In West Philly, Redemption for a Strip Mall

First Appeared in Hidden City.

The Methodist Episcopal Church at 40th and Sansom Streets in University City will soon meet its maker, to be replaced by a one-story glass box anchored by a Dunkin Donuts. In contrast to the house of worship it supplants, the new structure will undoubtedly flaunt its strict utility, claiming fidelity to none other than the cheap materials with which it will be constructed. Its proponents will lean on the tired aesthetic theory of “less is more” to mask a dearth of ideas and mere cost cutting.In the Pennsport neighborhood of South Philadelphia, St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church was recently leveled to clear the way for a subdivision of four-story townhouses. They’ll look like all the other new homes cropping up in Pennsport with algorithmic consistency.

Most of us accept this proliferation of sameness at the loss of architecturally significant buildings as an inevitable outcome of the city’s redevelopment process. Yet contemporary architecture can also be employed to reverse this process, as the newly consecrated University City Chinese Christian Church, built on the ruins of an unfinished strip mall in West Philadelphia, attests.

Spanning the northwest corner of 45th and Walnut Streets in the Spruce Hill neighborhood of West Philadelphia, the elegant geometry and muted color palette of the UCCCC’s low-slung new home stands in stark relief to the richly embellished Association of Islamic Charitable Projects mosque–the former St. Andrews Methodist Church–opposite it on 45th Street. A white cross splits one section of the church’s façade into asymmetrical polygons, giving it the illusion of dimensionality. Aside from this abstract niche, a flat awning suspended by cables is the only other element that breaches the building’s flat profile.

Dr. Philip Siu, a church elder and practicing pediatrician who played a pivotal role in acquiring the building, explained with a laugh, “It’s not simplicity by design. It’s simplicity by default.” When the church outgrew its former home in Chinatown, Siu went in search of a building that could accommodate the growing congregation of Chinese students and recent immigrants. The unfinished strip mall, built on the site of a former gas station for a cost of $1.1 million, would do. The cinder block box had languished on the market for years and was a source of much anger and frustration in the neighborhood.

The UCCCC consulted with brownfield redevelopment experts and conducted soil testing to obtain a clean bill of health for the site. They obtained permits to add a second floor with 10 residential units and a mezzanine level overlooking the ground floor sanctuary. In two months they raised the funds to purchase and transform the building.

After meeting with the Spruce Hill Community Association, church officials agreed to enlist a congregant, architect Fan Zhang, to enhance the façade. The architect favored clean lines and subtle variations of grey and beige. The whitewashed interior, also designed by Zhang, rivals the church’s exterior for laconic grace. In lieu of frescos and stained glass, there are white acoustic panels and exposed ceiling beams. But for the wooden crucifix, tables and lectern, the sanctuary could be mistaken for a “smart” lecture hall, replete with projectors and stacking chairs.

That it took a church to add the subtle accents and architectural enhancements that make this new construction a welcome addition to the neighborhood approaches irony, were it not for Dr. Siu’s earnestness. Although some churches have been lost to new construction, many religious communities in West Philadelphia are in fact thriving, thanks in large part to immigrants willing to repurpose bland commercial spaces and storefronts into places of worship, challenging the notion of a tidy zero-sum game between the old and sacred and the new and profane.

During the week, the sanctuary doubles as a cafeteria for a parochial school that rents space for its 60 middle-school aged students and community groups hold meetings there too. On the upper floor there are church offices and housing for visiting scholars, partly subsidizing the church’s operations. The church’s simplicity may owe more to budget constraints and happenstance than to any architectural theory, but the overall effect works for the UCCCC’s collegiate congregation. Perhaps coincidentally, it echoes the Lutheran policy of eschewing frivolous ornamentation.

Members of the church are drawn from the roughly 5,000 Chinese living in University City, a number that doubled between census years 2000 and 2010. As one group of students returns to China, credentialed and imbued with the faith, another wave of students arrives to replenish them. This fall, Drexel University alone counts 700 Chinese students among its incoming class, Dr. Siu estimates. Young families and seniors make up the rest of the 180 congregants.

At first glance it would appear that the church of hard angles and the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects mosque across the street have little in common. Designed in 1907 by prodigious local architect Clarence Eaton Schermerhorn, the mosque’s windows alone span two stories, their frames richly contoured and painted a deep green. Huge decorative braces secure the central building’s pitched roof. The house of worship began its life as St. Andrews Methodist Church, changing hands a few times over the years before it was nearly lost to a fire. The AICP rehabilitated the burned out church in 1991 and established their North American headquarters there. Since then, the AICP has served as a hub for the polyglot of Muslims who live nearby; the mosque’s presence and rigorous programming have helped stabilize this once-blighted stretch, making it attractive to UCCCC. Like the UCCCC, the AICP houses daycare facilities and a parochial school. Mosque members opened Manakeesh café in a vacant bank across the street.

