Tag Archives: Philadelphia

Sometimes, the Bad Guys Win

Readers who know Philadelphia know that the area known as Old City is one of the most appealing parts of town.  Old houses, narrow streets – some with cobblestones – real history, decent shopping and restaurants – it’s just a nice place to spend a few hours walking around on a sunny weekend afternoon or evening and maybe daydreaming about what it might be like to live there.  It’s also located close to some of the city’s major roads, bridges, and the Delaware River and is within walking distance of the city’s downtown area.

One of the challenges that such areas inevitably face is that their economic vitality, location close to major infrastructure, and overall popularity make them a frequent target for attempts by government to introduce “improvements” and by developers to find a way to make a buck.  It’s a delicate balancing act, trying to weigh the needs of the community versus the interests of the city, and seldom does it turn out that everyone’s happy with whatever ultimately happens.

Government and developers spend big bucks advocating their interests, but in a place like Old City, the job of advocating the community’s interests falls to the residents themselves, who banded together many years ago to create the Old City Civic Association.  If there’s a public improvement that the community disapproves of, or a proposed development it considers distasteful, it has traditionally fallen to the association to represent the community’s interests.  Elected officials, alas, cannot always be counted on to advocate their constituents’ interests because developers make big political contributions and row home owners, well, not so much.

And the association proved to be a formidable advocate of its interests over the years – maybe even too formidable for its own good.  Instead of being viewed as a nuisance, as so many community groups are, the association has come to be respected and even feared, especially by developers.  Feared so much, in fact, that developers started doing what it is that developers usually do when communities and cities don’t roll over and give them their way:  they sued.  And sued and sued and sued.  Currently the association is on the receiving end of three large lawsuits, and the legal fees have been piling up.  Insurers’ fees, too:  in fact, liability insurance to protect the association and its leaders has become so expensive that the little group can no longer afford it.

So in the end, the association’s leaders announced that they’ll do the only thing left to do:  disband.  Developers have deep pockets and they don’t, so essentially, they’ve been sued out of existence – even when they don’t lose the lawsuits.  Suing takes money, and defending yourselves from lawsuits takes money, too, and a little community group doesn’t stand a chance against deep-pocketed developers.

We all love stories where David slays Goliath, but at the same time, we understand that when such confrontations occur, it’s usually David who’s going to get his butt kicked.

And that’s exactly what happened to this particular David.


This is a tale of teachers we’ve known, teachers we’ve loved, and teachers we’ve loathed.  It’s a tale of Beverly, Sophie, Bill, and Essie.

The Curmudgeon loves teachers.  His sister’s a teacher, his sister in-law’s a teacher, his oldest friend’s wife is a teacher, his favorite classmate from second grade is a teacher.  He’s dated teachers.  He liked many of his teachers.  Thinking back, he’s pretty sure he can tell who was a good teacher and who wasn’t and who really cared about their students and who was just punching the clock.  He’s pretty sure the former far outnumbered the latter.

He also knows that, teaching skills aside, some teachers were more influential in his life than others.

Let’s start with Beverly, his seventh grade English teacher at the Mayfair School in Philadelphia.  Beverly was tough but fun:  she insisted on a full period of grammar every single week, which we hated, yet she talked about basketball a lot, which we liked (although she was a Knicks fan, which we didn’t understand).  Beverly was very organized:  if The Curmudgeon recalls correctly, Monday was spelling and vocabulary, Tuesday grammar, Wednesday reading and literature, Thursday writing, and Friday more reading and literature.

One day, while returning graded writing assignments to the class, Beverly held The Curmudgeon’s composition aloft and declared, “If you’re not a writer when you grow up, you’ll be wasting your life.”  Think that didn’t mean something?  Think that wouldn’t stick with a twelve-year-old?  Well, if it didn’t, The Curmudgeon wouldn’t remember it today, more than forty years later, would he?

Hey look, Mrs. C. – he’s a writer!

Next there’s Sophie, The Curmudgeon’s English teacher for two years at Lincoln High School, also in Philadelphia.  Sophie was considered the best English teacher in the school, and that’s why they assigned her to what the school considered its best class of English students.  In a school where the usual class size was thirty to thirty-five students, this was a class of twelve that took a more independent approach to its work than the typical class.

