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.

Philadelphia: A Brief History

Not long ago the thonkingly huge history of New York in the early twentieth century, Greater Gotham (Oxford University Press, 4.6 pounds), landed in bookstores. Suitable for pressing leaves or dropping upon large cockroaches from a great height, the book is the long-awaited sequel to the 1998 Gotham (Oxford University Press, 5.8 pounds), the history of New York from its founding to 1898. These are, obviously, substantial works about the history of the city, and regardless of its quality the new one is destined to end up, like its predecessor, imposingly displayed on bookshelves in apartments around the city, spines unbroken, unread because, given their length in these distracted times, unreadable.

Philadelphia had one of these too, though unlike the New York books it’s now out of print. Back in 1981, W.W. Norton released the 2.9-pound Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. The City of Brotherly Love has, for all its historical interest, taken a back seat in recent years to metropolitan histories from major publishers. If you’re not keen on a multi-year commitment to 1,000+ page narratives about New York, you can turn to the less daunting The Epic of New York City by Edward Robb Ellis (Basic Books, 1.2 pounds), but slimmer journeys through the history of Philadelphia, from its founding to the twenty-first century in which we find ourselves, can be hard to locate.

I raise a hosanna, then, for Roger D. Simon‘s revised and updated Philadelphia: A Brief History, the first edition of which was published by the Pennsylvania Historical Association in 2003 and the second edition of which was released in 2017 (Temple University Press, 9.9 ounces). A history professor at Lehigh University, Simon cites the Norton volume a great deal in the 15 pages of notes attached to his slim, 123 pages of text; this is very much a “just the high points” survey, but it fills a profound need for a Philadelphia history of this kind, and it’s likely to be the go-to brief history for this generation.

As the editors write in their foreword, “The book’s central premise [is] that Philadelphia’s story is about residents’ attempts to sustain economic prosperity while fulfilling community needs” — and so it’s a case study, really, in what every city attempts to balance. Through his chapter subtitles, Simon makes explicit his approach: “Establishing a Community/Building an Economy” (Beginnings to 1800), “Industry Triumphant/Civic Failure” (1865-1920), “Economic Decline/Community Turmoil” (1930-1980) all point to the quite American dilemma of civic ideals running dead up against business interests. And he is especially attentive to the racial and socioeconomic tensions that this dilemma produced.

Alas, the inner conflict continues. A few years ago, Philadelphia magazine posted “A Challenge to Our Most Influential Philadelphians,” an essay by Tom McGrath urging that Philadelphia’s business community take a harder look at its civic responsibilities to the city. With a sigh, I note that McGrath’s remedy seems to be, like that for other cities, a greater emphasis on “innovative entrepreneurism” or “entrepreneurial innovation” — meaningless marketspeak that seem to refer to a new emphasis on technology and the service industry — which promise no clear solution to Philadelphia’s problems with public education and infrastructure. This new emphasis may attract new business to the city (for example, the establishment of Amazon’s second national headquarters there), but that attraction will be founded on things like tax abatements and other gifts to business and corporations. Good for the upper-middle and middle classes of course; not so good, though, for most of the rest of the population, which will continue to be economically squeezed until those tax abatements expire. It would be better for Philadelphia if Amazon established new distribution warehouses in the city instead of a shiny glass corporate tower; at least then the company would create hundreds if not thousands of jobs for unskilled labor, jobs profoundly necessary for the health of urban neighborhoods and the marginalized formerly working-class workforce. There is enough warning in Simon’s book that such band-aids will create less, rather than more, affluence in the Philadelphia communities and neighborhoods that desperately need it.

The history of Philadelphia uniquely reflects the nation’s. Neither arose organically like the cities and nation-states of Europe; both were deliberately founded in the contexts of rebellion and escape from religious prejudice, and no other country in the world sets as one of its primary concerns the “pursuit of happiness” in its founding documents — a happiness that, perhaps inevitably, remains frustratingly out-of-reach for most of its citizens. For this reason alone, as well as for many others, the city’s history retains its relevance for the rest of us.

Simon’s writing is pellucidly clear, and the text is graced by several well-chosen illustrations and photographs, as well as a few instructive population tables at the end of the book. That said, Simon concludes with an ambivalent envoi:

[In 2016] more than four hundred thousand people survived on incomes below the poverty line. While the city became more diverse in the aggregate, it remained as segregated as ever at the neighborhood level. … The city had limited options to address community needs, particularly for its large impoverished population. … Business leadership seems preoccupied with Center City and reducing the taxes on business, but Philadelphia will be a successful community in the twenty-first century only if public and private capital invest in education, social welfare, and housing needs beyond the glamour of Center City.

From Simon’s book to the ears of Tom McGrath’s “Influentials,” one hopes. Not investment in technological innovation, but investment in innovative urban and community planning, will provide for a renaissance in Philadelphia, as Simon’s history suggests. In the meantime, lovers of Philadelphia can trace the historical possibilities of this renaissance — as well as more than a few cautionary tales — in Simon’s Philadelphia: A Brief History. It’s available now from Amazon.

Hide and seek

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.

A toast to … Leon Redbone

This week I delighted in my daughters’ first launch into the field of nihilistic satire, then explained how it probably had a genetic origin.

Anybody who is aware of Leon Redbone is by this time similarly aware that the musician “crossed the delta for that beautiful shore” yesterday morning. I don’t have much to add to the obituaries and appreciations that have been appearing here and there (especially Megan Pugh’s exemplary profile of Redbone that appeared in March in the Oxford American). Two things worth noting, though: First, that Redbone was himself an anti-celebrity, whose self-conscious eccentricities served solely to foreground the early American music that seemed to be the love of his life; it’s a rare thing. Second, there is a vibrant if small subculture of other American musicians who are doing their best to keep this kind of music alive; Redbone was far from alone, if he was the most visible representative of this subculture. I recommend checking out these fine people.

Social media and the internet are littered with Redbone clips and tributes, so instead I offer something in his memory that I hope would meet with his approval, Laurel and Hardy’s performance of “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” one of Redbone’s signature songs, from their 1939 film The Flying Deuces; it’s a charming two-and-a-half minutes from the past, featuring Stan’s light and loose-limbed dance and Ollie’s very pleasant Georgia baritone. I’ll be lifting my glass to Mr. Redbone and Messrs. Laurel and Hardy at Cafe Katja this afternoon. See you there.