Friday, July 17, 2009

Moving over to

Starting today, my blog moves to's main blog site, which should make it easier to find. Wish me luck with the new posting format - It's the blog of 10,000 steps.

You should be able to find it here:

You can also read my regular Friday newspaper column on-line here:

Please write me at if you run into problems.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Out of the Pool: It's not just about race

If there was ever a story to push Code Red on our cultural buttons, it's the news that a private swim club in posh, suburban Huntington Valley (photo) decided to boot out a group of Northeast Philadelphia summer campers because of their race. This troubling story plays into several other narratives, and race is only the beginning of it.

It's worth remembering why the summer camp, Creative Steps, Inc., contracted with the Huntington Valley Swim Club in the first place. The answer, of course, is that Philadelphia was only able to open a token number of its public pools this summer because of the nation's devastating financial crisis, which has hit cities especially hard. The reduction in pool operations is just one more example of how America's fifth biggest metropolis is unable to provide its citizens with the sort of quality-of-life amenities that suburban dwellers take for granted. Not that anyone would have ever confused Philadelphia's no-frill public pools with those lush suburban oases like Huntington Valley, where the Olympic-size basins are surrounded by lawns and shade trees.
Inferior as they were, Philadelphia pools at least gave urban kids a small sense of what a normal, lazy summer is supposed to be like - the flapping around in the water, the pool fights, the shivering, the rush for the towel after your lips turn blue, the warmth of the sun. Now, without a neighborhood pool to cool off in, city kids have one more way to feel cut off from the mainstream of American life. I can't help wondering why the Nutter Administration didn't lease the city pools to private operators this summer People would have had to pay to use them, but the price could have been subsidized for the poorest of the poor, and the pools would have stayed open. Lots of suburban residents pay a fee to use their town pools.

But the fact is, it's gotten to the point where if you're an urban resident - black, brown or white, it really doesn't matter - you just accept it as your fate that your services won't be as good as your suburban neighbors. In the last few months, we've seen our firehouses closed, our park programs suspended, our branch libraries threatened and their hours reduced. The city has slashed funding for our great cultural institutions and for our beloved parades, which are so much at the core of our Philadelphia identity. It' not that suburban towns haven't suffered, too. It's just that most have a lot more resilience than the city, not to mention private resources. In places like Philadelphia, public amenities are often the only amenities.
Perhaps because this crisis has been so fast and deep, the long-standing inequities between city and suburban life stand out more sharply than before. Cities like Philadelphia bear huge cost burdens than the suburbs don't have to worry about. They spent a significant proportion of their revenue trying to deal with collateral costs of poverty, which leaves them with less and less for general municipal services. Meanwhile, suburbanites get to play for free in Fairmount Park which the city bankrolls. They file civil cases in Philadelphia law courts, which the city funds. They ride SEPTA, which receives its largest contribution from the city (And, remember, suburban risders pay the same fare for a long bus ride as city riders do for a short one).
So no wonder we're outraged when Philly kids pay their own hard-earned money to use suburban pools and then get thrown out. Even if the pool club's actions weren't racist, we know something is very wrong when there are some towns with big beautiful pools and others with none at all.

Rage Against the Dying of the Street Lights

This week, Changing Skyline goes into that good night and finds some nice lights. For an alternative point of view, take a look at this blog post. Only in University city!

By Inga Saffron
Inquirer Architecture Critic

The right lighting does wonders for an old city like Philadelphia. Just look at Baltimore Avenue, where a column of new street lamps is positioned among the fledgling sidewalk restaurants and secondhand shops. Come nightfall, the aspiring hipster hangout is dusted with a fairy glow that makes even the vacant storefronts look good.

Baltimore Avenue is the latest of Philadelphia's traditional shopping streets to win the battle with the automobile by ripping out the harsh highway cobra lights and replacing them with the cozy luster of pedestrian-scaled sidewalk lamps. The University City District, which raised $1.1 million to relight two blocks of the avenue between 48th and 50th Streets, staged a party last month to celebrate. Mayor Nutter even came to cut the ribbon.

