31 March 09: That's Septastic

Chalk one up for Septa. There's a nugget of news out of 1234 Market, and this time, it's of the good variety. Paul Nussbaum confirmed in Friday's Inquirer what Septa Watch rumored last month: Septa is introducing a rethought day pass after a few years of none at all, though there was that eight-ride Convenience Pass that was not altogether very convenient. (No word yet on whether the new pass will feature the New York skyline.)

Septa spokesman Richard Maloney says that the details are being hashed out as we speak and a press release will be sent out and posted on its web site soon. Credit where it's due, Septa does do a good job of making its board decisions and press releases available in its news section.

A new day pass -- to be called the 'Independence Pass' -- is excellent news. The old one, the subject of a 2004 photo essay on this web site (predating the current outdated format), wasn't bad, but it certainly wasn't great. It allowed for unlimited travel on the el, the subway, and all trolleys and buses, but you could only take one one-way trip on regional rail, and you could not ride to Trenton. (That always struck me funny because why would you buy a Septa day pass only to transfer to New Jersey Transit?)

Maloney confirms, however, that the Independence Pass will be valid for all forms of Septa transit, including regional rail, including to Trenton. As well, the Independence Pass will be valid for the Phlash, Center City District's big purple almost-Septa which has added the Zoo and the Please Touch Museum to its route so that tourists can sprinkle in a little Centennial District to their visit.

Septa being Septa, it can't be entirely glitch-free. The one glaring hangup with the new pass is that it's only valid after 9:30am, i.e. you can't use it till the morning rush hour is over. This is especially inconvenient for elderly tourists spending the night in Center City hotels who would rather catch a lift to the Art Museum than navigate the Parkway's long, car-heavy sidewalks. It will be valid through the afternoon rush hour, though.

But for those of us whose day isn't half over by 10am, the Independence Pass is right on. New Yorkers in town for a getaway weekend, conventioneers who dare venture beyond the Convention Center-Foxwoods-Liberty Bell corridor, local adventure seekers and those of us who don't use Septa enough to justify a weekly/monthly pass . . . we all win. Nice work, Septa.

The Independence Pass will be available at the end of April and will be $10 per person or $25 per family up to five. The Phlash begins its seasonal service on May 1 and runs through October 31.

–B Love

30 March 09: More of my buds

The birds are beltin' and the bees are buzzin' and the storms are dropping by unexpectedly with yellow skies and dime-sized hail. Spring, it's a-springin' all around us.

Two more blossoms for yr Philly Skyline wallpaper folder come from that most recognized of Philadelphia arbor harbors, the district of Kensington. On a morning stroll today, I went from Columbia Avenue to Cecil B Moore Avenue, the one and same thoroughfare whose differences are so black and white it hurts. So instead, I focused my eyes and my lens on the colorful blossoms all around. Mama don't take my Kodachrome away.

Up above, we have an eastern redbud in peak pink. It's one of the early risers every spring, and up against the old red brick of Kenzo's dusty past, well it couldn't be more dainty. As the days grow longer and warmer, the redbud settles down into a rather bland green -- either overgrown shrub or tiny little tree, your pick -- with heart-shaped leaves. Its name reflects its biggest attraction, and now's the time to go check it out, especially around Center City.

And down here, we have one of my all time favorite trees, the weeping willow. Ain't nothing to weep about in the spring, as these little leaves sprout from colorful catkins and grow into long leaflets. It's probably most common to find weeping willows near ponds or riverbanks (as those in Penn Treaty Park), but it's not altogether uncommon to find them inland, though they do live better near water.

Kensington's tree show is just getting going, if this redbud and willow have anything to say about it.

–B Love

30 March 09: Champagne (for) Super Nova

Hot tamales, how about that Scottie Reynolds? Faster than a cannonball!

With Villanova's defeat of Pittsburgh on Saturday night, my Final Four officially breathed its last breath. I went out on a limb with picks like Purdue and Syracuse, and I thought Kansas was safe enough, but when it was down to just Pitt, I gladly sacrificed the money pool's booty for a Nova win and a Philly rep in the Final Four.

And what a sacrifice it was! In the presence of distinguished Nova alumni, I took in one of the all time college basketball classics at El Camino Real, a packed house full of people wild for the Wildcats. Where the January game had all the electricity you'd expect from two ranked teams playing in the final game ever at the Spectrum, this rematch was a grind the whole way. Oklahoma had nothing against North Carolina outside of Blake Griffin, so if Nova can stay physical and get some rebounds (their perimeter game will be fine), that Philadelphia WFC mojo just might take a half hour ride west on the R5.

Speaking of March Madness on the Main Line, if you have digital cable, right now On Demand there is an NCAA Tournament feature under Sports & Fitness that has all the tourney's greatest moments of the past 30 years including Nova's improbable 1985 run. FYI.

