Looking at where snow is and isn’t plowed on Philly streets reveals where public spaces could be created

One astute observer looks at snow plow patterns on Philadelphia streets and shows how spaces where snow is not plowed could become more public space:

If you haven’t heard of a “sneckdown” yet, it’s a clever combination of “snow” and “neckdown”—another name for a curb expansion—that uses snow formations on the street to reveal the space cars don’t use. Advocates can then use these sneckdown photos to make the case to local transportation officials that traffic-calming interventions like curb bump-outs and traffic islands can be installed without any loss to car drivers.

One of the areas of Philadelphia with the best opportunities for pedestrian plazas is East Passyunk Avenue, which crosses the street grid at a diagonal, creating lots of triangular intersections. I thought the snow would provide some good examples to help you visualize what I’m talking about, so I headed over there to take some sneckdown photos. And to my delight, the snow revealed some awesome traffic calming ideas I hadn’t considered.

At the intersection of 6th and Passyunk and Christian, near the excellent Shot Tower Coffee, there is a triangular plot of land that I always thought would make a great public plaza, but there’s a “for sale” sign there now, indicating it will probably become housing.

The city’s choice to allocate the public right of way around this triangle to curb parking for cars means the parcel is smaller than it could be, but even so, the snow formation shows it could be larger even without taking away parking. Try to imagine how much more sidewalk there could be if not for the curb parking around the island though:

Very thorough. This is a clever use of observational data: snow plowing makes the point that not all space on streets and roads is regularly used by cars. How might this space be used differently if it is not required as part of the road?

I wonder how much of this has to do with standards for road construction, whether in the past or today. For example, in Suburban Nation several New Urbanists argue that most road standards today are way too wide which then encourages faster driving and limits sidewalks and public space. They also suggest that we make choices as a society about how we want roads to function: are they there to maximize vehicle efficiency and speed or are they streetscapes that can help cultivate social and civic life (which usually means toning down the emphasis on vehicles)?

Why the UN is in New York CIty, not suburban Connecticut, San Francisco, Philadelphia, or the Black Hills

I recently read Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations by Charlene Mires. The story of how the United Nations ended up on the East River in New York City in the late 1940s is a pretty interesting tale and I will summarize who was in the running.

1. The Black Hills. From the beginning of the UN process involving multiple conferences and committees, the Black Hills tried to attract the United Nations. This was primarily through the efforts of one persistent booster. The argument was that the location represented a new frontier near the geographic center of the United States with plenty of room for a headquarters.

2. San Francisco. The city successfully hosted the 1945 UN San Francisco Conference and represented a world shift toward the Pacific. In the end, the city was eliminated from the running rather early on because delegates from Europe refused to travel that far.

3. Suburban Connecticut. After focusing on the American East Coast, suburban New York, particularly in Westchester County or near Greenwich, Connecticut was the primary option. UN members did not want to be located in New York City, partly because of a lack of connection with nature and partly because of an interest in building a whole new United Nations city. At one point, the UN had plans developed for several plots of land that would involve tens of square miles for this new city. However, NIMBY concerns from suburban residents put these plans to rest: suburbanites were worried the international organization would disturb their idyllic communities.

4. With the New York suburbs essentially taking themselves out of the running, Philadelphia emerged as a viable option. The city made their pitch as the birthplace of modern liberty. The UN was concerned about corruption in the city. As they wondered if Philadelphia would be possible…

5. New York emerged as the winner after the Rockefeller family put together a deal for land to be offered to the UN on the East River (the current site). While New York wouldn’t allow a large city within a city development, there was enough land for a large building and delegates could take advantage of Manhattan’s amenities. As the UN was deciding on its permanent home, they had been temporarily located on Long Island but the facilities were located near eyesores and the commute was too much for many participants.

To me, the most interesting part of the story was the competition and fervor of boosters from around the United States. Dozens of communities lobbied the United Nations – though some had many more resources than others and only few had realistic chances from the beginning. They envisioned the United Nations providing status as well as economic opportunities.