The first time Sophie graded one of The Curmudgeon’s writing assignments she filled the page with comments – most of them critical.  She then instructed him to create an error sheet, write down every mistake she noted for the rest of the year, and then refer to the error sheet every time he wrote something for class.  Because of the special program, she knew she would have him as a student for at least two years, so she proceeded to address one aspect of The Curmudgeon’s very flawed writing at a time.  When she was satisfied with his progress in that area, she’d move on to another.  Around the second month of the second year, The Curmudgeon finally understood what she was doing and how she was doing it (sometimes, The Curmudgeon can be a bit slow), and after two years under her tutelage he was a much, much better writer.

Sophie influenced The Curmudgeon in another way as well.  In addition to the two books students had to read for classroom discussion and writing assignments every month, we also had to write ten separate book reports a year.  The class had a great deal of latitude to read what it wanted, but after three book reports Sophie pulled The Curmudgeon aside after class one day and told him, “You’re reading junk.  The Curmudgeon can still recall the three books that led to this point – all selections his mother purchased from the Literary Guild.  She handed him a book to read – he doesn’t remember what it was – and told him his next book report would be about that book and that from that day forward, he had to seek her approval before reading any new book for book report purposes – a requirement made of no one else in the class.  For the first few months she rejected as many titles as she approved, but after a while The Curmudgeon got the hang of it:  he could read only “literature.”  While in general The Curmudgeon believes most literature is absolutely wasted on teenagers – seriously, how can a fifteen-year-old boy possibly be expected to appreciate My Antonia? – it launched him onto a path of reading great fiction – literature, if you will – that he continues to follow to this day.  What a wonderful gift.

Thank you, Mrs. P.

Bill was The Curmudgeon’s social studies teacher twice:  during his sophomore and senior years of high school.  He taught the first year like a law school class led by television’s Professor Kingsfield – very high-pressure and very Socratic but with great enthusiasm and passion for his subject and his students.  There was no choice but to learn to read very, very carefully and to be very, very attentive to details, and Bill taught this – essentially, how to read – without directly teaching it.

Equally important, Bill taught The Curmudgeon about well-written history.  This was another very small class, and for it, Bill – head of the school’s social studies department – went out and bought a special, college-level textbook for his students.  The National Experience is an outstanding American history textbook, with each era’s section written by the leading expert on that era.  The Curmudgeon now has his own copy and refers to it often.

But the real lesson Bill taught was that the best history is not found in textbooks, that there are entire books out there devoted to specific, often narrow aspects of history that are every bit as interesting, as well-written, and as compelling as the best novels.  He assigned such readings, and through those assignments, twelve very fortunate students read The American Political Tradition by Richard Hofstadter, Robert Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers, and others.  It was a college-level history education in high school – a public high school, no less – but more important, it was an introduction to the study of history, and to reading about history, that has stuck with The Curmudgeon all these years.  He reads history frequently – exceptionally well-written books about interesting and even exciting subjects.  David Halberstam, Robert Caro, Barbara Tuchman (Bill especially sang her praises), Daniel Boorstin, James MacGregor Burns, and many others – and it all began with Bill.

Thank you, Mr. B.

And finally there’s Essie.  The first sentence of this piece mentioned teachers we loathed, and this is a one-teacher category because Essie was without peer.

Back in those days, students of an academic bent at Lincoln High School believed that hard, unpleasant, mean teachers must be great teachers, so Essie had a reputation as a great teacher.  She wasn’t – as every teacher to whom The Curmudgeon has ever described her over the years has insisted.  Just ten years older than her students – yes, the internet helps you learn these things years after the fact – she was fiftyish in her attitudes and demeanor and even, if The Curmudgeon recalls correctly, in her manner of dress.  She was a Little House on the Prairie schoolmarm with a god complex and an apparent obsession with tea.

She wielded her prejudices like weapons.  In a tenth grade writing class she asked if anyone knew anything about speed reading.  When The Curmudgeon raised his hand and said he did, that he had just taken an Evelyn Wood speed-reading course, Essie unloaded on him and in the course of the next few weeks never even attempted to mask her contempt for him.  As recently as just a few weeks ago The Curmudgeon encountered a former classmate who told a similar tale of daring to do something in a manner of which Essie did not approve and feeling the never-ending brunt of the teacher’s wrath as a result.

We didn’t understand this back then, but Essie was really just your garden-variety bully in a prairie skirt.

