Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Last Man Who Knew Everything

Joseph Leidy of Philadelphia


Joseph Leidy at the Academy of Natural Sciences.

Joseph Leidy (1823-1891) is best known as a pioneer in the study of dinosaurs. In 1868, he guided a team that erected "the first fully articulated dinosaur skeleton display in the world." The skeleton was put on display at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, which at the time was located on the northwest corner of Broad and Sansom, and it revolutionized the concept of a natural history museum.

In addition to attracting visitors to museums - lots of visitors - dinosaurs were also instrumental in getting people to think seriously about the then-novel concept of evolution. Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection had only appeared in 1859, and it would be an understatement to say that the guardians of received wisdom were not very receptive. Leidy, in a letter, wrote of the importance of dinosaur displays: "They break up old and rather fixed views about the world being created just as we now see it. Nothing tends so much to lead people to believe in the existence of former races of animals, as such restorations."

(See Robert McCracken Peck and Patricia Tyson Stroud, A Glorious Enterprise: the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and the Making of American Science, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, [2012], pp. 136-138, 140.)

Leidy was also a pioneer in the use of the microscope, which he called his "first love." His work in this area included parasites (he found the source of trichinosis in pork and later recommended more thorough cooking as a preventive measure) and his beloved rhizopods, tiny creatures some of whom are better known as amoebas, which he lovingly reproduced in illustrations that showed a very considerable artistic talent. (See Leonard Warren, Joseph Leidy, The Last Man Who Knew Everything, New Haven, Yale University Press [1998], pp. 65, 69, 166-169; and Henry Fairfield Osborn, Joseph Leidy 1823-1891, City of Washington, National Academy of Sciences, 1913, pp. 351-352. This last is available online.)

Leidy was probably the first in America to use the microscope in forensic medicine. Shortly after he graduated from medical school, the coroner of Philadelphia hired him as a part-time assistant coroner. It probably didn't hurt that the coroner was his cousin Napoleon B. Leidy. During his four years on the job (1845-1849) Joseph showed that nepotism could have an upside. In 1846 a farmer was murdered in north Philadelphia, and a day later a man was arrested because of the blood on his clothing and also on the hatchet he was carrying. This fellow would probably have benefited from watching a few noir movies, but of course movies hadn't been invented. Anyway, he claimed that the blood came from chickens he had killed. Leidy threw some samples under his microscope, and declared that he was not looking at chicken blood. The suspect, apparently lacking any plausible plan B, wound up confessing. (Warren, pp. 59, 72.)

But perhaps the thing about Leidy that most astonished his contemporaries, from students in the hallway to colleagues in the faculty lounge, was the simply amazing amount of stuff he knew about the natural world. From dinosaurs to clinical pathology, botany, zoology, rocks and gems, "if Leidy didn't know, no one knew," in the words of his biographer Warren (p. 192).

Leidy had a happy life and many friends, and he was a pillar of three major institutions in Philadelphia: Penn's medical school, the Academy of Natural Sciences, and the Wagner Free Institute of Science. He received the M.D. degree from Penn's medical school in 1844 and in 1853 was appointed professor of anatomy at the medical school, a position he held for nearly four decades. He also served as dean of the medical school, curator at the Academy of Natural Sciences and, in the 1880's, president of that institution,  and as president of the Wagner Free Institute. And he taught natural history at Swarthmore for many years.

It seems that just about everybody liked Leidy. The few who didn't like him seem to have been annoyed that, even though he was a really nice guy, you couldn't push him around.

Leidy was born at his parents' home, 312 North Third Street, which was conveniently next door to his father's hat store. In 1864 he married Anna Harden, daughter of the Reverend Robert Harden of Louisville, Kentucky. In 1876 the couple adopted Allwina Franck, the orphaned daughter of a Penn engineering professor. Leidy was raised as a Lutheran, but migrated in later years to Unitarianism. His funeral was held at Frank Furness's First Unitarian Church at 2125 Chestnut Street. (Warren, pp. 1, 143, 145-146, 221, 225.)

Leidy was a part of the western migration of Philadelphia during the nineteenth century. He grew up on Third Street, and in 1859 he purchased a house at 1302 Filbert Street, where he lived for many years. In the last year of his life he lived at 2125 Spruce. (Warren, pp. 19, 173, 221, 270.)

The Dr. Joseph Leidy House at 1319 Locust Street was the home of Dr. Joseph Leidy, Jr., who was Professor Leidy's nephew. It was built several years after Uncle Joseph died. Penn's online biography of Leidy gets this wrong in the last paragraph.