If New York City suburbanites hadn’t lobbied against the headquarters, we might today know a UN city located 20-50 miles outside of Manhattan. But, of course, it seems natural today that the UN is located in the #1 global city.

“Being White in Philly”

Philadelphia magazine recently published a piece titled “Being White in Philly.” Here is the argument of the article:

I’ve shared my view of North Broad Street with people—white friends and colleagues—who see something else there: New buildings. Progress. Gentrification. They’re sunny about the area around Temple. I think they’re blind, that they’ve stopped looking. Indeed, I’ve begun to think that most white people stopped looking around at large segments of our city, at our poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods, a long time ago. One of the reasons, plainly put, is queasiness over race. Many of those neighborhoods are predominantly African-American. And if you’re white, you don’t merely avoid them—you do your best to erase them from your thoughts.

At the same time, white Philadelphians think a great deal about race. Begin to talk to people, and it’s clear it’s a dominant motif in and around our city. Everyone seems to have a story, often an uncomfortable story, about how white and black people relate…

Fifty years after the height of the civil rights movement, more than 25 years after electing its first African-American mayor, Philadelphia remains a largely segregated city, with uneasy boundaries in culture and understanding. And also in well-being. There is a black middle class, certainly, and blacks are well-represented in our power structure, but there remains a vast and seemingly permanent black underclass. Thirty-one percent of Philadelphia’s more than 600,000 black residents live below the poverty line. Blacks are more likely than whites to be victims of a crime or commit one, to drop out of school and to be unemployed.

What gets examined publicly about race is generally one-dimensional, looked at almost exclusively from the perspective of people of color. Of course, it is black people who have faced generations of discrimination and who deal with it still. But our public discourse ignores the fact that race—particularly in a place like Philadelphia—is also an issue for white people. Though white people never talk about it.

Everyone might have a race story, but few whites risk the third-rail danger of speaking publicly about race, given the long, troubled history of race relations in this country and even more so in this city. Race is only talked about in a sanitized form, when it’s talked about at all, with actual thoughts and feelings buried, which only ups the ante. Race remains the elephant in the room, even on the absurd level of who holds the door to enter a convenience store.

My first thought after quickly reading through the article was that the writer ignores the privileged positions of whites vis a vis minorities in Philadelphia and the United States. Part of what makes it difficult for whites to talk about race is they then have to acknowledge that currently and historically whites have been advantaged and don’t face the same kind of discrimination that blacks and others have faced. Without being willing to tackle these power dynamics and the larger structural inequalities at hand, it is difficult to have a conversation.

Thursday Night Football logo takes over Philadelphia skyline

While watching a bit of the match-up last night featuring the Cincinnati Bengals at the Philadelphia Eagles, I saw this image where the Thursday Night Football takes over the Philadelphia skyline:

Sports broadcasts have been using this technique for at least a few years now. I first noticed it on Fox NFL broadcasts. They will often put fake video boards at different points around the stadium and then show the Fox logo or advertisements on this fake board before panning back to the field and game action. The NBA on TNT also uses this quite a bit though I’ve noticed they tend to use the same settings when in certain cities. For example, when they do Bulls home games, the same location is used: the camera, probably mounted on a tall building, looks southeast from Wolf Point with the fake video board mounted on the first bridge, Lake Street, on the South Branch of the Chicago River. Imagine if the board in Chicago moved around a bit: there it is popping out of the trees in Grant Park. There it is on the top of the John Hancock building. There it is on Navy Pier blocking the view of the Ferris Wheel.

However, these examples feature fake video screens built on existing structures while this Thursday Night Football segue involved a giant logo attached to two buildings on the Philadelphia skyline. In my opinion, this stretches the idea a little too far. It doesn’t look very realistic and even among big buildings it looks disproportionately large. At the same time, perhaps it is meant to be commentary about the power of the NFL: it is so big that it dominates the skyline of a major American city!

Do real sports fans live in the big cities like Philadelphia and not in the suburbs?