Fortunately for The Curmudgeon, circumstances not of his own making took him out of that class after a few weeks and, he hoped, out of range of Essie’s weaponry forever.  Those hopes were dashed, though, when he walked into his twelfth grade English class on the first day of school and found a sneering Miss Priss standing at the front of the room.  Though slight in stature, she proved to be like an elephant:  she never forgot.  The sneer never left her face, and after only a month of seeing The Curmudgeon in action she told him he had a juvenile vocabulary and couldn’t write at all.

This was during our senior year of high school, and with SATs looming, Essie made her class an offer:  anyone interested in extra vocabulary work could show up at a certain time and at a certain place and she would work with them.  Mortified by the still-fresh revelation that he apparently had a juvenile vocabulary, The Curmudgeon showed up at the appointed time and place – the only one of his dozen or so classmates to do so.  When a few minutes passed and no one else appeared, Essie grumbled that she couldn’t be bothered with just one student and departed in a huff.

So much for Essie being a great teacher.

So here’s to you, Essie:  Pffffffffffttttttttttttttttttt.  You were living proof that it was indeed possible to fool some of the people some of the time, and you certainly fooled a lot of The Curmudgeon’s classmates, who insisted that mean meant good.  You did not, however, fool The Curmudgeon, and here’s hoping you didn’t damage too many young people with your nasty, bullying approach to teaching.  Somehow, The Curmudgeon survived your attempted abuse and, despite the intellectual shortcomings you were so certain he had and so eager to tell him about, he managed to learn how to string together a few decent sentences without your help and has earned a respectable living doing that for the past thirty years.

Our society doesn’t seem to value teachers very much.  Somehow, people have gotten it into their heads that anyone who knows that six times seven is forty-two can teach third grade math, but that’s not true.  They also think $40,000, $60,000, or $80,000 is too much to pay someone who will shape the future of their children and shape the future of our society.  People, alas, can be pretty stupid at times.  Teaching is at the very least a real skill, and in the hands of its foremost practitioners, an art as well.

The Curmudgeon feels fortunate that he encountered so many artists.


Sometimes it Really IS a Matter of Semantics

Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter seems like a decent guy.  He served four terms on the city’s council, where he never became part of the inner-circle, decision-making group but eventually emerged as a maverick who surprised nearly everyone by pushing through a number of badly needed reforms of city government.  He then launched what seemed like a quixotic campaign for mayor against several better-known, better-financed candidates.  He was diligent and persistent, slowly overcoming the advantages the other candidates enjoyed and defeating them in a hotly contested campaign for the Democratic nomination in a city in which winning that nomination has meant automatic victory in the general election since the Truman administration.

As mayor, Mr. Nutter has been a bit of a disappointment.  On several occasions, Philadelphia’s desperate financial struggles have presented him excellent opportunities to reshape city government, or at least some aspects of it, and not only has he not succeeded in doing so, but a reasonable argument can also be made that he never even seriously attempted to do so.  The opportunities were there, but Mr. Nutter never seized them.  He has had some good ideas but seems to lack some combination of the political fire, political savvy, and political will to turn his ideas into reality – or even to try.

One of Mr. Nutter’s greatest frustrations has been a continuing epidemic of violent crime.  He took office pledging to reduce the city’s murder rate and for several years succeeded in doing so, but in the year that just ended the rate increased just a little.  Then, shortly after the new year – still less than three weeks old – Philadelphia had a new rash of killings and Mr. Nutter’s anger rose.

As this clip shows, Mr. Nutter lashed out at the perpetrators of these violent crimes and – with television cameras rolling –  called them “idiots and assholes.”

This was a poor choice of words.  The thrust of Mr. Nutter’s message is for people to have greater respect for one another, and for life, to avoid violence and address differences in a more constructive manner.  He is, in other words, preaching civility – but doing so with unusually uncivil language.

The word he chose, moreover, is especially egregious.  In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell detailed how a study found that particular word to be especially offensive and provocative and likely itself to lead to reactions that rise to the level of violence.

But this isn’t just about the word.  Mr. Nutter’s reaction was understandable – a combination of frustration, exasperation, and anger.  But he’s supposed to be a leader, and leaders lead – they don’t diminish themselves and forfeit their moral authority with a few thoughtless, ill-chosen words uttered in the heat of the moment.  In using this kind of language, he’s sending a mixed message to a population that clearly resists any messages at all.  You can’t plead for civility using the language of incivility.

