Philly on a Fall Day

Halloween is over. The Phillies won’t be going to the World Series. We have reset our clocks. This means the Fall season is upon us. I don’t think a lot of people really liked the paintings of dead rats that I posted last week, but I always suspected there was a reason that I never had a future as a highly-paid blogger and influencer. No matter.

One of my favorite activities is walking through the different neighborhoods of Philadelphia. This week was the ideal time for it. As always, I take pictures on the way.

Swann Fountain. I always thought it was called Swann Fountain because of the Swans. Come to find out, that’s Alexander S. Calder’s pun. The fountain is a memorial to Dr. Wilson Cary Swann, founder of the Philadelphia Fountain Society. Those Calders were full of jokes. Read this about Alexander Milne Calder’s joke on Philadelphia from the top of City Hall.

Speaking of City Hall,

Here’s a shot of City Hall Tower from inside the courtyard. Billy Penn is up there making mischief, but you can’t see him in this shot.

And here’s a picture of City Hall Courtyard with a repainted compass and map of the original City of Philadelphia in the center.

Here’s the recently-installed I Heart Philly sign in Love Park. The heart was originally bare. Now, it’s covered with stickers of flags from around the world along with messages from people who have stopped by.

And what would a visit to Philadelphia be without stopping at the Love Statue? Except there’s something fishy about the above photograph. You probably can’t tell what unless you’re from Philadelphia. Maybe even then you can’t.

Here’s another shot which reveals the answer. The Love Statue sits at the start of the Parkway looking northwest towards the Philadelphia Museum of art. The picture that shows it with Philadelphia City Hall in the background has been flipped around. Which is why you should remember that things aren’t always what they seem.

Phoebe Murer at POST

I know mixed media artist, cartoonist, painter and printmaker Phoebe Murer from Fleisher Art Memorial where we both serve on the student advisory committee. So I jumped at the chance last month to tour her studio which was on this year’s Philadelphia Open Studio Tour, sponsored by CEVA, the Center for Emerging Visual Artists.

Phoebe’s work can be startling for those expecting portraits, still lifes and studies. Yes, there are some of those because she is a formally-trained artist. But, as a self-described person “on the spectrum,” she has had to navigate the sometimes brutal institutions and bureaucracies that occasionally seem to do their utmost to suck whatever is unique and creative out of us. If you are not on the spectrum, but are even a little bit different, you surely know what I’m talking about.

Phoebe takes these experiences and makes art out of them. She uses conventional art materials and mixes in a healthy amount of wit, humor, truth, love, and perspective. The emotional kind.

A self portrait

More Self Portraits

I learned that when Phoebe was in high school, she made a collage at the end of each year. Later, she made paintings of some of the collages

Phoebe keeps rats as pets, and they are very important in her life. (Before meeting Phoebe’s friends, the only rats I had ever met were in my kitchen late at night, or in the crawl space beneath my old house. ) She has a little rat cemetery behind her house and paints a sleeping beauty portrait of each furry friend after they die. Rats live about six years, so there have been many rats in Phoebe’s life.

A “mask-ini” rendering of an imaginary bikini made from COVID masks. A humorous reaction to the difficulties mask wearing can cause for some on the spectrum

Screen prints

Water scene.

To see more of Phoebe’s work, go to her website here, and her Instagram feed here. Read an article on Phoebe’s work at Fleisher Art Memorial here.

Some words about this year’s POST tours.

I didn’t go to many other art studios this year. Why? Read on. The way POST works is that art studios in certain neighborhoods, like South Philadelphia or West Philadelphia, are open to the public on a given weekend day. In the past, CEVA provided easy access to the addresses of art studios that were participating on a given date. So if I wanted to visit several studios that were participating on, say, October 15 in South Philadelphia, I could find their addresses together on a list and plan my route.

