From the archives: Hide and seek

Originally published here on June 27, 2019.

The idea of ruins — archaeological, architectural, cultural, even psychological — lies at the center of Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City, published in November 2017 by Temple University Press; it’s a philosophical meditation masquerading as a coffee table book.

A handsome book it is, too. Photographer Joseph E.B. Elliott provides contemplative perspectives on a variety of public, semi-public, and commercial spaces in Philadelphia, many of them off-limits to the casual flâneur in the City of Brotherly Love; the accompanying text, by Nathaniel Popkin and Peter Woodall, eschews a straightforwardly historical approach by considering the relationships between these spaces, their history, and their current uses and disuses.

Most books of Philadelphia history like this, boasting glamorous and unpeopled photographs of interiors and restored exteriors, concentrate on the colonial and early national eras of the 18th and early 19th century. The Hidden City authors turn their attention instead to the later 19th and early 20th centuries, finding the objects of their contemplation in churches both formal and informal; sewers and abandoned subway stations; municipal buildings, some like Philadelphia’s City Hall still abuzz with activity and some like Germantown’s  Town Hall in disuse; and prisons like Eastern State and Graterford, designed on the long-abandoned idea of the panopticon as a means of moral punishment.

The “ruin” in this book, though, is considered less as an attractive fragment than as a living object with a life of its own. “For Philadelphia seems to possess an exceptionally large number of places that have disappeared elsewhere — workshops and small factories, sporting clubs and societies, synagogues and theaters and railroad lines — like endangered species that have managed to stay alive in some remote forest or swamp,” Popkin and Woodall muse. Among the more telling passages are a visit to the remains of the International Peace Movement community that Bible-thumper Father Divine founded, along with the Divine Lorraine Hotel on North Broad Street; the Church of the Gesú, site of a depressing and violent civil rights controversy in the 1940s; and a peek into the John Stortz and Son tool factory, founded in 1853 in Philadelphia’s Old City and, somewhat miraculously in this day and age, still flourishing and providing employment to machine workers and small craftsmen. An additional pleasure of the book is a long-overdue consideration of the monumental contributions that people of color and women made to the economic and cultural life of the city over the past 150 years.

As Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City peels back the layers of the past, it reveals more than ruins of buildings; it also reveals the ruins of certain habits of mind, of shared community values, reminders of the stresses and anxieties that made and continue to make Philadelphia a unique place in the world. Film directors like Terry Gilliam and David Lynch turned some of these same settings into nightmares, but that didn’t do them justice. The book gives them a new and glowing life. Every city has a different flavor, hard to define precisely and, because cities are always changing, always provisional. Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City is an essential bridge between past and present. Sure, it belongs on your coffee table. But make sure to read it, too.

NOTE: The book is the product of the ongoing Hidden City Philadelphia project; you can find its website here.

One for my baby, the piano solo way

Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely (1958) is one of the Chairman’s finest albums, as he himself admitted, and the 1943 Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer song “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” is among the highlights of the album. Since then it’s been recognized as one of the masterpieces of the Great American Songbook, and certainly one of Sinatra’s.

The version arranged by the great Nelson Riddle for orchestra and solo piano is the version that’s justly entered the pantheon, but in some ways I very much prefer the version below, a rehearsal performance recorded on June 24, 1958, a day before Sinatra and Riddle laid down the track for the album itself. This recording was discovered in 1990 by Ron Furmanek as he was compiling the three-CD collection The Capitol Years, and to my knowledge has not had the reach of the album recording. With only pianist Bill Miller accompanying him, Sinatra achieves a closer intimacy with the listener, the bartender to whom the woozy, half-inebriated singer is disclosing his woes; in this rendition, the song becomes a pained epiphany about the transience of all things, not just a lost love, and the two bars of “You gotta be true to your code” insist upon the value of stoicism and individual integrity in the face of that transience — far more simply and effectively, I think, than the later anthem “My Way.”

Perhaps you’ll agree. In any case, check it out.

Thumbs up

I’m delighted to report that my wife Marilyn Nonken‘s album of music by Scott Joplin and his collaborators, Syncopated Musings from Divine Art, is beginning to garner attention, and not just because I wrote the album notes. (Marilyn will be playing some of these rags — along with a few surprises — in June at the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival in Sedalia, MO. A few years ago I wrote about the peculiar role of Sedalia and Hannibal in American culture.)

