Saturday, August 31, 2002

More Gruesome than the Mütter Museum

Oh God — tours of the Philadelphia slums. Not that I need them — I finished my undergraduate education at Temple University, and that's also where I went to grad school. I used to live on the border between Powelton Village and Mantua, in a basement apartment with enormous rats, moldering linoleum, and overhead pipes that gently rained chunks of asbestos onto my face all night.

Later on I lived in various squalid apartments near the Art Museum. In those days, that neighborhood was partly slum, partly gentrified. The house next door had been in one of the glossy shelter magazines; the one beyond was a drug house. (No crack in those far-off days.) One day, waiting for a bus on a street corner, I was nearly picked up on suspicion of prostitution. Hey, I was young, moderately attractive, and wearing shorts. Those were the days when a few rogue Philadelphia cops were known to pick up young girls and rape them. Luckily I had my work ID proving that I was a file clerk for the IRS. That (and my refusal to be intimidated, probably) kept me from arrest or rape, but the cops hassled me for a good 15 minutes. Then the bus came.

Still. Despite one of the most corrupt police forces in the US (the granny squad used to mug short, skinny people and then arrest their victims), despite the slums, even despite the double MOVE fiasco, I love Philadelphia. I get homesick for it sometimes, and not just for cheesesteaks and decent hot pretzels. (I rarely ate cheesesteaks when I was there — too greasy even for me.) I do miss some Philadelphia foods, such as excellent pizza, the flaming cheese at South Street Souvlaki, and every single dish at Chun Hing.

I don’t have time tonight to do Philadelphia justice: not the Art Museum, which is a hell of a lot more than just Rocky running up the steps; nor the jewelbox Rodin Museum, which houses the best collection of Rodins outside Meudon; nor the lights of Boathouse Row; nor the streets and parks when the dogwoods flower; nor the rivers; nor the comfortable, walkable size of that city. (It had better be walkable, because driving there is a mess.)

I can’t even do justice to one of my favorite sections of the city. Society Hill has narrow streets, bumpy brick sidewalks, and domestic architecture that is hauntingly spare. There are also a few very beautiful churches, including Christ Church; grand trees in Washington Square; and above all, the perfect proportions and human scale of Independence Hall.

Could a document as beautiful, as deeply respectful of the individual, have come out of the ugly blockhouse modern buildings that currently house the Federal offices in Philadelphia? Maybe. (I’ll have to check the record of the decisions handed down there.) God knows there have been plenty of atrocities perpetrated by people who lived and worked in elegant houses. But when I walked past Independence Hall, I felt proud to be an American. That architecture epitomizes the glories of the Age of Reason. (Another time we’ll deal with the less glorious side of that time period.) Walking into the Federal courthouse in Philadelphia, I felt like a serf in a Kafka novel or a luckless comrade trying to deal with a commissar.

I picked up the link to the slum tours from the blog of a friend of mine. We're about as far apart politically as we can well be, but we share certain pleasures: architecture and Philadelphia, to name two. I also introduced him to James Lileks' hilarious website. Not only does it have astonishing 1950s architecture, it's also home to the Gallery of Regrettable Food, now available as a book. Warning: don’t read his website while you’re at work, unless you want to explain your stifled laughter and wet chair to all your co-workers.

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