This year, CEVA provided a link to a poorly-designed interactive map which was extremely cumbersome to use on your phone. I was not the only person who had this problem. There were brochures that listed the addresses of which studios were open on a given date by area, but they were scarce to the point of non-existence, (although someone at a South Philly studio cheerfully told us we could pick up copies at CEVA’s office in Rittenhouse Square, a mile and a half away. )

There were booklets that gave the addresses of the studios, but these were listed in alphabetical order by name of the artist and not grouped by date or part of the city. The QR code in the booklet inexplicably took you to the same thing. It should have taken you to a downloadable PDF with the addresses for each studio participating in each neighborhood on a given day. I truly hope CEVA does better next year. POST is a wonderful program.

I Try West African Cooking

It all started with my book club. We read Things Fall Apart by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. It’s well worth reading, the first part in a trilogy, and I highly recommend it.

In my book club, whoever recommends the book for a given month gets to host the meeting, either at home or in a restaurant. With the home meetings, we have taken to serving dishes inspired by the cuisine in that month’s book. Since I recommended the book and was hosting that month’s meeting, I decided to try my hand at West African cookery with a concentration on Nigerian cooking.

When I told some friends that I was in search of recipes, some exclaimed that they loved Ethiopian cooking. And so do I. But Africa is a big continent. Ethiopia is almost 4,000 miles from West Africa. Eurocentric people would not be likely to confuse German cooking with Spanish Cooking, even though those countries are much closer to one another. Do we imagine that all African cooking is the same? When I first went online is search of West African cookbooks. I found some books like this one that had a heavy colonial twist and not what I was looking for at all. But thankfully, here are people who have been committed to documenting and preserving the culture of the African Diaspora, including food culture and traditions.

I was in over my head from the start. I have always been able to make good gnocchi from scratch. But when I married, I learned that I could not make a decent matzo ball. Even from a mix. Fufu is the West African equivalent of matzo balls. I managed to churn out some passable-looking fufu after a couple of attempts, but I don’t know if my fufu was any good. I didn’t have a benchmark. I think my fufu was better than my matzo balls, but not by much.

My attempt at Fufu from a mix. Only slightly better than my matzo balls

A diaspora is defined as the dispersion of people from their original homeland. People don’t usually leave their homelands without a good reason, normally displacement by war, famine, political oppression, or for better economic opportunities. Or a combination. And when people leave their homelands, they bring their food with them. It creates a sense of community in the new place. Sometimes it marks them as “foreigners” to the native population. I remember hearing stories about how my W.A.S.P. relatives considered my Sicilian-American father to be somewhat of an exotic character with his garlic and his homemade red wine. He, in turn, thought their creamed gravy and biscuits would kill him. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

There is a population of emigres from African countries in Philadelphia, and an African Grocery in West Philadelphia. So after finding some good websites for recipes and watching some videos, I made my way to the All African Grocery in search of ingredients.

I came back with a bunch of strange (to me) ingredients. I also got fresh peanut butter, some spices and dried crawfish. I couldn’t find dried locust beans, so I bought them online. And there were many other ingredients, such as Scotch Bonnet peppers and plantains, that I could get at the 9th Street Market near my home, as well as Little Saigon neighborhood, and the plethora of Mexican Groceries in the area.

Locust beans. A tasty condiment used in West African cooking.

Dried crawfish. You pulverize it in a grinder and add it as a seasoning.

Here’s what I made. Aside from the ill-fated Fufu (see above. Read more about Fufu here. And no, I did not beat cassavas into submission. I bought a mix like this one), I made two hearty stews, a plantain dish, and African pepper sauce.

Making Vegan Egusi soup, recipe here.

West African Peanut Soup. Here’s a recipe. I left out the chicken and substituted black eyed peas which I purchased at the All African Food Market.

Fried plantains recipe here.

African pepper sauce. Recipe here.

I have to take this opportunity to rave about this pepper sauce. The scotch bonnet peppers were so hot that they made me cough and burned my hands when I was seeding them. But they changed totally in the sauce. Yes, they were still hot, but it was a warm, foody hotness that crept up on you gradually and enhanced the flavor of the food you added it to, rather than making you miserable. It was especially good in the hearty peanut stew which already had one of the peppers in the main recipe.

