Archive | June, 2013

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.

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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. )

Together but separate

18 Jun

Earlier this year Philadelphia suffered an unnecessary punch to the gut when a local magazine decided to publish An Article About Race. Regardless of how well-intentioned some of the parties may have been,* the resulting piece set off a firestorm.

*Emphasize either the “some” or the “may” in this sentence, as you prefer.

I won’t use up your time recapping the events here; there is plenty written elsewhere. I mention it only because one of the outcomes was this: Several (well, at least two) African-American writers are now working as bloggers for the Philly Post.

Sandy Smith is one of those bloggers, and one of his recent columns caught my eye:

Recently, a white friend of mine who lives up my way wanted to bend my ear about personal stuff and invited me to meet him at a popular Mt. Airy bar.

When I walked into McMenamin’s, I recognized a scene that was very Mt. Airy: About half the patrons in the bar were black and half were white, and everyone was enjoying themselves.

My friend recognized something else. He pointed out to me that the two groups of patrons, while in the same space, weren’t really interacting with the other.

Rather, they were enjoying themselves separately together. Ours was the only interracial dialogue in the room….

And that’s a shame.

How much better would this city be, how much safer, how much more pleasant, if we regularly crossed those dividing lines with others around us?

I like that Smith includes safer. It always amazes me how fearful many Philadelphians are about traveling outside their comfort zones, either geographically or figuratively.

Of course, some people have good reason to be fearful: If they’ve been assaulted or harassed for being where they “don’t belong,” it can feel safer and easier to stay away from those spaces.

But for many people, the big fear seems simply to be — well, for lack of a better word, awkwardness. They don’t want to feel out of place; they don’t want to be noticeable.

And — especially among white people — they don’t want their race/ethnicity to be marked. They’re accustomed to the luxury of not having their race be noted, and they feel weird when it is.

Smith continues:

I’m particularly sensitive to this subject because I’ve straddled those dividing lines all my life as part of the first generation of African-Americans who could truly grow up integrated if they—or their families—so chose….

I’ve since learned that this sort of straddling, while perhaps common in the world of work, remains rare in the social sphere. And those who try, find it a challenge to achieve.

I suspect part of the reason it’s a challenge is that it takes more than a single person to do it. And our society can be pretty serious about policing the boundaries when anyone tries to step outside — even in as minimal a way as having a drink at your local watering hole.

Recording school history

17 Jun

Philadelphia-based photographer Zoe Strauss is nationally recognized for her work illuminating moments from everyday life.

Now she and a group of other photographers have stepped forward to help document the massive, unprecedented wave of school closings here in our city.

The Notebook reports:

She is calling her project the Philadelphia School Closings Photo Collective.

After the School Reform Commission took action, “it suddenly seemed as if everything was going to close without being properly documented, that a school would be closed and no one was going to have a photographic record of it,” said Strauss….

Strauss has put out the call for other photographers to each choose one of the 24 schools slated to be shuttered and document its final days….

Strauss realizes that people in the schools are stressed and that District staff is concerned about their sensibilities. So is she, Strauss said. She understands that school is a “safe place for students and staff and this is a traumatic moment.”

She wants her photographers to “have a sense of what it means to go into a school at a time like this.”

Bok High School in 1937

Bok Technical High School in 1937. Photo: PhillyHistory.org

Strauss herself will document Bok Technical High School, in her South Philadelphia neighborhood. She calls it a “great building,” one that has seen generations of students learn trades.

“Some of these buildings will become condos, some will be torn down,” she said. “This is about the importance of archiving the spaces before they go.”

Photographers interested in collaborating on the project can request to join the Philadelphia School Closings Photo Collective Facebook group.

I wish it wasn’t necessary to do this, but I’m very glad someone is. When I look at photos on PhillyHistory.org and similar archives, I am often struck by the unrecognizability of many familiar buildings and neighborhoods.

Iconic images stay more or less the same over the years — City Hall will always be City Hall. But people don’t live in City Hall. We live in neighborhoods, and neighborhoods can change radically even in a short space of time.

Schools live in neighborhoods too. Chronicling the death of 24 schools is a modest but powerful way of affirming their role in the life of our city.

Photo credit: PhillyHistory.org, a project of the Philadelphia Department of Records.

Can a tech fix help neighbors deal with abandoned property?

16 Jun

A post at Axis Philly describes how 8 lots in Kensington failed to sell at a recent sheriff’s sale. Absolutely no one bid on them.

The folks at PhilaDelinquency have a handy how-to guide for getting a property in your neighborhood put onto the sheriff’s sale list

There’s also this very hands-on overview from Naked Philly.Axis Philly logo

Of course, both of these are focused on how to get a nuisance property listed for sheriff’s sale. They don’t deal with how you can buy a property, clean it up, and make it not a nuisance.

It seems to me the Sheriff’s Office ought to let people sign up for e-mail or text message alerts that tell them when a property in their neighborhood is up for sale.

It stands to reason that some of the people interested in buying and fixing up vacant land or abandoned houses already live in those neighborhoods.

Maybe they’re bothered by eyesore properties, or motivated by the hope that their own property values will increase if they clean up a dump. Whatever motivates them, we should capitalize on their energy — not squash it in a sea of confusing, opaque municipal processes.

It shouldn’t be too hard to set up the alerts. You can already get a Google News alert for a specific phrase and a Ready.gov alert for your municipality or county. This is a solvable problem.

Unfortunately, the technology part is the easy part.

As other reporting by Axis Philly reveals, the Sheriff’s Office apparently doesn’t have a functioning accounting system (?!?!)  and the city refuses to disclose how it sets the price of properties for sale.

So there are definitely municipal culture factors at work that go far beyond a simple technical fix.

Bad neighbors

14 Jun
Inga Saffron headshot

Inga Saffron (photo credit: Philadelphia Inquirer)

Philadelphia Inquirer architecture columnist Inga Saffron has quite a story. I’d call this aggressive negligence.

Once upon a time it was a stately Philadelphia townhouse…. Today the 19th Century building is a weed-choked wreck with bricks popping out of the facade.

Upper windows hang slack-jawed, like a drunk who just passed out. Graffiti dances across a side wall. A family of possums has colonized the interior.

It has been like this, neighbors say, for a good 15 years, perhaps longer. They’ve called building inspectors, signed petitions and corresponded with city officials – with little results.

Neighbors have even offered to buy the house from its owner, who currently owes $31,772 in back taxes.

Such tales of neglect and lax enforcement could be told about any number of blighted, vacant houses that litter the hardscrabble corners of Philadelphia. What distinguishes this one is that the property is located two blocks off Rittenhouse Square.

Read the whole thing.

This kind of neglect has consequences — not just for the neighbors who live on that block, but in promoting civic apathy.

If even rich, well-connected people can’t get an eyesore like this taken care of, what chance do the rest of us have?

(As an aside, kudos to Saffron for re-imagining her role as an architecture critic and practicing actual journalism. I don’t always agree with her, but I’m grateful for her legwork and effort.)