A columnist suggests true Philadelphia sports fans live in the city, not the suburbs:

With all due respect to my McMansion-dwelling friends in the bucolic suburbs, there are no Abington Eagles. No Bryn Mawr Flyers. No Drexel Hill Phillies. No Tinecum Township Sixers. These teams all belong to Philadelphia, because we’ve got the grit to handle it…

That’s why, my suburban friend, your blues ain’t like mine.

Sure, you might eat the cheesesteaks and scrapple while rooting for the Sixers and Flyers. But when the Phillies flame out with top-flight pitching or the Eagles lose their fourth NFC Championship, you get to go home and wash your hands of it all. You get to name some quaint suburb when people ask where you live. Me? I have to say I live in Philadelphia, and deal with the laughter of our rivals...

Today, however, it’s not about city versus suburbs, because this week, we’re all Philadelphians. Sure, the Phillies of old have returned; they’re eliminated from playoff contention. But with one quarter of the season over, the Eagles sit atop their division with a 3-1 record. That gives all of us hope … for now.

Don’t worry, though. They’ll do something silly and embarrass us again before long. When they do, my suburban friends, you can do something I just can’t. You can put down your cheesesteak, take off your jersey and tell everyone you’re from Abington.

On one hand, give me a break: aren’t there plenty of suburbanites who are crazy fans? Would the major teams in Philadelphia even be there if there weren’t the suburban fans who also buy tickets and merchandise?

On the other hand, perhaps there is something to this. Perhaps sports teams really are just a hobby for those who live in nicer suburbs. If their teams don’t do well, life isn’t too bad as they likely still have a decent job, a place to live, and a family. (Remember, we are dealing with broad stereotypes here.) In comparison, those in the city may not have as much to fall back on.

On the whole, I’m inclined to dismiss this argument as more unnecessary city versus suburbs, grit versus facade, posturing. Unfortunately, sports fans are often known for such posturing…

Philadelphia fighting food deserts through fresh fruits and vegetables at corner stores

Philadelphia is launching a new initiative to fight food deserts through existing corner stores:

The $900,000 investment in better health depends on apples and oranges, chips and candy, $1,200 fridges and green plastic baskets. The results could steer the course of American food policy.

Philadelphia is trying to turn corner stores into greengrocers. For a small shop, it’s a risky business proposition. Vegetables have a limited shelf life, so a store owner must know how much will sell quickly — or watch profits rot away. He also lacks the buying power of large supermarkets and is often unable to meet the minimum orders required by the cheaper wholesalers that grocery stores use.

With shelf space at a premium, shop owners must pick and choose the products they think will sell best. Chips and candy and soda are a sure bet. Eggplant? It’s hard to know…

The city has recruited 632 corner stores — of 2,500 overall — to its Get Healthy Philly initiative. Of those, 122 have gotten more intensive support, been supplied with new fridges to store produce and connected with wholesalers from whom they can buy at lower prices. It is also working with schools to improve nutrition and helping neighborhoods launch farmers markets, a multifaceted approach officials hope will improve public health.

As the article suggests, there is a lot riding on this project. It will be interesting to see if this could (1) substantively help improve health and (2) be profitable.

The advantage here seems to be that the stores are already established in neighborhoods and probably already have an established clientele. This program then puts healthier food in front of people who may already be visiting these stores. Working with existing infrastructure sounds like it would be more effective as well as cheaper in the long run.

Joliet Correctional Prison may become a tourist site?