My verdict? West African cooking is substantial and spicy. I love the combination of sweet potatoes and black eyed peas. The pepper sauce is divine. I will definitely be making more of these recipes. I made everything without meat or dairy, but if you like chicken, oxtail or goat, this is the perfect cuisine. For a comprehensive all Nigerian recipe site, click here.

And now back to what started all this, the novel, Things Fall Apart. Interestingly, the title of that book comes from the poem, “The Second Coming”, by William Butler Yeats. Part of the impetus for “The Second Coming” was the Irish Easter Rising in 1916, which some have argued sounded the beginning of the fall of the British Empire. Both the novel and the poem are about societal and cultural change that upended the worlds of the people involved. There have been diasporas throughout history. They continue today. That’s one reason why it’s important to preserve traditions, including recipes.

Here is an interview with Chinua Achebe.

West Craft Fest in the Woodlands

I made my way to West Philly last weekend to meet my friend Patty for West Craft Fest in the Woodlands. The Woodlands is actually a cemetery with some notable Philadelphia personages buried on its grounds. It was the perfect day for an outdoor craft fair.

I ran into my friend Nicole Rodrigues there. Nicole is a print maker and ceramic artist. See that honey in the above picture? Nicole’s father keeps bees and put up the honey. I went home with a jar of it and can’t wait to try it.

There were an abundance of artists selling candles and prints this year. Not of particular interest to me. But the work at the Barbaric Yawp Workshop stopped me in my tracks. Kasidy Devlin, who runs Barbaric Yawp with his wife, Natalie Kropf, gave me a short explanation of the mask making process. The masks, he told me, were made of vegetable-based leather which is wood fiber which is soaked and treated to form the masks. There is obviously a lot more to it than that. These are not your ordinary masks. These are works of art that you can wear or display. If you want to learn more about these incredible masks or buy one, click here. The Etsy site is here, and the Instagram site is here.

A Walk in FDR Park

The Fairmount Park Conservancy is a non-profit corporation that supports efforts to improve the public parks of Philadelphia. And there are lots of parks in Philadelphia. Click here for an interactive map. They sponsored a tour of FDR Park that I took a few weeks ago. I learned a lot about the park, its history and the ecology of the area.

FDR Park is located at the southernmost tip of Philadelphia in an area once known as “The Neck.” It was originally marshland and wetlands, which is probably why it didn’t get build up too much, although people did live and farm there. FDR Park, which was known as League Island Park when it was opened in 1913, was designed by the Olmsted brothers, sons of Frederick Law Olmsted who designed Central Park. FDR park contains a golf course, sports and recreation areas, playgrounds, landscape architecture, picnic areas, and lots of shady paths and trails to walk.

FDR Park is also home to the Asian Market. My neighborhood has a lot of Southeast Asian grocery stores and restaurants, so this was not too exotic to me. Still, the smells were wonderful and I jumped at the chance to try fried crickets. Hey, why not? But they were out. I had some water ice instead (this is Philadelphia after all) and bought a jar of kimchi to take home.

Meadow Lake in FDR Park is man made, but connected to the natural tidal wetlands that are low lying and increasingly prone to flooding. Climate change and increased usage is changing the park.

The park is also home to many invasive species of plants which threaten the delicate balance of the natural ecosystem if they are not eradicated. Not every non-native plant and animal is a threat, but when they interfere with the natural ecology of the area, they can be a threat to the well being of the park.

So there is a new plan to reimagine, reconfigure and redesign FDR park for the future. This will entail relocating ball fields, replacing some lawns used for sporting events with artificial surfaces, and moving things around. Not everyone is happy with the plan, which has been in the making for some time. Quite frankly, I do not have the knowledge to have an opinion, although it’s clear that something must be done to improve the drainage and clear out the invasive plants. Until the dust settles, I intend to go back and enjoy the park.

Hot Summer and Bob’s Garden 2022

The sun is beating down in South Philadelphia. One of the best parts of summer in my neighborhood is Bob’s urban garden.

