Monday, February 13, 2006

Same Place, Different Flavor

Philadelphia is unlike other cities even when it comes to being obsessed with doing things they we it always has. While other cities have no names or traditions left linking the city with is past, we still do. But that list of names and traditions is shrinking to the point where it's really no longer a list at all, but rather, a collection of items that could just fill a post-it note. Indeed, these changes are altering the flavor of Philadelphia's very being - and it's perhaps a quality of life issue in a non-traditional sense.

You think of quality of life issues touching things like crime, education, urban blight, tax structure, and more. But there is a social or pop culture quality of life, as well.

In what other city could Chief Halftown stayed on the air until the 1990s? Where else could Larry Ferrari have played the organ on Channel 6 also into the 90s? Completing the trifecta of Channel 6 traditions we loved: the Action News theme song. Need I explain?

Even on a civic issue level, Philadelphia has long-seated traditions that appear to finally be cracking. What other city would have been so very resistant to electing new mayors even when the incumbent seems steeped in bad involvements? How many other city's of our size and density could have staved off viable and useful public transportation improvements and been complacent to have amazingly long bus trips in their place? Where could litter possibly be more acceptable in communities that know fully well it shouldn't be? These are all negative things with which Philadelphia has been in bed for decades. But maybe it's atsrting to slip away for the better.

The way we consume goods is also departing almost entirely from tradition:

Since just after post-Civil War Reconstruction, Philadelphians have been able to buy something in a store with the name "Strawbridge" on it. Coming this May, that option disappears. In a very real sense, that option disappeared the minute the actual Strawbridge family and the rest of the board of the Strawbridge and Clothier retail empire sold the store chain to the May Company behemoth in 1996. The stores changed, merchandise became generic and only the Center City store still suggested that this venerable chain once had some unique retailing ideas. Come May, Philadelphia loses a great retailing name, even if the real substance of that name disappeared a decade ago. Perhaps Mr. G. Stockton Strawbridge, long the king of the S&C empire who died shortly after the company was sold off, can rest peacefully. His name will no longer grace a store that most people think is an impostor anyway. Macy's here you come.

I could spin another yarn about how regrettable that also in 1996, John Wanamaker became a thing of the past. But let's think about something the Wanamaker stores gave the Delaware Valley: the Christmastime light show. This 1956 creation still continues annually from Thanksgiving to New Year's, but each year, it seems less special. Could this be the words of someone as an adult realizing a piece of their childhood memory is not as impressive as it seemed? Certainly not. This year, the light show was no longer hourly, but every two hours. The reason Lord and Taylor gave the media was that the equipment is aged and they received a recommendation from electricians that it should run less often. The issue of aging equipment also took out pieces of the show in years past - shortening the experience over all and making it less engaging.

Essentially everything I have mentioned in this piece relates to the growing debate over corporate mergers, growing desires for even bigger profits and smaller advertising budgets, and globalization of practically everything except going to the bathroom. For a slow-to-budge place like Philadelphia, losing ties to the past can be tough. But we often don't feel any sense of such losses until they're put in our face. Otherwise, we're too busy buying stuff at Wal Mart, Target, or Macy's.

Where are places like Hanscom's Bakery? Horn and Hardart? Gimbel's? Philadelphia National Bank? Germantown Savings Bank? PSFS? Acme Markets held in local hands?This could be a list of ghosts that could seem infinite. But each place in this list disappeared for some reason tied to the dollar, corporate changes, or someone inventing a new way to provide a service faster and cheaper. So we lose household names and special experiences that are forced to become only memories.

How do we view what gives Philadelphia its unique cultural and social flavor? This is going to be a big question to ponder in coming decades. It seems certain that the world of business is going to continue to get smaller and richer. Will it then be our attitudes, connections to notable personalities, or civic contributions that will form the memories and household names of tomorrow's Philadelphia region? What better time to be cliche: "Time will tell."