The site of the Filbert Street house later became part of the City Hall Annex, which is now a hotel. Across Filbert today is the city's criminal justice center.

Things obviously looked a bit different when Leidy was living there. For several decades he got to watch the construction of City Hall, a block away. Although the Reading Terminal was not built until after his death, there were markets on 12th Street before the Reading Terminal arrived.

A student who lived with the Leidys, Charles S. Dolley, tells us that Leidy "did most of the marketing and I frequently accompanied him to the 12th St. Market and carried home the basket of meat, fish or vegetables which he selected." At the time hucksters would also walk the streets, calling out their wares. Fresh crabs were frequently on offer in the summer, and when Leidy heard the soft-shelled crab men "crying 'crabs, crabs,' he would take some change from his pocket and say, 'Charlie, suppose you run down and get some crabs and a pitcher of beer from the corner saloon' - a very respectable place on the corner of 13th and Filbert - in fact, right next door. Then we would have a jolly snack." (Warren, pp. 143-145.)

Although not a great traveler, Leidy did get to Europe four times. And from time to time the world came to him. A Glorious Enterprise has a wonderful photograph on page 275 that shows Joseph Leidy standing with Edgar Allan Poe in the Academy of Natural Sciences at Broad and Sansom, during the winter of 1842-1843. The authors report that Poe spent time at the Academy researching mollusks; the photograph - a daguerrotype - is "the oldest known photograph of an American museum interior."

Much later in life, Leidy served on the committee at the University of Pennsylvania that supervised the work of Eadweard Muybridge, who was conducting photographic studies of human motion. (Warren, p. 240.)

While Leidy was slowly moving westward across Philadelphia, his two main employers were doing the same thing.

From 1751 to 1801, the University of Pennsylvania's college was located at Fourth and Arch. The medical school was founded in 1765 and located in Surgeons' Hall, on Fifth near Walnut.  (Because the site of Surgeons' Hall is in the Independence National Historical Park, there is a plaque.) In 1801 the college and the medical school moved to Ninth and Market, where they stayed until the move to West Philly in 1872.

The Academy of Natural Sciences held its first meeting in 1812, in a private residence near the northwest corner of Market and Second. It was soon renting a meeting space above a milliner's shop at 94 North Second Street, and in 1816 moved to purpose-built quarters on Arch between Front and Second. The building was presumably designed by William Strickland, who was on the building committee. In 1826 the members, moving the collections themselves, to save money, occupied a former Swedenborgian church (which was definitely designed by Strickland). This structure was located at 12th and George (now Sansom) streets. In 1840 the Academy continued its trek west, to Broad and Sansom, where it stayed until 1876, when it moved to its current location on Logan Square, at 19th and Race. (Peck and Stroud, pp. 2, 6, 13, 30, 32, 43, 144, 149, 154 fn. 69, 410.)

Warren (p. 207) says the Academy moved to Broad and Sansom in 1826. I believe he is mistaken.

Warren does have one significant criticism of Leidy. It's an interesting point, with which I happen not to agree, but it is well worth discussing.

Leidy lived at a time when modern science was really beginning to take off, with the experimental method becoming more and more important.  Leidy, though well aware of these developments, continued to work throughout his career in the more traditional vein of descriptive science. Warren thinks that Leidy should have jumped on the experimental bandwagon. (Warren, pp. 6, 41, 92, 105, 236, 252.)

(Think of Louis Pasteur saying, "Look at all those microbes in the fresh milk." And then saying, "I wonder what happens if we heat the milk." The first is observation. The second is the beginning of an experiment.)

I have several reactions. First, the idea of looking very carefully, and then reporting precisely what you have seen, lies at the base of modern science. Today we may take this approach for granted, but it was not always so.

For example, maggots seem to have the ability to appear out of nowhere. In reality, they come from very tiny eggs, and later in life they turn into flies. Leidy spent a good amount of his time, over the years, dealing with people who sincerely believed they had witnessed the spontaneous generation of life. (Warren, pp. 106, 116, 122, 130.)

Second, there is no guarantee that Leidy would have been half as good an experimenter as he was an observer, reporter, and illustrator. I'd say Leidy knew what he was good at, and he stuck to it. There's a really bad John Wayne movie from 1968 called Hellfighters, in which the veteran character actor Jay C. Flippen says to Katharine Ross, "Your father is the best there is at what he does. No man can walk away from that."

Third, observation continues to be in considerable demand even today. A recent article in the New York Times carries the title "The 8 Million Species We Don't Know." In it, the eminent entomologist Edward O. Wilson suggests that biodiversity is a good thing, estimates that there are currently 10 million species on the planet, of which only 2 million have been described, and argues that we can't save species if we don't know they're there.