It’s hot enough to make fish soup in the koi pond!

I wonder what kind of plant this is?

This picture is from earlier in the summer.

Young Artists at Fleisher Art Memorial

I didn’t have regular art classes when I was a child. I went to a Catholic grade school and art class happened a few times a year. The teacher, usually a nun, would give each child one piece of art paper, a box of eight Perma Pressed crayons, and a postcard with a religious painting on it. A painting like The Last Supper, or The Flight into Egypt. We were instructed to copy the painting onto the art paper with our crayons. That was it. I remember one nun must have been having a particularly bad day because she informed us that she would inspect our work carefully when the class ended. If there was a trace of white anywhere on the paper, it would mean detention for a week for the hapless child artist. We spent most of that class filing our crayons to nubs on the rough art paper terrified of the prospect of detention with this whack job dressed in a habit. To be fair, not all of them were quite so bad. I finally got to take a real art class in the 7th grade with Sister Louise who was a great teacher. I still have the box of pastels from that class.

I’ve always loved children’s art. I’m not sure why. Children’s art displays a simplicity and an honesty that can get suppressed as people grow older. (See above for one example of how this happens). We know now that art is important to a child’s development, and not just a frill. I mean, there was a time when going to school after the second grade was considered a frill, right? Art education, like all education, costs money. You need more than supplies and teachers, you need access in the first place.

Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia offers low cost art classes for children and teens. Every year, Fleisher puts on a Young Artist Exhibition. This year’s exhibit closes on July 29. It’s always better to see the work in person, but in case you can’t, here are some pictures.

Make Like a Tree

It’s wintertime and although I know it’s supposed to be cold, I wish it wasn’t so dark. It was bright and sunny last October when a friend and I took a walk in Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia, enjoyed a guided tour, and learned about the trees that populate the grounds. I’ve always loved trees.

I took copious notes on my phone about all the different kinds of trees we saw. But when I got home, I discovered that my app had not saved a single word. I did manage to identify the trees I saw and if you click on each picture here, the tree name will pop up.

Now I am fully aware of of how to spell Ginkgo. But if you click on the images to see the captions, you will notice that the word Ginkgo is misspelled. I chose not to correct it. The gremlins at WordPress already lost this post once before, and I don’t want to risk losing it again by futzing around with it. After all, blogging is supposed to be an enjoyable hobby for me and not an ordeal that makes me want to tear my hair out. Let sleeping Ginkgos lie.

Bartram’s Garden is home to the oldest Ginkgo tree in the United States, planted by the Bartram brothers in 1785. Read more about it here. If you want a complete list of trees and plants at Bartram’s Garden, press here. For a video history of Bartram’s Garden, press here. If you would like to visit, which I heartily recommend, press here.

Meet the Benners

My house in 2021

Do you live in an old house? Do you know who lived there before you moved in? Before you were born? How about who lived there before your grandparents were born? Wouldn’t you like to find out? This post is about how I learned about who lived in my house 170 years ago, and learned some interesting facts about the history of my Philadelphia neighborhood, known today as Bella Vista.

I became acquainted with Elizabeth Benner when I moved into an old house in South Philadelphia more than 30 years ago. Elizabeth wasn’t a neighbor in proximity so much as she was a neighbor in time. She and her family occupied the house I live in now more than one hundred years before I moved there. As the new owner of an old house, I took a workshop at the Philadelphia Historical Society called, “Who Lived in Your House in 1880?” and found Elizabeth’s name in the 1880 census. Interesting, but I didn’t think much about it as the years passed.

My interest in the Benners and the history of my house was rekindled recently when a member of my book club remarked that my house was probably a trinity house that had been expanded. Intrigued, I went into my basement and compared the floorboards and crossbeams in the front basement with those in the back basement. I know bupkis about construction but even I could see that they were very different. What do you think?

