietnam War and civil disobedience but the newspaper had no time for fags. The word fag was always cropping up in the pages of The Old Mole. It made me suspicious of the people whose side I was supposed to be on. These so-called revolutionaries were every bit as bigoted as their Reader’s Digest reading parents.

I started writing for a newspaper called Lavender Vision. They let me title my first piece: Straight Amerika, the Moon is on Your Crotch. My second submission concerned the violent treatment of a transvestite in a friend’s Beacon Hill apartment complex. Two heterosexual couples in their twenties, very drunk and rowdy, had chased the transvestite out of the elevator in my friend’s apartment building. My friend and I witnessed the harassment and went running after them, yelling and berating them with colorful epithets. For a season or two I became virulently heterophobic.

At the hospital it was not uncommon to hear doctors and nurses use the word fag or queer. Often this occurred during operations or in the coffee room. “I went to Bermuda with my husband and we met this big queer dressed in all- white like a character out of Tennessee Williams,” I remember one anesthesiologist saying. Despite these occasional blips Boston was a very sexual and tolerant city, as noted by Gore Vidal once in a Gay Sunshine interview. Men were having public sex up the down the shores of the Charles River. Once I even saw a Hare Krishna monk lift his saffron robe. For the most part police ignored this activity but occasionally they would cruise the river in patrol boats with bright white lights and then shine them on suspect men, while announcing through a loudspeaker: “Okay, faggots, move on.”

I joined the Boston Gay Liberation Front and started attending meetings in a conference hall at MIT. We marched as a group in the Vietnam Moratorium Day on the Boston Common on October 15, 1969. 100,000 war protesters crowded the Common in the biggest demonstration held in Boston Common before or since. As Howard Zinn, George McGovern and John Kenneth Galbraith spoke to the masses we carried our Gay Liberation signs through the mass of demonstrators. Most of the people looked at us with mildly shocked frozen eyes. “Here,” I thought, “is the hand me down legacy of their parents—they simply can’t believe it.” The fact that only a few people shouted “Right on” was discouraging.

Our Gay Liberation group planned a big road trip to the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention, organized by the Black Panther Party, in Washington DC on November 27-29, 1970. The first BPP convention had been held in Philadelphia in September of the same year. The Panthers were ambivalent when it came to gay men. Eldridge Cleaver in Soul on Ice had compared homosexuality to baby rape and wanting to become president of General Motors. Several Gay Liberation groups opted to ignore possible Panther hostility and participate in the convention anyway mostly because it was reported that Panther leader Huey Newton was supportive of Gay Liberation.

The Socialist Review credits French writer, Jean Genet, as changing Newton’s mind about homosexuality. In 1970, Genet was in America to speak about Panther causes. His translator at the time was Angela Davis.

“Davis also remembers that during his tour not only did he [Genet] not make any secret of his homosexuality, but he deliberately provoked debate — on one occasion by wearing drag — and argued with the Panthers about their homophobia and use of words such as faggot. She believes it was these arguments that later led to Huey Newton’s article in the Panthers’ paper arguing to support gay liberation.”

Newton also happened to be the best looking of all the Panthers so he became a darling of sorts for radical gay men. The Harvard Coop sold large posters of Newton sitting in a wicker chair. I quickly bought one for my Cambridge kitchen wall.

Disunity and schism caused the Washington DC convention to be called off. Boston Gay Lib was ensconced in a house with other Gay Lib groups, some men done up in Mama Cass mixed print moo- moo dresses to go along with their long hair and beards. We drank cheap jug wine, danced circle dances, chanted and slept in sleeping bags on the floor. With the convention called off, the next day we zapped a Washington McDonald’s and danced together while construction workers ordered hamburgers.

Aping or emulating the patriarchy meant getting involved in exclusive love relationships. That kind of coupling up was frowned upon. Exclusive relationships as existed in the heterosexual world were based on the ownership principle inherent in capitalism. The party line then was: Gays are different. Lovers should be open to sharing and welcoming the “occasional other.” Monogamy was a sickness (on a par with wanting to becoming president of General Motors).

