A Flawed Father

15 Feb

As a lover of American history, I think one of the most extraordinary early moments in our nation was the first peaceful transfer of power — when President George Washington handed over the reins to his successor, John Adams.

But as a Philadelphian, I’m also keenly aware of Washington’s flaws. I say “as a Philadelphian,” because of course our city was the first capital city of the young United States, and Washington lived here in what we now refer to as the President’s House.

Washington owned enslaved people. More to the point, at the time, Pennsylvania had a law that if an enslaved person lived here for more than 6 months, he or she would become free.

Portrait of George Washington's Cook [Hercules]

Portrait of George Washington’s Cook Hercules, reputedly by artist Gilbert Stuart. Copyright © Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Used by permission.

So President George Washington, father of our country, purposely sent the human beings he owned out of Pennsylvania every six months, so that none of them could ever become free.

Just think about the cruelty of that for a moment. Imagine being an enslaved person living in Philadelphia. You would likely have socialized with people in the city’s lively free black community. At a minimum, you would have had some level of interaction with them. You would have gleaned that after six months in Philadelphia, you too would have the opportunity to become free.

And then — cruelty of cruelties — as the time approached that you would have gained your freedom, you would have been exiled back to Washington’s Mt. Vernon plantation in Virginia. Or perhaps just taken across the river to New Jersey for a day or two. Either exercise would have accomplished the same malevolent goal: Resetting the countdown clock to freedom.

This isn’t an imaginary exercise. It actually happened to real people. One of them was a man known as Hercules, a respected chef who gained unusual prominence for an enslaved person. (Among other things, he had his portrait pointed, reputedly by the famous artist Gilbert Stuart. See illustration at right.)

Even while Hercules enjoyed remarkable prestige, he was still legally treated as property. And thus it is probably not surprising that, on George Washington’s 65 birthday, Hercules escaped. Not only did he escape, but he was never recaptured, as this story recounts.

Today, there is an embryonic effort underway to try to get the above painting of Hercules brought back to the US from Spain, where it currently hangs in a museum. One blogger proposes that it should be swapped with an unrelated (but meaningful to Spain) painting from the White House in Washington DC.

While I think it would be quite fitting for Hercules’s portrait to hang in one of our most revered national landmarks, I can’t help but think about another landmark much closer to home. The Liberty Bell is located just steps away from the grounds of the old President’s House in Philadelphia.

Either way, on this Presidents’ Day, spare a moment to remember this extraordinary person. Regardless of where Hercules finished out his life — it doesn’t seem to have been Philadelphia — he did so on his own terms: In freedom.


Getting in the Mix

17 Jan

I admit to being pretty impatient with people who are dismissive of newspaper comments sections. Yes, I’m familiar with all of their downsides. But they also offer the potential — I emphasize — for something other than business as usual.

Joseph DeStefano headshot
Joseph N. DiStefano (Photo credit: Philadelphia Inquirer)

One local journalist who actually engages in meaningful conversation with online commenters is Joseph N. (Joe) DiStefano, the Inquirer’s longtime business columnist.

Here’s a great example:  His recent article on the Dupont chemical company. The article spawned a 148-comment thread (really!) with plenty of opinionated (and often well-informed) commenters joining in.

DiStefano was right there in the mix, posting more than a half-dozen comments of his own. Some were brief acknowledgements, but others were more substantive, like this one:

Good points, thanks. I would add tho that ‘elderly cousins’ on the DuPont board are outnumbered by sitting CEOs. From our distance, it looks like they were all for Kullman until a sub-3% activist investor began rallying pension and hedge funds to press for more. Then they were all for the Dow deal. Raises real questions about the efficacy of what passes for the gold standard in corporate governance.

I would draw 4 lessons from DiStefano’s example:

  1. Commenters respond to an engaged reporter. There is less baloney on a thread where people know the reporter is “watching.”
  2. Smart reporters know that they aren’t just writing for commenters, but for the larger audience of lurkers — both of whom may include potentially valuable sources for future articles.
  3. It’s OK for a reporter’s tone in comments sections to differ from the tone of a news story. They should be consistent, not identical.
  4. Good comments sections are built over time. They don’t start afresh with every new article. Good commenters will hold a reporter’s feet to the fire about stuff he or she screwed up months ago. And good reporters will know when to hold their tongues and listen.


A Moment of Optimism

17 Jan

It’s been a while since I checked in, and during that time we’ve had some interesting developments here in Philadelphia. One is a refreshingly bold — though quite risky — new step for our major newspapers, the Inquirer and the Daily News. The papers’ billionaire owner, Gerry Lenfest, has donated them to a new institute being housed at a local community foundation.