As UCCCC grows and engages with the diverse community around it, one expects its congregation to have a similarly salutary effect on the neighborhood.


The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse by Pascal Bruckner

Reviewed for Nomadic Journal.

French cultural critic Pascal Bruckner has made a career out of diagnosing strains of psychic weariness in Western life. In The Tyranny of Guilt, he warned that excess levels of guilt over past atrocities had hamstrung Europeans, rendering them incapable of confronting the problems of the present. In a seeming departure, Perpetual Euphoria found Bruckner questioning the shrill consumerist imperative to pursue happiness at all costs, making a case for the right to be maladjusted, even downright unhappy. Unlikely as it seems, there is a loose thread running through both of these books: Neither suffering nor happiness can form the basis for action. Both must be subordinated to freedom. With his latest book, Fanaticism of the Apocalypse, Bruckner has teased out another strain of inertia tugging at the Western conscience: ecological catastrophism.

We’ve been groomed by unthinkable calamities like Fukushima—reinforced by Hollywood disaster flicks, or vice versa—to see cataclysms looming on the horizon, and to filter anything less compelling. Bruckner calls this the “seductive attraction of disaster.” Like the threat of nuclear annihilation that previous generations grappled with, the threat posed by global climate change is so vast in magnitude that it can paralyze us with fear. Put another way, climate change is a panacea, allowing us to trade a multitude of lesser fears for one all-encompassing fear. Here we find ourselves in the same territory as Tyranny: saddled with guilt for having incurred nature’s wrath, unable to formulate concrete solutions. In the case of climate change, the correctives on offer—consuming less, renouncing growth, retreating from science and technology—at best merely staunch the bleeding and at worst, turn us into irrational ascetics.

Bruckner isn’t skeptical of climate science, per se; if anything, he argues for a more rigorous form of scientific inquiry. Rather, his polemic takes aim at two broad follies attaching to the problem of climate change.

The first is the folly of enforcing a strict moral boundary between the natural and the artificial. The paragraph heading, “Nature is not our guide,” telegraphs Bruckner’s unsentimental view of nature. He belabors the point in Hobbesian fashion: “The whole human adventure is a merciless struggle against the physical, biological, and psychological fatalities imposed on our species.” So much for the original affluent society of hunter-gatherers. Moreover, human intervention has had a salutary effect in some places. He cites the role of the human hand in shaping and cultivating the hyper-fecund forests of the Amazon: “The parts of the forest transformed by human presence have a richer variety of flora and fauna than the virgin parts.” Nonetheless, Bruckner recognizes the beauty and intrinsic worth of the vast, protected open spaces of the American West. A compromise: “We have to protect nature, but we also have to protect ourselves against nature.”

The second folly is that of rich nations already enjoying the comforts (and delicacies) of development preaching austerity—a strict carbon diet—to the poorer nations of the global South. Such an asymmetry amounts to a denial of human potential and civilization itself, defined for Bruckner’s purposes as “a multiplication of desires.” If this sounds like a defense of the status quo, it is. “Luxury and refinement are indispensable for the blossoming of any great civilization,” Bruckner proclaims, with an echo of the French colonial administrator.

But Bruckner goes further. Each new technological advance is an enlargement of ourselves, granting us new powers and redefining our very nature. In perhaps the creepiest passage in the book, he claims that “the future human being will be prosthetic or he will not be at all.” Communist philosopher Slavoj Žižek made similar remarks for the documentary film, Examined Life: “We need more alienation from our, as it were, spontaneous nature. We should become more artificial. We should develop a much more terrifying new abstract materialism.” Zizek shares Bruckner’s conviction that the way to confront the threat of ecological catastrophe is more, not less, faith in technological work arounds and abstract management of natural systems.

Fanaticism isn’t all polemic and provocation. There are mordantly entertaining asides that showcase Bruckner at his best, skewering the fashions of the day. One section in particular reads like Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, or Teju Cole’s update, “In Place of Thought.” See, for example, the entry on EQUITABLE:

When a product is simultaneously ethnic, ethical, and equitable, it accumulates the maximum of meaning and justice. Adding ‘eco’ and ‘bio’ to any word is enough to sanctify it. What is sought, through the proliferation of abbreviations, is neither more nor less than absolution. The nomenclature has a purifying aim.

Thus absolved by the arbiters of fairness, we may go about buying and consuming with a clean conscience.

Pope Francis recently chastened that we have “slapped nature in the face,” and that “we may have exploited nature too much.” It would appear that ecologists, whom Bruckner attacks for their latent religiosity throughout Fanaticism, and the oldest religious institution in the West, the Catholic Church, have reached common ground, united in their condemnation of the ravages of consumerist capitalism and crimes against nature. Bruckner frames the argument as a choice between the self-imposed poverty of religious types and insatiable, market-driven consumption—a false choice—casting his lot definitively with the evangelists of perpetual growth and novelty.