If Joseph Leidy were alive today, his services would definitely be in demand. Eight million species to go. He'd be a happy man.


The statue of Leidy is by Samuel Murray (1870-1941). It was originally installed at the west front of City Hall in 1907 and moved to its present site in front of the Academy of Natural Sciences in 1929.

Monday, May 28, 2018

It's the Road Design, Stupid

Fiddling While Rome Burns

Emily Fredricks memorial, 11th and Spruce.

Death on our streets. Where does it come from? One school mutters about crazy bicyclists and obtuse pedestrians. Another school mutters about homicidal motorists.

And there's truth in all this muttering. People are human. They make mistakes, they act impulsively, and sometimes they act in anger.

But I fear the foibles of our common humanity are distracting us from the root cause of our problem: Our streets are not designed to kill, but they might as well be.

I've been studying the streets of Philadelphia for a number of years now. At some point it turned into a project - reimagining our streets. If I had my druthers, what would our public spaces look like? How would they function? It started as a personal project, but soon enough I found myself gravitating into the Vision Zero orbit.

Looking back, it seems stunningly obvious - to me, anyway - that safety should come first as a design principle. It turns out that this idea is actually controversial. Not that people come out in favor of death. Rather, they shift the conversation to other priorities - most notably, the need for speed.

This phenomenon of diversion and distraction is very common in our public discourse. There's always another shiny object for someone to toss into the air.

Council Plays Ping-Pong
Here's a recent example of politics as circus. Last year the Philadelphia Parking Authority was criticized for not doing enough to collect on old parking tickets. The PPA responded by dialing up the rate at which it was booting cars for unpaid tickets. The people expressed their unhappiness. City Council passed a parking amnesty, and a Council member got to take a star turn as a hero of the people.

A nice little game of ping-pong. Prod the PPA beast. When it stirs, shackle it. The people applaud. Take a bow. Makes you wonder if the whole thing wasn't a setup from the get-go.

The hot air of politics fills the sails of the ship of state. But if the ship doesn't also have adequate ballast in the form of thoughtful policy, it is likely to capsize in a strong wind.

An appropriate policy solution in this case might be to enact a statute of limitations on old parking tickets. Several people have suggested it, and it sounds like a good idea to me. Will it happen? I doubt it. Politicians are like movie moguls in that they love to recycle old ideas. Indiana Jones, Star Wars. How many sequels and prequels? Look for another parking amnesty in a few years.

Meanwhile, from an operational point of view, this whole kerfuffle never should have happened. The PPA is now even more distracted than usual from its basic mission of managing parking. Think about it: How does hounding people over 30-year-old parking tickets improve access at the curb today?

Zombies on the March
Love of the familiar, compounded by a very human resistance to new ideas, means that old ideas can remain powerful long after they have been thoroughly discredited. Some people call such ideas zombies - the walking dead.

Here's a zombie: parking minimums.

For many years, American zoning codes have commonly required a minimum number of parking spaces in or near new or heavily reworked buildings. Everything was official, and it certainly looked scientific, except that it wasn't.

In 2005, Professor Donald Shoup effectively blew the whistle on what he called "a precise, disciplined folly." The demolition had been going on for years, but with the 2005 publication of Shoup's book The High Cost of Free Parking, planners and elected officials no longer had an excuse to ignore the new thinking.

Shoup's demolition job is actually quite beautiful. I don't want to get into the weeds here, so I'll just skip a couple of hundred pages of data, statistical analysis, and closely reasoned argument laced with beautiful invective, and give you this: "Like alcohol prohibition in the 1920s, minimum parking requirements do more harm than good and should be repealed." (Donald Shoup, The High Cost of Free Parking, 2011 ed., p. xxxi. The "precise, disciplined folly" line is on p. 11.)

How It Played in Philly
So how did all of this play out in Philadelphia? Well, actually, we started off pretty well. In 2012, after a great deal of work, Philadelphia adopted a new zoning code that drastically reduced parking minimums. For multi-family dwellings the requirement, which had been one parking stall per dwelling unit (1/1) was reduced to three spots for every ten units (3/10).

In the Rittenhouse area of Philadelphia, where I live, the new law simply reflected the reality on the ground. Half of all households in the area don't own cars. In other parts of Center City the figure is higher - there is one area where 75 percent of households do not own a car.

You'd think this issue would be settled, but it's not. City Council is currently mulling not one but two bills that would push up the parking minimum for multi-family dwellings from three in ten (3/10) to six spaces for every ten dwelling units (6/10).

I honestly have no idea what we would do with all of those parking spaces. Storage closets, maybe.