She’ll Say a Little Prayer for You

In the early 1980s, Philadelphia’s mayor described his city’s council as “the worst legislative body in the free world.”  Aside from his unfortunate omission of legislative bodies in the not-so-free world, he was onto something:  wisdom, intelligence, and talent have never been in great supply on Philadelphia’s city council.  It was a weak council 30 years ago and it’s a weak council today.

It’s also a familiar – and familial – council.  The son of the mayor who made that proclamation now serves on the council, as does the son of that mayor’s predecessor and the son of that same mayor’s successor.  The president of the council, retiring at the end of the year, inherited her council seat from her father the year The Curmudgeon graduated from high school.

Who said primogeniture is dead?

But the relationships don’t end there.  Also on the current council is a member who inherited her position from her husband when he chose to share his family’s special brand of mediocrity (and a really bad toupee) with the United States Congress.  While not especially highly regarded, Jannie Blackwell is not generally considered the typical lightweight Philadelphians elect to represent them in city hall.  Just a few weeks ago, her constituents gave her 89.99 percent of the votes in her bid for a sixth term in office.  Clearly, the councilwoman is doing something right.

Her recent actions, however, suggest that perhaps she wants to fit in better with some of the nonentities who surround her.

Earlier this week, Ms. Blackwell, in her capacity as chairwoman of the council’s education committee, held a hearing on prayer in public schools.

Yes, prayer in public schools.

Apparently, she’s fer it.

“Prayer can promote more virtuous living and may have a positive impact on student behavior in schools,” Blackwell told the gathered, according to a published report.

Aside from being a profoundly bad idea, the councilwoman apparently hasn’t heard that the Supreme Court struck down mandatory prayer in public schools oh, nearly sixty years ago.

Some of the people who testified at the hearing pointed out to her that prayer in Philadelphia’s public schools might not be such a good idea.

“Council chambers and teachers’ desks should not serve as pulpits for religious doctrine,” suggested one witness.  “Are the parents going to decide, or are the teachers, the principal, or City Council, what prayers should be offered?” another asked, hopelessly lost in a grammatical tangle.

And just to show that in Philadelphia they grow their mayoral candidates as dumb as they grow their council members, the candidate defeated overwhelmingly (receiving just 21.63 percent of the votes) in the mayoral election just three weeks ago tossed in her own two cents’ worth – allowing for inflation.

“For years, we have in the school calendar, allowed for breaks for the Christian holidays, as well as the Jewish holidays.  It was part of the school calendar, so how can we say the state and the church are separate?”

Got that?

Although councilwoman Blackwell was interested enough in this issue to invoke her authority as a committee chairwoman to hold a hearing, it appears she hasn’t thought this issue through.  Her committee is not considering legislation to restore prayer to Philadelphia’s public schools and the council as a whole is not considering a bill to restore prayer to Philadelphia’s public schools.  Even if it was, and even if the city’s school district wasn’t controlled by a state takeover board and not Philadelphia’s city council, the current council session ends in a few weeks and the chairwoman hasn’t scheduled another hearing on the issue.

So why did she do it?  Why hold this hearing?

Because she can?  Because she can get her name in the newspaper?  Because she was doing someone a favor?  Because it makes her feel important?

Or maybe because she feels the need to help ensure that Philadelphia’s city council continues to live up to its reputation as the worst legislative body in the free world?

If that’s her intention, let us borrow from a declaration once made by then-President George W. Bush

Mission Accomplished.

How I Almost Invented the Blog

Once upon a time, The Curmudgeon was a happy digital denizen of America Online.  He remembers those days well:  the busy signal that prevented him from getting online (remember dial-up?), another busy signal preventing him from getting online, and then, finally, mercifully, that hideous, dissonant, static-riddled sound we already associated with fax machines (remember fax machines?) that eventually became music to your ears and would momentarily lead to the announcement of “You’ve Got May-ul.”