Should we be skeptical of Bruckner’s cool head in the face of probable ecological collapse, rejecting it as a cynical disavowal of the real threat at hand? Skeptical, yes, but not to the point of fanaticism, for there is much generosity and nuance to be found in Bruckner’s defense of the French humanist tradition and Enlightenment ideals, not easily written off as cynical stalling. In a paradoxical twist, he muses, “Perhaps the Old World is better adapted to change than the New, to the extent that its ideal of competition is less ferocious, the cult of work less frenetic, and the ability to rediscover slowness and sweetness—that is, new uses of time, new intoxications with the minuscule—more firmly anchored.” Bruckner finds much to be optimistic about. From an “age of gluttony,” floated on credit and violently punctured by the economic crash of 2008, we may be entering an “age of duly considered desires.” The world hasn’t ended. Perhaps that is enough to be optimistic about.

In Kensington, Developers & Architects Confront The El

Appeared in Hidden City.

When an elevated train rolls through Kensington you not only hear its low rumble, you can feel it. Windowpanes rattle. Streetlights flicker. During peak hours a Market-Frankford train passes every four minutes, punctuating conversations in its wake. The El’s imposition on the visual landscape is as daunting, its studded steel support beams straddling either side of the street like a thousand-legged Behemoth overwhelming anything in its way.In fact, even in the best of times it isn’t easy to live or do business under the El. But five decades of economic decline has only heightened the destructive impact of the train line. Between Girard and York along Front Street–and certainly well beyond there along Frankford Avenue–there are nearly as many vacant lots as there are active business operations, used car lots, and row houses.

Yet the El is also convenient. A decade or so after the difficult rebuilding of tracks and stations was completed, it is a critical asset to the mending river ward neighborhoods it passes through. Service is improved, ridership is up, and certain stations–notably Girard and Berks–have become vital neighborhood hubs. Developers are beginning to respond to the reversal of fortune: what was seen as repellant is now attracting eyes, investment, and new ideas. And for their part, Kensington civic groups would like to see Front Street under the El flourish as a commercial corridor while retaining some of the factory neighborhood’s historic feel.

Recently, a few of these developers have teamed with architects on the vanguard of sustainable, place-making design to begin shaping some of the rugged real estate. In 2009, the Philadelphia School District enlisted SMP and SMK Architects to design the handsome LEED Platinum-certified Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts at Front and Norris Streets, by the Berks station. This month, the developer Peter Crawford and Interface Studio Architects revealed a striking design for a four-story mixed-use building near Front and Master.

Both these projects demonstrate that building in the shadow of the El presents challenges and necessitates inventive design approaches as well as sensitivity to context. Several other projects that have been proposed or are in the works fail this test, though not for lack of public engagement. Examples of unremarkable projects include the Tower Investment’s 30 townhouse development at Front and Girard on the border of Northern Liberties and Kensington, and the now canceled low-income residential development that would have replaced two historic textile industry banks at Front and Norris Streets. In both of these cases a neighborhood group—the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association and the East Kensington Neighbors Association, respectively—intervened to foster a better outcome (the future of the Front and Norris banks remains uncertain as the Norris Square Civic Association reviews a new set of proposals for the site).

A further challenge is what to do with the remaining textile mills whose workers the El once served. While adaptive reuse projects have not kept pace with the alarming rate at which fires have destroyed so many of these factories, a handful of former factories have been, or are in the process of being repurposed.

At Front and Master, the Mulherin’s Sons building has seen slow motion renovations–and a change of owners–over the last few years. Eventually, the former whiskey distillery will house a ground floor café or restaurant, as indicated by the orange liquor license in the window, and residential units on the upper floors. It has lost none of its historic character, retaining its high arched windows and much of the handsome woodwork within.

At Front and Palmer a former barrel factory was converted into an industrial chic catering hall, complete with 35 foot ceilings, exposed beams and chandeliers made from repurposed bedsprings.

As Hidden City’s Nic Esposito reported earlier this year, the original Bromley carpet mill adjacent to the York-Dauphin El stop will be converted to mixed use apartments and retail, if its owner Jesse Muñoz has his way. Muñoz’s plan for the historic mill–a progenitor of Kensington’s textile economy–however is still a long way from coming to fruition. The response from the EKNA has been lukewarm, as neighbors question Muñoz’s capacity to meet the design challenges of building apartments smack up against the El.

Muñoz could learn a thing or two from Interface Studio Architects, the boutique firm with an appetite for tight constraints, whose design for Peter Crawford’s four story mixed-use building will feel like an organic response to the environment. ISA cut its teeth on the 100K house, a proof of concept that green home building can be done cost effectively–the single-family prefab house cost around $100,000 to construct and is LEED Platinum certified. The mixed-use building will include two stories of offices or another commercial use, coming nearly level with the elevated tracks before plunging downward at an acute angle and sloping back up and away, with terraces embedded in the sloped, metal-faced wall. Double stud wall construction, a tight building envelope, and triple-glazed windows will help abate noise from the El, improving the building’s energy performance as well.