This Penny Postcard post has no Philly Skyline contemporary -- this blast from the technicolor past is just a nod to our pals out in Villanova. The card was not mailed and therefore is not postmarked, but it appears to have been published in the late 1950s. All the buildings in the postcard, photographed from Lancaster Avenue, are still standing and in use. Nova's football team (whose alumni include Chevy Truck pitchman Howie Long and the NCAA all-time leader in all-purpose yards, some guy named Brian Westbrook) play in the 12,500 seat Villanova Stadium, designed by Henry Dagit & Sons, the firm behind several cathedrals in the region. Ed Pinckney's Wildcats' championship run in 1985 was the last one for the Field House, as the Pavilion was being built at the same time just behind it. The Field House, designed by Paul Monaghan and opened in 1931, is still used for intramural sports and women's volleyball. The 6,500 seat Pavilion, famous for its hyperbolic paraboloid roof and its brand name Big East Basketball (that just might get Jay Wright a big pay raise), opened in 1986.

So there we are -- happy Monday, y'all, and greetings from Villanova University, home of the 2009 Final Four's Wildcats.

NOTE: Villanova University postcard published by Art View Card Distributors, Camden NJ and purchased at a flea market for 50¢.

–B Love

27 March 09: PennDOT hates photographers

The old classic skyline view with the paint-by-lights of the Schuylkill Expressway has a new, slightly irksome yet slightly poetic component.

Over the last 6-9 months, I've driven west on 76 out of Center City a grand total of maybe half a dozen times. It never matters when -- Saturday morning at 8, Tuesday night at 9 -- traffic is so stop and go or maddeningly frustrating that it blows my mind that people can do this day in and day out twice a day. To each his own, I reckon, but just imagine if the R6 is extended to Valley Forge/King of Prussia, Phoenixville, Pottstown and Reading. Let alone a Schuylkill Valley Metro. There's a story in here, and it's probably about years of people saying it's unrealistic and then bam, a magic monsoon of money falls down from Washington, but only for "shovel ready" projects, i.e. the ones that were deemed realistic, like new bus washers and repaving regional rail parking lots. Talk about maddeningly frustrating.

In these few travels westbound, I've noticed the piece by piece construction of a new highway sign. Why does PennDOT need a huge new aluminum sign spanning all six lanes (and the shoulders) for something that can only be seen heading westbound? The eastbound expressway already has signs mounted right on the Spring Garden Bridge for eastbound traffic; there used to be one westbound. I can only guess it has something to do with rehabbing the Spring Garden Bridge, but I don't really know. I put a call into PennDOT in Harrisburg and was transferred to the southeast regional office, who transferred me to the traffic department, where I was transferred to an engineer's voicemail, and somehow I ended up with a tasty pepperoni pizza pie.

Doop dee doo. You can still get a nice skyline photo from up on Spring Garden Bridge with the expressway's streaking lights, but you'll have this big aluminum tribute to traffic, a gratitude for gridlock, a sculpture de Schuylkill to frame your shot.

PECO looks dark so dark, doesn't it?

–B Love

26 March 09: The Possible City:
Piecing Piers

by Nathaniel Popkin
March 26, 2009

"You have to do it piece by piece and mile by mile," said Philadelphia's Commerce Director Andy Altman earlier this month, while announcing progress in the city's effort to reshape the Delaware waterfront. The city will adopt Penn Praxis' plan to restore Philadelphia's intimate urban fabric to the waterfront.

Altman's statement reflects this philosophy -- sustained redevelopment will result from dozens of small steps. Penn's Landing, the last big vision, is often called a failure. Part of why it's a failure to some -- it feels inorganic, separated from the fabric of the city (and strangely, the river itself) -- drove Penn Praxis to break down the vast landscape and repair its faulty connections.

"Piece by piece, mile by mile" is also a measure of the impact of recession, neighborhood control, and fragmented land ownership on and around Delaware Avenue. At present, superblock ideas have no credence.

The first piece will be the conversion of Pier 11, at Race Street, into a park, a $1 million project funded by the William Penn Foundation. Altman said the piers along the Hudson, in New York, are a model for the park. (Someone ought to investigate the St. Lawrence riverfront in Montreal, a much closer comparison in almost all ways.)

A riverfront playground at Race Street is most certainly a good idea. It's a spectacular site. Good landscape design will reinforce it as a hinge -- connecting multiple places with the river all at once. But as passive space, it will need programming. The Great Plaza -- isn't it too just another small piece of the puzzle? -- fails largely because it has little quotidian purpose.

Though in part this first piece is meant to help carry the pedestrian north, it feels to me like a lonely bookend. So I worry. Are we building yet another noble public space that will be hard to get to and boring to boot?

Pier 40 before & after, by CCD & WRT We might instead use this first pass to visually clarify what everyone hopes will be a larger central waterfront. Why not give Pier 11 a southern twin and mark out the broad territory? A bike trail from Penn's Landing south to Pier 70 has been approved and funded. It will help pull river-users south -- into the car zone. But only some pedestrians and bikers are headed to Wal-Mart. The rest of us need things to engage and delight us.

(The illustration at right, by Wallace Roberts Todd for Center City District and Penn Praxis' Central Riverfront plan, is also in a story about the trail in the Summer of the Delaware HERE.)