If you’re not from Philadelphia, you might not know what a trinity house is. A trinity house gets its name from its three one-room stories that sit on top of one another over a basement. Built to house the working class, each small room was probably around 200-250 square feet and accessible via a circular stairway like this one. This was typical working class housing in Philadelphia because land was cheap and there was room to spread out. That’s why we don’t have a history of tenement living like New York City. We are a city of row houses and the trinity is the smallest row house you can get.

I found some old pictures on the Philadelphia Free Library’s photo collection site of trinity houses with a third floor dormer (which my house has) and outside cellar entrances (which my house had at one time) here, here, and here. When my house was expanded, they tore out the circular stairs and installed straight staircases that are almost as steep as ladders. The risers are nearly 10 inches high!

Climbing these stairs give you a workout!

I already knew that the neighborhood Catholic Church around the corner, St. Paul’s, was founded in 1843. This got me to wondering about how old my house really was and wanting to learn more about the people who had lived here before. Here’s what I learned.

Elizabeth Benner’s husband was named William and he was a brick maker. He was deceased by the time I caught up with his family in 1880, but I was curious to know when he and his family moved into my house.

I scoured the online city directories and found some answers. The first mention of William was in the 1851 McElroy’s Philadelphia Directory which gave his address as “10th Street above Christian,” the intersection where I live now. A couple of later directories put him at 377 South 10th Street which is a few intersections away from my house. This doesn’t make sense and I wonder whether the information is accurate. People didn’t move around a lot in those days.

The old City directories indicate that the Benners were definitely living at my address by 1858. The directories and census show they remained there there through the 1860s, the 1870’s and the 1880’s. The elder William is listed in the 1870 census as being 50 years old. He and Elizabeth were probably born in 1820. The 1880 census indicated that Elizabeth was born in Ireland. The 1860 census said that she and her husband William were born in the US. Given the anti-Irish sentiment of the time, this might not have been an error on the part of the census taker but who knows?

By 1880, Elizabeth Benner was a widow who lived with four adult children: two boys, (30-year-old Joseph, a gas fitter, 27 -year-old William P. who worked as a clerk in a mercantile office,) and two girls, (24-year-old Rose and 22-year-old Mary, who were listed as being “at home.”) Nicholas Stafford lived with the Benners, too. He was a 40-year-old plumber, and I think he was a relative (he is identified in one census report as “son”) because the 1860 census indicates he was living with the Benners 20 years earlier. His date of birth and the spelling of his first name varies from census to census, but I finally settled on “Nicholas” born in 1840 and probably in Ireland. Elizabeth’s four other children, however, were probably born in Philadelphia, starting with William P. in 1848. The Benners had a fifth child, a daughter who was stillborn in October, 1865.

The neighborhood where my house sits now used to be known as the Township of Moyamensing, and it wasn’t part of Philadelphia until the surrounding boroughs and townships were consolidated into the city in 1854. Even after consolidation, Moyamensing was a rough, high crime neighborhood populated with Immigrants who poured into Philadelphia to escape the Irish Potato Famine. I would guess that William and Elizabeth came over during the first wave of the exodus.

Who lived in Moyamensing before the influx of Irish Immigrants? The European powers had been squabbling over the territory since the Swedes arrived in the 1600s. Then the Dutch drove out the Swedes and the British drove out the Dutch. The British dispossessed the Lenape tribes who were indigenous to the area, and had driven them out by the late 1700s although some remained in the area through the early 1800’s. (The word Moyamensing is a Lenape word that means “The Place of Pigeon Droppings.” ) When the smoke cleared, the British were gone and immigrants were starting to arrive.

The Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network web site has an interactive map function that let me superimpose images of maps of the same geographical area for different periods. Using this site, I was able to take an 1808 map of Philadelphia by John Hills that included my neighborhood and superimpose in to an 1843 map of the same area by Charles Ellet, Jr. While I realize that these maps are not necessarily accurate depictions of the development of a given area, it does appear that the neighborhood around my house at 10th above Christian didn’t start to get built up until the late 1830’s, early 1840’s. It was probably farmland before that.