ISA’s principal architect Brian Phillips says such an approach, including double stud construction and careful air sealing “can be done at a reasonable cost.” However, at the hearing earlier this month where officials from the City’s Zoning Board of Adjustment approved the project, the developer’s team argued successfully that the costs associated with building desirable residential units next to the El constituted a hardship, meriting the zoning variances they requested.

At that same zoning hearing, another developer made a similar appeal for hardship. Her plan for a project near Front and Montgomery called for six brick-faced townhouses divided into triplexes, with no commercial use and parking in the rear. Other than setting the houses back 20 feet from the curb, the developer did not propose any additional noise abatement measures.

This proposal has the advantage of filling in a half-empty row of row houses and stores, adding eyes on the street across from the Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. But it was not clear from the developer’s presentation how the units would be priced or to whom they would be marketed (a decision on the project was held by the ZBA pending some missing paperwork). In fact, the question of the market for residential units under the El afflicts both these new construction proposals and Muñoz’s plan for adaptive reuse of the Bromley Mill.

Chris Somers, a realtor who works largely in Fishtown and Kensington, says most people would rather live a few blocks to the east or west of Front Street, benefiting from proximity to mass-transit without the noise and “stigma” associated with the El. Somers recently marketed Norris Point, a ten unit townhouse development, incidentally designed by ISA, on a relatively quiet block a short walk from the Berks station. But he also says that innovative projects like Crawford’s will lead to more infill development. For now, residential units are a risky proposition, and easier to rent than sell.

One El stop south, at Front Street and Girard Avenue, a large-scale residential development designed by JKR Partners may be an indication that the stigma associated with living under the El is dissipating. The fire last July that destroyed the L.H. Parke coffee roastery cleared the way for Bart Blatstein’s Tower Investments to build 30 townhouses and mixed-use buildings there. One row of houses, framed and sheathed at the time of this writing, will front on Hope Street. Another row of mixed-use buildings with commercial space, not yet begun, will press up against the El.

JKR Partners’ residential projects tend to be self-contained, sometimes gated, and they usually provide one-to-one parking. Despite the proximity to the El, this project will unfortunately not depart from that scheme; parking will be placed in the center of the parcel, surrounded by the residential and commercial buildings. But had it not been for the NLNA’s input, it’s likely the project would have been even less responsive to the site than it is. The civic group recommended the mixed-use side of the project maintain an industrial look, a nod to place, and take the El into account. JKR Partners returned with a design that moves the hallways to the east side of the 10 mixed-use buildings facing the El, creating a buffer for the living spaces further in.

Lauren Eckberg, the architect on this phase of the project, says she is still mulling noise abatement approaches for those buildings.

The standard for context-sensitive, energy efficient design along the Market-Frankford line was established with the construction of the Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts at Front and Berks. The school’s large, double-glazed windows allow for ample daytime lighting. None of the windows face the El, a good portion of the building is set back from the curb, and classrooms are situated in the rear of the building, a design strategy that–to be fair–would not work for a mixed-use project with retail offerings.

But it is the building’s energy efficient envelope that really keeps out the noise. “Something goes by every two minutes. Before the building was sealed it was so loud,” says Jane Rath, SMP’s lead architect. “People don’t really notice it now.” Moreover, the laminated glass that the School District requires for safety, performs better at noise abatement than double-glazed windows alone would have. “There was no way we could ignore the El,” Rath says.

A Useless Man: Selected Stories by Sait Faik Abasıyanık

Reviewed for Nomadic Journal.

Nearly all of the stories gathered in Sait Faik Abasiyanik’s A Useless Man: Selected Stories can be read in the span of a short subway ride, say, between Oakland and Berkeley, or Brooklyn and Manhattan. The longest story in the collection, an excerpt from “A Cloud in the Sky,” I reserved for an unplanned jaunt to Ocean Beach, San Francisco. Come to think of it, since I have come into possession of Abasiyanik’s Stories, I have found myself pursuing loosely structured goals in the region just as an excuse to hop on a train and dive into another succinct tale. The stories in this collection can be read slowly and methodically, without any apprehension of not finishing. They are stories of village and urban life in and around Istanbul in the first half of the 20th century, ideally suited for traveling without aim. In other words, they can be read as they were written, in public, and in haste.