One journalist suggests the Joliet Correctional Prison, closed since 2002, may have a future as a tourist destination after a prison in Philadelphia has become a hotspot:

Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829 on a former cherry orchard and housed prison escape artist “Slick Willie” Sutton and Al Capone. The pen closed in 1971 and has been recast into one of the most popular tourist attractions in Philadelphia. Visitors wander through a frozen ruin of crumbling cell blocks, vacant exercise yards, a lonley Death Row and the prison surveillance hub. The joint reopened for public tours in 1994 and is now billed as “America’s Most Historic Prison.”…

“But Alcatraz led the way. The federal government didn’t want to open it up but they did and people kept coming. The same thing is true here, where people keep coming and we really haven’t reached our peak.” In 1994’s first year, 10,450 people toured Eastern State. There were 249,289 visitors in 2010…

Representatives from the City of Joliet have visited Eastern State to research the possibility of making the Joliet prison a similar tourist attraction. After all, the 1-year-old Independent League baseball team in Joliet is called the Slammers. “The prison has become quite a tourist attraction for us on Route 66,” said Ben Benson, director of marketing and communications for the City of Joliet…

“The City of Joliet is interested in acquiring the property but financial resources are not what they used to be,” Benson said.”We’re doing a full study on potential uses of the site. With a grant from a different division of the state, we have added about a dozen tourist kiosks because so many people come by because of the Blues Brothers lore. We had a Blues Brothers band come out and cover their songs on a stage set up in front of the prison. We look at it as our Alcatraz.

I wonder what sociologists might say explains why Americans like visiting prisons: they like violence? They are interested in criminals? They think prison culture is intriguing? Something that Alcatraz and this Philadelphia prison seem to share in common is having some celebrity prisoners that people know about. Prison escape stories seem pretty popular, particularly if the escapees have to try to escape through shark-infested waters.

From a local perspective, I suppose you have to promote whatever possible tourist attractions you might have. It would be interesting to see if people from the Chicago region would be willing to go to Joliet just for a prison. (And perhaps a trip to the casino afterward?) Note: the Joliet Correctional Prison is not the same as Stateville Prison which has been featured in movies like The Blues Brothers  and Natural Born Killers.

I haven’t visited this Philadelphia prison but I have been to Alcatraz. I can see why this place is appealing: it sits in the middle of the bay (hence its nickname “The Rock”), numerous Hollywood movies have been made about it, and it has an intriguing history including a number of famous prisoners and a AIM takeover in the early 1970s. The audio tour they have is also quite good. Here are a few shots:

It also doesn’t hurt to have the ability to sell movie posters with famous movie stars on them in your prison gift shop:

Perhaps prison tourism is the wave of the future in Joliet.

When you don’t like a teardown home, call it a McMansion

A local official in the Philadelphia suburbs writes about a Lower Merion site where a notable older home was torn down and now a home home is being constructed. What is interesting here is how the official describes how preservationists are using the term “McMansion” as part of their criticism of the new house:

Those who criticize the Kestenbaum residence built in La Ronda’s place are trying to deflect blame for their own failure over many years. Their use of terms such as “McMansion,” “McMonstrosity,” and “cookie cutter” demonstrates ignorance of what Kestenbaum is actually building.

I have toured the construction site and can report that Kestenbaum is building a home befitting the historic traditions of craftsmanship and old-world elegance that are hallmarks of the Main Line estates of yesteryear. The home is made of hand-chiseled stone, with extensive masonry work and important architectural details throughout.

The home bears no resemblance to the cookie-cutter McMansions found in expensive tract housing elsewhere in the Philadelphia region. To so characterize the Kestenbaum residence is insulting, incendiary, and ignorant.

I have met the neighbors of the new Kestenbaum home. I have spoken to property owners with a real interest in what happens in their community and their neighborhood. Their reaction to the new construction is consistent with what I have reported. The responses of so-called neighbors described recently in The Inquirer are in fact those of a few preservationists who are continuing to pursue their one-sided agenda, regardless of whom they hurt in the process or what falsehoods they promote.

It seems that the use of the term “McMansion” is quite effective here, hence the response from this local official. The term suggests that the new home is a “cookie-cutter” home lacking in appropriate architecture. Compared to the older home that was on the site (and you can read a bit more about it here), preservationists see the new home as a travesty (see an example here). Overall, this new home is likely quite different than the suburban McMansions that one might expect to find not too far away. But by using this pejorative term in a teardown situation (an older home replaced with a newer home), preservationists have tied this new home, however nice it may be, to negative images of the exurbs.

