Ghost town

The Powel House at 244 South Third Street in Philadelphia.

As part of our mini-vacation in Philadelphia last week, we treated our girls to a twilight “Ghost Tour” of Olde City and Society Hill. A jovial guide led us around the narrow streets of these, among the oldest neighborhoods in Philadelphia, pointing out historical locations such as cemeteries where ghosts have been reported in the past. And, because this is Philadelphia, the guide was able to slip in some historical information as well, not only about the Powel House but also about public health in the 18th century (which was just as scary as any ghost story I can think of).

We didn’t see any ghosts on this tour, but I was reminded that the idea of ghosts, whether you believe in them or not, seems to be something encoded in the human consciousness. Ghosts are not merely spectres, a metaphor for our desire for an afterlife, but a metaphorical reminder that the past infuses the present. In Philadelphia, whether you’re on a ghost tour or not, you’re constantly reminded that you’re walking the same streets as generations past have walked, reaching back not merely to the Revolutionary War and the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but also to the Quaker community that founded Philadelphia upon a set of ideals that were the product of Reformation and finally Enlightenment thinking.

At about the same time as we were lollygagging around on the lush green lawn of Independence Mall last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an Evangelical Christian and conservative, unveiled a new “Commission on Unalienable Rights,” snatching up a phrase that was incorporated into the Declaration of Independence in 1776; he also appointed Mary Ann Glendon as the chair of that commission. Glendon is described by Politico as “a social conservative who has been a prominent anti-abortion voice, which could lend credence to the concerns among human rights activists that the commission is a ploy to undercut LGBTQ and women’s rights under the guise of religious liberty.” Somehow I doubt that Pompeo and Glendon ordered up Simone Weil’s study of rights and obligations, The Need for Roots, during Amazon Prime Day.

In announcing the commission, Pompeo said something that gave me considerable pause. “Is it in fact true, as our Declaration of Independence asserts,” he said, “that as human beings we — all of us, every member of our human family — are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights?” It may be that the commission was established merely as a rhetorical platform through which the U.S. can condemn the human rights abuses of other countries. But it also sounds like the commission is seeking, one way or another, to define what those rights are: to legitimize some claims to a political right (say, to gun ownership and the inviolability of private property) and delegitimize others (say, to abortion, free expression of speech and religion, and the ability to define one’s own sexual and gender definition, and hence one’s own inmost identity and conscience).

Shelves of books have been written about how the Founding Fathers and other Americans defined “our creator” or “rights” in the 18th century, and Pompeo’s confidence that he and his commission will be able to ascertain precisely those definitions is just a bit delusional. But what is certainly true is that the Founding Fathers believed it was not the role of governments to bestow those rights on its citizens; it was the role of governments to protect them. Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and the rest of them did not create these rights out of thin air. They intended instead to conceive of a form of government that would most adequately lay out the basis of political governance in the context of the natural law philosophies of John Locke and others, which themselves had their origins in a study of the Western liberalism represented by certain strands of thought going back to the ancient Greeks and Romans (not to mention, in some opinions, the Apostle Paul and St. Augustine) — in short, to conceive of a government appropriate to the 18th century Age of Enlightenment. In Europe, at about the same time, Kant was doing the same thing in his investigations into moral philosophy and the idea of the Categorical Imperative.

In the 1920s, Progressive Era historians like Charles Beard and Carl Becker dismissed all this; it was a muckraking time, and the Founding Fathers were the muck that they raked, charging that the stated ideals of the framers of both the Declaration and the Constitution were so much lip service to their genuine concerns, which were the preservation of their own property rights and economic self-interest. Later studies by people like Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, and Pauline Maier, however, established that many Americans of all persuasions and classes shared the ideals of the framers: that, indeed, Americans of the time, including the framers, meant what they said.

Among the ghosts that I thought I saw in Philadelphia last week, I’m afraid, were the ghosts of those ideals, which are becoming thinner and thinner in the Trump era. Rights, in Pompeo’s conception, are to be given and selectively protected by governments, not by God or nature, and in the end, what difference does it make anyway? As Russian President Vladimir Putin said at around the same time as the creation of Pompeo’s commission, “[Liberals] cannot simply dictate anything to anyone just like they have been attempting to do over the recent decades. The liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.” Of course, Putin, as usual, was sowing discord, deliberately conflating the long history of Western liberalism with annoying contemporary politicians who call themselves liberal by contemporary ideological standards. But most Americans — especially those who support Trump — may not care about the distinction. Which is the best way to whittle the memory of those ghosts to nothing.