The narrator of “I Can’t Go Into Town” brags that “I can dash out a story while I wait for the ferry, balancing on one foot.” Indeed, one is rarely on sure footing with Abasiyanik’s charmingly unstable avatars. Like Robert Walser’s walking stories, these meditations on natural beauty and village life often dance around an ugly truth. Lost innocence, unrequited love, misanthropy. Turn down the wrong street and there they are, crystallized in the form of vegetables left out to dry in the cornice of a building. And the more beguiling and bucolic the tales start out, the less prepared we are when, in the words of translators Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, “he pulls the carpet out from underneath our feet.” The narrators of these tales share the proclivity (or the prerogative in the case of “I Can’t Go Into Town”) to write themselves into corners, to say, “I prefer not to” write this story. Beleaguered alternately by self-doubt and the will to entertain, they offer up instead scraps of anecdotes, crusts of bread and cheese rinds left over from a day in the life of a town. Thus, in the course of outlining the reasons why he can’t go into town we meet, in passing, the gluttonous deli owner, the shrewd baker, the barber with his stock of worn stories (Which will it be? Anecdote #1, or #2?), the worldly coffeehouse proprietor. We can sense the narrator’s genuine feeling for the place, which makes his reasons for demurring all the more obscure. “I don’t go into that bright white coffee house. I don’t sit opposite someone who doesn’t want to see me, and I don’t say a word to the proprietor.” And the reason? “I can’t go into town, and that’s that.” If this final explanation does not satisfy it is because Abasiyanik understood, as Vila-Matas observed of Walser in Bartleby & Co—that fictional compendium of disappearing writers—“that writing that one cannot write is also writing.”

But life goes on, happily oblivious to the vacillations of a recluse. Or not so happily. In “I Just Don’t Know Why I Keep Doing These Things,” the narrator, another lonely soliloquist, harbors motives that, in their inscrutability, flirt with the sinister. Here, the anecdotal layer, with its warm patina of camaraderie and routine, the baby fat of familiarity, is dispensed with, leaving us aghast in the presence of unadulterated malice. Our anti-hero, the one who doesn’t know why he keeps doing these things, sits in the window of a café watching the people go by. As a kind of a game, he is thinking of the inherent evil of man and the meaninglessness of life. Fodder for light conversation, no? An old man who also frequents the café becomes, inexplicably, the subject of his scorn. When the old man’s prayer beads go missing the narrator leads him to believe that he has stolen them when he has not. For reasons unknown to himself, he continues to taunt the old man. “I feel bad for that poor old man, too. I even go so far as to look into his eyes, as if to say I’ve stolen his prayer beads and feel no remorse.”

“A Useless Man” is the story of another stranger, an anonymous man who has not left the comfort zone of his neighborhood—all of four square blocks—in seven years. We accompany him as he makes the rounds, stopping at the café for a cappuccino, for a tripe soup from a street vendor, for a handful of bruised oranges, and down a street fraught with menace where an unrequited love, an olive-skinned Jewish girl, once lived. These encounters abound with projections and counter-projections, but no real communion. “The city is so huge, and everyone’s a stranger. Why do they even make these cities to pack in this many people, when people don’t like each other anymore? I just don’t understand. Is it so that people can deceive and humiliate and murder each other?” Abasiyanik’s strangers keenly register the malaise of a rapidly urbanizing landscape, and so turn inwards, to the familiar, the village within the city, secretly relishing the distinctly modern, alienated pleasures of the flâneur.

If Abasiyanik’s flâneurs occasionally find the world “picturesque,” they are a far cry from those “connoisseurs of empathy” described by Susan Sontag in On Photography, a collection of essays likening the street photographer of the 1970s to the older Parisian flâneur. In “Four Plusses,” the narrator, a genial face in the crowd, has the bad luck of being asked to read the results of a medical exam by a desperate, illiterate man on the cusp of landing a job. The results are not good. The narrator vows henceforth to assume an “arrogant air, so that no one else would dare approach me for the rest of the day.” The moral of the story: Having a sympathetic face in a crowd invites all kinds of human misery. But Abasiyanik cannot look away. If the stories in this collection tend to dwell on the “marginal” and the “deviant,” it is not out of any particular obsession with the grotesque. Like Diane Arbus, whose work was misunderstood by Sontag, it is his aim to capture the incongruence between mask and motives at the precise moment when it is revealed.

In Abasiyanik’s teleology, a petty thief is admirable insofar as he is beautiful, young, daring, and if the object of his desire is a silk handkerchief for his beloved. Here, Abasiyanik’s robust sensuality finds its purest expression: “In summer, and right through to the end of the walnut season, boys hands smell only of peaches and plums in this place and their chests give off the aroma of hazel leaves as they roam the streets half-naked in their buttonless striped shirts.” He looks the other way as the boy pilfers the stockpile he is supposed to be guarding. Another, more vigilant night-watchman shoots the boy as he is leaving. “He was dying. His fist was clenched. When the watchman pried it open, a silk handkerchief shot up from his hand, like water from a spring.” Other local heroes include Papaz Efendi, a pagan philosopher disguised as a priest, and Mustafa the Blind (“Carnations and Tomato Juice”), a laborer who persists at cultivating a patch of briars by the sea, paying “[w]ith the nails of `his fingers.” These are men who would never consider the “triumph over nature” a fait accompli, men for whom nature’s continual renewal is a source of endless joy requiring wise stewardship. Contrast these characters with Konstantin Efendi (“The Last Birds”), a greedy islander who shoots so many birds from the sky that they never return.