The City owns Municipal Piers 38 and 40, at Christian Street, two of the most handsome structures on the Delaware. Painted bright white and marine blue, they're luminous proof of our lack of imagination. They glow like the whitewashed and blue-trimmed houses of a Mediterranean cliffside village. Pier 38 is a warehouse used by the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority; Pier 40 houses a private self-storage and truck rental business.

What's more, and unlike much of the waterfront, the grid nearly reaches here. Only minor reinforcements are needed.

I had long thought Pier 40 would make a fine "Museum of the American Polyglot," a living monument to the slow accumulation of the American soul. The river, call it what you will -- Lenapewihittuck, Zuydt Revier, Svenske, South River, Delaware -- is its source. They came -- first Algonquians and their descendents the Lenni Lenape, the Susquehannock, brothers of the Iroquois, and before 1640, Dutch and English and Swedish ships filled with Scots and Poles, Germans and Fins, and of course, Dutch and English and Swedes. A century later, there were more languages spoken on the wharves and in the workshops of this waterfront than probably anywhere else in the world. More foreign ships, more religions practiced, more shades of skin.

The ever-widening gene-pool is one the great American stories, and Philadelphia's consistent role in that story is undertold, but a museum may be unrealistic and feel dogmatic. It also may not be the kind of active use the site -- and the waterfront -- requires. Similar Montreal piers, though larger, combine retail and commercial uses. It's not that hard to imagine a pleasant combination of a café, a restaurant or two, a bar, each with tables open to the water, and an IMAX theater. Assuming a bike/walking path is assembled, a bike share station could be added. This sort of investment would put some amenities at the physical scale of biker/runner/pedestrian (in comparison, for example, to the massive scale of a casino). Amazingly, they would be among the first of their kind on the waterfront.

Still, the ideas don't seem to resound, do they? Perhaps then it's because the piers themselves are so striking they remain so underutilized. No one can imagine a use quite commensurate with their beauty. So we leave it to "Dredging=Jobs." But Altman's point is that we have to start trying things. We already own these lovely structures. Without much sweat -- the Port hates to give up control of real estate, but this is insignificant in comparison to its Southport expansion plans -- Piers 38 and 40, like Pier 11, can be made available for the pleasure, interest, and joy of people. So what should it be? The busy Atwater Market marks a similar location in Montreal, but I'm not sure this site can handle a waterfront Reading Terminal.

I'd like to hear your ideas. Perhaps we can collect them, photoshop/render the best, and effectively make the case for these two piers. Until then, I suppose they remain a rather significant missing piece.

–Nathaniel Popkin

For more on The Possible City, please see HERE.
For Nathaniel Popkin archives, please see HERE, or visit his web site HERE.

25 March 09: It never really was a
youth study center anyway

So said the totally imaginary demolition man I spoke to at 20th & the Parkway last night. And right after that, he said You're gonna regret this the rest of your life . . . both seconds of it.

Not much is left but the Philly-familiar concrete crumble at the old Youth Study Center. Carroll, Grisdale & Van Alen's modernist statement never amounted to much of one since everyone knew well that "youth study center" was euphemism for "juvenile hall". Waldemar Raemisch's powerful sculptures (since moved to the Microsoft High in Parkside) aside, the homeless encampment on its otherwise sylvan acre did little to endear the site to a public trying hard to love the Parkway, which the YSC embraced with a cold hard wall anyway.

So it goes.

The design of its successor, however, is slow to come, as guarded as, say, a juvenile hall. Lead architects Tod Williams Billie Tsien, local architects Ballinger and landscape architects Olin Partnership haven't leaked so much as a schematic of the Barnes on the Parkway, which is scheduled to open in 2011. Its design will be unveiled . . . this year?

The YSC is temporarily stationed on Henry Avenue in East Falls while a new facility is built at 48th & Haverford in West Philly, also set to open in 2011 for the school year. Its former site on the Parkway is going . . . going . . .

–B Love

25 March 09: Who's new, Who's next

Out here in the fields, I fight for my meals, though they tend to come easier with a marketplace full of options. DiBruno Brothers' presence is hard to resist when just passing through under Comcast Center, Under the C's scallopcakes will give any Marylander's crabcakes a fair fight, and two slices of La Scala's pizza after a couple hours of sampling dozens of beers at the Opening Tap ceremony of Beer Week couldn't have been more clutch.

Comcast Center's construction was clearly at the core of what this web site was about from early 2005, when Liberty Property, Comcast and Robert AM Stern held a party to celebrate the start of construction that featured a light show, three drum troupes, and a six foot ice sculpture of the tower about to be built, through to the grand opening last June. The opening marked the official end of Philly Skyline's Comcast Center construction section, closing the biggest chapter in this site's story. Since then, there have been a few postscripts, including the Marketplace, the new entrance to the Presbyterian Church and now the Sony Style / Comcast Labs.

Is that even how you write it? Sony Style / Comcast Labs? Is a comma preferred? Sony Style, Comcast Labs? No comma no slash? Sony Style Comcast Labs? As in, "Comcast labs that feature a Sony style"?

