Look Up, Young Man!

When the phone rang at 8:15 AM on Wednesday of last week I reached for my blood pressure pills and popped not one, but two. Ordinarily that’s a big no-no. But somehow I knew who was calling. And since said individual has the talents to launch my diastolic and systolic readings halfway to the Moon, a medicinal overload was a necessity. On the fourth ring I picked up.

“Good morning, Edgar,” I said to Edgar Reewright, my blog’s editor. “It’s always a pleasure.”

“Cut the small talk, Neil,” Edgar said, “and let’s get down to business. Neil, I know you. Right now, I’m more than certain, you’re at the dining room table with a cup of coffee and a buttered, toasted bagel and your vial of blood pressure pills in front of you. And you’re doing your damnedest, without much success as usual, to solve The Philadelphia Inquirer’s crossword puzzle.”

I gulped. Heavily.

“I’m fed up with having to remind you of your responsibilities,” Edgar continued. “The five or six people who look at your blog — your wife, your criminal defense attorney, your proctologist’s mistress and a couple of others that I haven’t been able to identify — have come to expect one stab at an article from you each week. And my gut feeling is that you’re planning to let them down, that you’re all set to take a week off. Neil, this is unacceptable. There are dozens of stories out there waiting to be written. Get off your unbalanced ass and start working.”

Holy crap, not only is Edgar annoying, he also was correct. And so, after politely ending my conversation with him, I gathered myself and my thoughts together, pondered this and pondered that, and eventually came up with a story idea. Look Up, Young Man! would be its title. And central Philadelphia would be where I would attempt to make it blossom.

Thus in early afternoon I boarded a Philadelphia-bound train in the suburbs, arriving in the fair city’s central section an hour later.

“Look up, Neil,” my parents used to say to me when I was a kid walking along with my eyes aimed downward. I must have been suffering from a lack of confidence in those days, reluctant to meet the world head on. Not that I’m bubbling over with confidence all these many decades later. Anyway, I don’t stare at the ground anymore when I’m strolling around. I look straight ahead or side to side.

But upward? Well, like anybody, I do some of that. But consistently for a couple of hours or more? Nah, I couldn’t recall ever doing that in my life. It’s not exactly a world-class notion, but it had appealed to me when it jumped into my mind a few hours earlier. I liked its simplicity, its openendedness. Who knew where or what it would lead to?

Pow! Moments after exiting the train station and stepping onto Market Street I gaped at what to me is one of the iconic outdoor sculptures in Philadelphia. It’s a giant replica of an electric guitar, and it rotates, as if on a spit, 15 feet above the ground at the corner of 12th and Market Streets. It’s hard not to notice this symbol of the Hard Rock Café, which is housed within one of the classic stone buildings that once belonged to the long-defunct Reading Railroad.

But I wanted to look higher than 15 feet. So I crossed to the south side of Market Street and, lifting my eyes to the skies, took in the first of five or six incredibly tall construction cranes that I’d come across during the afternoon. As I usually do when staring at one of these amazing machines, I wondered how in the world it stays balanced and how in the world anybody is able to manipulate its movements so precisely. Good thing it’s not me at the controls.

I was off to a good start. And one block later the good start continued when a sweet juxtaposition caught my eye. Philadelphia is famed for the several thousands of murals painted on the sides of buildings, and a great one adorns the lower reaches of a 16-or-so story office building near the corner of 13th and Market Streets. The mural is titled The Tree Of Knowledge. A ladder, a good item to have if you’re planning to pluck some information and wisdom from a tree, comprises a major part of the composition. I sidled up nice and close to the wall and looked up. The office building’s windows took on a new aspect, flowing gently in streams towards the heavens. And the ladder? It led the way to the levels above. I was tempted to climb it and see what happened.

Forty-five minutes later another mural, Reach High And You Will Go Far, crossed my path where 20th and Arch Streets meet. It too is a beauty, painted on the side of a three-story structure. Only a fool would argue with its message. I couldn’t get up close and personal to it though, as I had with The Tree Of Knowledge, because it is fenced-in. But I remembered to look up. And what I saw behind the mural, one block to its east,  was a giant tower, the under-construction Comcast Technology Center, that will top out at over 1,100 feet when completed next year. It is destined to become Philadelphia’s tallest building by about 150 feet. Reaching high, for sure.

