A project for Ken Burns or someone like him

I was delighted with my visit on Saturday to the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, which just opened last year; it’s a fascinating and solemn reminder of the ideals and courage required to found a country like ours, and conveniently located near Independence Hall and the National Constitution Center. Though established on noble and laudable grounds, my homeland inevitably falls short of these in reality. One can spend the entire day at the museum, so all-encompassing are the exhibits, and when one considers just how far we’ve fallen in grace and courage since then — well, pride is not the word, for I didn’t do any fighting for these ideals myself, but it certainly inspires me to take these ideals more seriously in my private and public lives. Although Joe Biden attended the opening ceremonies last April and delivered the keynote address, nobody from the current administration could be bothered to attend. This should tell you scores about the current administration, too; perhaps the museum’s proximity to the National Constitution Center gave the Trump people the willies.

Of course, the shadow that falls between the idea and the reality is a fertile garden for American satire as well. I hope that one of these days Ken Burns — or somebody like him, but possessed of a sense of humor — creates one of those PBS documentary series about the history of the form in the United States; it certainly stretches from its colonial days (Ben Franklin could be particularly scabrous and scurrilous) to the present. Most neglected recently have been the satires of the pre-World War II era, and surprisingly it was one of the richest genres of American literature of the past hundred or so years. Twain (who died in 1910) kicked it off, of course, with his screeds against the Philippine–American War and the continuing practice of lynching in the south, but it did go on. Ten years earlier, in 1899, H.L. Mencken began writing for Baltimore’s Morning Herald newspaper; in 1920, Sinclair Lewis published his first masterpiece of American satire, Main Street; and in 1931, Nathanael West published the first of his four magnificent satiric novelettes, The Dream Life of Balso Snell.

By 1940 it was all over. West was dead; Mencken’s style and iconoclasm were less popular in a nation just emerging from an economic depression and preparing for war; and Lewis was succumbing to the alcoholism that would lead, in part, to his death ten years later. But those three decades between 1910 and 1940 were rich with this kind of satiric excavation, despite the fact that these authors have been eclipsed by the reputations of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner. Of the novelists, West and Lewis attacked the fraudulent nature of private and public life. West prophetically saw the catastrophes that a celebrity culture could produce in The Day of the Locust and the tragedy of maudlin sentimentalism and the sterility of New York City’s urban life in Miss Lonelyhearts; Lewis condemned the petty soullessness of the American salesman and his culture in Babbitt and the hypocrisy of cultish evangelical religion (a part of American culture since George Whitefield‘s time) in Elmer Gantry. And both novelists foresaw the dangers of a rank democracy of ignorant masses, leading to totalitarianism, in A Cool Million (West) and It Can’t Happen Here (Lewis).

The satirists of the 1950s, such as William Gaddis, Joseph Heller, and Terry Southern, built upon these foundations for their own masterpieces; without these earlier authors (and a few Europeans such as Louis-Ferdinand Celine), there’d be no The Recognitions, JR, Catch-22, or The Magic Christian.

If you want to follow the road from the ideals and stresses that gave rise to the American Revolution to the situation we’re in today, and you want to understand how we got here, you could do worse than revisit Twain, Mencken, Lewis, and West; to see how their prophecies have come true, I would recommend following these up with Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in America and Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies (the latter was republished in paperback, with an update, earlier this year). They won’t give you hope — not least because most Americans these days can’t be bothered to read anything that doesn’t appear on a Facebook feed — but they will give you a pretty good idea of how we got here. And if you do indeed want that hope, you’ll have to go to the Museum of the American Revolution yourself, to remember that there was a time when we collectively aimed just a little higher — politically, culturally, and personally — than we do now.

And afterwards stop in for dinner at City Tavern. That doesn’t disappoint, either.

Below, a 1948 interview with that great American H.L. Mencken, conducted at the Library of Congress and the only extant recording of that author’s voice. It was recorded only a few months before a stroke incapacitated Mencken, leaving him unable to speak clearly or write at all — though aware and fully conscious — until his death eight years later, in 1956.

 

Hide and seek

The idea of ruins — archaeological, architectural, cultural, even psychological — lies at the center of Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City, published last November 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.

Metropolitan Opera House, North Broad Street, Philadelphia, 2009. Photo: Joseph E.B. Elliott.

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 an 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.

Wagner Free Institute of Science, exhibits on main floor, North Broad Street, Philadelphia, 2015. Photo: Joseph E.B. Elliott.

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 you read it, too.

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

Roundup: Art, religion and Philadelphia

Over the past two weeks I’ve mused about the relationship of art, religion, and censorship; started listening more closely to the country blues; and, looking forward to a brief visit to Philadelphia, looked back at its unusual self-image.