Sony Style's homepage makes no mention of Comcast nor this new store. In fact, a search for "Comcast" there returns several results for The Comsat Angels, the English band whose contemporaries included Siouxsie and the Banshees and Depeche Mode and an aside asking "Did you mean 'comics'?" Some partnership!

By my calculation, this is the final piece of the variegated complex that has taken nearly a decade to become Comcast Center: incorporation into Suburban Station and new signage, Table 31 and its Café, a pleasant plaza, the best building lobby in the city (or at least 123 South Broad's biggest challenger), a tourist attraction television, 95% office occupancy before the building even opened, green building (* yet to be LEED certified), new tallest building in the city, little Billy Penn on top and a Phillies World Series win. (Brian Roberts was right!)

The official web site of the new store, wheretomorrowplays.com, redirects to a holding page at comcast.com/wheretomorrowplays with store hours and directions and whatnot. (Sonystylecomcastlabs.com is still available if you're feeling insidious.) The site and the store's marketing campaign, including posters in subway and el stations (pictured at right), makes the best use I've seen of the tower in ads -- this impromptu Skyline Inspection gives it an A, but then they'd better get an A since they're Comcast.

The store itself, which opened last week, is broken into several separate compartments, with Sony's products like the Vaio, Playstation, mp3 players (the modern incarnation of the classic Walkman -- I'm happy they kept that name), and all the larger electronics. The Comcast labs part of it is the coaxial plugged into the backside of these products. Straight-from-the-source HD cable into the biggest and best HDTVs Sony provides; 160Mbps+ internet into 19" Vaios with 8G of RAM . . . and without the clunky pixelation interrupting basic cable programming, bandwidth throttling, Super Bowl penis interruptions, and customer support that alternates between clueless and condescending. Fret not, the excessive costs are there.

Meanwhile, across 18th Street, American Commerce Center is making its first visible presence to steal a little business from its would-be shorter neighbor with the installation of two different signs at 18th & Arch and 18th & Cuthbert. A feasibility study is underway on the extension of the pedestrian concourse already extended by Comcast; another one is underway on the addition of a Septa el stop at 19th Street, where the trolley already stops. (How awesome would an el stop at 19th be?) ACCtower.com was recently revamped as well with an interactive map and tall building comparison.

While American Commerce Center is far from being a certainty -- again, Comcast Center is really only "finished" now with Sony Style Comcast Labs after the building's conception as One Pennsylvania Plaza in 2000 -- it's nice to see a physical presence, even if only in the form of a plywood poster.

–B Love

24 March 09: News Jews can use

This here is just a quick stop down at the corner of 5th & Market to check out the latest topping off ceremony in town.

Not long ago, construction at the National Museum of American Jewish History reached its peak, so to speak. The steel frame of the handsome, if oddly oriented, five story building designed by James Polshek (who recently won acclaim for the Clinton Library in Little Rock), celebrated its topping off party with the traditional evergreen tree. Given the party's timing in the second week of January, one sensitive gentile asked me if this was an outrage, to be placing a Christmas tree atop a Jewish Museum so soon after the noose incident at Comcast Center. On the contrary, my dear Irish Catholic friend, it's not a Christmas tree at all, but a non-decorated evergreen tree as a symbol of life, accompanied by the American flag and, of course, the ceremonial final beam (which, generally speaking, usually has a banner with the local ironworkers union's insignia).

Local 401 has made quick work of the 5 story, 121 ft building, which will soon be sheathed in terra cotta on the north side and prismatic glass on the western side facing Independence Mall.

The NMAJH is scheduled to open next year. For more info on it, visit its web site HERE.

–B Love

24 March 09: __ of the Delaware:
the feast of rat

In this latest installment of the Whatever of the Delaware (maybe I should change the name of the series since it's gone long past summer and then fall and now winter), we're gonna take a drive. Not a long drive, but long enough of one that we're gonna sit through a little rush hour traffic and, when all is said and done, find ourselves down south in Dixie.

The state of Delaware, second smallest in the country, has a grand total of three counties. (Even Rhode Island has five.) New Castle, the northernmost, is its center of industry, activity and population. Wilmington and its Northeast Corridor neighbors, by geographic default, fall into Philly's metropolitan statistical area. Sussex, the southernmost, is largely rural and on the eastern edge are Delaware's destination beaches, Rehoboth, Dewey and Bethany. Between them is Kent County, where the state capital Dover straddles a meager hill dividing the watersheds of the Chesapeake Bay to the west and the Delaware River-Bay to the east. And just above Dover is Smyrna, a town of under 10,000 that's hugged the southern bank of Duck Creek, one of the Delaware's hundreds of meandering, marshy tributaries, since 1706.

Those salty tidewater marshes were, at least for a couple hundred years, the lifeblood of many a Delawarean man. The fishing of shad, sturgeon, catfish and eel, the hunting of duck, brant and goose, and the trapping of turtle, fox and a smelly little rodent called muskrat . . . there are few left who make a living doing these, and arguably none left who support themselves on the muskrat, a one time lucrative consolation to the long-ago loss of the beaver.