All told I spent two and a half hours roaming the streets, covering several miles-worth of territory. I spent much of the time in the areas where the city’s skyscrapers are most concentrated, and also walked along many blocks whose buildings are of normal size. My eyes darted here, there and everywhere, but I kept my mantra — look up! — firmly in the front of my mind. The patterns up above formed by contrasting buildings, the wonderful reflections of sky and surrounding edifices in way-up-there glass sheathings and windows, the loving details carved into stone not far above ground level in stately three-story homes . . . all of these made me smile.

I admired the words etched above the entranceway to The Alison Building, a calmly regal structure that faces one of the city’s finest parks, Rittenhouse Square. On an ordinary day, with my eyes looking straight ahead, I wouldn’t have noticed them. “He that soweth bountifully shall reap bountifully” they read. Hmmm, sounds like something that Benjamin Franklin might have said, I guessed. Incorrectly, of course. The phrase comes from the Christian Bible. Ben, though, probably knew and liked the statement, one you definitely can’t argue with.

My stroll ended alongside Philadelphia’s City Hall, an impossibly ornate hulk smack dab in the center of town. This monolith took around 30 years to build, finally opening for business in 1901. I’ve never been able to decide whether I like its exterior design or not. Some days I do, some days I don’t. It depends on how receptive to over-the-top decoration my mood is. As I approached City Hall from the south I naturally had to look at its highest point. Namely, the hat sitting atop the giant statue of William Penn, who more or less was Pennsylvania’s and Philadelphia’s founder in the late 1600s. That hat rests 548 feet above the ground, which made City Hall the tallest building in the city until 1987, when the first of Philadelphia’s now-numerous sleek, modern skyscrapers was erected.

Well, it almost was time to call it a day. I made my way to a subway station and rode a sub into South Philadelphia, an enormous area filled mostly with row houses. There I met two of my bestest pals, Mike and Jeff, for dinner at a pub. The hours of looking up had ended. Beers and some grub were the next things on the agenda.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story on social media)

(If you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window)

Advertisements

Walking Through Philadelphia With Colors On My Mind

I woke up one weekday morning not long ago with visions of Philadelphia swirling in my mind and beckoning me. Amorphous visions, but colorful. I hadn’t done much city exploration in awhile. Hadn’t taken a long and leisurely stroll anywhere in awhile. What’s more, the weather prediction was highly favorable: warm, sunny and breezy. A walk was in order. And so, a few hours later in my suburban Philadelphia home, I closed my eyes, clicked my heels together three times and thought beautiful thoughts about the City Of Brotherly Love. Next thing I knew I was standing at the corner of 2nd and South Streets, part of a funky area not far from the Philadelphia waterfront and some of the city’s oldest residential blocks. Let the adventure begin.

The hike took nearly four hours. I trod, often guided by whimsy, on many blocks within the rectangle formed by 2nd, Bainbridge, Broad and Arch Streets. At the start I didn’t have much of an idea of what my route would be. But this much I knew: I wanted to stretch the ol’ legs, inhale Philadelphia’s quasi-clean air and feel the wind caressing my thinning hair. And this too I knew: I wasn’t in the mood to check out any historical or touristy sites, or anything with the connotation of trendy attached to it, all of which Philadelphia is loaded with. But it wasn’t to be an aimless ramble. No way. When I landed at 2nd and South Streets, I had in mind a theme for the day, inspired by the colorful visions from earlier in the morning. I was going to look for sharp and snazzy outdoor color displays produced by the hands of man, not by nature. It was a modest quest, probably kind of a dumb one. But hey, I’m that kind of guy.

fez IMG_0212mexican IMG_0215
Things got off to a slow start. I looked all around the 2nd and South Streets vicinity and the only colorful things I could find were Fez Restaurant’s facade and a happy, yellow ghoul, dressed in red, outside Las Bugambilias, a Mexican eatery. Still, I figured that the South Street corridor — not as happening a part of town as once it was, but hanging in there fairly well — offered a decent chance to come across more than that. And I was right.

mako's IMG_0220larry fine IMG_0222
At 3rd and South I said to myself, “Wow, look at that mural.”  It was painted on the side of the out-of-business and mourned Mako’s Retired Surfers Bar And Grill. A guy on a surfboard, a girl leaning against a fat-tire car, all done in sweet pastel hues. Lovely. And didst my eyes deceive me? Directly across the street from the former Mako’s was another mural, this one depicting the torso of a fiddle-playing, electric-haired madman inside yellow and black concentric rings. None other than Philadelphia native Larry Fine, one of The Three Stooges. Yeah, man, now we were getting somewhere.