How did this explain the reverential deference shown the unofficial leader of our group, a masculine Huey Newton look-a-like and his younger, pretty white boyfriend? When we stayed at a big commune in New York City on the return trip to Boston a magnificent double bed with enclosed curtains was offered the pair while the rest of us had to sleep on the floor.

The magical couple, in a nod to the Ozzie and Harriet patriarchy, wasn’t about to share anything. Had I found a clink in the socialist armor?

I attended the first New York City Christopher Street march one year after Stonewall in 1970. We marched and chanted as thousands ran to join the march from the streets. The gathering in Central Park was monumental. I returned to Boston where I found time to pass out Lavender Vision newspapers in Harvard Square on the weekends. Only women took a sample copy while the men would walk by, indifferent, as if in a trance.

From Boston I moved to Boulder-Denver, then back to Boston and then returned to Philadelphia where gay activism consumed nearly all of my writing. Boulder had a ramshackle Gay Liberation Front but it was mostly a party group that consisted of going to “straight” bars and dong dance zaps in front of macho Apache men who lived in the mountains.

I will skip over the Philadelphia portion of my life and conclude by mentioning a current feature article in The Atlantic about the end of the Gay Rights Movement. In that article the writer, James Kirchick, contends that the gay movement is really over. Gays have won and while homophobia still exists (and needs to be dealt with) the organizational zeitgeist—the thrust and the central storm-- is really over.

I have to concur. As Philadelphia’s own Barbara Gittings once said, the goal of the gay movement is to make itself obsolete and unnecessary so that it can disappear because it is no longer needed.

Fr.Dan Berrigan Broke the Priest Equals Bing Crosby Association Like a Meteorite Hitting Kansas City


     Long before the Occupy movement and the ascendancy of Bernie Sanders, there was Fr. Daniel Berrigan, the fiery Jesuit who rocked the then complacent American Catholic world with its ties to government power elites. Catholics in the 1960s and ‘70s knew priests as ‘Bells of Saint Mary’s’ stereotypes, men who would no sooner join a picket line or a war protest than raise a fist against their superiors.  

    Few young people alive today have any sense of how difficult life was for young men during the Vietnam War. That war split families apart much the same way that the Civil War set brother against brother. Draft age men who opposed the war and the draft, escaped to Canada or registered as conscientious objectors were often disowned by their families. Conversely, antiwar men and women, called ‘peaceniks’ by their detractors,  sometimes returned the favor by disowning their war hawk parents or their military enlisted siblings. By the war’s end in 1975, U.S. military personnel casualties numbered 58, 220 with 1.3 million deaths overall. This was not the era of the carefree collegiate spring break in Cancun. Life for the average young male was consumed by worry about being drafted and killed.  

    Fr. Berrigan broke the priest = Bing-Crosby association like a meteorite hitting Kansas City.  With his younger brother, Philip Berrigan, a Josephite priest, the two made their mark as antiwar activists when they joined two other men in pouring animal and human blood on Selective Service records in Baltimore. Known as the (October 1967) Baltimore Four, this “sacrificial act” was followed six months later by another non violent raid. The Catonsville Nine involved the pouring napalm on Selective Service files in Catonsville, Maryland.

   The choice of napalm as a protest tool was significant because during the course of the war over 388,000 tons of napalm had been dropped in Vietnam.   

    In Napalm in the Vietnam War, Alan Rohn wrote that the wounds caused by napalm are too deep to heal. “When contacting human, napalm immediately clung to the skin and melt off the flesh. The only way to put it out is to smother it as trying to wipe it off only spread it around and expanding the burnt area.” Napalm became a symbol of the war’s ultimate brutality. The word was part of the general lexicon in 1970. One saw it on political posters, graffiti postings and on the cover of magazines like Time and Ramparts.

   After the Catonsville Nine raid, indictments were brought against the Berrigan brothers but the priests initially evaded prosecution when they went underground. Eventually they were apprehended and served time in prison. Philip’s total time in prison before his death in 2002 amounted to 11 years.