"It's just the love of it," says Mark, a Smyrna man who's been trapping muskrat since he was a boy. "It's an awful lot of work with not much reward."

The reward used to be the sale of the pelts for their fur and their glands for use in fragrances; the meat was sometimes sold, but usually just kept and cooked (and given to friends and family). That's right -- muskrat meat, as pictured in the first photo above.

Chemistry has long replaced the need for muskrat glands, and individual pelts bring less than a dollar apiece. So it's the tradition -- meat and the trapping itself -- that keep men in the muddy marshes, laboring in small boats to tend to hundreds of traps tied to the bottom of tall bamboo sticks marked with colored flags, and dependent on the rise and fall of the tide. As Mark said, it takes a lot of love to commit that much work.

But commit it they do on the lower Delaware. Muskrat trapping season runs from mid-January to mid-March. Mark, who runs a service company that repairs trucks, tractors and fire engines, "knows all the trappers from Woodland Beach to Bombay Hook." In a straight line on the map, that's only a couple miles, but adding the meanders of the Delaware, the creeks and the "pissy little ditches," as Mark calls them, there are hundreds of acres of swampy, marshy ground where muskrats dwell, burrowing in the mud and feeding on cattails, grass and other vegetation.

"They're vegetarians . . . like me!" says Kathy, a perfectly friendly waitress at the Wagon Wheel Diner, the only place I'm aware of that has muskrats on its menu. There are muskrat feeds at social clubs and hunting lodges -- "I cook 'em over at the Ducks Unlimited feed every year," Mark says -- and a lot of lower Delawareans have their own favorite recipe, but to find it on the menu is rare.

Except at the Wagon Wheel, just under the big Smyrna water tower, where it's been a weekly seasonal delicacy since 1940. The New York Times wrote about it in 1988 (archived online HERE), and Don Polec, who the Inquirer's Michael Klein reported last week will be departing Channel 6 Action News at the end of the month, paid a recent visit. And last Tuesday, St Patrick's Day, I headed down 95, to Delaware Route 1 just below Wilmington, across the William Ross Bridge, Delaware's mini-Sunshine Skyway crossing the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, the recognized cultural boundary between north and south in the First State.

Down here in Smyrna, south of the Mason-Dixon Line, muskrat Tuesdays at the Wagon Wheel are especially busy because it's the only muskrat game in town. Though she is a vegetarian and has never tried it herself, Kathy's well versed on the muskrat's life and death. "They bring them in here from the marshes with their heads still on, because they have to [by Delaware state trapping law], and then we serve them without the head because we have to," she says before adding, "and some people even ask for the heads."

Mark explains his preparation process, which seems to center on patience: "After they're skinned, you soak em in salt water for three days. On the second day, you switch out the water. On the third, you boil em for 2-3 hours." At this point, Patty, the Wagon Wheel's owner and Tuesday evening chef, comes to the counter and says, "that's when you take it and toss it in a big pan with lots of sage and lots of pepper."

"In butter?" I ask.

"Oh no," Patty says, "olive oil. And lots of onions."

Lots of onions, indeed. When the plate of muskrat arrives, it has a side of home fries, and a mountain of onions covers each. A cup of stewed tomatoes and a slice of cornbread look on at this plate of muskrat from a distance.

"That's a finger food," Mark says, as though to laugh away the fork on the counter.

"Just pick it up and eat it like fried chicken," says the vegetarian waitress. So I do, and . . . it's . . . okay!

I see where the comparisons to duck, or chicken thigh, come from at least in texture. The flavor, though, is -- shockingly -- gamy. It may have been soaked in salt water for three days, but you can still it came from the marsh. It's not unlike the rabbit and squirrel dishes I remember from my Appalachian youth. But those dishes involved cut meats and forks and knives. Eating muskrat with your hands, like a chicken thigh, means biting the meat off of little leg bones and little rib cages you put into a separate bowl, like the bone bowl at any hot wing joint.

The home fries are tasty, standard issue fried potatoes and onions, but they're not enough to balance out the muskrat's, uh, zest, so I soak them in hot sauce (Crystal, my favorite) to annihilate my palate since the cornbread won't clear it.

The $15 muskrat meal comes with a dessert, but given the portion size, I have no room left for it. Instead, Kathy gives me a baggie of homemade cinnamon candies in the shape of shamrocks. It being St Patrick's Day in small town Delaware, she leans in quietly and says "I don't know if you've been drinking, but these are strong enough to cover up your breath." I laugh and thank her for the tip as I pay my bill and leave a healthy tip of my own before heading out for the hour and 15 minute trip home, sober.

Quite a night, that Muskrat Tuesday at the Wagon Wheel. Muskrat Tuesdays are only in season, though, and when the season's catch is done, Muskrat Tuesdays are done till the next year. The season just ended last week, and Patty and Mark tell me they've got enough for one, maybe two more weeks.

Smyrna's only 65 miles away, so if you don't have any dinner plans this evening, why not exercise your right to eat muskrat before that right goes away for another year? The Wagon Wheel is at 113 South DuPont Boulevard (Route 13) in Smyrna, and they're open till 9.