See also: Trump Fatigue

A pencil for Nellie Bly

I’ve written here before about my delight in that most seemingly quotidian of items, the simple pencil. I now note, then, the recent release of Blackwing’s special edition “Volume 10” pencil, dedicated to investigative journalism and, in particular, Nellie Bly, whose Ten Days in a Madhouse (hence the “10” in “Volume 10”) created considerable stir when it was published in the New York World in 1887. Blackwing’s Volume 10 web page continues:

The Blackwing 10 is a tribute to Nellie Bly – and investigative journalists like her – who keep citizens informed, and give them a voice. It features a matte grey newsprint finish, dark grey imprint, silver ferrule, and dark grey eraser. Its extra-firm graphite is ideal for capturing notes in a reporter pad, or completing a newspaper crossword.

A delightful tribute to a free press, when it seems under considerable fire these days. And I can testify that the pencil itself is ideal for the completion of the New York Times daily crossword puzzle: indeed, it’s my new favorite.

If you order this special edition pencil from Blackwing (and I suggest you do so soon; these “Volume X” pencils sell out quickly), a portion of your purchase will support music and arts education at the K-12 level. But if you can’t wait, I suggest you make your way to CW Pencil Enterprise on Orchard Street as soon as you can, where they are currently in stock.

A toast to … Marilyn Nonken

Last week saw the official publication of Identity and Diversity in New Music: The New Complexities, a new book from Routledge by my lovely wife, Marilyn Nonken. The title is pretty self-explanatory (except for that punning reference to one particular stream of contemporary music), but more to the point the book comes from an insider. Marilyn has been an important pianist on the new music scene since her 1993 debut recital; more recently, and while continuing to pursue a busy performance schedule, she’s been the Director of Piano Studies at NYU’s Steinhardt School, where she’s Associate Professor of Music. Her book is a concise and thoughtful but honest and critical look at the roles of identity and diversity in creating new audiences and performers, based upon a survey of important twentieth and twenty-first century musical organizations from both aesthetic and organizational (as well as uniquely personal) perspectives. So a toast to her later today at Cafe Katja.

I’ve already read Marilyn’s book (twice, I think), so I myself am moving on to other books on my bedside table. Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), which won the Pulitzer Prize in Non-Fiction, is the first among a series of books exploring the failure of critical thinking in this country — and so explaining the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and his supporters. I suppose it’s hopelessly idealistic of me to think so, but perhaps one day a survey course called “American Stupidity 101” will be added to some university’s freshman curriculum, and as a required course. The reading list selects itself: apart from Hofstadter’s book, there’s also Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Neil Postman, 1985), The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies (Susan Jacoby, 2008, updated to include an analysis of Trump’s victory in 2018), and Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free (Charles B. Pierce, 2009). The most recent entries are The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (Tom Nichols, 2017) and The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, 2018). Hofstadter’s book has stood the test of time; indeed, it enters the pantheon next May when it will be published in the Library of America, the American version of the French Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Hofstadter’s definition of intellectualism did not conceive of intellectuals as either pointy-headed pedagogues or nattering nabobs of negativism to be found in ivory towers; no, as Nicholas Lemann pointed out in 2014, it was a habit of mind. Lemann cites Hofstadter himself:

It accepts conflict as a central and enduring reality and understands human society as a form of equipoise based upon the continuing process of compromise. It shuns ultimate showdowns and looks upon the ideal of total partisan victory as unattainable, as merely another variety of threat to the kind of balance with which it is familiar. It is sensitive to nuances and sees things in degrees. It is essentially relativist and skeptical, but at the same time circumspect and humane.

The last thing you could say, I think, about Trump and his supporters. Lemann adds, “It is a distinctive habit of mind and thought that actually forbids the kind of complete self-assurance that we often associate with very smart or committed people. You can see how the all-out quality of fundamentalist religion, or of salesmanship, or of ideologically driven politics, would have been anathema to Hofstadter.”

These books are grimly amusing, if you’re in the right mind. The same can be said of Nathanael West’s novels Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust, which lies next to the Hofstadter book on my bedside table. West’s books are satire that transcends satire; both are set in milieux of popular culture (journalism in the case of the first, Hollywood in the second) and bitterly detail the trivialization of personal experience in American urban life. (West also took on a fascistic Trump-like figure in his more explicitly political A Cool Million, a parody of Horatio Alger’s self-help books.) Miss Lonelyhearts is sui generis; The Day of the Locust is one of my two favorite novels about Hollywood (the second being Terry Southern’s scurrilous and under-rated Blue Movie).

So I’ve got my weekend reading planned. If I don’t see you at Cafe Katja this afternoon, I’ll see you next week.