Sontag could have been writing about Abasiyanik when she wrote of Walser, “[he] is a miniaturist, promulgating the claims of the anti-heroic, the limited, the humble, the small—as if in response to his acute feeling for the interminable.” Abasiyanik’s anti-heroes are the “innocent monsters” of Baudelaire’s roving gaze, and they are possessed of better, more vital instincts than the feckless technocrats reconfiguring the vast ebbs and flows of nature for selfish human purposes. But fill a few square blocks with the Papaz Efendis and Mustafa the Blinds of the world, and throw in a few bold handkerchief thieves, and you’ve got a real neighborhood. But lest we indulge in false nostalgia for an innocence that we may never have had to lose in the first place, we are reminded of the man who could not and would not go into town. “I can imagine it now, all those little twenty-five watt bulbs glowing, and all the flies.” Perhaps this is reason enough not to go into town. But if you must, make sure to bring along Abasiyanik’s Selected Stories for the trip.

Theater Of The Undead

Appeared in Hidden City.

When the Roxy Theater went dark around this time last year there were no sweeping pronouncements on the death of cinema. That would have been a bit histrionic in this instance: by the time of its closing the small two-screen theater operating out of two row houses on the 2000 block of Sansom Street had fallen into disrepair, both physically and existentially, screening easily digestible big studio fare better served up in one of the many multiplexes ringing the city. But a third-rate cinema is still cinema in a city with precious little screen space.

Enter the Philadelphia Film Society, whose annual Philadelphia Film Festival, ongoing now, showcases independent and buzz-worthy international films for ten days each October in a patchwork of theaters spread across the city, with plans to turn the cinema into a film center. Now, a year on, with structural renovations and new digital equipment in place, PFS at the Roxy is a month from its official opening, on November 15.

This past weekend film-lovers got a glimpse of the $200,000 renovation still in progress. The finishing touches will come later; the PFS plans to be screening films in its new home even as the dust is settling.

Under the Film Society’s stewardship, the undead cinema has added a digital projector, bigger screens, and a surround sound system. The sweetest part of the deal for film nerds: the Roxy will retain its 35mm projectors and reel to reel system for repertory programming—as well as keep a variable speed projector on hand for screening silent films at the right speeds, the Roxy’s new manager, Alison Silverman, explained. Perhaps the new incarnation of the Roxy holds out the promise of the resuscitation of film culture in Center City. Cinema may have been pronounced dead, but somehow it refuses to die.

Owing to its small capacity, the PFS can afford to take some curatorial risks. “It’s not a huge venue. I think it’s ideal for showing art house fare, documentaries and experimental films,” the Society’s president J. Andrew Greenblatt told the website Geekadelphia earlier this year. The Film Festival’s reputation for quality and occasionally challenging programming goes a long way in building confidence in the new venture. Besides being the new home of the Film Festival, the Roxy will also anchor the PFS’s diffuse year-round activities. They’ll look to screen midnight movies, retrospectives, and host a monthly series called Filmadelphia, a grant-funded platform for emerging local filmmakers to showcase their work.

Like the revamped theater it houses, Sansom Street is something of an anachronism in the tidily groomed Rittenhouse neighborhood. The 2000 block of Sansom Street in particular harbors the kinds of businesses that are often relegated to the outskirts. Long in the Tooth specializes in new releases on an old medium: vinyl. Fat Jack’s slings comics, and the Classical Guitar Store sells, not surprisingly, six-stringed things of the wooden variety. There’s Helium, a comedy club just intimate enough to ensure that no heckler’s remarks go unpunished. The Adrienne, home of the InterAct Theatre Company, is also small, perhaps even cramped, and it fills up. (A performance space, though, can only benefit from tight quarters.) And if you look close enough you’ll find, tucked between an architect’s offices and a meditation center, the elephant on the block: the Adonis Cinema and Sansom Street Gym, a cruising ground hidden in plain sight.

Of course there are restaurants and juice bars as well, but every neighborhood has them. “It’s the entertainment that made this block special,” says John Ciccone, who owns several properties on Sansom, including the Roxy. He has seen the block evolve over the years, and it was his strategic interventions that helped make it the thriving performing arts corridor it is today, a place to see a show, shop and dine, rather than avoid–not a distinction one often attributes to a landlord. As early as 1961, Jane Jacobs observed that the Rittenhouse neighborhood “is the only old neighborhood in Philadelphia which is spontaneously rehabilitating its edges and extending its real estate uses.” The longhairs favored Rittenhouse Square as the site of their love-ins and war protests. Flower power spread to those edges: the now vacant Rittenhouse Coffee Shop once housed a folk club that saw the likes of Arlo Guthrie and Joni Mitchell. Improbably, the Spanish Renaissance revival row house lingers on as a reminder of a time when Sansom Street attracted more of a bohemian contingent than it does today.