–B Love

23 March 09: Hot sludge Sunday:
A little more on Penn Treaty Park

The tide of the Delaware River had just turned as I crawled across large, hard, jagged boulders that line the southern portion of Penn Treaty Park late yesterday afternoon. I'd come down to soak up the latter portion of the early spring rays and smoke a nice cigar on the only bit of honest-to-god beach we have 'round these parts. With my boots in the damp sand and my butt on a big cold rock that was a tough choice -- none of the rocks allow you to comfortably sit with your back resting against another rock, or god forbid, soft embankment -- I watched the Delaware River go the other way through the wafting, aromatic haze of an Ashton Corona.

As the River receded to its low mark, the short sandy beach became a muddy, sludgy beach of about 15-18'. Along the way, it revealed a few of the things left behind -- a handful of Heineken pony bottles, a smashed Budweiser can, the broken parts of a broken carburetor, and the supposed contents of a busted bushel from the back of a boat out of the Garden State: several orange tomatoes, three plums, and lots of blueberries. As a Puerto Rican couple walked by hand in hand laughing in Spanish, a black couple who had brought their kids to the park came to the water. The two girls, maybe 12 or 13, were trying to figure out if the tomatoes were golf balls or what. I told the boy, maybe 8, that they were tomatoes and he grabbed one, squishing it in his hands for the girls, who yelled "EWWW" and ran back up to the grass.

It was a fun moment, and one of several I noted while sitting there, the book I'd brought to read sitting closed on another uncomfortable rock and the headphones I'd packed still packed. Shortly after that, a man in a Tennessee Titans windbreaker stood at the top of the bank on his cell phone while his dog climbed down the rocks to run in the water. When the dog made it into the sludge, the man pulled his phone away to yell at the dog to get out of the water -- in Polish. It wasn't an angry yell, but more of an "aw man, that dog's all covered in mud now." He probably would have run down after him if it didn't mean hastily navigating the rocks along the Penn Treaty Park shore.

A few weeks ago, the first of three public meetings was held to discuss the future of Penn Treaty Park as determined by a hugely joint master planning process. With a $22,500 grant from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and $75,000 from the William Penn Foundation, a team including the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, Fairmount Park, Friends of Penn Treaty Park, and with support from the New Kensington Community Development Corporation, Fishtown Neighbors Association, Penn Praxis and the landscape architecture firm Studio Bryan Hanes asked neighbors and others who use the park what they treasure, what concerns them, and what they see for the future of the park.

On that last one, many older residents see a bit of the past in the future -- there was once a decorated municipal pier that extended out into the water, and later, after the park's 1982 expansion, a less romantic, short-lived fishing pier. Historian Ken Milano, who recently published the 153-page History of Penn Treaty Park, with dozens of photos and drawings showing the park's growth, demise and growth again, said he'd like to see the granite obelisk that was dedicated by the Penn Society in 1827 moved to the physical spot where Penn and the Lenape had their treaty and smoked their peace pipes. He also thinks more attention should be given to the Fairman Mansion, whose foundations he says are directly under Beach Street. The city razed the mansion in 1825 to build the street and accommodate the growing industry on the river's banks.

I think all of those are wonderful suggestions -- perhaps Beach Street can be re-stricken and the mansion, in which Penn stayed, can become an archaeological site -- but if I had only one request and an enormous bullhorn through which to announce it, it is this:


Oh, how I hate these wretched rocks. In Philadelphia's 23 miles of Delaware shoreline, precious and few are the places where one can physically touch the river. (Whether one wishes to do so is a different conversation altogether.) But there are those of us who would quite like that -- the fisher, the scientist, the naturalist, the conservationist, the hot-and-sweaty, the curious.

These boulders are no beach. They are not comfortable, they are not easy to cross, and they are havens for litter, critters and trash. I haven't bothered to look up why they were placed there in the first place -- probably to mask the filthy ruins of the 19th century bulkhead -- but it doesn't matter any more.

These rocks have got to go. If the river floods, it floods -- these rocks aren't going to do anything to stop it. If removing the rocks means leaving behind a 6-8' sand/mud bank up to the end of the grass, great! That's closer to the Philadelphia William Penn knew anyway. A little further downstream, about where the Penn's Landing Pi stands representing 30+ years of failure, Penn's earliest migrants lived in caves carved out of even taller river banks there before the rowhouse city we know was built.

I hate these rocks. I hate them with a passion. They are pointless at Penn Treaty Park, and they can be far better served by art, or construction, or crushed up into gravel, or anydamnwhere but the bank of the Delaware River where they were never meant to be, where there should instead be a natural bank in this part of the city's only natural park.

But even then, what is natural? Nature in the post-industrial, post-polluted, reclaimed-recleaned manner that we know? Nature in the pre-Penn, pre-Swede, Lenape-sacred manner? Can we even replicate that? I think it's worth a try if the end result means ridding Penn Treaty Park's shore of unnecessary boulders.