One of Philadelphia’s pleasures, of course, is its design and its wealth of colonial architecture. A very good guide to these pleasures is George W. Boudreau’s Independence: A Guide to Historic Philadelphia, published in paperback by Westholme Publishing in 2016. It’s far more informative about Philadelphia’s colonial history than most guidebooks, and Boudreau takes the time to throw the spotlight on a few lesser-known figures. Seek it out before your own next visit to Philadelphia. And I also highly recommend the series Philadelphia: The Great Experiment, a series of half-hour documentaries about the city, produced by History Making Productions, scheduled to be completed this year. You can find all of the currently available episodes here. We’ll be staying in Old City, where the likes of Benjamin Franklin once walked; the episode about Franklin of Philadlphia is below.

 

On the road again

We’re off to Philadelphia for a brief family vacation tomorrow, and to get into the proper spirit I’ve just finished reading Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City by Joseph E. B. Elliott, Nathaniel Popkin and Peter Woodall, published by Temple University Press. I hope to write a little about this fine book soon, but in the meantime republish below a brief essay about Philadelphia I wrote in May of last year. And here’s more about my family’s own little piece of the city.


Billboard on Schuylkill Expressway, near Exit 37 west of Conshohocken. Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, 1970.

When in the early 1970s the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce needed a slogan to promote the city to businesses and tourists, the best it could come up with was “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is.” It’s hard to determine exactly what the Chamber of Commerce expected as a result. In the ten years following the slogan’s launch, the population of Philadelphia dipped by 13.4 percent, from 1,948,609 to 1,688,210. And on the eve of the city’s Bicentennial celebrations in 1976, then-Mayor Frank Rizzo requested 15,000 federal troops to maintain order in Philadelphia that summer, fearing violence from political demonstrations. Tourists stayed away in droves. “The total number of visitors to Philadelphia in 1976 was estimated to be between 14 and 20 million, which fell far short of the planners’ expectations,” Madison Eggert-Crowe and Scott Gabriel Knowles write in the online Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.  “Much of the shortfall may be attributed to fear of violence spread by media attention to the protests and the mayor’s reaction to them. During the Bicentennial there was also an outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease. Hundreds of members of the American Legion staying at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel contracted an infectious disease through the hotel’s air conditioning system, killing more than thirty of the Legionnaires.” Local wags inclined to punnery called the city “Filthydelphia,” and the same wags, referring to the main artery into town, the deteriorating high-speed Schuylkill Expressway, were prone to call it “the Surekill Distressway.” We regularly booed our sports teams, which inevitably found themselves in the basement of the standings a few weeks after the opening of the season, at their home games. Philadelphia was, at the time, the self-loathing Larry David of American cities. It remains so in some respects. It may be no coincidence that the phrase “We have met the enemy and he is us” was popularized in the 1970s (though not coined) by Walt Kelly, the creator of the comic strip Pogo — and a Philadelphia native.

I consider myself a native Philadelphian too — I was born at Pennsylvania Hospital at 8th and Spruce Streets in 1962, in the heart of Center City — and remain one, though I’ve lived in New York since the early 1990s. I spent quite a bit of time in Philadelphia in the 1970s (I must have passed that billboard many times myself) and remember this period well. But then, Philadelphia was never one to curry favor with outsiders, or with ourselves. Compare Philadelphia’s slogan of the 1970s with, for example, New York’s “I Love New York” advertising campaign, which launched in 1977 — a screaming success. A success, at least, when it came to the city’s self-image, if little else; New York’s population also suffered a 10 percent decrease during the 1970s. Nonetheless, the contrast between the two slogans reveals about Philadelphians their steadfast refusal to believe  their own bullshit.

Bullshit is a fine fertilizer, and like other fertilizers it’s a compound, its individual elements consisting of hyperbole, publicity, half-truths, whole-lies, arrogance, exaggeration, conceit, egotism, self-delusion, greed, and a narcissism verging on religious mania. The danger is in believing your own bullshit, and if anybody believes their own bullshit, it’s New Yorkers. The sentence “Philadelphia is not as bad as Philadelphians say it is” unintentionally reveals a more laudable modesty and humility at the heart of its civic and urban culture. That modesty and humility have done damage to the city and its reputation, no doubt. But they have also done the city and its inhabitants more good than may be evident at first glance, and it obscures the far greater civic and urban damage that bullshitters who believe their own bullshit can accomplish.