After the hippie flowering had faded, Ciccone recalled, the block entered into a doldrums. Urban decay had set in throughout the city. “There was a rough, tough club in there, and there was a neighborhood group trying to get them out,” he said. That’s when he made his first intervention. Ciccone bought the liquor license from the nuisance bar, opened a jazz club called Curtains, and began bringing in prominent touring acts. Crowds soon snaked around the corner to see Sonny Rollins or Stan Getz blow. (Helium now occupies the building where the jazz club had its run.) In 1981, Ciccone “set up the Wilma at the Adrienne.” The celebrated theater group flourished, eventually expanding into its current home at Broad and Spruce when it outgrew its original space.

While performing arts venues have done well, the Roxy floundered in the wake of shifting movie-going habits, but it still managed to persist as a cinema. Its nearest movie house neighbor, the Boyd on Chestnut Street, with its opulent art deco interior, did not. In their history of Rittenhouse Square, Robert Morris Skaler and Thomas H. Keels lament that “almost all of Philadelphia’s great movie palaces from the 1920s were demolished or changed to other uses within a half-century of their construction.” The Gilded Age movie palaces, paradoxically, have proved harder to revive than the modest Roxy. Unlike the Boyd, the Roxy project has not had to contend with historic preservation issues. And unlike the 1920s movie houses that once lined Market Street, the Roxy never turned to porn, a shift that usually signals the terminal stage in the life of a movie house.

Connecting the PFS with the Roxy, a relative tabula rasa of a theater, has been Ciccone’s latest intervention on Sansom Street. He recognized that the block’s profile would be enhanced dramatically with the addition of an independent theater. Bringing a movie house into the 21st century, however, wasn’t going to be cheap. A Knight Arts Challenge of $150,000, won earlier this year, pushed the project along. Greenblatt’s team staged a summer film series to raise awareness about its matching mission, and they crowdsourced another $47,776 via Kickstarter, with 479 backers chipping in an average of around $100 each.

When it made its appeal on Kickstarter in March of 2013, the Film Society had expected it would be screening films full-time by the spring of 2013. But as with any construction in Philadelphia, it hit a few snags. Due to a permitting oversight, work was halted on one of the two lots while the team reapplied to have the neighboring lots consolidated into one. Paperwork in order, the renovations inched forward. Workers blasted through walls to make one building, brought the concrete floors even with one another and raised the ceiling to make room for the bigger screens, PFS’ director of development Rebecca Cain told Hidden City. In the process, the theater lost capacity, scaling down from 140 to around 80 seats per theater, while adding new chairs (cheers!), acoustic paneling for sound isolation (muffled applause), and improved ADA accessibility (polite clapping). After the theater reopens, PFS officials will turn their attention to the front of the house, with plans to refresh the lobby, concessions, lounge and bathrooms and install a new marquee.

If Hemingway Wrote Javascript by Angus Croll

Reviewed for Nomadic Journal.

Angus Croll’s book-length thought experiment adds a new twist to the common trope in technical writing of using literature as dummy text for exercises: This time the literary references are the exercises. In If Hemingway Wrote Javascript the literary masters tackle classic programming problems in ways that will be recognizable to well-read programmers, with style to spare. Borges, Lewis Carroll, Dickens, and David Foster Wallace devise algorithms that generate prime numbers. (At least two of these authors would not have been out of their element here). James Joyce, Jane Austen, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Jack Kerouac take on factorials. Can you guess whose code has a jazzy, improvised feel? and whose abounds with neologisms and non sequiturs? Croll plays the role of omniscient narrator, offering post-code explanations that dig into the rationale behind each writer’s approach.

Hemingway comes at a pivotal time in the history of the modern web’s lingua franca. With the advent of standards-compliant browsers and Ajax, and Javascript’s ensuing emergence as a Serious Programming Language, there has been a call for greater adherence to a set of best practices and even style rules. The call has been heeded, with syntax-checking tools like JSLint and JSHint hastening along the standardization of the notoriously flexible, forgiving language. Against these developments, If Hemingway Wrote Javascript offers a playful rebuttal, showing us that the language can, in the hands of stylists, be a vehicle for self-expression, or at the very least the expression of a style.

Because each of our secret Javascript adepts has such a distinct voice and approach, style and syntax can’t be ignored. But while he is regaling us with a thought experiment, appealing to Javascript and literary nerds alike, Croll is making a quasi-serious point. Taken as a whole, the exercises in style contained within Hemingway make a case for the will to style. Style is not allowing ourselves to be hemmed in by dogma and doctrinaire thinking. It is an affirmation that the manner in which we do something is almost as important (and surely as interesting) as the results, following the examples of the literary greats. Just think of how many words—new descriptive tools—Shakespeare coined that are now in common usage, all at the service of retelling Boccaccio.