   The average American Catholic at that time supported the Vietnam War. The belief then was that elected public officials knew what was best for the country. Members of the so called Greatest Generation could not wrap their minds around the concept of an illegal or unjust war. Their memories of WWII were just too vivid.  The fact that the Berrigan brothers were both priests led to long stretches of silence when their names were brought up at Sunday family dinners. This was certainly true in my parents’ home. 

      Dan and Philip were two of six sons born to Thomas William and Frida Berrigan. Thomas, a railroad engineer, had an unmanageable temper that frequently erupted into violence. Dan was a sickly child with weak ankles who didn’t walk until he was four years old, a condition that kept him out of the WWII draft. He was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1952. A decade later he became familiar with the Catholic priest worker movement when he went to Paris on a teaching sabbatical. While working as a professor of New Testament Studies at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, NY his poetry attracted the admiration of Marianne Moore while his (Gospel-based) activism irritated the American Church’s most ardent hawk, Cardinal Francis Spellman. Spellman, eager to snuff out the renegade priest and the Roman Catholic “left,” had him removed from Le Moyne before he could gain tenure.  

    Spellman blamed Berrigan for the self-immolation death of a young 22 year old New York Catholic Worker activist, Roger La Porte, an acquaintance of Berrigan’s. On the morning of November 9, 1965, La Porte, in protest of the war in Vietnam, left the NY Catholic Worker house with a large container of gasoline. Sometime after 5 am he arrived at the United Nations Plaza and set himself on fire. A priest, Fr. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, reported that “The intensity of the heat melted the pavement.” 

    “He lived in agony for several hours; and, according to the priest who administered the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the hospital he made a “profound” confession. Roger insisted that he wanted to live, that he did not strike the match in order to kill himself but to try to communicate to the American people the reality of the horror and misery they were mindlessly, callously and self-righteously pouring onto the people of Vietnam.”

   A total of 8 American set themselves on fire in public places to protest the war in Vietnam, while many more burned their draft cards, like Catholic pacifist, David Miller, who was the first person to be prosecuted for his action.  The epidemic of draft card burnings caused President Lyndon Johnson to sign a law in 1965 making it a crime to mutilate draft cards. 
    In 1980, Dan and Philip and six others entered a GE plant in King of Prussia where the group struck two missile nose cones with a hammer, in their words, “turning them into plowshares.” Throughout his years as activist, poet and author, Dan avoided the trappings of fame but dressed simply in a Beat manner of dress.  Philip left the priesthood after it was discovered that he was secretly married to Sister Elizabeth McAlister. They were excommunicated long before Philip’s death in 2002. 

    Dan, who remained a priest until the end, wrote in To Dwell in Peace, that he “had come of age in a church that, for all its shortcomings, honored vows and promises. I had examples before me in the people of the church, especially in laypeople and nuns, of those who lived to the hilt the life commended by the Gospel. Such were my people.”
   His critics within the Church, included some progressive thinkers like Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who wrote in a 1968 journal entry that, “[Berrigan] is a bit theatrical these days, now he’s a malefactor—with a quasi-episcopal disarmament emblem strung around his neck like a pectoral cross.”

    Dorothy Day, whom Berrigan credited with influencing his views on pacifism and war, disapproved of some of his protests but remained united with him in spirit. “Dorothy Day taught me more than all the theologians,” Berrigan told The Nation in 2008. “She awakened me to connections I had not thought of or been instructed in—the equation of human misery and poverty with warmaking. She had a basic hope that God created the world with enough for everyone, but there was not enough for everyone and warmaking.”

    Kurt Vonnegut was moved to comment: “For me, Father Daniel Berrigan is Jesus as a poet, if this be heresy, make the most of it.”
      In the 1980s Berrigan turned his attention to the plight of gay men dying of AIDS in New York City. He would visit the sick and dying in St. Vincent’s Hospital in NYC at a time when few Catholic priests would do so.  True to his respect for all life, he angered political progressives when he made known his anti-abortion, pro-life views.  He was not going to follow a left political agenda blindly, unlike many of today’s social justice warriors.  “I have always made it clear,” he said in an America magazine interview, “that I am against everything from war to abortion to euthanasia. I have avoided being a single cause person. “ 

    Before his death in the Jesuit infirmary at Fordham University, Berrigan did offer his support for the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter, although it’s doubtful he would have approved of “trigger warnings” and the insanity of “safe spaces” on college campuses. 
 In one poem, Berrigan writes:  
Were I God almighty, I would ordain,
rain fall lightly where old men trod,
no death in childbirth, neither infant nor mother,
ditches firm fenced against the errant blind, aircraft come to ground like any feather.
No mischance, malice, knives.
Tears dried….