While you might pass 8th and Market and glower at Macy's eternally lower-case logo taking the place of the Strawbridge and Clothier "Seal of Confidence", at least you can sleep well at night knowing that you'll always have the Action News theme song to keep you company at night when you dream of being able to take a plate of food from the window at Horn and Hardart again or remember the monorail in the toy department at Wanamaker's, or think of that time you appeared on Chief Halftown's stage singing as a kid.

Let us never forget to always be the eternally unique place we have always been and should fight to remain. How we go about establishing our traditions is being forced to change - how will we face it?

Sunday, February 12, 2006

23 Skidoo

No, is most definitely not a story about a 1920s song about the area around Madison Square in Manhattan. But it is a story about the ongoing "substitution" of diesel bus transportation for long-tenured trolley service in Philadelphia. Let us open the book on the growing issue of what to do with Route 23 - SEPTA's venerable route serving Chestnut Hill, Mount Airy, Germantown, North Philadelphia, Center City, and South Philadelphia. Name one other route that pulls that off, and maybe this isn't such a special issue for consideration.

You can't name another SEPTA route that does that - just in case you're still thinking about it.

This transit route, connecting communities representing the height of market economy excess and social and economic nadir, has been served by often aging, and recently some modern diesel bus service. Perhaps you have stood on the corner of 12th and Market or Germantown and Chelten, for example, and been blasted in the face by an offensive cloud of diesel fumes. Yeah, that was likely the 23 going by.

Since 1992 SEPTA has run its Routes 23 and 56 as "temporary" bus service. Recently, the Route 15 was liberated from this designation and received handsomely restored trolleys that were orginally built in 1947 and 48 for SEPTA's predecessor, Philadelphia Transportation Company (PTC).

There is a wider issue at hand here, that SEPTA tends to make policies under the guise of "temporary" intent, with long-term or even seemingly permanent realization. The Route 56 is nearly all paved over save for a portion on Erie Avenue from Frankford to West Hunting Park Avenues through North Philadelphia and Juniata Park.

Until recently, the 23 was spared any pave-overs of trackage. But SEPTA is beginning to undertake steps to potentially ensure this established route never again rumbles with trolleys. Several years ago, a piece of track was paved over in North Philadelphia along 10th Street north of Temple's Campus. More recently, and with considerably more fiery reaction from the public, was the paving of a section of the 23's tracks from Gowen Avenue in Mount Airy to Cresheim Valley Road at the base of Chestnut Hill. SEPTA's explanation is that the trackage was damaging the wheels of cars driving on this stretch. They were right, flats along this stretch were commonplace. What's upset people so much was that the pave-over was done last minute and with no community input.

SEPTA does not have a track record that is kind to trolley transit. Since the 1960's, scores of trolley lines have been converted to diesel bus service. This is not unlike most major American cities' transit systems evolutions during that stretch of time. In fact, Philadelphia is one of the few major metropolitan areas left that actually have trolleys that operate on regular surface street rights-of-way. Further, we have more trolley lines than most cities that still have trolley service.

So why should people care about the revival of the 23? First, SEPTA committed itself to restoring not only the 23, but also Routes 56 and 15 by 1997. Thus far, only the 15 has been revived and as mentioned above, the 56 is all but a ghost now. SEPTA has played a sorry game of dirty pool with Philadelphia's mass transit advocates and trolley enthusiasts (of which there are many).

The mood in Mount Airy and even the often challenging Chestnut Hill seems to be one of positive thought about the possible revival of this venerable trolley line. Let's hope it happens. But let's not hold our breath or anything. SEPTA's disappointed us before, and it will do it again.

SEPTA did disappoint again...they just rejected an option to order more trackless trolleys from New Flyer, Inc. (the manufacturer of the new fleet of buses) to replace the lost trackless vehicles on South Philadelphia's Routes 29 and 79.

Where are the voices that will push SEPTA's board back in favor of Philadelphia residents?

Public Services and the Magic of Inconsistency

It would be simplistic to assume that all large American cities cannot possibly provide a wide array of useful and efficient public services to their residents and visitors. However, every few months one may run across some account in the media about an American city from which other large cities ought to learn. These are cities that seem to be doing "something right" when it comes to providing those hum-drum things we take for granted not because we don't really appreciate having them, but frankly, they're just not interesting services.