This story also provides an example of questions that pop up in communities throughout the United States: what exactly should be done with older homes, particularly well-designed estates?

Quick Review: The Cosmopolitan Canopy

While I have already written some about Elijah Anderson’s new book The Cosmopolitan Canopy (here and here), I had a chance to read the book for myself and I have a few thoughts.

1. The book is supposedly about the public spaces in Philadelphia (and other big cities) where people of different races and social classes can mingle and interact without the difficulties that race and social class can often impose. Interestingly, this isn’t really the focus of the whole book (more on this shortly). But in this section, I thought some of the analysis was thin. It is clear that Anderson has spent a lot of time in some of these spaces, such as the Reading Terminal Market. I don’t doubt his observations but others have written before about public spaces and how they operate.

1a. Thinking about this, I would enjoy seeing some work on this in suburban settings. Since this is where most Americans now live, how do public spaces in the suburbs operate?

2. The strongest part of the book, in my opinion, was the latter half when Anderson focuses more on the experiences of black males in these canopies and elsewhere. Here, Anderson provides a lot of insight into how race still is a master status, even within high-powered workplaces. His examples are interesting, including settings like law firms and upper-end restaurants, and he has some insights into how race still has a profound impact on everyday interaction. This section reminded me of Anderson’s extended story of John Turner in Code of the Street where the ethnographic data really tells us about the current state of American race.

2a. It would also be interesting to get the stories of the whites involved in these examples.

3. The emphasis of the book is Philadelphia but I would have enjoyed reading about the flavor of this particular city opposed to other large cities. Would cosmopolitan canopies work the same in other places? Does the interaction depend on the mix of groups and races? What happens in newer large cities where there may be fewer public spaces and established neighborhoods? Are spaces like Rittenhouse Square or The Gallery unique or similar to other spaces?

On the whole, I think Anderson contributes to our knowledge by exploring how race still matters in American lives today. The part about cosmopolitan canopies is intriguing but could be better developed.

Elijah Anderson on “the cosmopolitan canopy”

Sociologist Elijah Anderson, well-known for his books Code of the Street and Streetwise, talks about the idea of “the cosmopolitan canopy” (which is the title of his just-released book)

Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson writes about those parts of the American city that allow “complete strangers to observe and appreciate one another” across racial barriers. Anderson calls these spaces “cosmopolitan canopies,” and says they let ordinary people become amateur anthropologists, watching and, eventually, reaching out to people of whom they’d be more wary in other places. His broader question: can we encourage the growth of cosmopolitan canopies? Or do they only grow from the bottom up?…

Why do cosmopolitan canopies like Reading Terminal [in Philadelphia]work? (Anderson points to many others: parks, transportation hubs, sports stadiums, even the Whole Foods.) These are safe spaces, separate from the street, made warm and intimate by a shared experience — food, shopping, travel, cheering on a team. But there’s also an intangible ingredient: a mood, Anderson writes, of “civility” that allows people “to stretch themselves mentally, emotionally, and socially,” and to develop “the growing social sophistication that allows diverse urban people to get along.” Because they’re so hard to replicate, Anderson argues, they ought to be treasured and protected — and those of us who enjoy them ought to treat them “not as ‘time out’ from normal life but as a model for what social relationships could become.” That’s how cosmopolitanism spreads.

I may have to check out this book if only for Anderson’s thoughts on the Reading Terminal Market: I have been to this central Philadelphia location several times and it is indeed an interesting place. Between the mix of people and the various food offerings, it is a great place to people watch.

But I guess I will have to read the book to find out whether Anderson thinks the openness of such places is only available to regulars (as this article hints) or whether tourists and sporadic visitors can also participate in this different kind of place. Also, I would be interested in Anderson’s thoughts regarding whether these sorts of spaces can be intentionally constructed and whether these spaces are different when they are privately owned (this would get at some of the debates in sociology over “public spaces”).