It's my understanding that Council is reacting to complaints that curbside parking is very tight, which is certainly true in my Rittenhouse neighborhood. The Center City Residents' Association, which covers Rittenhouse, wrote a letter to Council opposing the proposed increase in parking minimums. CCRA noted that "it is not at all clear that mandating more parking space for multi-family housing will in any way reduce the shortage of on-street parking." It went on to suggest that as long as curbside parking is effectively free (a residential parking permit costs $35 per year), the curbs will be jammed. "Therefore," CCRA concluded, "if one purpose of the bill is to increase available street parking, a better way to achieve that goal might be to increase parking permit fees to market rates, thereby encouraging those using street parking to purchase vacant space in neighborhood lots."

To my mind, parking minimums are an intellectually bankrupt concept. I think it would be helpful if Council informed itself on the matter and possibly even came up with a comprehensive parking policy that looked at parking both on the street and off.

In fact, I would go even further. I've been looking at this subject for a number of years, and I'm not at all sure the parking problem is soluble in the context of a monomodal transportation system centered on the private automobile. I think we need to shift some basic assumptions, and start thinking seriously about what a balanced multimodal transportation system would look like, in broad outline and in fine detail.

Speed Kills
Life in the traffic lane suffers from the same dominance of bad old ideas that we have seen in the parking lane.

Since the very beginning of cars, there have been two problems that have defied solution - congestion and crashes. Starting in the 1920s, traffic engineers have used three main strategies to try to alleviate these problems. They have sorted incompatible types of traffic into separate spaces - most notably putting pedestrians on the sidewalk and giving the space between the curbs to motor vehicles. They have made more room for cars, shrinking sidewalks, fattening streets, and building new roads, most notably expressways and, later, interstate highways, that expressly prohibited any traffic other than motor vehicles. And they worked hard to increase the speed at which cars could travel on all these roads, both limited access highways and local streets. (For more on all this, see Peter D. Norton, Fighting Traffic, 2011.)

All three of these initiatives have had disastrous effects on the fabric of the city and on city life, and they have not resolved the issues of congestion and crashes.

So, once again, maybe it's time to accept the idea that the problem is insoluble as stated. Perhaps we should move away from the monomodal model, and get serious about a multimodal transportation system.

Something More
While we're at it, perhaps we can ask yet another question: What if a street can be not just a thoroughfare but also a public space?

Let's look at an individual block - 13th between Walnut and Chestnut. People complain about all the people sitting at tables on the sidewalk, eating and drinking and possibly even having a good time. And it's true they can get in the way of pedestrians, particularly those with strollers or in wheelchairs. The block could definitely be better organized, but the fixes are obvious and readily available.

To my mind, though, eliminating the outdoor restaurant seating should not be a part of the solution. The diners set a nice tone and vibe for the street, and it would be a poorer space without them.

And if you analyze the block as an outdoor room - a place to dwell for a time, rather than just a place to pass through on the way to somewhere else - perhaps you will come to the conclusion, as I have, that the diners are not interlopers. They belong there.

See also At Least It Makes People Laugh, Cars and Bikes - the Back StoryFinding Our Way to a Parking Policy, Parking: Storage v. AccessProfessor Shoup's Parking Book, Reimagining Our Streets, Why Are European and American Bicycling So Different?

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

A Certain Ramshackle Appearance


Who's in charge here?

Recently I've been having a look at the route of the old 23 trolley in Center City, mainly the southbound piece on 12th Street. And I've been having a number of thoughts. Including, who's in charge here? Have a look at these sign poles at 12th and Chestnut. Is there anyone who actually looks at this stuff and has the power to say, Wait a minute?

Don't get me wrong. In the modern world, I think we need more signs than they had years ago. For instance, the sign up on the building that says "Chestnut Street" is probably a bit subtle for today's world.

 It says Chestnut Street, if you can find it.

But do we, for instance, need two signs at Sansom Street telling us that we're at Sansom Street?

Trolley mast good. Second street sign bad.

I originally went to 12th Street, not to follow the trail of the trolley but to follow up on the news that, years ago, the Academy of Natural Sciences was located here - somewhere around 12th and Sansom. Good luck on finding any sign of that.

Once I was there I started looking around, and the archaeological remains of the 23 trolley are everywhere. I actually felt like getting a pith helmet so I'd look like some intrepid Englishman looking for dead Egyptians.