When I tried to research beyond 1880, my census research hit a dead end. I wasn’t getting anywhere by trolling the census records for William P. Benner so I decided to switch my search to his younger brother Joseph. I hit pay dirt! The 1890 Census records have mostly been destroyed but the Benner family popped up again in the 1900 census. I always understood that the ethnic composition of my neighborhood started out as Irish and morphed into Italian. That comports with what I learned about who was living in my house in 1900.

Backtracking a bit, I said that the 1890 census records had mostly been destroyed, but not all of them. There is a record called United States Census of Union Veterans and Widows of the Civil War from 1890. It showed that Nicholas Stafford, who lived with the Benners for so many years, served with the Union Pennsylvania Volunteers, McMullen’s Company, Pennsylvania Independent Rangers for three months and 25 days. Such a short time! I was confused. At first, I thought he might have been wounded and sent home early but that wasn’t the case at all. I learned from this site that “this company was organized chiefly from the membership of the Moyamensing Hose Company, on May 20th, 1861, and served with Gen.Pattersons force in the three months campaign. The McMullin Rangers are credited, together with the 23d Regiment, with participation in the action at Bunker Hill, W. Va., July 15th, 1861.”

The name McMullen was familiar. Where had I heard that before? Then I remembered. William McMullen was a notorious 19th century political boss who was responsible for the assassination of Octavius Catto. Some more research and I learned that William McMullen raised the regiment Nicholas joined. I wouldn’t consider McMullen a selfless patriot. He probably raised the regiment because it looked good, and enhanced his political cachet. He ruled Moyamensing as his personal political fiefdom, and controlled the Moyamensing Hose Company which was more like a street gang than a professional fire department. Read more about them and other early Philadelphia fire companies here.

Moyamensing Hose Company headquarters on 744 S. 8th Street where Columbus Hall stands today.

I would guess that Nicholas was a member of the Moyamensing Hose Company or at least familiar with it. I can envision McMullen throwing an enlistment rally fueled with lots of booze to get drunken and naive young men to join his regiment in the early days of the Civil War when everyone thought the conflict would be over by Christmas. Nicholas must have joined up with his pals and was back in three months and 25 days. He was lucky. The unit didn’t see much action which didn’t stop McMullen from staging a big parade to welcome back the Rangers when they returned to Philadelphia. Nicholas received a military pension in 1891, however, and by that time he, Joseph, William P. and Rose had moved to 921 Christian Street which is literally a stone’s throw from where I live now. Elizabeth had probably died by this time. She would have been 80. I wasn’t able to find out what happened to Mary Benner, but I learned that Rose Benner married a man named Snyder and died in 1914. It was from her death certificate that I learned that her mother Elizabeth’s maiden name was Elizabeth Jack.

921 Christian Street, the Benner’s home in 1900

Another family had moved into my house by 1900. They were Italian immigrants Thomas Fechi and his wife Mille. Their baby Maggie was born in the United States. Thomas was a laborer. The Fechi’s were sharing the house with 46 year old Mary Tale, who I am guessing was Mille’s mother (she is listed as a boarder but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t related), and her children Louis (19) Joseph (18) and Rose (14). They had emigrated to the US a few years after Mille.

And that’s where I drew my search to a close. If I want to identify other people who have lived in my house over the years and maybe even determine when it was converted from a trinity to the house it is now, I will have to go to the Office of the Philadelphia Recorder of Deeds and do a title search, more properly called an information search, to trace the chain of title back through the years.

To access census records online, go to FamilySearch.org. You will have to create an account, but it’s free and well worth it, especially if you’re interested in history and genealogy.

Bob’s Garden Summer 2021

It’s been a long month this week. Lots of stuff going on-I was thinking that not all of it is good, but who am I to say what’s good or not? Only time and perspective can make sense of some things. Maybe. In the meantime, all you can do is tend your own garden. And if you are lucky like me, you live next door to someone like my neighbor Bob who tends a lovely garden and shares it with the neighborhood. Here are some pictures.