(By Thom Nickels, The Philadelphia Irish Edition, July 2019)


Monday, July 1, 2019

Thinking of Israel. Outside the Gates of Jerusalem. A camel ride. 2014. 

Food is Not Art, and a Chef, No Matter How Great, is Not an Artist, PJ Media

The age of the diva chef who acts like an opera or a rock star has been with us for quite a while.

                                          From PJ Media

One of my first Philadelphia restaurant jobs was a busboy gig at the Barclay Hotel on Rittenhouse Square. The chef at that time was a soon-to-be-famous local TV chef who later became an international celebrity. His tirades in the Barclay kitchen included acting out with butcher knives and screaming f-word invectives that filtered out into the sea of white linen-covered tables where there were always groups of hatted ladies.

I thanked my lucky stars then that I was just a lowly busboy and out of the chef’s firing range and not one of the haggard-looking, psychologically beaten down waiters, wounded from Chef’s verbal bullets. In fact, Chef was like a mad king because you never knew what would upset him or when or how he would lash out.

“Chef is having a bad day,” the maitre d' would announce, as if describing a mental patient in a hospital isolation ward. In those days I could well understand why a real artist like Cezanne or Picasso might throw his paintbrush against the wall or even destroy a canvass or two, but I couldn’t wrap my mind around the same sort of emotion spent on creating food items. Food is something you consume at a rapid pace; it was never meant to be an art form.
Art, after all, is something that lasts, not something that winds up in the human stomach, in toilets, and in city sewers. Food is not art, and a chef, no matter how great, is not an artist.
Working a the Barclay Hotel had its perks. In the dining room, I met many of Philadelphia’s movers and shakers. (Years later, while a waiter at John Wanamaker’s Crystal Tea Room, I met Margaret Hamilton, the witch from The Wizard of Oz, whose lined face still conjured up images of munchkins and swirling broomsticks). One day, Philadelphia civil rights pioneer Cecil B. Moore, a politician known for desegregating Girard College, turned to me (in between long puffs of his cigar) and said, “Boy, get me another glass of water.”
True, I was a boy, but Mr. Moore’s use of the word "boy" that afternoon seemed to have a special significance. In fact, I had the distinct impression then that Mr. Moore went around to all the restaurants in town and made it a point to call all the white boys "boy" because he was dead set on making emotional reparations. No doubt Mr. Moore was out to prove a point about civil rights, and I fell into his firing range.

Wanamaker’s Crystal Room, I barely noticed the chef there, which suggests that he was most definitely not a diva but more of a chef line cook, a mere first among equals. The Crystal Room’s biggest draw was tea sandwiches and soup, an item with about as much chic ambiance as the standardgiveaway in homeless soup kitchens. The Crystal Room chef still wore the classic tall white hat, although you’d never catch him walking around the restaurant shaking hands with VIP diners as the “creator” of marvelous minimalist dishes.
Today when a famous chef walks among diners, he shakes hands like a politician despite the fact that his creation has already disappeared into scores of digestive tracts.
When I met celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck many years ago at a press event in Atlantic City, there was so much fanfare you’d have thought that an ex-president was in the room. As fellow journalists clamored to devour Mr. Puck’s latest creation—flat-iron steak with peppercorn sauce and blue cheese butter—I found little difference between Puck’s creation and a “normal” beef kebob found in most Asian eateries. I didn’t dare offer my opinion to the starstruck reporters who ate with gusto and who didn’t seem to have any food issues at all, unlike the pack of journalists I traveled with to Israel some time ago.
During that Israeli tour, one journalist claimed she could only eat gluten-free food; another said she could eat only kosher foods while a third was a strict vegan. The food issues surfaced from our very first meal when the gluten-free writer began bombarding the waiter with questions. Would he list all the menu items that were gluten-free?