As in literature, there are many ways to say the same thing in a language as flexible as Javascript. That notion is stretched to the extreme in Croll’s scenarios, with often comic results. In Roberto Bolaño’s Fibonacci’s sequence algorithm, he bunches all of the program’s heavy lifting into one claustrophobic line, with a word to the wise in the comments:

//Everything is getting complicated.

for(var i=2,r=[0,1].slice(0,l);i<l;r.push(r[i-1]+r[i-2]),i++)

Then, for no reason, he defines a long list of important mathematicians which are never referenced again in the program.

rationalTheorists = [“Archimedes of Syracuse”, “Pierre de Fermat (such margins, boys!)”, “Srinivasa Ramanujan”, “René Descartes”, “Leonhard Euler”, “Carl Gauss”, “Johann Bernoulli”, “Jacob Bernoulli”, “Aryabhata”, “Brahmagupta”, “Bhāskara II”, “Nilakantha Somayaji”, “Omar Khayyám”, “Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī”, “Bernhard Riemann”, “Gottfried Leibniz”, “Andrey Kolmogorov”, “Euclid of Alexandria”, “Jules Henri Poincaré”, “Srinivasa Ramanujan”, “Alexander Grothendieck (who could forget?)”, “David Hilbert”, “Alan Turing”, “John von Neumann”, “Kurt Gödel”, “Joseph-Louis Lagrange”, “Georg Cantor”, “William Rowan Hamilton”, “Carl Jacobi”, “Évariste Galois”, “Nikolai Lobachevsky”, “Joseph Fourier”, “Pierre-Simon Laplace”, “Alonzo Church”, “Nikolai Bogolyubov”]

Anyone who has tackled the author’s sprawling epics, 2666 or The Savage Detectives, will recognize this device right away as vintage obsessive, exhaustive Bolaño derailing his own well-laid plans. In the postmortem, Croll characterizes Bolaño’s approach as “messy, sprawling, and inconsistent, liable to lurch into pages of tangential minutiae or take a sudden turn that orphans erstwhile heroes and leaves tantalizing plotlines unresolved.” One could argue that the popularity of both Bolaño and Twitter is at least partly attributable to a common homologous structure: the nested story. Twitter conversations can go several layers deep and spawn any number of spin-off conversations, leaving us tabbed out and craving resolution. Incidentally, Croll, when he is not devouring the classics and soon-to-be-classics, works as an engineer at Twitter.

So why isn’t our code as rich and variegated as these examples? For reasons which will be obvious to any seasoned programmer: the quest for elegance, or, more apt to a discussion of Javascript, unobtrusiveness. Elegance in programming is exclusively concerned with clarity and brevity. In this technical sense of the word, Hemingway’s prose is not too far off the mark. When being understood is of the utmost importance, I’ll take Hemingway-inflected Javascript over Joyce any day. Happily, in literature, Hemingway’s is not the only possible voice.

As an engineer and an astute reader, I doubt Croll harbors any illusions that “code is poetry,” one of many rallying cries of the open source community. The book’s examples are more farce than anything approaching production-grade code. Code may aspire to be more like poetry in the rare confluence Croll has created for our geeky enjoyment, but for the most part code is making the world more standardized, not less. The efficiencies introduced by software developers that have transformed the economy and changed the way we communicate have been built on a bedrock of mechanical elegance and instrumentalized crowd psychology, not poetics. Logically there is no equivalence between code and poetry not because poetry cannot be code—Oulipo proved that it could be, the Flarf poets less convincingly—but for the simple reason that code is not poetry. Not yet at least. Code is instrumental language designed to be interpreted by machines and their operators in order to accomplish defined goals, while poetry, at its most expressive (and subversive) is de-instrumentalized language that disrupts, to borrow a phrase from the start-up lexicon, as it decodes and recodes the usual flows of language, which are always threatening to petrify into inert, perfunctory sayings.

One of the first programming books I laid hands on used excerpts from Kafka’s Metamorphosis as dummy text in its exercises. Before I’d read any Kafka I knew the first line of that story: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” Since then I’ve known quite a few programmers who have read Kafka. The Kafka-reading programmer is a bit of an anachronism, possibly a systems analyst debugging code in a cubicle on a Friday night when all of the others have left, an uncomfortable, though no less dutiful, cog in a large bureaucracy. In purely literary terms Croll really has understood Kafka, Kafka the absurd humorist, whose early translators saw fit to correct his tonal “mistakes.” Fittingly, Kafka’s is the only exercise in the book that does not resolve itself. It loops infinitely. Kafka the coder is aware of the bug but is himself useless to fix it; he merely notes in the comments that a “hideous bug” has been introduced. Croll saves this, his best trick for last. It almost feels poetic, this broken code, calling to mind Benjamin’s remark about Kafka: “There is nothing more memorable than the fervor with which Kafka emphasized his failure.”