Photo credit: Wellcome Images. Used by permission under a CC-BY license (via Wikipedia)

Get a board member’s take on the new initiative. Relevant excerpt:

The basics of the rather complex transaction are these: The umbrella company for the news organizations, Philadelphia Media Network, was donated to a new nonprofit entity called the Institute for Journalism in New Media. The institute is under the auspices of the Philadelphia Foundation. With [Gerry] Lenfest’s $20 million gift as a kick-start, the institute will raise money from foundations, corporations, and individuals to support investigative and other public-service journalism and – ultimately, more important – to be a catalyst for transformation in the digital age.

It’s a creative effort that may or may not work to sustain the newspapers in the long term. But in my opinion, Lenfest & co deserve huge credit for acknowledging that “more of the same” (layoff, decrease quality of coverage, lose subscribers, repeat) was not going to do it, and actively brainstorming a potential solution.

Both papers have been through cycle after cycle of demoralizing layoffs. Aside from the human cost to employees, there has been a terrible cost to civic power. Community-minded citizens, gadflies, and the general public can’t hold elites accountable if we don’t know what they’re up to. Journalists are one of the few occupations that are actually paid to find out what powerful are doing with their money and influence, and tell the rest of us.

Let’s hope this is the first page of a chapter that sees greater investment in high-quality journalism for our city — especially the investigative kind.

(I’m also cautiously optimistic that the newly-revamped Philly.com website [now visually tolerable for the first time in years] may yet give birth to an effectively utilized commenting community. But that’s a topic for another post.)

What I love about Philadelphia

4 Jul
English: Fairmount Park near where Cresheim an...

English: Fairmount Park near where Cresheim and Wissahickon Creeks meet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love the Fourth of July. And I especially love living in the place where the United States was born. Philadelphia is a grand place to celebrate our birthday.

In honor of the Fourth, here are a few of the things I love about Philadelphia.

1. Walkability. Sure, there are some exceptions. But by and large, this is a very darn walkable city. And with new additions like Penn Park, it’s getting more pedestrian-friendly all the time.

2. Our whole park system. I’ll probably do a post on this someday, but for now I’ll just note that Fairmount Park is the largest city park system in the world. Bet you didn’t know that.

3. Neighborhoods. Yup, we’re a city of neighborhoods. If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a million times. But one of the things that actually means is that Philadelphia isn’t really a city of 1.5 million. Rather, it’s more like a series of small circles of 5,000 to 20,000 people. That can make our city feel a lot more homey (okay, or sometimes stifling) than it might seem at first glance.

4. The Mural Arts Program. I love being able to look up and see something creative rather than yet another casino ad. Of course not all the art is to my taste, but what is?

5. SEPTA. Seriously, it’s a phenomenally useful way to get around our city. There have been days when I went for not just the trifecta but the quad-fecta in using a trolley, regional rail, subway, and bus line.

6. Newspapers. I know I was hard on the DN and the Inquirer just a couple of days ago, but I rant because I care. And I’m very glad they’re out there fighting the good fight and documenting the good, the bad, and the nutty here in our city. So thanks Daily News, Inquirer, Al Dia, Tribune, and all the other voices trying hard to tell our region’s story.

I could add a whole lot more, but let me end here for now.  Happy Fourth, everyone. Be safe, peaceful, and kind to each other.

Cross your fingers

3 Jul

I feel scared to hope too much, but Philadelphia’s homicide numbers are down.

Like, really down:

Homicides in Philadelphia in 2013 are at the lowest midyear total in nearly half a century, police figures show, putting the city in reach of a modern-day low at year’s end.

As of Saturday, with two days left in the six-month period, police had recorded 115 homicides, a 38 percent drop from the same period last year.

This matters on so many levels, but most of all on the human level.

Because for every person who doesn’t die from gun violence, there is an entire family of people who don’t suffer.

That’s wonderful news on any day of the week. Let’s hope it continues.

You could be better, Philadelphia Inquirer

3 Jul

I really like good newspapering. I clip it and annotate it and save it and share it.  I have a soft spot for that shopworn Jefferson quotation (rather have newspapers without a government than the reverse). And I abhor bad journalists, because they do so much harm to the work of the good ones.

But today I’m writing about customer service. Which might seem a little crazy, except that…well, my hometown paper* is doing pretty dismally in that department.

Over the years, I’ve made an awful lot of reader suggestions to an awful lot of people at the paper, so at this point I don’t feel I’m talking out of school to complain.

Here are my top 5 customer frustrations:

1. Hassle. Promo codes that still require me to use an e-mail address to log in, Twitter links that go nowhere, constant expiration problems with story links (maddening to send a link to someone and have the article vanish an hour later).