At one restaurant the vegan writer turned into a private investigator. “Is this really vegan or is it pescetarian, pollotarian or is it lacto-ovo-vegetarian?”

“Let me see,” the server said, disappearing into the kitchen to check with the chef.

Sometimes advance calls had to be placed to restaurants to make sure that vegan and gluten-free dishes were available. Our press coordinator was not prepared for these food issues. She very nearly had a meltdown when the ritual became especially taxing at a tiny sandwich shop outside of Tel Aviv. All expectations of grabbing a quick bite on the patio of this charming restaurant before our bus headed to Masada ended when the server began taking orders. Once again, the excruciating menu analysis among the foodies became an ordeal comparable to dental surgery. The server, who did not understand what gluten-free was, had to be given an on-the-spot lesson, and even then she struggled to understand the concept.
The server wound up checking with the kitchen several times during the 25-minute ordering process, even as the foodies kept changing their minds the moment they spotted something “purer” on the menu. When they canceled their orders because they decided they really weren’t hungry after all, our tour guide had had it.

“We spent twenty-five minutes driving that poor server crazy, and in the end, we walked out,” she said, shaking her head. But as the tour progressed, things concerning food got worse instead of better.

The quest for culinary purity became so intense that we couldn’t even stop for a water ice or a bagel without the recitation of the gluten-vegan drill. There was some relief from hearing it when we ate at restaurants that offered a buffet where I would watch as the foodies went down the buffet line and quizzed each cook or server about ingredients.

Our tour guide exploded when the gluten-vegan drill slipped into overdrive.

“You Americans and your food issues,” she said, her voice rising two octaves. “I’ve never seen anything like it. No matter where we go to eat, it takes a half hour just to order. In Europe where I grew up, we were trained as children to eat a little of everything. Europeans do not have these issues! You just eat a little of everything and you stay healthy!”

I know people who are lactose intolerant, people who hate mayo, peas, Brussels sprouts, lima beans, liver and onions, and sour cream. I met my first strict vegetarian in Boston at age 20. He was a tall thin man with a very pallid complexion and for the longest time I thought he was battling a fatal illness. After he told me he was a vegetarian, I proceeded to ask him a hundred questions. Is he a vegetarian for religious reasons? Is it about killing animals? What about fish? Then I asked him what he would do if it were discovered that vegetables had some kind of consciousness. Would killing a carrot be like killing a pig? Don’t mushrooms feel pain when they're picked?  I didn’t have the courage to ask him why the so-called “healthier vegetarian diet” made him so unhealthy looking. Of course, there weren’t many vegetarians in the United States in 1974. Vegetarians at that time were associated with Indians in India, Hinduism, and the food in American Hare Krishna temples.

Let me say that while I enjoy some vegetarian foods, I would not want to turn this diet into an obsessive culinary orthodoxy. That’s idolatry and idolatry is forbidden by the Ten Commandments.

Food, not money, is the root of all evil.

Thom Nickels

Kensington Avenue, Philadelphia.

  My friend Ian. I thought he was in rehab then this photo popped up on Facebook. Photos by Liz Benek

        Hopefully this is just a temporary fall from grace. 

Scientology, from The Free Press

My introduction to Scientology occurred decades ago when I traveled to Colorado to visit the family of a former high school friend. After my arrival, my friend’s father, Mr. West, offered to take me on a road trip throughout the west where one of our “must do” stops would be a visit to a famous Scientology Clear who would cure me of my stuttering and help me in my struggle to free myself from my Catholic upbringing.

I wrote about this experience in the pages of this newspaper. At that time, I described what it was like to be audited with an E-Meter. An E-meter is a religious artifact called an Electro-psychometer, a calibrated device according to Scientology used for measuring extremely low voltages and psyche, the human soul, spirit or mind. 

What I did not know then was the dark side of Scientology although years later Mr. West would tell me about “hiding ex Scientologists who were running from the Church.” These stories seemed incomprehensible to me. Catholics, certainly, didn’t go running after so-called apostates. Members of my Irish German family were not sending committed Catholic uncles to force me back into the fold.

Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, was born in 1911 in Nebraska and died in 1986 in California. He was a prolific science fiction and fantasy writer before writing the book that would change his life and earn him millions of dollars, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. He once said, “You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, start a religion.”

A Church of Scientology website describes Dianetics as remaining a bestseller for more than fifty years.

Although my auditing session in Las Vegas was free, The New York Times’ 1986 obituary of Hubbard stated that.

“Clients paid Scientology up to $300 an hour for a one-on-one counseling process, known as auditing. To monitor a client’s responses to questions, church staff members use an electrical instrument on the client’s skin.

“The goal of ‘’auditing,’’ which can go on for years and cost clients hundreds of thousands of dollars, is to increase control over thought processes in a portion of the mind where, Scientologists assert, emotional problems and psychosomatic illnesses are born. “

Scientology was founded in 1950 with the publication of Hubbard’s book, Dianetics. The book was written in Bay Head, New Jersey in a house that has since been restored by the Church. In 2014, actor John Travolta and his wife Kelly Preston attended the dedication ceremonies at 666 East Avenue in Bay Head,

Scientology takes many of its metaphysical cues from the occultism of Aleister Crowley. Crowley’s famous black magic line, ‘Do as thou wilt. That is the whole of the law,” might be described as the backbone of Scientology. Crowley and Hubbard were friends.

In a diary entry, Crowley writes:

“My memory is quite clear that I have been taking heroin continuously for many weeks: three or four doses to help me get up, and others practically all day at short intervals. As to Cocaine, I must have had at least two or three prolonged bouts of it every week, plus a few ‘hairs of the dog’ on most of the ‘off-days.’ Most of my mental and moral powers were seriously affected in various ways, while I was almost wholly dependent on them for physical energy, in particular for sexual force, which only appeared after unusual excesses, complicated by abnormal indulgence in alcohol. My creative life had become spasmodic and factitious….I avoided washing, dressing, shaving, as much as possible. I was unable to count money properly, to inspect bills, and so on, everything bored me. I could not even feel alarm at obviously serious symptoms.”

L. Ron Hubbard’s son, L. Ron Hubbard Jr., wrote about his father in 1985. In a piece entitled “Philadelphia,” he recalled:

“We were in Philadelphia. It was November 1952. Dianetics was all but forgotten; Scientology, a new science,’ had become the focus of attention. Every night, in the hotel, in preparation for the next day’s lecture, he’d pace the floor, exhilarated by this or that passage from Aleister Crowley’s writings. Just a month before, he had been in London, where he had finally been able to quench his thirst; to fill his cup with the true, raw, naked power of magic. The lust of centuries at his very fingertips.

“To stroke and taste the environs of the Great Beast, to fondle Crowley’s books, papers, and memorabilia had filled him with pure ecstasy! In London he had acquired, at last, the final keys; enabling him to take his place upon the Throne of the Beast,’ to which he firmly believed himself to be the rightful heir. The tech gushed forth and resulted in the Philadelphia Doctorate Course lectures.”

In 2015, Philadelphia Voice reported on Scientology’s connections to Camden, New Jersey.

On Dec. 18, 1953, the church’s founder, science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard Sr., and four others, met on the second floor of the Smith-Austermuhl Building at 5th and Market streets in Camden’s downtown with lawyer William C. Gotshalk. The two-story brick and marble building, which still exists, housed insurance companies, financial institutions, and several law offices, including Gotshalk’s.

In the legal papers signed that day, Hubbard is identified as a resident of Medford Lakes, a secluded borough about 20 miles east of Camden. Hubbard lived in a rented home there for about four months, an odd location for a man whose homes tended toward grandiose. All of the homes in Medford Lakes look as if they are part of a summer camp, with small log cabins ringing shallow lakes. Records show the community had just 434 homes and 1,704 resident in 1953.

From his Medford Lakes base, Hubbard gave lectures in Philadelphia in September, notes Runyon. The Camden talks began in October 1953.

The Philadelphia region continues to have strong ties to the religion through the church’s current leader, David Miscavige, who was born in Bucks County, but grew up in South Jersey’s Willingboro, and then Broomall, Delaware County.

