Winter dumped a load on the East coast this week. I’m glad I didn’t have to be anywhere. Still, it’s fun to go out and explore.
I have an Italian last name and live in South Philadelphia. So everyone thinks I was born and raised here. Not so. My Mother’s family (and me with it) hails from the Midwest and her Scots-Irish ancestors reached these shores in the early 1600’s. But everyone’s gotta come from somewhere and that’s why when my Mother’s relatives were bragging about their DAR memberships, my Father would proudly announce that he could trace his family “all the way back to the banana boat in New York Harbor.”
The Sicilian half of my family got most of my attention during my childhood, maybe because they were louder than the W.A.S.P. half. My mother would go around saying things like “That’s just not done,” and dispensing other mots of wisdom that I did not begin to comprehend until I reached adulthood. The Sicilian food was better anyway.
The 9th Street Market in South Philadelphia is commonly called “The Italian Market.” It was predominantly Italian at one time, but starting in the 70’s, there was an influx of immigrants from Southeast Asia. People began arriving from Mexico and Central America about 20 years ago. The market and the surrounding neighborhood is a heady mix of restaurants, cuisines, cultures, ethnic groceries, shops, bakeries and more.
What does that have to do with Cavalleria Rusticana? It started when my friend Doris asked me to join her and another friend for a musical program called Honoring Our Ancestors, presented by the Our Market program and Orchestra 2001, and held in the 9th Street Market this past weekend.
Orchestra 2001 presented a great program of music from Central and South America, Asia, and Italy. The last work was Intermezzo from Cavaleria Rusticana, which is the quintessential Sicilian opera. The story goes like this: Mama loves boy more than anything. Boy doesn’t listen to his Mama. Boy breaks Mama’s heart. Boy dies. We all cry to some of the most beautiful operatic music you will ever hear. Listen and see if you agree.
It’s been quite a week. I wouldn’t say that things started with the murder of George Floyd, because they started long before that. I worked as a criminal defense lawyer in Philadelphia for seven years when I was in my 20’s and 30’s, taking mostly court appointments. I wasn’t a white knee-jerk liberal, and I wasn’t idealistic. But what I saw, and what I experienced changed how I see the world.
Many police departments have had toxic cultures when it comes to dealing with people of color. Philadelphia is no different. One of the most divisive figures in the city’s history has been Frank Rizzo who was the Police Commissioner from 1968 to 1971, and later, Mayor. There was a controversial mural of Rizzo not far from my house in the Italian Market. People in the neighborhood have been trying to get it removed for years. This week, the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program ended involvement with the Frank Rizzo mural and it is going to be replaced with art more fitting for the neighborhood.
I said in the opening sentence of this post that the events of this week didn’t start with the murder of George Floyd. We all have a tenancy to ignore things that don’t affect us and to bury feelings that make us squirm. It’s only human, but it’s dangerous-like ignoring a chronic headache that turns out to be a brain tumor that could have been treated if only we had paid attention. And it’s only human to do things a certain way because that’s the way we’ve always done them. That’s dangerous too, We have to think about what we think about and we have to be aware of our history. If they don’t teach us in school, we have to find out for ourselves.
I invite you to have a peek into Philadelphia history of the 1870’s, the era of Reconstruction when slavery as a formal institution had ended in this country and when social parity for everyone seemed like it might even be achievable. Until it wasn’t.
It only took 147 years for Philadelphia to commemorate the work of Octavius Catto who was murdered in 1871 while helping black voters exercise their right to vote. Read the post, Octavius Catto’s Quest for Parity. Then understand that we must change, or this tumor we’ve been ignoring for so long will kill us.
I did something different today. I wrote a letter. A real letter, not a card. With a pen. In cursive. On notepaper. And I addressed it. And put a stamp on it. There’s a mail box on the corner across from my house. I fought my fear that there were corona virus germs on the mail box handle. I pulled the handle down, and dropped the letter through the slot. And then I looked across the street toward St. Paul’s church and saw this.
Actually, St. Peter is the one in the picture. How do I know? Peter’s the one with the keys to the pearly gates and I think the big book he’s holding is where all your transgressions are recorded. You die, you go to the pearly gates of heaven,and St. Peter meets you like a bouncer at an exclusive night club and decides whether you get in.
How do I know all this? Twelve years of Catholic school. That and the fact that I had a mother who had a hard time allowing herself to relax, and enjoy something like a nice outfit or a yummy dessert without feeling guilty. And when I got older, I would ask her, “Why tease yourself? It’s not like there’s a prize for the person who suffers the most. It’s not like St. Peter’s gonna meet you at the pearly gates with a ******* Kewpie doll.”