2. Confusion. Is the Inquirer part of Philly.com or not? They say no, but virtually all of the content on Philly.com is branded with an Inquirer (or Daily News) byline. If you click on a paywalled link at Inquirer.com, half the time it bounces you to a free version of the same article at Philly.com. As a reader, I would love to vote with my feet and not patronize Philly.com…except:

3. Pricing. It’s boggling to me that a digital-only subscription costs two and a half times as much as digital-and-print bundle — $6.44/week compared to $2.50/week.

I have to assume that’s because print advertisers are still willing to pay for my eyes, but it still grates. I travel too much to want a Sunday paper delivery — it would just sit there, advertising my empty house.

Plus, $300+ a year is a LOT of money. (So is $100+ a year, but it’s a bit closer to being within reach.)

Which brings me to:

4. Lack of creativity. Why not offer a menu of subscription options such as being able to subscribe to a specific reporter, beat, or story? (I bet a lot of people would have paid $5 to have every update on the building collapse sent directly to them for that week when we were all glued to the story.)

There are a million ways the company could be creative about how they package and distribute their excellent journalism. I wish they’d try just two or three of them.

5. Competence. Their Twitter handle is @PhillyInquirer…but they don’t even pony up the $20 a year or whatever it would cost to buy the PhillyInquirer.com domain and use it as a redirect.

Sure, it’s a petty point — but it’s symptomatic of the larger issues.

The name of this blog is Better PHL. So come on, my city: Be better!

*I love ya, Daily News, but sorry.

RIP, Congressman William H. Gray III

2 Jul

Former Representative Bill Gray died this week.

There have been many thoughtful obituaries and I expect there will be many more (services to be held next week at his church, Bright Hope).

I wanted to highlight just one thing that I hadn’t known about Representative Gray:30th Street Station interior

Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke called Gray “one of the most significant figures in Philadelphia politics” in a released statement.

“From advocating for Philadelphia’s fair share of federal dollars to fighting against the injustice of apartheid in South Africa, Congressman Gray’s mark cannot be erased,” Clarke said.

He helped make the renovation of 30th Street Station possible, and the sight of that magnificent structure should give us all reason to be thankful for his service.”

30th Street Station interior waiting room

It really is magnificent. One of my favorite buildings in all of Philadelphia.

Thank you, Rep. Gray.

Photos by Flickr users techfun (top) and dbaron. Used by permission under a Creative Commons license.

People you should know: Solomon Jones (second in a series)

23 Jun
Solomon Jones headshot

Solomon Jones

Solomon Jones is a multimedia editor and writer for Axis Philly and WHYY’s NewsWorks site.

Learn more about Axis Philly and his work in this terrific Loraine Ballard Morrill radio interview.

I’ve posted links to Jones’s work here before. Most recently, he’s been doing projects for Axis Philly on the School District.

Below is a video he put together from their recent forum on the closing of Bok High School.

For NewsWorks, he writes a regular column that often focuses on people helping to build a better and more caring community. His latest column advises fathers to fight for the opportunity to be present in their children’s lives.

One of the things I most appreciate about Jones is that he hasn’t forgotten his roots. That could mean a lot of things, but in this case it means keeping in mind that many Philadelphians have pretty tough lives.Dead Man's Wife book cover

Jones himself survived tough times, including homelessness and addiction. You can read more about his remarkable personal story in this NPR interview.

Today, he teaches a creative writing class called Words on the Street for parents and teens. It’s offered through the Schoool District’s Parent University program.

He’s also a novelist. Interestingly, he created a video trailer for his latest mystery/thriller novel, The Dead Man’s Wife.

Watch the trailer:

Probably the easiest way to stay up-to-date with Jones’s myriad activities to make Philadelphia better is to follow him on Twitter. I recommend it.

Getting things right

22 Jun

Sister Cities Park - credit via CC license Plan Philly:Eyes on the Street

I had the pleasure recently of spending some time in Sister Cities Park. It’s a lovely little alcove tucked to the side of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway near Race Street, a couple of blocks from the main branch of the Free Library.

I admit to having been a skeptic about the park. I thought it was a waste of money because its chances of being used were limited by its location in a pedestrian dead zone.

I am happy to have been completely wrong. Every time I have been in the park it is being used by delighted visitors. And it still looks beautiful.

Photo credit: Plan Philly/Eyes on the Street. Used by permission under a Creative Commons license.

Putting your mouth where the money is(n’t)

21 Jun

Four activists in Philadelphia are on Day Five of a hunger strike in support of funding for our public schools.

The mind boggles.

I hope they are getting good support and taking care of themselves, and that they stop when they need to.

(In case you haven’t been following the story, the city and state are currently in a massive showdown over hundreds of millions of dollars that’s being slashed from the district’s ~$3 billion budget. To call the situation catastrophic is probably not that far off. )