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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.

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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.

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.

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.)

Row by row

8 Jun
Did you know that Philadelphia’s Chinatown has the greatest amount of paved-over surface area in the city? I didn’t.

Now a group of young activists from Asian Americans United is working to transform a small triangle of land in Chinatown into a green space. (See photo for its current appearance.)
AAU garden lot

From AAU’s recent announcement:

In 2008, when youth in AAU’s Community Action Class surveyed the area around their school in Chinatown North, they found neglected vacant lots, illegal dumping, and little green space.

After succeeding in getting a lot next to the school cleaned up, permission to use the lot, and the fence fixed by the absentee land owner, AAU youth (with the indispensable help of adults) are now working to transform this vacant lot into a garden.

Every year, children and youth in our AAU Summer Program help build the garden – little by little, inch by inch. Last summer they built raised beds, planted butterfly habitat, made bird feeders, and grew and cooked with herbs.

I’ve recently been listening to some lectures on environmental psychology, and the research on greening is pretty interesting. One study found that hospital patients who had a view of something green (such as a tree) healed more quickly than those whose windows just looked out onto other buildings.

The AAU announcement continues:

In the words of our garden theme song: “Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow.”

Through AAU’s Summer Program and our Inch by Inch Garden, we teach children that making positive change takes persistence and hard work. But, together, we can make a difference in the world.

That’s a pretty good message, I think. (Emphasis mine.)

You can make a donation to support AAU’s garden work.

Here are some options:

___ $12 buys a dozen spring bulbs

___ $60 buys one fig tree

___ $100 buys four blueberry bushes

___ $200 buys lumber and supplies for four more raised beds

Listen to AAU member Dao Tran talk about her experience of being taken seriously as a 12-year-old activist back in 1987.

People you should know (First in a series)

4 Jun
W. Rockland Street photo

W. Rockland Street

I think this will end up being a long series. Although the posts themselves will not end up being long, necessarily.

Here are two people to know: Emaleigh and Ainé Doley. I mentioned Emaleigh before in the context of her anti-litter work for Axis Philly.

These sisters are the driving force behind the W. Rockland Street blog, which chronicles neighborly connections and neighborhood beautification on one block in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.

(For you locals, W. Rockland is between Greene Street and the 4800-4900 block of Germantown Ave. And if you’re not local, here’s a little info on Germantown.)

I have a soft spot for people who are working for a better Philadelphia, as may be obvious. Ainé and Emaleigh definitely fall into that category.

Some people call what they are doing “tactical urbanism.” For my money, it’s less important what you call it than that you do it. They certainly are.

Photo credit: W. Rockland Street blog.

Getting outside your neighborhood

1 May

Boys’ Latin Charter School in West Philadelphia is encouraging teenage boys to get outside their comfort zones and explore the city through ethnography.

Boys' Latin school logo

As the school’s co-founder and CEO explains:

Philadelphia is broken up into a bunch of small, ten-block radius towns, where nobody ventures beyond that area,” he said. “All these insular communities create opportunities for conflict whenever someone comes into that community. So we want to dispel the myth that it has to be that way, and we sent kids all over the place.”

In my experience, this is absolutely right — including among wealthy Philadelphians who may zip from Rittenhouse to the sports stadiums or to faraway cities, but rarely venture into the city’s other neighborhoods.

Kudos to the school and teacher for facilitating this intriguing learning experience.

Like any good social scientist, Marcus Smalls came away from his research with a better understanding of his own environment.

[Teacher Carly] Ackerman also urged her students to observe what goes on in their own homes. Smalls set up shop at the dining room table. […]

During his observations, said Smalls, he noticed for the first time just how busy his mom really is.

“She just loves to do work,” he said. “It made me look up to her. She inspired me, because she doesn’t let anything distract her.”

Overall, this is a lovely article. Check out the photos and audio at the NewsWorks site.

Quibbles: I wish the article didn’t typecast boys with its assumptions about quiet observation and Victoria’s Secret. And I have deep reservations about charter models that rely on young Teach for America grads, often with high turnover.