Whether or not services such as public education, sanitation, tree maintenance, parks and recreation and many more services are "sexy" or not is irrelevant. These are the very sort of things that people base their experience upon in living in a city. This may be painfully basic for some of you reading, but so many people don't spend even seconds dwelling on just why they are/are not happy in their city. Many Philadelphians know they enjoy life here or realize that something is missing from life here for them, but often we don't have time to ponder just why we realize these things.

So let's ponder one of the most useful services a city can provide during wintertime: snow removal. Remember, I said these kinds of things aren't "sexy" issues like building a huge glass addition onto the north side of the central Free Library or landing the 2016 Olympics, but we have to think about it.

Tonight, a report on WCAU 10 news pointed out that residents of Bella Vista were only mildly irritated with the quality of snow removal on their stretch of Fitzwater Street. I say this with a great sense of sarcasm. Bella Vista is blessed with civically-active residents so their opinions are never obsequious. The people interviewed tonight said typical TV news comments made for short attention span TV news. In regards to the street's snow removal today were lines (and I paraphrase) such as, "lousy," or "I've lived here 27 years and it's always been bad."

Channel 10 could have probably found tens of residents in other, newer neighborhoods in the City who felt the plowing they received on their streets was "outstanding" or "just fine." Snow plowing, like so many municipal services, can be inconsistent its quality and execution. So is it even really news? No.

Let's get one thing out of the way first: Philadelphia had no snow removal when any section of Fitzwater Street was laid out in the mid-19th Century. You just didn't travel other than on foot or by one miserable carriage ride during weather such as we had here this past weekend. Snow removal never became a focused public service anywhere until the "magic" of the automobile era fully-realized itself in that oh so important timeperiod called the middle twentieth century.

What's my point here? Sometimes I ask myself that as I write these posts. One idea begets another and I veer off track. Odd considering I spend five days a week helping students of mine write papers that focus on a thesis statement.

The point is that we don't have a city physically geared toward some of our public services or even utilities today. You cannot expect expeditious and thorough snow removal if you live on a street where parking is allowed on both sides and the lane for traffic is barely 15 feet wide. Ever driven a plow truck? No? That makes me, you and most of us all.

The Philadelphia Streets Department could use more funding just like a gaggle of other municipal agencies. They do their best to maintain streets in a city that has the legal right to ignore Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PENNDOT)'s one of the many gifts of being a "city of the first class" under Pennsylvania law. We're the only such city in the Commonwealth.

Philadelphia is very much more self-reliant when it comes to basic public services such as snow removal. Bear with the City when big snows hit. Be thankful you live in a city where it's hard to drive because your community is so well planned for human scale and on-foot travel. Believe me, if planners fifty years ago could have found a way to demolish the north side of Fitzwater Street, for example, to widen that street to speed traffic flow or even make for easier snow plowing, they would have. I'm sure such a process would have been covered by Channel 10, too, with different people saying such original things as "terrible" and "a shame" about it.

If you find yourself stressed about poor snow plowing in your community - just take that energy and invest in thinking about how nice it will be to elect a new mayor in 2007. You do know why that will be a great thing, right?

Back from Seeming Oblivion

My impression re my blog, and I think it's a rather accurate one, is that relatively few people have seen it, let alone read it. However, should there be someone out there in Internetland that has been obsessively checking Philadelphia Maneto for updates over the last six months - I am back. There are those that might wonder, "Why such a long absence?" Well, you see I was on a sabattical from my blogging duties - one has no idea how challenging writing blog posts are until they undertake such endeavours themselves. Okay, this is all just me being random. The reality is that life got busier and other stuff.

But we're back, baby. And I hope to post more frequently - there are certainly no less issues about which I could write. Philadelphia has a way of making sure it never gets boring one way or another.

My best to any readers as this new year picks up momentum. Thanks for taking a look from time-to-time.