The most obvious remains are the tracks, of course. There's a long and tortured history. The tracks are a serious hazard for bicyclists. Motorists don't like them because a car tire on a rail acts like it's hit a patch of ice. Bicyclists have it worse; they can catch a wheel in the flange groove (or flangeway, if you want to be a stickler). At any rate, good things do not flow from that. After some unhappiness, the Philly Streets Department and Septa undertook to remove or pave over the rails at a bunch of intersections - these are the spots where bicyclists are most likely to "catch a crab," as rowers put it.

Disabled track, Sansom St. Filling the groove with asphalt helps.

That still leaves a bunch of track out there, and frankly a lot of it is not in very good shape. There are those who still are waiting for the 23 trolley service to be restored, and I like trolleys, so I don't want to get into an argument on that. But it seems clear that restoration of the line will involve replacement of a high percentage of the track (not to mention dealing with some gnarly ADA issues), so here's my compromise. Let's neutralize the track that's there - remove it or pave it over - and dramatically increase the usability of 12th Street - and 11th Street, which carried the northbound trolleys in Center City. Later on, if actual momentum arises for restoring the 23 trolley route, I'm prepared to be a very sympathetic listener.

The threat from the remaining track is very real. I was talking with an acquaintance who lives near Jefferson Hospital, and he described what it was like to go flying after his mountain bicycle's wheel dropped into the slot. Fortunately he wasn't seriously injured, but if Septa and the City think they've dealt successfully with the safety issues on 11th and 12th streets, they're mistaken.

One thing I didn't realize until I was looking for the old Academy of Natural Sciences site is that the tracks are not the only extant remains of route 23. There are masts. There are wires, up in the air, supported by the masts. My initial reaction was rip it out. It's just cluttering up the landscape. But I got some pushback from friends who like old things, and my view has evolved.

Frankly, I like the masts. Yes, they add to the clutter, but they are cool - I occasionally think of them as the big stone heads on Easter Island. A Philly version, of course. And I think they make the streets safer. They're sort of like bollards on steroids. I've seen a lot of light poles knocked over onto the ground. I've never seen a trolley mast knocked onto the ground.

Trolley mast at Locust and 12th. Needs more than paint.

It's true that many of the trolley masts could use some TLC, and in some cases perhaps they should be removed, but I now think that should be on a case-by-case basis. And maybe we could look at some colors other than pea-soup green.

Trolley wires, 12th and Sansom.

That brings us to the wires, which do tend to walk into a picture and take over. I was initially annoyed by this - there's some very nice architecture on 12th Street. But again my thinking has evolved. I'm okay with the wires. Let's keep them. Maybe string lights - LEDs of course. That could be quite festive, and help 12th Street compete with 13th as a restaurant venue.

But let's get rid of the tracks. And let's hire someone to sort out all the stuff we're sticking onto our streets. If you think of a block as an outdoor room, the idea of a designer who can curate the street seems a natural evolution.  At any rate, someone needs to extract some order and perhaps even elicit some quality from the cacophony we see so often on our streets.

Is anybody asking, Does this work for people?

See also Gordon Cullen and the Outdoor Floor.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Striping Webb Street



Webb at Deal Lake Drive. The yellow boxes mark the setback required by state law.

Webb Street is a five-block street in the northern part of Asbury Park. It is in a mixed-income neighborhood and runs north-south, two blocks from the beach. On the south end it is anchored by The Asbury, a new hotel, and on the north end it stops at Deal Lake.

The northern four blocks of Webb were recently repaved, and more recently the paint crew showed up and worked its magic, trying to help cars and people find their proper places.

Webb does have an issue. Lots of people live here, and many of them have cars (this is New Jersey, after all). Then in the summer the "New Yorkers" show up to go to the beach, and they're very fond of Webb because it's close to the sand, and there are no meters (for now). So the striping didn't just include individual parking stalls and zebra stripes for the pedestrians - there are oceans of yellow stripes, carefully arrayed within yellow box borders, designed to protect the sight lines at intersections, and also to protect driveways.

Try telling the judge you didn't know it was a driveway.

It's well known that New Yorkers are not great respecters of clear space, whether at the corner or in front of driveways. (The locals tend to refer to all visitors as "New Yorkers," regardless of what the license plate says. I took ten minutes the other day and noted Auslander license plates from Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee.  Oh, and New York.)

The stripes get curvy so motorists can turn without agita.

Curiously, there have been complaints that all this paint is marring the beauty of a historic neighborhood, and detracting from the attention that should be paid to the lovely old buildings in the area. I have two thoughts. One is, nobody ever seems to complain about parked cars doing the same thing. Second, as regular readers of this blog probably know, I find asphalt to be extremely boring. I think the white and yellow stripes add visual interest to a road surface that looks essentially like a black hole is space. And I think the white and yellow also go very well with the green of the many lawns in the area.