One of the great discoveries for a newcomer to the internet and someone who had no idea what awaited him there was the chat room:  you name it and someone created a chat room for it.  Most of them, of course, were for men looking for women, women looking for men, men looking for men, and women looking for women (and one, The Curmudgeon recalls, called “Shemales for Females” that The Curmudgeon entered out of curiosity and ignorance, inquired about the meaning of the room’s name, and was promptly deluged with photos that still come frighteningly to mind when The Curmudgeon is running an especially high fever).  Many of these romance-oriented chat rooms were thematic, based on mutual interests:  people who liked to camp, people who liked Alanis Morissette (this was, after all, 1998), people who liked NASCAR, and other such things.  The Curmudgeon once idly speculated that he could create a chat room called “Gay, Left-Handed, Red-Haired Dwarves” and that fifteen minutes later, the room would have twenty-three participants regaling one another about their experiences with this very special fetish.

To facilitate people getting comfortable with one another, AOL allowed its users to create brief profiles of themselves:  you filled out a short form with some basic information so that anyone who saw you in a chat room could learn a little about you before attempting to engage you in chat room conversation or instant messages.  Eventually, AOL decided to give people additional, free space to share more about themselves, and many took advantage of this opportunity to post photos and bits of information that went beyond the “just the facts, ma’am” of the profiles.

The Curmudgeon, ever-opinionated, thought he might take advantage of this space, and the knowledge that more than a few people were looking at his profile in those early chat room days, to offer something more substantial than “I like puppy dogs (which would have been a blatant lie), long walks on the beach, romantic dinners overlooking the water, the Beatles, and kung pao chicken.”  Specifically, The Curmudgeon thought about using this free AOL space to offer commentary on some of the issues of the day.  Two subjects seemed most amenable to curmudgeonly commentary for this Philadelphia native and resident:  politics in Philadelphia and the press/media in Philadelphia.

At the time The Curmudgeon had a girlfriend, a Kansas City beauty who was way out of his league, who had both training and a background in journalism and, no less important, knew HTML, which way back in the twentieth century was still necessary to operate a web site.  Said girlfriend thought using the free space in such a manner was a good idea, so The Curmudgeon decided to spend some time deciding whether to launch such a venture – and also, it became clear almost immediately, to do so not by using the free AOL space, which would by definition have a very limited potential readership, but by establishing a free-standing site on the web.

The Curmudgeon thought about it for a few weeks.  He loved both subject ideas, for sure:  they were his passion, he knew a great deal about them, they were interesting, and they promised an infinite source of ideas for curmudgeonly commentary.

There is, however, a good reason The Curmudgeon is a curmudgeon:  an unmistakable tendency to think in curmudgeonly ways that some view as negativity but that he thinks is merely analytic.  (Once, The Curmudgeon explained to an effusively enthusiastic co-worker that the difference between the two of them was that for the co-worker, the glass of water is always half-full, it is wonderful water, and it was more than he needed; The Curmudgeon, on the other hand, demands to know who the hell asked for water in the first place.)  And so in this frame of mind, The Curmudgeon wondered:  Who would read commentary written by someone they’ve never heard of and don’t know?  Who would have any interest in the musings of a total stranger?  Feeding this concern, of course, was The Curmudgeon’s own general lack of interest in the opinions of others, his particular lack of interest in the opinions of people he doesn’t know, and his assumption that others would almost certainly feel the same way about him.  After all, how do you evaluate a movie review written by someone whose tastes in movies you don’t know?  What can you make of an editorial on U.S. policy in Yemen if you don’t understand how the editorial-writer views American involvement in the affairs of other countries?

So in the end, The Curmudgeon decided not to invest his time penning prose that nobody would ever read because nobody would be interested in commentary written by a total stranger.  The year was 1998 – the very year the Online Etymology Dictionary says the word “blog” was first used to refer to journal-like entries on the internet (of course, Doogie Howser had already introduced most of us to the electronic version of this concept, if not its current incarnation, in 1989).

And that, readers, is how The Curmudgeon almost invented the blog.  Now, thirteen years later, he’s still not convinced that anyone’s really interested in reading the ruminations of a total stranger, but the approximately 250 million blogs that currently populate the world-wide web suggest otherwise.  Consequently, he has told himself he will spend six months writing commentaries when he can – pieces the length of this one perhaps twice a week, and shorter pieces about as often – to see if people really are interested in the perspectives of a curmudgeonly stranger who is hiding behind his keyboard, anonymous (at least for now) to the world.

We’ll see – but as a curmudgeon, we are highly, highly skeptical.