St. Paul is down at the end of the block out of camera range, and he is wearing a mask too. And he’s holding a sword to smack the heads of passers by who might not be wearing a mask or observing proper social distancing. Which is why I did not go down there to take his picture. Because even though I was wearing a mask, I knew he was down there waiting to see if I would screw up. Twelve years of Catholic school will do that. I’m scarred for life.
Try something different and see what happens. It just might spark your creativity.
Stay safe and well.
I’ve started a new semester at the Fleisher Art Memorial but can’t do much in the pottery studio because of my hand (surgery next month). But I went there today anyway to check out the 121st (yes, you read that right) Annual Faculty Exhibition which is in full swing and will be open for another week. Here are some highlights from the show.
There are many other fine works in the show which closes on September 21, 2019. Don’t miss it if you are in South Philadelphia.
Did you know that Fleisher Art Memorial is the oldest community art school in the US? And that the 121st annual exhibition of student work opened there on February 15th? With offerings that include works on paper, painting, sculpture, ceramics and jewelry, the work seems to get better with every year.
The 121st annual student exhibition closes on March 15, 2019.
Bev graduated from Tyler School of Art and then headed to New York City where she interned with David Yurman, worked as an apprentice goldsmith, and served stints as a jewelry designer for Alexis Bitar, and Ippolita. After returning to Philadelphia, she designed watches and jewelry for Modern Bands, Inc. and co-founded Beech Hall with Tyler classmates Wade Keller and Danielle Kroll to design and market home goods and fashion accessories.
Then she opened Bevy of Objects where she designs and sells fine jewelry and offers CAD design service working with ethically-sourced and recycled materials.
A Bevy of Objects is located on the fifth floor of the Bok building. I noticed the great light as soon as I entered her spacious studio. Bev wanted a studio on the fifth floor because of the light and the huge high school windows let in plenty of it. Like the other artists I spoke to, she had nothing but raves for the Bok developers who worked with her to make her studio as comfortable and as functional as possible. The biggest restriction they imposed on her was that she could not alter the black boards which, to her, was not a problem at all.
Bev lives in the same neighborhood as Bok and relishes the fact that she can walk or bike to her studio.
I feel so lucky to live in a City where I am within walking distance from wonderful shopping districts with a genuine historical significance. Of course there’s the 9th Street (Italian) Market, Jeweler’s Row, and the Reading Terminal Market. But one of my favorite areas is Fabric Row is located on Fourth Street below South Street. Even though I don’t sew much, I love window shopping on this colorful street. There’s always something to see.
According to the Philadelphia History Museum’s web site, Philadelphia’s bustling fabric row on South Fourth Street ran through the heart of a Jewish immigrant neighborhood. Peddlers hawked dry goods from pushcarts and sidewalk stands. Successful vendors opened family-run shops. Dressmakers, shoppers, and tailors flocked to this area of the Queen Village neighborhood to purchase fabrics and notions for their customers and families.
There aren’t as many fabric stores on Fourth Street as there used to be. Times change. People are not sewing as much as they used to. (Although home sewing has moved into a new phase.) New businesses are popping up among the fabric stores including independent fashion stores, shops selling hand made goods and the wonderful Kawaii Kitty Cafe. It is still a thriving, vibrant area.
Visit Fabric Row the next time you visit Philadelphia. In the meantime, here are some more pictures I took on walk down Fabric Row when the weather was much warmer!
Last month I visited the Bok Makerspace which was on the South Philly list of participants in the Philadelphia Open Studio Tours (POST).
Bok Technical High School was a vocational school that opened in South Philadelphia in 1938. Thousands of students passed through Bok’s doors learning trades like brick laying, plastering, plumbing, machine building, tailoring, and hairdressing until the school closed its doors in 2013.
The Bok building is massive. That’s a cardboard model in the above picture. It takes up an entire city block and the interior is 340,000 square feet. The surrounding neighborhood is made up of mostly residential row houses. The residents were understandably concerned about what would happen to the building.
They need not have worried. In 2014, a developer named Lindsey Scannapieco proposed converting the former high school into a space for creative entrepreneurs. The neighborhood liked her ideas and her efforts were lauded by Inge Saffron, the Architectural Critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Read more articles about the transformation of Bok here and here.
While Bok is thought of as a space for artists, it is really so much more as I learned on my visit for the POST tours. All of the artists I talked to came from the surrounding neighborhood and almost all of them were business people in creative fields.
I hope to profile some of the artists I met during the tour and show you some pictures of their spaces.