Victorious by the Sea. That's the building's name.

Here's an 1883 Victorian, surrounded by white and yellow stripes. I think it's doing just fine. For Asbury Park, this is a really old house. The town wasn't founded until 1871. (This house recently moved from the east side of Webb to the west side, but that's another story.)

See also The Pavements of Asbury Park, What Streets Can Learn From Boardwalks, Pop-Up Railings for Crosswalks, A Poor Man's Bumpout, Gordon Cullen and the Outdoor Floor.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Which Side Are You On?

Sometimes It Comes Down to This

2100 block of South Street.

I'm on the left. And I hope you are too. Call it eye candy. Call it visual interest. My eye goes to the facade on the left. There's something to look at. The one on the right looks like it's basically trying to disappear, and it's doing a pretty good job.

As urban guru Jan Gehl puts it, "If ground floor facades are rich in variation and detail, our city walks will be equally rich in experience." (See his book Cities for People, p. 41.) Gehl goes on to suggest that thriving commercial streets all over the world tend to have a new shop or booth every 16-20 feet, which means that someone strolling along will see something new every five seconds or so (p. 77).

Stretches of certain Philadelphia streets do pretty well at this test - Walnut and Chestnut of course, parts of South Street, both east and west, East Passyunk. There are others.

Residential Streets
But what about residential streets? Are we doing enough to keep the walk interesting? I'd say yes and no. Some blocks in Center City are so beautiful that I don't mind a certain sameness. Take the 1800 block of Delancey, with its facing rows of gorgeous Georgians. Even here, though, not all the buildings are in the Georgian style, and if you look a second time you'll notice that the Georgians are not all identical. There is a pleasing variation in the details of the facades. And it doesn't hurt to have a Frank Furness building plopped at each end of the block. Two very different buildings, both very different from the Georgians.

Other blocks can be more diverse and still read as a coherent and pleasing whole, with buildings of different size and use and age finding a way to meld together. It's a balancing act, but to my mind a touch of chaos is preferable to dead conformity.

As Jane Jacobs notes, this is the way cities lived before the clear-cutting of urban renewal: "A successful city district becomes a kind of ever-normal granary as far as construction is concerned. Some of the old buildings, year by year, are replaced by new ones - or are rehabilitated to a degree equivalent to replacement. Over the years there is, therefore, constantly a mixture of buildings of many ages and types. This is, of course, a dynamic process, with what was once new in the mixture eventually becoming what is old in the mixture." (See The Death and Life of Great American Cities, p. 189.)

If you're looking for an example of what a street like this can look like, take a stroll down the 1900 block of Panama.

And if the architects are having trouble getting the mix right, we can always bring in the artists. A blind wall can bring life to a whole street with the help of a mural (walk by 17th and Waverly), or a mosaic by Isaiah Zagar (see this story on the 800 block of Pemberton).

Or street furniture like trash cans and utility boxes can become accent points: Send in the Mural Arts Program or students from the University of the Arts. (See What Should We Do With the Humble Dumpster?)

I have one more idea. Let's take a cue from the abstract expressionists and try some color field painting.

Yellow Houses
Oops. It looks like we're already doing this. Have a look below. Without the yellow facade, this would probably be a car ad. With the yellow, architecture wrests back primacy from the automobile.

And, as an added treat, just this once, the building owns the street down to its toes. Normally, parked cars drown the bottom half of the ground floor. I think this state of affairs does untold damage to the pedestrian experience, and I think we're so used to it we don't even notice what we don't have.

11th Street at Waverly.

As Jan Gehl notes, the ground floor is overwhelmingly what pedestrians look at. But they do look up occasionally; Gehl suggests the person on the street can relate pretty well to the first five floors of a building (p. 40). Think about the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which is 68 feet above the ground. People can see it just fine. Michelangelo made sure of that.

So our new corps of color field painters should treat the whole facade as their canvas. Let's pull back a bit from this building and see what it looks like from Waverly.

The whole building.

Now let's pull a bit more back up Waverly, even though it's trash day. An accent point can pull together a whole lot more than itself.

From Waverly near Jessup.

Here's another yellow building. I've been passing it for years, and a few days ago, for the first time that I know of, the parking spot in front of the building was empty. And I had my camera with me.

2100 block of Locust.

And here's another.

2000 block of Waverly.

One more. You'll notice that the street trees can be much more than bit players, if you can see them.

25th at Panama.

Let's look at some other colors.

Other Colors
Blue, for instance. This one is across the street from Frank Furness's Thomas Hockley house. (For more on Frank Furness in the Rittenhouse area, click here.)

21st Street south of Walnut.