Around the time my cigar was spent and I was waiting in suspense for my phone to refresh the scores of the final minutes of the Missouri-Marquette, Louisville-Siena and Michigan State-USC games, I heard a foghorn. The Chinese cargo ship Hui Sheng had just left the Tioga Terminal and was passing by empty. The same Polish man's dog had run back down to the water and was about to be splashed by the ship's waves.

Something else I'd like to see, perhaps at the end of a new pier, is a nice sized placard with a description of the different types of vessels that pass up and down the river, from one man kayaks to the biggest tankers in the channel, and all the tugs and yachts between. There's one like this at Fox Point Park in Wilmington, the sliver of river park between 495, Amtrak and the DuPont factory.

And speaking of boats, how great would it be to have a launch point for kayaks and canoes right here in Fishtown-Kensington-Northern Liberties? No motorized boats, since there are plenty of other places already in place along the river -- they'll probably have a place for those a couple piers down at Sugar House if it's ever built, too -- and since their noise and exhaust are about the opposites of what Penn Treaty Park ought to be.

One exception to the motor boat ban, though, is as someone at the first meeting mentioned: it might also be nice to have a ferry station here, connecting with the ones at Penn's Landing and Camden, and perhaps some new ones at Petty's Island and other river points of interest. Pulaski Park? Pennypack on the Delaware? Lardner's Point? Palmyra Cove?

The tide seemed to come back on the waves of the wake of the Hui Sheng; at the same time, the blue-gray sky started to give way to purple and orange. For just a moment after the sun had gone down, the crown of Comcast Center dangled like an electric ice cube above a strip of twilight, while Mellon Bank Center's lava lamp yellow and blue warmed up to color the pyramid. Christmas lights in the distance decorated the upward stern of the Battleship New Jersey, while across the river they accentuated the clunky, capsized, mutant dinghy Dockside. The lights of the apartment building, its design from the same office as Symphony House, flicker so intensely in the view from Penn Treaty Park that you barely notice the real boats -- Moshulu, Gazela, Spirit of Philadelphia -- next to it in view. This little part of the vista is bookended by the red neon of the Seaport Museum and the pink neon of Club Risqué. And framed above it is the twinkling dotted line of the Ben Franklin Bridge.

All this to say that, even at night, Penn Treaty Park's vistas -- most frequently named as a "treasure" at the meeting -- are indeed a treasure. If the master plan also includes new lighting for security and safety purposes -- if for no better reason than to see, as well as hear, the teenage twits on their gangsta motor scooters -- I hope it's of the low energy, human scale (NOT spotlight/cobra light) variety.

It's great that Penn Treaty Park is finally getting a lot of attention and a lot of money. Considering the city of Philadelphia and state of Pennsylvania arguably have their oldest roots here, it certainly deserves it. It was almost shocking when Mayor Nutter said at his appearance at last year's River City Festival that it was his first time at the park. Its geographic placement at the center of the Central Riverfront plan and the fact that it's already there, in place, bodes well for its future.

With a new pier, a new place for non-motorized boats, and the REMOVAL OF THE BOULDERS WHERE THE EARTH MEETS THE WATER, it will be even better.

–B Love

PS: The joint team assigned the master plan of the park is looking for your input. It has a Survey Monkey survey right 'ere.

21 March 09: This used to be my playground

The great disappearing South Street Bridge is this close to being gone, daddy, gone.

The portion in the photo above the CSX tracks on the east bank of the Schuylkill River is all that remains of the 1923 bridge. The two buttresses in the river have been cleanly chopped down to just above the tidewater mark. The I-76 ramps resemble Evel Knievel props, both ramps just stopping where there used to be a bridge. And all the ironwork that formed the bridge's attractive exterior railings has been salvaged, split between the Streets Department and the demolition's contractors (which is to say that it will not end up in a scrapyard or landfill).

On the west side of the Schuylkill, just below the still-so-new-it-still-has-orange-caution-fencing Weave Bridge, and in front of (I Ain't No) Hollenback Hall, construction has already begun on the support columns for the bridge's street decking between the Expressway and Convention Avenue.

I took a little springtime spin over the weekend on the eastern Schuylkill banks where the Schuylkill Banks will soon enough carry on from the current circle at Locust Street to the new South Street Bridge. To launch a small set of photos, click


–B Love

20 March 09: Greetings from Fishtown

Roses are red
Violets are blue
Some poems rhyme
This one doesn't.

Berks & Girard, 9am. Taken from the Beer City Hotel, at the entrance to the spinning rooftop Olive Garden. Click and enlarge, friend.

–B Love

19 March 09: Start the madness, or,
one last Spectrum shaft

With the NCAA Tournament starting today, two Philadelphia teams and one Philadelphia court will share the spotlight: Villanova has high hopes and Temple has a tough first round opponent, while the Wachovia Center hosts one section of bracket in this opening weekend. Which, in the continuity of the Spectrum Shaft, is just about right. That arena, the host of two Final Fours (both won by Bobby Knight's Indiana teams), is hanging around for one last tournament, and even though NCAA gave Philly the nod this year, the games are being played across the parking lot at the Wach. Hrrgh.