A toast to … Pride Day and the Declaration of Independence

This week, on the eve of a visit to my old home town, I republished a few essays about my family’s tenancy there as well as a history or two of the City of Brotherly Love.

It’s been a month since my usual Friday audience at Cafe Katja and I won’t be there today, but if I were, I’d be lifting my glass high to Sunday’s Pride Day and the lovely and courageous LGBTQ+ men, women, and others who have contributed an extraordinary amount to our country and who still face so much prejudice from morons and idiots. So prost!

And, of course, I lift my glass as well to the Declaration of Independence, celebrating its 243rd birthday next Thursday, July 4. At the G20 summit in Japan, our Idiot in Chief is enjoying the opportunity to kid around with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “A smirking Mr. Trump wagged his finger at the Russian president and said: ‘Don’t meddle in the election, please,'” according to the BBC, and once again dismissing the idea that he wouldn’t be the Idiot in Chief at all were it not for Russian propaganda and disinformation campaigns in 2016. (Of course, he wouldn’t be.) And what will Trump and Putin discuss in their closed door meeting? “‘What I say to him is none of your business,’ he told reporters, bluntly.” And none of ours, apparently.

What’s more, Putin told a reporter for the Financial Times that Western liberalism — of which the Declaration of Independence is a central expression — is dead. “[Liberals] cannot simply dictate anything to anyone,” Putin said (and there’s nothing Putin and Trump love more than dictating).  The BBC reported:

He added that liberalism conflicted with “the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population,” and took aim at German Chancellor Angela Merkel for allowing large numbers of refugees to settle in Germany.

“This liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done. That migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants have to be protected.”

So it’s worthwhile here to remind ourselves of the contemporary trend to tyranny-as-populism, exemplified in both leaders. In 1921, H.L. Mencken translated the 1776 document from its original English into the American language; that translation first appeared in the Baltimore Evening Sun. I reprint that — with his introductory remarks, as well as a few words which may well be understandably offensive to some today (so you’ve been warned) — below. Here’s to Western liberalism after all.


The following attempt to translate the Declaration of Independence into American was begun eight or ten years ago, at the time of of my first investigations into the phonology and morphology of the American vulgate. I completed a draft in 1917, but the publication was made impossible by the Espionage act, which forbade any discussion, however academic, of proposed changes to the canon of the American Koran. In 1920 I resumed the work and have since had the benefit of the co-operation of various other philologists, American and European. But the version, as it stands, is mine. That such a translation has long been necessary must be obvious to every student of philology. And this is Better Speech Week.

The great majority of Americans now speak a tongue that differs materially from standard English, and in particular from the standard English of the eighteenth century. Thus the text of the Declaration has become, in large part, unintelligible to multitudes of them. What, for example, would the average soda-fountain clerk, or City Councilmen, or private soldier, or even the average Congressman make of such a sentence as this one: “He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable and distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures”? Or this one: “He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the legislative powers, incapable of annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise”? Obviously, such sonorous Johnsonese is as dark to the plain American of 1921 as so much Middle English would be, or Holland Dutch. He may catch a few words, but the general drift is beyond him.

This fact, I believe, is largely responsible for the disaster which overtook those idealists who sought to wrap the Declaration around them during and immediately after the war. The members of the American Legion, the Ku Klux Klan and other patriotic societies, unable to understand the texts upon which the libertarian doctrines of such persons were based, set them down as libelers of the Declaration, and so gave them beatings. I believe that that sort of faux pas might be avoided if the plain people, civil and military, could actually read the Declaration. The version which follows is still far from perfect, but it is at all events in sound American, and even the most advanced admirers of the Hon. Mr. Harding, I am convinced, will find it readily intelligible.

When things get so balled up that the people of a country have to cut loose from some other country and go it on their own hook, without asking no permission from nobody, excepting maybe God Almighty, then they ought to let everybody know why they done it, so that everybody can see they are on the level, and not trying to put nothing over on nobody.

All we got to say on this proposition is this: First, you and me is as good as anybody and maybe a damn sight better; second, nobody ain’t got no right to take away none of our rights; third, every man has got a right to live, to come and go as he pleases, and to have a good time however he likes, so long as he don’t interfere with nobody else. That any government that don’t give a man these rights ain’t worth a damn; also people ought to choose the kind of government they want themselves, and nobody else ought to have no say in the matter. That whenever any government don’t do this, then the people have got a right to can it and put in one that will take care of their interests. Of course, that don’t mean having a revolution every day, like them South American coons and Bolsheviki, or every time some jobholder does something he ain’t got no business to do. It is better to stand a little graft, etc., than to have revolutions all the time, like them coons, Bolsheviki, etc., and any man that wasn’t a anarchist or one of them I. W. W.s would say the same. But when things gets so bad that a man ain’t hardly got no rights at all no more, but you might almost call him a slave, then everybody ought to get together and throw the grafters out, and put in new ones who won’t carry on so high and steal no much, and then watch them. This is the proposition the people of these Colonies is up against, and they have got tired of it, and won’t stand it no more. The administration of the present King, George III, has been rotten from the jump-off, and when anybody kicked about it he always tried to get away with it by strong-arm work. Here is some of the rough stuff he has pulled:


He vetoed bills in the Legislature that everybody was in favor of, and hardly nobody was against.