I call this one the Jolly Green Giant.

Naudain at 24th Street.

I really like this one. It's a little hard to find. Addison Street in this block is a stub that doesn't open onto either 10th or 11th. You need to walk down Waverly and then turn onto a little north-south stub called Alder, and a few steps will take you to Addison.

1000 block of Addison.

Plenty of Painted Buildings
At the risk of stating the obvious, there are plenty of painted buildings in Philadelphia. Very few of them look like the house on Addison Street above. I'm trying to make the case for a bolder use of color. And the good news is that I can do it by walking around and taking pictures of stuff that's already there.

Don't get me wrong. There are a lot of lovely pastels around town - two of the yellow houses above are pastels. I particularly like them when they use features like doors, windows, and the cornice as accent points.

Red: A Special Case
Years ago S. Weir Mitchell wrote a novel about Philadelphia called The Red City. It's still red. We've got plenty of red brick buildings, including the new Museum of the American Revolution.

So why would you paint a red brick building with brick red paint? Do you really think we don't notice the difference?

Painting red bricks red displays, to my mind, a certain lack of imagination. I understand the desire to fit in, and I understand that the paint may be covering a myriad of flaws, and I'm not opposed to painting brick. But really, that color? You're not fooling anyone. The facade lacks the texture of brick and the variety that comes with the contrasting color of the mortar. Next time, have a look at chrome yellow.

Plaque remembering S. Weir Mitchell, 1500 block of Walnut.

See also City Beautiful Sprouts on Cypress Street, Gordon Cullen and the Outdoor Floor, Putting Some Park into Old Parking Lots, Do We Secretly Want Ugly Cities and Dangerous Streets? 

Monday, March 5, 2018

Streets Without Joy


A happy street: Smedley between Spruce and Pine.

There was a highway in Vietnam called The Street Without Joy. Actually the French gave it the name - La rue sans joie.  The phrase dates back at least to a 1925 movie starring Greta Garbo, which in turn was based on a 1924 novel, Die freudlose Gasse by Hugo Bettauer. Bernard Fall, with his 1961 book Street Without Joy, brought the phrase to a wide American audience.

Too many of our alleys in Philadelphia have earned this name. One of the reasons is razor wire, which continues to show up in places that I would not expect it.

Let's talk for a minute about the semiotics of razor wire. I don't know what it says to you, but here's what it says to me: war zone. And while its owner may view it as a defensive device, preventing access by unwanted visitors, it also clearly has an aggressive function - to intimidate. Not just potential burglars, but anybody walking down the street.

If you're simply interested in protecting your home, modern technology provides a veritable cornucopia of products that are both discreet and effective. Sensors, cameras, the ability to berate an intruder while seated in front of your computer at work - I won't do the alarm company's sales job here, but really, if you're willing to give up the mine's bigger than yours thing, you're wasting your time with razor wire.

And if your psyche really cries out for some physical barrier to lacerate someone trying to come over a gate or wall, maybe it doesn't need to intimidate every passerby. Maybe it could even be funny. You could tear a leaf out of the Book of Isaiah Zagar. The presentation below is not particularly intimidating, but anybody trying to go over it is likely to lose some blood - maybe not enough to bleed out, as sometimes happens with razor wire, but certainly enough to enable identification. So it depends a bit on how much damage you really want your defenses to do.

900 block of Waverly.

I understand the romantic appeal of razor wire. The fact is, there was a war in our cities. As Adam Gopnik puts it in a recent New Yorker article, "it's hard for those who didn't live through the great crime wave of the sixties, seventies, and eighties to fully understand the scale or the horror of it, or the improbability of its end."

But that war is over, and maybe, just maybe, it's time for us to demobilize. I understand that the murder rates in Baltimore and Chicago are unacceptable - frankly, the murder rates in Philadelphia and New York are unacceptable - but this is no longer a war. Kaboni Savage is behind bars, and he's going to stay there. The same with Rudolph McGriff. Beyond Philadelphia, there's Whitey Bulger. He's behind bars too, at long last.

As Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage cried out in panic during a lull in the Thirty Years' War,  "Peace has broken out!" Some people may be irreconcilable, but I suggest that perhaps it is time to turn our swords into plowshares and think about what a city at peace would look like.

Maybe we should think about streets with joy, rather than streets without joy. I think this may be a stretch for some people. It's not just a question of removing negatives, like razor wire. We need to think about what sparks joy.

Here, for example, is the 1800 block of Cypress. It's a nice street - no razor wire that I can find, clean, orderly, even reasonably well organized from a design point of view, at least for a service alley.

1800 block of Cypress.

