Philadelphia

Posted by Ellen

The posture of number 6, who's been playing football this season for the Electrons of Ben Franklin High School, is ambiguous. Perhaps he's a kicker focusing on the ball on a tee; perhaps he's just unhappy about something in the game, or something unrelated to the game. Certainly, he's not celebrating.

But the evening the picture was taken, on Philly Photo Day in mid-October, the Franklin Electrons won a big game; they beat perennial city powerhouse George Washington–at G.W.–on their way to an undefeated regular season and a Philadelphia Public School AAAA championship.

Had the picture been snapped this weekend, however, interpretation would be straightforward. Yesterday, Franklin, the public high school champion, faced off against Saint Joseph's Prep, the city's Catholic school champion and last year's state champion. The Hawks of Prep crushed the Electrons, 44-27.

The magic is over now; there will be no trip to states, no undefeated miracle season. Still and all, they made a pretty good run of it, those Electrons of 2014.

Posted by Ellen

All 1,903 pictures snapped for Philly Photo Day last month can now be viewed online. We've selected a few to post here from time to time, just to remind y'all that things were really jumping that day in the City of Brotherly Love.

Posted by Ellen

Every day in Philadelphia, houses are declared dead, mostly after long years of painful dilapidation and decay. If they don't collapse or crumble of their own weight, they are demolished, eventually, without ceremony; the machines show up, and the trucks haul away the pieces.

Until Saturday, 3711 Melon Street in West Philly's Mantua neighborhood was no different from all the others. It had sheltered families since 1872. The last owner was Leona Richardson, who bought it in 1946 and brought up her son Roger there. Mantua was a good place to raise a family; the neighbors were poor, but they looked after one another, and they had stores, schools, churches, a post office, a movie theater, a firehouse. The houses were small and already old, rotting, cracking, always needing some kind of repair, but a single mother like Leona Richardson could afford to buy a home of her own in Mantua, and could live there comfortably and see her son grow up and get an education.

Eventually, Miss Leona paid off the house on Melon Street and bought another place a few blocks away, where she lived until her death in 2002. Even before she died, the old house was becoming harder and harder to keep up; after she died, it was basically abandoned. Today, shells of houses like 3711 Melon Street are offered for sale in the neighborhood for $30,000; they languish on the market; nobody thinks they're worth that much. They're 140 years old now, and in recent years they've been better homes for rats than for people.

People have tried to find shelter in them, of course. Drunks and addicts have used them when they could. Drug wars have been fought in and around them. Neighborhood children died in some of these empty houses.

The neighborhood as a whole was grievously wounded, losing families and homes and businesses and city services, and when finally the worst of the houses were sold for scrap, ripped apart and hauled away, the wounds in the fabric of the neighborhood became scars, marks of permanent disfiguring damage. Now only weeds grow tall where once families had flourished. There are more and more gaps in the blocks of rowhouses, ugly gaps, like missing teeth.

But the passing of 3711 Melon Street last Saturday did not go quietly. A proper funeral was observed, complete with flowers, organ, remembrances, eulogy, black armbands, folding fans, food, and "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." There were printed programs, with color photos of the deceased. And when the machine tore into the house, pallbearers were at the ready, accompanying the dumpster load of what was once a home to its place of final repose.

Needless to say, the funeral for 3711 Melon Street was observed in such a public manner because politicians and community organizers were wanting to draw attention to some of their work. The ground on which the lost house had stood will become part of a parcel slated for development as affordable housing. "Plan, or be planned for," several of the speakers told the gathering. 

"I've learned that you can tell a lot about a person," one of the speakers noted, quoting the very recently departed Maya Angelou, "by the way she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, tangled Christmas tree lights."

The neighbors of Mantua have had to handle a hell of a lot more than those three things. Our thoughts are with them as they deal with this fresh loss.

Posted by Ellen

The Hash House Harriers in Philadelphia celebrate St. Patrick's Day pretty much like everybody else. This photo was from 2009, but nothing's changed.

