Begin The Begin


1979 album cover

1979 album cover

One hundred years ago, in 1913, my grandmother was born. Like me, she was reticent and fair and we had a kind of unspoken bond that played out over iced coffee at her favorite lunch counter in Trenton (and then later over hamburgers at Friendly’s). The woman I knew who was nearly crippled from arthritis and possessed a limestone dry sense of humor and who listened to the Phillies on the local station WHWH wasn’t the same sylvan raven haired girl my grandfather had discovered while driving around town. But after decades subjugated by his stubborn, willful, self-inventing, and brutally demanding ways, she had buried the pain. Her eyes glistened though just the same. Not everything could be so easily resolved.

In Paris on May 29, a few days after my grandmother’s birth, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Igor Stravinsky debuted “The Rite of Spring” (which had its US premier in Philadelphia under Leopold Stokowski). Historians of Western culture say this was the exact moment music became modern (tracing the birth of the modern is a special subgenre of historical analysis–1789? 1848? 1876? 1913?). In fact, for its atonality, primitive rhythms, fragmentation, and lack of resolve, the piece and the performance shocked. But then traditional music like traditional art and literature and architecture was done for. Only the boldest, most abstract forms could match the violence of industry and the uncertainty of political upheaval.

New York Times, June 7, 1913

New York Times, June 7, 1913

Driving home on New Year’s day, I caught the end of an NPR story on “The Rite of Spring.” The commentator Lisa Simeone made the point that the balance of the 20th century was spent trying to resolve the severe and far-reaching changes in human existence brought about by modern world (and the art, like “The Rite of Spring,” it produced). Now, a century on, she wondered, at a time of similar uncertainty produced by the digital revolution, the Arab Spring and its reactions, the rise of China and other centers of economic power like Brazil and Turkey, were we about experience another radical shift in art and expression?

I am doubtful of these meta-historical analyses, especially ones that seek answers in the symmetry of time. And yet I am drawn to the idea that human beings desire invention and subversion as much as they desire consistency and tradition. And cities, as reflections of human need, must capture that sense of invention, or else they wither and die.

And so it is a sign worth noting that on Tuesday a group of young artist members of a three year old Mummers brigade the Rabble Rousers broke through the tradition-bound culture of mummery. Their rather biting skit, “Scraptalism,” took first place among Comic Division brigades. “I will say that many old school mummers were suspicious,” said Rabble Rouser participant Nic Esposito (a writer whose work you’ll soon find on these pages) in an e-mail. “But the art community of Philly has really arrived when we can take first place in Mummers.”

The Rabble Rousers after their winning performance in the 2013 Mummers Parade

The Rabble Rousers after their winning performance in the 2013 Mummers Parade

What the Rabble Rousers have begun well may be a year of true invention in art and architecture in Philadelphia, a possibility that has been building for several years and now feels swollen with possibility, like a rite of spring.

Will we find something altogether new and surprising, elevating and exciting in SHoP Architects apartment building at Second and Race Streets? In campus development at Drexel or Temple? In skyscrapers likely to be proposed by Liberty Property Trust and one being designed by Erdy McHenry Architecture for Brandywine Realty? In KieranTimberlake’s energy campus at the Navy Yard? In a series of small scale reuses being proposed by the folks behind the project Gray Area? In the Hidden City Festival’s temporal artist interventions in vacant and underutilized places? In plans for reimagining the Reading Viaduct and City Branch railroad? In the biotech fueled city-within-a-city that will begin to sprawl down the Schuylkill River to the Grays Ferry Crescent and beyond? In the frenetic North Broad dreams of Eric Blumenfeld and Bart Blatstein?

It doesn’t matter that some of these questions won’t be resolved this year, or perhaps ever, or that some of the answers will disappoint us, even bitterly so, but only that this January 2013 is a kind of spring, the beginning of possibility, the search for the new forms and shapes of our urban desires.

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. Popkin's literary criticism appears in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, and The Millions. He is writer-in-residence of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.

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