He wouldn’t allow no law to be passed without it was first put up to him, and then he stuck it in his pocket and let on he forgotten about it, and didn’t pay no attention to no kicks.

When people went to work and gone to him and asked him to put through a law about this or that, he give them their choice: either they had to shut down the Legislature and let him pass it all by himself or they couldn’t have it at all.

He made the Legislature meet at one-horse tank-towns out in the alfalfa belt, so that hardly nobody could get there and most of the leaders would stay home and let him go to work and do things as he pleased.

He give the Legislature the air and sent the members home every time they stood up to him and give him a call-down.

When a Legislature was busted up he wouldn’t allow no new one to be elected, so that there wasn’t nobody left to run things, but anybody could walk in and do whatever they pleased.

He tried to scare people outen moving into these States, and made it so hard for a wop or one of them poor kikes to get his papers that he would rather stay home and not try it, and then, when he come in, he wouldn’t let him have no land, and so he either went home again or never come.

He monkeyed with the courts and didn’t hire enough judges to do the work and so a person had to wait so long for his case to be decided that he got sick of waiting, and went home, and so never got what was coming to him.

He got the judges under his thumb by turning them out when they done anything he didn’t like, or holding up their salaries, so that they had to cough up or not get no money.

He made a lot of new jobs and give them to loafers that nobody knowed nothing about, and the poor people had to pay the bill, whether they wanted to or not.

Without no war going on, he kept an army loafing around the country, no matter how much people kicked about it.

He let the army run things to suit theirself and never paid no attention whatsoever to nobody which didn’t wear no uniform.

He let grafters run loose, from God knows where, and give them the say in everything, and let them put over such things as the following:

Making poor people board and lodge a lot of soldiers they ain’t got no use for and don’t want to see loafing around.

When the soldiers kill a man, framing it up so that they would get off.

Interfering with business.

Making us pay taxes without asking us whether we thought the things we had to pay taxes for was something that was worth paying taxes for or not.

When a man was arrested and asked for a jury trial, not letting him have no jury trial.

Chasing men out of the country, without being guilty of nothing, and trying them somewheres else for what they done here.

In countries that border on us, he put in bum governments, and then tried to spread them out, so that by and by they would take in this country, too, or make our own government as bum as they was. He never paid no attention whatever to the Constitution, but he went to work and repealed laws that everybody was satisfied with and hardly nobody was against, and tried to fix the government so that he could do whatever he pleased.

He busted up the Legislatures and let on he could do all the work better by himself.

Now he washes his hands of us and even declares war on us, so we don’t owe him nothing, and whatever authority he ever had he ain’t got no more.


He has burned down towns, shot down people like dogs, and raised hell against us out on the ocean.

He hired whole regiments of Dutch, etc., to fight us, and told them they could have anything they wanted if they could take it away from us, and sicked these Dutch, etc., on us without paying no attention whatever to international law.

He grabbed our own people when he found them in ships on the ocean, and shoved guns into their hands, and made them fight against us, no matter how much they didn’t want to.

He stirred up the Indians, and give them arms and ammunition, and told them to go to it, and they have killed men, women and children, and don’t care which.

Every time he has went to work and pulled any of these things, he have went to work and put in a kick, but every time we have went to work and put in a kick he has went to work and did it again. When a man keeps on handing out such rough stuff all the time, all you can say is that he ain’t got no class and ain’t fitten to have no authority over people who have got any rights, and he ought to be kicked out.

When we complained to the English we didn’t get no more satisfaction. Almost every day we warned them that the politicians over there was doing things to us that they didn’t have no right to do. We kept on reminding them who we were, and what we were doing here, and how we come to come here. We asked them to get us a square deal, and told them if this thing kept on we’d have to do something about and maybe they wouldn’t like it. But the more we talked, the more they didn’t pay no attention to us. Therefore, if they ain’t for us, they must be again us, and we are ready to give them the fight of their lives, or to shake hands when it is over.