The roots of this difference between New York and Philadelphia may lie in their histories. William Penn, the founder of the city whose statue looks down from the top of Philadelphia’s City Hall, deliberately established Philadelphia on the Quaker values of tolerance, piety, pacifism, and order in its original prospectus.1 He envisioned it as a “greene country towne,” a “city of brotherly love” that would disdain excessive commerce and business activity in the pursuit of a prosperous (within reason) but civilized community of compassionate, like-minded citizens. Within fifty years of its 1682 establishment, of course, these ideals had fallen by the wayside as the non-Quaker population — diverse and heterogenous as it was in terms of religious, social, and racial composition, a diversity and heterogeneity ironically encouraged by Penn himself — displaced the original Quaker settlers, forming a more practical and commercial population, personified by no less than Benjamin Franklin, inventor, entrepreneur, and civic leader. On a recent walk through Olde City Philadelphia, I counted no fewer than fifteen statues and historical references to the inimitable Franklin — he’s hard to miss — but above it all, Penn and his memory still look down over the city. There is, no doubt, some bullshit in Penn and rather more in Franklin; the capacity for bullshit is something that differentiates the human race from the animals, after all, and none of us is entirely devoid of it, even and perhaps especially seemingly benign visionaries like Penn. New York, on the other hand, was founded as a trading post. And New York is still a trading post — magnified a millionfold, and powered by the latest in technology, but a trading post nonetheless. And there’s no better fertilizer for business, commerce, and publicity than bullshit. I hate to say it, but if Benjamin Franklin may be the personification of colonial Philadelphia, Donald Trump may be the personification of contemporary New York.

That “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is” also suggests a bit of a desire to be left alone. In these more connected and networked days, a Facebook intimacy, in which we can be “friends” with hundreds, if not thousands, of people that we never meet, undermines traditional conceptions of community and friendship, which traditionally required us to actually meet, talk, and enjoy each other’s real-world presence. Such traditional conceptions themselves undermine the ability of bullshitters to successfully bullshit us; we can see the deceptive glint in their eye as they spew it.

About twenty years ago, Philadelphia got around to hiring a rather more adept publicity firm, which came up with the slogan “The Place That Loves You Back.” This might be interpreted as a somewhat sarcastic response to New York’s “I Love New York,” which doesn’t love anyone, apparently. In 2012, Prof. Richardson Dilworth, Director of Drexel University’s Center for Public Policy, compared the two Philadelphia slogans in an insightful essay for NewsWorks, seeing in the later slogan something of a betrayal of the Quaker ideal of universal love.2 “The claim that Philadelphia loves you is really the opposite of Quaker-inspired universal love. The slogan suggested intimacy, while universal love is cold and impersonal,” Dilworth noted. “If I love everyone, I love no one in particular. And Philadelphia has indeed often been perceived as a uniquely cold and unwelcoming place.” Cold and impersonal, perhaps — but also cautious, and, befitting the essentially conservative (with a small c) nature of the city, fonder of and more comfortable with the devil it knows rather than the devil it doesn’t.

Dilworth cites Digby Baltzell’s landmark 1979 study Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia as he continues:

According to Baltzell, the radical equality and antiauthoritarianism of the city’s Quaker leaders fostered a uniquely individualistic culture that was more tolerant of dissent than the more paternalistic culture fostered by the authoritarian Puritan leaders of Boston. … Though generally considered a negative characteristic, Philadelphia’s antisocial reputation was intimately connected to the city’s perceived virtues — the opposite side of the coin of tolerance and acceptance is indifference and disregard. …

Since the city’s antisocial reputation also defined some of the city’s perceived virtues of tolerance and acceptance, it seems worth asking what shared sense of community we gave up in selling ourselves more successfully to tourists.

“The Place that Loves You Back” suggests that we offered to welcome tourists into a warm and intimate community. We want you to have fun; in fact, we’re going to insist that you have fun, because we love you and we care.

But in making this new offer, have we forsaken the mixed history of tolerance and indifference that allowed anyone to come here and do what they wanted? And in exchange, we really wouldn’t care?

There’s a reason that one of the more significant studies of Philadelphia of recent years is titled The Private City.

The more years I spend away from Philadelphia, the more I come to appreciate its eccentricities, including its reserve, self-deprecation, and modesty. I find in these qualities more realism than skepticism, more honesty than self-hatred. Naturally, I’m not blind to its many deficiencies. I’m glad that my daughters are enrolled in public schools in New York, given the worrisome condition of the public school system in Philadelphia today; its arts community, compared to that of New York, is less vibrant and less daring, though there’s enough vibrancy and daring in Philadelphia if you know where to look. Its newspapers are a shadow of what they once were. And very little of Philadelphia’s urban cuisine — those cheesesteaks, the pulled pork sandwiches at DeNic’s — will end up on the cover of Eating Well magazine anytime soon; five minutes in the Reading Terminal Market will send any vegan or health-conscious eater screaming to the exits. On the other hand, Philadelphia, for many reasons, encourages an individual to come to private terms with a history — his own, as well as his culture’s — that’s worth preserving. Perhaps that’s the bullshit I believe, and perhaps it’s the bullshit Philadelphia believes, too. In which case, to each his own.