A little while ago I alluded to the fact that I’m no genius. Proof? I shouldn’t have been surprised to see the murals at 3rd and South, because I’d seen them before, though not in recent years. What’s more, I somehow also had forgotten that Philadelphia is the outdoor mural capitol of the world, thanks to Mural Arts Program, a public/private organization born in 1984. Incredibly, over 3,000 MAP- created works grace Philadelphia. No doubt, Mural Arts Program is one of the good guys. It aims to beautify all neighborhoods (from dilapidated to swank), to employ many folks in need of work and encouragement, and to inspire the general population. Big goals, all reached as far as I can tell.

DuBois IMG_0240
Well, I haven’t been able to determine if MAP was behind the painting on Mako’s side wall. But Larry Fine wouldn’t be overlooking South Street were it not for MAP, nor would two other murals that I later saw on my trek be in existence. Of those, the first I came to is attached to Engine Company 11, a firehouse at 6th and South Streets. It’s a magnificently imposing creation titled Mapping Courage. It honors W.E.B. Du Bois, the Black scholar and leader, and the firehouse itself, which for years was manned only by African Americans. The mural is beautifully designed, shining in browns and ambers that allow its few bright colors to pulsate.

Spring IMG_0260
An hour later, on Pine Street near 13th, I stumbled upon the mural known as Spring. Yowza, this one stunned me too. Look at those soft whites and butterscotch shades of the flowering foliage. How totally cool it was that real trees, in bloom, nearly were melting into the painted surface.

You know, somewhere in the middle of my expedition I realized something that never had dawned on me before. Namely, despite the murals that gas things up on certain blocks, most of Philadelphia’s residential streets, beautiful and architecturally rich as many are, sure appear tame when it comes to color. This ain’t exactly a news flash to the oceans of people more observant than I, but it’s true. And it’s largely because of bricks, bricks, bricks, the quintessential and earth-toned building blocks of Philadelphia. Bricks are sturdy, bricks are quaint, bricks have been with us humans for thousands of years. But man, I can understand how someone might decide that a brick-dominated landscape needs to be jazzed up. Someone named Isaiah Zagar, for example.

Soon after my walk began, a few minutes after I metaphorically tipped my hat to the Mako’s and Larry Fine murals, I started to come upon some unusually decorated homes, first on Leithgow Street, just off of South. And then on many other blocks near or on South. I had never seen these exterior wall decorations before, hadn’t known about them. They were something else, kaleidoscopic, multi-colored mosaics made from pieces of tile and glass. The design similarities got me wondering if one person had done all the work. I had a vague knowledge of mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar. I knew that he lived in the area and that he had established something called Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. Were these freewheeling creations his? A bit later I learned that the answer was yes, and that he had begun adorning buildings quite a few years ago.

I suppose that Zagar obtained the permissions of homeowners before going wild on their domiciles. Or maybe he didn’t. Whatever. Unembellished bricks (and other stones), goodbye! Colors and designs up the wazoo, hello! Zagar’s mosaics put me in mind of native art from South America and Africa, of children’s art, of what cave paintings from 20,000 years ago might have resembled if their creators had been high on pot. Anthropomorphic faces and figures abound. Psychedelic cellular shapes look determined to escape their confines. Words like dance and celebrate and dream are embedded in the mosaics. Zagar is a positive thinker, a lover of life and, I assume, one hip cat.

Zagar’s greatest creation is Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, a multi-level indoor and outdoor mosaic extravaganza, an arts center and a head trip that has become a go-to attraction for tourists and locals. He began work on it in 1994 in what then were abandoned lots, and endured some legal battles years later with the lots’ owners. In the end, creativity and social justice prevailed. PMG, an incorporated non-profit, opened to the public around 10 years ago. It’s at 1020 South Street. I caught a few peeks of PMG, grabbed a brochure from the admission desk and confirmed there that Zagar is the guilty party behind the glorification of the South Street corridor. But I didn’t want to interrupt my hike by entering the Magic Gardens. I’ll get back there some day and will drop my report within this blog. For now, this travelogue will end with photos of some of Zagar’s handiworks. If you click on any of them, or on any other photo in this article, a larger image will open.

IMG_0232IMG_0233IMG_0243

IMG_0246IMG_0250IMG_0251

IMG_0253IMG_0256IMG_0258