Therefore be it resolved, That we, the representatives of the people of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, hereby declare to follows: That the United States, which was the United Colonies in former times, is now free and independent, and ought to be; that we have throwed out the English King and don’t want to have nothing to do with him no more, and are not in England no more; and that, being as we are now free and independent, we can do anything that free and independent parties can do, especially declare war, make peace, sign treaties, go into business, etc. And we swear on the Bible on this proposition, one and all, and agree to stick to it no matter what happens, whether we win or we lose, and whether we get away with it or get the worst of it, no matter whether we lose all our property by it or even get hung for it.

The Hunkas of Fairmount Avenue

Originally published here on October 24, 2017.

Today is the ninth anniversary of my father’s death. He was born on January 4, 1931, in his parents’ bedroom at 451 Fairmount Avenue in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia. (That’s the second-floor front in the photograph at right.) He would have died there, too, most likely, if he hadn’t required hospice care at the end of his life in 2008. The house had been in the family since my grandfather Max purchased it for his small but growing family back in the 1920s, and by the time my brother and I sold the place a few years ago, it had been in the family for 80 years or so.

If I’ve been writing about Philadelphia more in the past few months, it might be because of the nostalgia you feel for the places of your childhood as you grow older. I spent a lot of the time in that house, in that neighborhood, too. Though by the time I came along in 1962 my parents were living in Feasterville, a suburb of Philadelphia, we came into town almost every weekend to visit my father’s parents in Northern Liberties; my brother and I played in the small garden and cobblestone-paved alley in back of the house, much as my father, his stepbrother, and their friends must have done when they were children. I was baptized in the St. Andrew’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral just around the corner. My godmother and a close family friend, Anna Shopa, lived next door to the cathedral. (And it has something more of a history, too; see Harry Kyriakodis’ 2012 book about the neighborhood, Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward.)

By 1981 I was living in the house myself (my room is the top floor in the above photograph) with my father, my grandfather having died in 1972 and my grandmother eight years later. Both of them had jobs in the neighborhood, my grandfather having operated his business as an electrician on the first floor and my grandmother as a charwoman in a local elementary school. They took in boarders in the 1950s and 1960s to help pay the bills. I still remember the mess of electronic and electric material in the shop, wires and lightbulbs and other detritus, that my brother and I played with on our frequent visits in the 1960s. (My grandfather had installed the electric wiring in the nearby St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church on Seventh Street, just a few blocks away, in the 1920s.)

By then, Northern Liberties had changed from the years in which my father played in those streets as a child. When my grandparents arrived in the neighborhood, it was a heterogenous community of recent poor and working-class immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe, Jewish and gentile, African-Americans as well; my father’s playmates were from a variety of backgrounds including his own Ukrainian heritage; for years he picked up a nickel or two on Saturday afternoons as a neighborhood shabbos goy. In the 1960s, when I first saw Northern Liberties, it had fallen into some decrepitude. There were empty buildings everywhere, boarded up; five blocks to the east, fronting the Delaware River, Front Street was an avenue of mysteriously dark storefronts, single bare lightbulbs glaring out of a window here and there; poorly maintained public housing had sprung up just west of the neighborhood, poverty-stricken ghettos to the north, and abandoned warehouses and factories to the south. It was a dangerous place. My grandmother continued to scrub the marble stoop in front of the house every other weekend, as others in the neighborhood used to do before Northern Liberties fell into a period of decline. The low rowhouses that lined the empty streets, lit at night by dim yellow streetlamps, weren’t inviting.

When I lived in Northern Liberties in the 1980s, things had improved somewhat with the onset of gentrification. A few bars opened up; artists and young professionals were buying houses at rock-bottom prices with an eye to renovation. Ortlieb’s brewery at Third and Poplar had opened a bar where jazz musicians used to congregate after their gigs in the tonier joints of other parts of town.

In the 1990s I moved to New York, followed not long after by my brother, and when my father died nine years ago we thought about gut-renovating the place (it would have been unliveable without that renovation). But we had lives away from Philadelphia now, the renovation would have been exorbitantly expensive, and neither of us wanted to oversee it from a hundred miles away. So we sold it, and indeed, it was gut-renovated soon after, the entire interior torn down for redesign. You can see what it looks like here, and it looks like most contemporary rowhouse gut renovations. “They did an excellent job gutting the building of all of its character,” my brother grumbled when he saw the video, and he’s right.

But all things pass, including building interiors. Northern Liberties — now yclept “NoLibs” by the real estate mavens, who apparently don’t have time for more than two syllables — still retains a place in my heart, like the city itself. And if there are such things as ghosts, a few Hunkas are among those who haunt the neighborhood around Fifth and Fairmount. A lifted glass, then, to my father.