I've been in Philly for nine years, but so much of my college basketball fandom has roots here. Hank Gathers was far and away my favorite player when he and Bo Kimble, both North Philly products of Dobbins High, were the stars on Paul Westphal's run-n-gun Loyola Marymount team. That story obviously had a sad ending, but at least we get the reruns of the Final Shot movie in syndication.

Big Five games have all the intensity of any conference's best rivalries, and the Palestra has earned and solidified its place as the Cathedral.

But the best college bball memory I have, as hated as they are, is Duke's overtime win over Kentucky, right here at the Spectrum in 1992. Christian Laettner may have given his haters a lifetime's worth of fuel by stomping on Aminu Timberlake's chest, but he got the technical foul he deserved and went on to be perfect -- 10 for 10 from the floor including 1 for 1 from beyond the arc and 10 for 10 from the foul line -- with the most perfect finish I've ever seen. (Sorry, Jimmy V, Laettner's was better.)

Anyway, the Big Dance tips off today with four big bills in South Philly -- Brigham Young (8) vs Texas A&M (9) at 12:30, UConn (1) vs Chattanooga (16), the hometown's Villanova (3) vs American (14) at 7:20, and UCLA (6) vs Virginia Commonwealth (11) at 9:50. (With so many games throughout the day, they couldn't have cascaded them so that Philly doesn't have to stay up past midnight on a school night just to watch a basketball game on its home court?)

Nova's gonna make it out of the Wach unscathed, advancing to the Elite Eight, where they're sadly going to fall in the rematch with Pitt, the team they upset in January in the final college basketball game at the Spectrum. Temple's not going to make it out of the first round. Take it from someone who's won two pools in the past four years!

Well, if the NCAA isn't gonna show the Spectrum any love in its final days, you can count on yr Skyline. Here's some wallpaperin' from that January game. #21 Villanova 67, #3 Pitt 57.

–B Love

18 March 09: Don't you like when the winter's gone

And all of a sudden it starts getting warm?

We're two days away from the vernal equinox but baby there's a head start right outside your window. Yesterday was the even 12 hour day/night split, but spring officially begins at 11:44 Friday morning. Mark you calendar . . . hey, it's on your calendar!

Due to the serious case of spring fever this morning, I was out meeting some new buds. This here above is . . . good god, is this a red maple? Someone help me out here, I'm drawing a blank and I can't reach my tree people. The bark seems a little light for a maple, but then it was really bright and sunny this afternoon down in Old City, enough to make the dark bark shine. At any rate, click to enlarge this springtime red friend.

Down here, though, we've definitely got a nice yellow cornelian cherry dogwood bloom, the sort of thing bees are into. Holy moly, it's only March 18 and there are bees all buzzin' about out there. Biz Markie was right!

–B Love

17 March 09: Huh. That's Beury interesting

Following up on yesterday's Broad & Erie post -- that DVRPC/PCPC/Gannett Fleming/Urban Partners/Et Al meeting is this evening, by the way, 6pm at the Resurrection Life Church at 17th & Tioga, by the way -- one astute reader writes:
Although the Beury Building is on the National Register of Historic Places, that does not protect it from demolition. Any property on the National Register, if privately owned and with private money, can be demolished. The federal preservation law of 1966 (which created the register) was set up so that review of work, including demolition, only takes place if a federal agency is involved or federal monies are being used for the project. The real protection happens at the local level with local ordinances. The only way to truly protect any building/object/structure/district is to get it listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.
She's correct about this point, so to be sure, I put a call into the Philadelphia Historical Commission (PHC). Turns out the Beury Building is, in fact, on the Philadelphia Register, placed there in 1985. So while that protects it in principle, any private owner is still allowed to make a case for demolition PHC's review. The two conditions that would be considered are 'public interest' and 'financial hardship'.

Considering how derelict the Beury Building is -- all 14 floors have busted out windows and graffiti tags -- and the enormous expense it would take to rehab it, neither of those conditions would be very hard to meet. As the potential anchor for the entire Broad & Erie (& Germantown) corridor, I hope it's given a serious due beginning this evening.

–B Love

17 March 09: Happy St Patrick's Day,
Here's PAFA

Apropos of nothing, as it were.

The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts refers to this flagship house of art and learning as the Historic Landmark Building. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, 100 years after PAFA issued a competition for a new building that would accommodate their growth, as their 10th & Chestnut quarters had grown cramped. Frank Furness & George Hewitt design won the competition over Thomas Richards (who was in the process of building College Hall at Penn) and Addison Hutton (who had recently completed the original PSFS building at 7th & Walnut, where Oceanaire is on Washington Square now).

The Academy moved and the building opened in 1876, in time for the Centennial celebration. With so much of his top tier work demolished, perhaps from an unfortunate marriage of shifting taste and a time when demolition was even easier than it is now, PAFA is probably the most distinctly Furnessian building standing in Philadelphia. Its interior is one of the most stunning in the city, and its exterior is above, for you to click and enlarge and say ooh and say ahh.

–B Love

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