Joplin biographer and ragtime authority Edward A. Berlin‘s review appears in the new issue of Syncopated Times, and he’s got nothing but good things to say. Quoth Mr. Berlin:

Classical artists may differentiate and personalize their performances with subtleties, highlighting features that might otherwise go unnoticed, using touch and dynamics to separate distinctive lines and to adjust expressiveness. Nonken follows these principles and excels in their execution; her playing is always ultra clean, precise, and well considered. …

Most classical pianists whose Joplin performances I’ve heard play [“Stoptime Rag”] slightly percussively; Nonken plays it generally legato, and in the final strain presents an even smoother legato that’s both unexpected and delicious. …

Not all classical pianists who perform Joplin’s music produce a satisfactory result. I’ve heard recordings and live performances in which the pianist, taking to an extreme Joplin’s caution against playing ragtime fast, ignore its dance music function and adopt a dirge-like tempo that destroys its toe-tapping nature. Others play it with the bombast of a late Romantic piano concerto, a course that overwhelms the music. Nonken joins the group of classicists who understand the character of ragtime and have the skill and temperament to enhance it in performance. I expect that Joplin would have been thrilled to hear Nonken play his music; I know that I am.

I’m not sure you can get much better than that. Berlin’s lengthy review, which also considers the provenance and performance practice of this music through the years, can be found here.

Below, a taste of the album (available on all major streaming platforms and on CD from Amazon) with Marilyn’s performance of the lovely “Reflection Rag”:

Bad news, worse news

American cities are getting to be pretty grim places, and Philadelphia is no exception according to the Pew Charitable Trusts’ 2022 “State of the City” report, just released yesterday. “Two years into the pandemic, Philadelphia is showing signs of an economic and public health recovery, yet some serious challenges remain,” runs the introduction, and boy, they ain’t kidding:

The pandemic interrupted a period of unprecedented growth for Philadelphia, but some harsher realities underlaid that success story. For example, before COVID-19, the city’s economy was expanding, with an impressive increase in total jobs. However, those employment gains were not equally distributed. Opportunities for city residents tended to be low-wage positions in low-paying sectors of the economy; as a result, wages for Philadelphians working in the city declined by 5% over almost a decade. The loss of jobs from the pandemic, concentrated in lower-wage sectors such as the retail and leisure and hospitality sectors, had a disproportionate impact on city workers in those positions — especially Black and female workers.

And in recent months, safety remained a major concern for Philadelphians, threatening all aspects of Philadelphia’s return to pre-pandemic life. In a 2022 poll by The Pew Charitable Trusts, 70% of residents cited the combination of crime, drugs, and public safety as the biggest issue facing the city. At the center of this challenge is gun violence, which rose throughout the country in 2021, with Philadelphia alone reporting 2,326 shootings that year. Despite a slight decrease in total violent crime in the city, gun violence soared — including a 28% increase in robberies with a firearm in the past year.

In addition, the number of homicides in Philadelphia has been rising each year for the past eight years; in 2021, it reached 562, a historic high — and more than double the number recorded in 2013.

On the other hand, the Phils are still second from the basement in the NL East ten games into the season. So there’s nowhere to go but up (except last place itself).

Read more about the Pew report here.

Say hello to Blob

“Do I have to become a Philadelphia Stars fan because of this exceedingly stupid mascot? The answer is not no”: Welcome, Blob

While I was in Philadelphia this past weekend, the big sports news, apart from the launch of another disastrous season for the Phillies, was the debut of Blob, the mascot of the Philadelphia Stars, the new United States Football League soccer team. The unlikely name, chosen via an online poll a la that for Boaty McBoatface, does seem appropriate: Those narcoleptic drooping eyelids and insipid slackjawed smile over a pile of red velour protoplasm suggest a vaguely disconcerting oversized globule of apathy. Not that Philadelphians themselves will have a chance to see Blob meandering around the field in a marijuana-induced haze any time soon; all of the eight games the Stars will play this season will take place in Birmingham, Alabama. The excellent Billy Penn web site has the whole story.

Sports mascots have had a pretty ambivalent history in Philadelphia since the introduction of the Phillie Phanatic at Veterans Stadium in 1978 to attract more children and families to home games; unlike the cheery, coked-up, but kid-friendly Mr. Met, there’s something disturbing about all of them. The frantic, oversized green Big Bird mutant, for all his appeal to youngsters, has been called “the most-sued mascot in the majors,” having been dragged into court several times on personal injury charges, leading the Philadelphia Daily News to dub it the “big green litigation machine” in 2010. Once memorably described as “the mascot version of a stab wound,” Gritty, the mascot of the Philadelphia Flyers, is just as frantic as the Phanatic, but exhibits more than a touch of a bug-eyed, amphetamine-fuelled sociopath as well, and I have no doubt he’ll also end up in a courtroom sometime soon.

All sports mascots have a bit of the stupid in them, and in a way the Phanatic, Gritty, and now Blob — together the cast of a nightmarish acid trip — are allowing Philadelphians to provide something of a metacommentary on that stupidity. By christening Blob with his weird name and embracing the psychotic antics of Gritty, Philly sports fans indulge in a little comic hostility to the whole idea of giant furries traipsing about a stadium, getting in the way of the game and generally wreaking dumb havoc.

You can keep your Mr. Met. I’ll throw my lot in with the sociopaths and Philadelphians. As the Billy Penn reporter concludes, “All hail Blob. Go Stars!”