Posted by Ellen

On Sunday afternoon, there was nyckelharpa music in the air at Third Street Gallery on Second Street (don't ask) in Philadelphia's Old City.

That doesn't happen too often in Philly or really anywhere in the United States, with the possible exception of the Seattle area, home to the American Nyckelharpa Association and site of occasional dance evenings accompanied by nyckelharpists.

In Sweden, on the other hand, there are an estimaed 10,000 nyckelharpa players, and the keyed fiddle is featured on the back of the 50-krona note and has in fact been declared the country's official musical instrument. Swedes have been building and playing and composing music for nyckelharpor for more than six hundred years. Five-hundred-year-old stained glass windows feature angels playing the nyckelharpa.

The modern version of the instrument has 16 strings, 4 of which are played by the bow; the other 12 vibrate sympathetically, producing a resonant, vaguely organ-like sound.

The bowed string on the upper side of the neck, closest to the player's body, is a drone, unaffected by the keys and used rarely. The other three bowed strings can be shortened by pressing different keys to produce several octaves' worth of tones; there are three rows of keys, each dedicated to a different string.

Most nyckelharpa music harks back to folksong or polka, but the instrument is used by a handful of Swedish rock bands, and some serious musicians can play pretty much anything on it, such as Bach's Partita No. 2 in D Minor.

The nyckelharpa occasion on Sunday was a reception for an art show featuring two Philly-area artists: Judith Schermer, who exhibited twelve paintings of clotheslines, and Priscilla Snow Algava, who showed a variety of drawings and paintings of "matriarchs and sages." 

Posted by Ellen

Last night, we saw a ram with a pomegranate in Fitler Square, Philadelphia.

Posted by Ellen

As leafy as the trees may be, when the summer sun takes aim at bricks and concrete, the light will find a way.

Posted by Ellen

House on Cypress Street near Broad in downtown Philly. 

Posted by Ellen

Looking out over Philadelphia through the window of a restaurant on the 37th floor of 2 Liberty Place, a downtown skyscraper.

Posted by Ellen

Philadelphia history is conveniently compressed: Benjamin Franklin flew a kite, then all those guys rang the liberty bell, and then Rocky Balboa ran up the steps of the art museum.

Today, Franklin is easier to find on an oatmeal box than on the city streets, and the liberty bell is cracked and silent. But Rocky? The fighter who never was, except, of course, in the movies? He's big and bronze and easy to find, right by the foot of the museum steps.

Tourists from all over the world seek him out daily, eager to pose for pictures with fists raised triumphantly, just like his. This group included my brother-in-law and his sons, visiting from Israel.

After their moment with the statue, the tourists run up the steps, just the way Sylvester Stallone did in the movies. But you may recall that when Rocky "really" was training for that first fight and running all over town, it was wintertime. He wore a hoodie and sweatpants, and we could see his breath.

This past Fourth of July weekend, the Rocky wannabes among the tourists–and they were legion, as always–were in shirtsleeves, if not shirtless. The sun was unforgiving, and the air was almost too thick and heavy to breathe.

But straight up the 72 steps everybody went, as their friends held up cellphones to record the moment. Entire tour buses emptied out to run up the steps. Children ran up with their grandparents. Dogs ran up with their people. Cyclists ran up with their bikes in their arms. Earbuds or no earbuds, everybody had "Gonna Fly Now" in their heads.

Search for "Rocky steps" on YouTube, and you'll find 86,500 results. Here's a nice short one in Spanish, viewed by more than a quarter of a million people.

The crazy part, of course, is that Rocky isn't real. People all over the world say his story in the movie is inspirational, proving somehow that even a nobody, just another bum from the neighborhood, can beat the best.

"I will do the stairs on my 50. birthday, december 2013," wrote one of the inspired people. "From germany just for one day. It's crazy, but it's a dream since 30 years. In all of us there is a rocky...."

At the top of the steps, some people feel ready to take on the world. Some of them propose marriage. Some of them go on into the museum, eventually. All of them turn around at the top and look out over the city, just like Rocky, and raise their arms high and then . . . probably they start thinking about cheesesteaks.