In 2018, Philadelphia Magazine reported that the Church of Scientology planned to build an ideal church in Center City Philadelphia.

The Church bought two properties: the early 20th-century headquarters of Cunningham Piano Company and an adjacent building on the 1300 block of Chestnut Street in order to create a skyscraper church. Yet there has been no progress on the building to date. The current Philadelphia headquarters of the Church is 1515 Race Street, where in 2008, 200 protesters from the group Anonymous protested the Church’s alleged abuse of members and ex-members. The mostly circus like protest occurred on L. Ron Hubbard’s birthday and included dancing, protesters dressed in Guy Fawkes masks, horn blowing and the waving of signs that read, Ron is Gone but the Con goes on. The Church ignored the protests but labeled the Anonymous group “terrorists” and “desperados.”

In a 2013 new story, The Philadelphia Inquirer (reprinted on reported that the Cunningham Piano building was far from the church’s only major real estate holding that had been left abandoned in recent years. Scientologists call these structures that are allowed to sit and “rot” “ideal orgs,” or prominent urban buildings that bring attention to the church’s mission. The newspaper reported that “They are purchased with donations aggressively wrung from members, and they are often left empty for years pending more cash to complete interior renovations.”

In 2004, Russell Miller’s “Bare-Faced Messiah: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard,” was published to Scientology’s consternation. The New York Post reported that the Church attempted to ban the book.

Miller reported that Hubbard had made two trips to Asia as a teenager. In Beijing in 1928, Hubbard noted that the Chinese could make millions if they transformed the Great Wall into a roller coaster. Hubbard did not like China and wrote in his journal, “The trouble with China is, there are too many ‘chinks’ here.”

Miller adds:

“By 1967, Hubbard had even created his own private navy and ran Scientology from a small armada of ships that plied the Mediterranean, crewed with young believers who had been bestowed quasi-naval ranks in Hubbard’s “Sea Organization.” They even meted out serious punishment, throwing crew members overboard while they were docked, sometimes for very minor infractions such as making mistakes during their course work.”

Miller also writes about Hubbard’s arrest in Philadelphia.

“The only small hiccup in the smooth running of the Philadelphia Doctorate Course occurred on the afternoon of 16 December, when US marshals thundered up the stairs of the Hubbard Dianetics Foundation at 237 North 16th Street, Philadelphia, waving a warrant for the arrest of L. Ron Hubbard.” Miller quotes one source who insists that there were “two hundred Scientologists battling on the stairs against FBI agents, US marshals and Philadelphia police.”

The number of Scientology adherents in Philadelphia remains unclear but some estimates have the number between 100 and 200,000. Unlike the first (physical) Scientology church building in Los Angeles which is a vast Universal Studios like amphitheater with a visitor’s information center, reading rooms, classrooms and a state of the art gym, the Philadelphia center is fairly low key enterprise. Years ago, L. Ron Hubbard’s books were displayed front and center in the front windows of the building but the practice is not always followed. Today you are more likely to see closed blinds or curtains where the books used to be. Years ago it was also common to see Scientology auditors offering free E-Meter auditing sessions to passerby in City Hall Courtyard and elsewhere.

A Time cover story in 1991 summed up its view of the Church of Scientology in no uncertain terms.

“The Church of Scientology, started by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard to “clear” people of unhappiness, portrays itself as a religion. In reality, the church is a hugely profitable global racket that survives by intimidating members and critics in a Mafia-like manner. At times during the past decade, prosecutions against Scientology seemed to be curbing its menace. Eleven top Scientologists, including Hubbard’s wife, were sent to prison in the early 1980s for infiltrating, burglarizing and wiretapping more than 100 private and government agencies in attempts to block their investigations. In recent years hundreds of longtime Scientology adherents -- many charging that they were mentally or physically abused -- have quit the church and criticized it at their own risk. Some have sued the church and won; others have settled for amounts in excess of $500,000. In various cases, judges have labeled the church “schizophrenic and paranoid” and “corrupt, sinister and dangerous.””

Thom Nickels