But I'm just not feeling it. A while ago I put together a rating scale for our alleys, ranging from F to A. I'll give this one a C.

With the amount of money that's available on this block, we simply have to do better than a gentleman's C.

You don't have to go crazy. For instance, take Smedley Street, pictured at the beginning of this story. If Grandma Moses had lived in Philadelphia, she would have painted Smedley Street. Of course Smedley has the advantage of having the homes face on the street rather than being a service alley with a parade of garage doors.

So maybe you need to shift from Grandma Moses to Isaiah Zagar, or even Piet Mondrian. (Hint: Garage doors don't have to be boring. It's a choice.)

There's more in the bones of Philadelphia than the Federal style; we should recognize that and build on it.

Smedley again.

See also
Alleys, My New Favorite AlleyDo We Secretly Want Ugly Cities and Dangerous Streets?

Monday, February 19, 2018

What Should We Do With the Humble Dumpster?


1600 block of Moravian.

I've been thinking we should worry about making an alley neat and clean as a first step, and then we can dream about making it pretty. But the folks at Alma de Cuba seem to have had a different idea, and I confess they may be on to something.

Let's have some fun! We'll paint our back facade yellow, the same as the front on Walnut Street.

It's possible I've been spending too much time in these alleys, but I really like this presentation. All they did was slap on some yellow paint, but the pigment pulls the whole motley assemblage together and makes a coherent, and even attractive, statement.

Don't get me wrong. We're still looking at a mess. But it's an attractive mess. It's talking to me, pulling me in.

But let's look again. What's pulling me in? The yellow on the wall is carrying the whole picture. The street furniture is just along for the ride.

On the left you have a mildly abused dumpster, a two-yarder, and on the right you have a grease container. (It turns out there's a bunch of money in used cooking oil - see this story in the New Yorker - hence the sturdy construction.)

What could we do to get these two objects to step up and say a few lines, visually - you know, actually participate in the performance? Well, maybe we should decorate them.

Okay, you say, Bill has finally gone round the bend. He's talking about decorating a dumpster. Forget it, Bill. It's a dumpster.

But wait. Philadelphia, in its wisdom, and with some help from the Mural Arts Program, decorates trash trucks. Here's one strutting its stuff at the 2016 Philly Free Streets event.

South Street at Broad.

In addition, Mural Arts decorates the occasional Indego bike. The Barnes Foundation has also been working with the Indego bike share program, and frankly I'm not sure whose bicycle we're looking at here, but I like it. Note that the decorated bike is an accent point in a sea of blue.

1900 block of Walnut.

Trash cans? Sure, why not. Mural Arts again, mainly around South Street, east of Broad.

South Street at 7th.

And here's one of a bunch of utility boxes decorated mostly by University of the Arts students, again mainly east of Broad. I frankly have no idea what goes on in these boxes, but this one sure looks nicer than the usual drab hexahedron so beloved in the world of utilities. Even fits in with its surroundings. (For a story from UArts, click here. For a PlanPhilly story, click here.)

Lombard Street at 10th.

So let's do the same thing with all the two-yard dumpsters rambling around the byways of the city. They should be a part of the performance.

Taming the Wild West
City Council has over the years made a number of moves to improve management of the city's dumpsters. In 1989, according to the Streets Department website, City Council passed an ordinance requiring the licensing of dumpsters and regulating their use.

Then in 2016 Councilman Squilla got an ordinance passed that bans new dumpsters in Center City. (For a story, click here. For the legislative history, click here.)

This is fine as far as it goes, but of course it doesn't do anything about the dumpsters currently lining Moravian Street. The obvious thing is to get them off the street. I have a feeling that's going to take a while.

Camouflage
If you don't feel like decorating your dumpsters, and you're disinclined for now to take them inside, here's another option - hide them in plain sight. There are a number of ways to do this.

First, let's look at a minimalist approach. The screen below separates a bunch of dumpsters from the area to the left, which is used for outdoor seating by the neighboring restaurant during good weather. It's surprisingly effective for such a minimal intervention. Call it the bikini approach to coverage.

Moravian at 18th.

Next we have what I will call a corral. I can't call it a shed because it doesn't have a roof. Also it's corraling the dumpsters against the wall, keeping them from bumbling around in the middle of the street as they are wont to do. Kind of like cattle in Dodge City, in the old days.

Stock Exchange Place at 18th.

Finally we have an actual shed. This one almost disappears, it's so quiet. And yet it's in a good location and functions well. An organic part of a thoughtful design.

Lombard at 18th.

See also Alleys, City Beautiful Sprouts on Cypress StreetThis Isn't Just Any Alley.