Neighborhoods all over Philadelphia would love to get some of that Baltimore Avenue glow. And why not? Sidewalk lights have been shown to reduce crime, raise property values, and make an evening stroll more romantic. There's a reason Gene Kelly didn't sing in the rain under the yellow glare of a sodium-vapor cobra light.

But in these hard times, it's not getting any easier for neighborhoods to rage against the darkness. The city has always been ambivalent about giving up its cobra lights, which came into wide use with the automobile, and cast their functional blaze primarily on the street, rather than the sidewalk.

When the city's commercial districts first began to demand better light in the mid-1990s, City Hall struck a compromise. If the neighborhood raised the money to buy pedestrian fixtures, it would pick up the tab for electricity and maintenance. Now, it appears the Streets Department is reconsidering the bargain because of the current city budget crisis.

Mt. Airy USA, the nonprofit that is helping to revive the retail core of Germantown Avenue, was all set to start work on a $3.5 million lighting and streetscaping project when its director, Farah Jimenez, said she was told the city might not pay the future electric bills. Those installation funds were hard-earned and include, ironically, $500,000 from the city. Jimenez said it was one thing for a group like Mt. Airy USA to tap into government and foundation funding programs to purchase lights - and quite another to take on a long-term financial obligation. "We're a small, business-improvement district, with a tiny budget," she explained. "We feel like these lights are for the public good." And besides, she added, the city is already paying to keep the cobra lights on.

Her argument may be popular in the neighborhoods, but not necessarily in City Hall, where pedestrian lights are still often referred to dismissively as "decorative lights." Mt. Airy USA intends to go ahead with the work anyway. To be fair, the city's costs go up when pedestrian standards are installed, because they are spaced more closely than cobras, so there are more poles per block. Joseph M. Doyle, the city's top lighting engineer, estimates that a block of pedestrian lights costs two to three times more to maintain than cobra lights.
But in a citywide street-lighting budget of $14 million, how much extra can a few selected commercial corridors add to the electric bill?

Doyle said there has been no formal decision to cut off groups like Mt. Airy USA. The city has also vowed to support neighborhoods where pedestrian lights are in place, like Baltimore Avenue. But, Doyle added, "the costs are rising, and this is a time in which we're having difficulties with rising costs." Like the proposed library closures, which were later rescinded, it could be another instance where the city administration sacrifices the long-term health of its neighborhoods for meager short-term savings.

The Center City District's Paul R. Levy, whose group was the first to install pedestrian fixtures on a wide scale, believes in the power of light, and says the changeover from cobras did more to improve the fortunes of downtown than almost any of the organization's other initiatives. Since the CCD installed the first batch of acorn-shaped pedestrian globes - called brown rounds - in 1996, it has lined Center City's sidewalks with 2,100 fixtures. "This, to me, was about reclaiming the evening and the nighttime economy," Levy explained. "In the mid-'90s, Center City was a 9-to-5 place." Without a doubt, taxes from new businesses and restaurants have more than paid for the extra costs of maintaining the pedestrian standards.

You can argue about the design chosen by the CCD, which has since become the default style for neighborhood commercial districts. But those oval globes are inoffensive and blend well with the city's red-brick neighborhoods. The occasional trailblazer, like Manayunk, has opted for a modern design. South Street ordered the CCD lights, but had them painted red, presumably to evoke a festive boardwalk feeling.

More of a concern is when neighborhoods blind pedestrians with too many lights. Sometimes, the city insists on retaining its cobras even after the pedestrian standards go in. Finding the right light levels is an art as much as a science. Another problem is the gloom that shrouds some key blocks. You would think that Walnut Street from Front to Sixth Streets would be a prime candidate for pedestrian standards, but it's a black hole of darkness because the stretch isn't under the CCD's jurisdiction. Old City, too, has never pursued pedestrian lights. City Hall hasn't picked up the slack.

Too bad. The proper amount of light has always helped us find our way through the dark night. But increasingly, those pedestrian standards also sustain us through dark times.