Tag Archives: Philadelphia

“The Back Bench” by Margaret Hope Bacon

This book can be categorized as historical fiction, but it is entirely different from “The Last White Rose” (see below). It’s very short. It covers one year in the life of a completely imaginary teenager during a very comprehensively documented historical period, namely 1837 – 1838 in Pennsylvania. The protagonist, 14 year old Myra Harlan, is sent from a Westchester (PA) farm to Philadelphia after her parents die.

Myra’s family is Quaker, the most common religious denomination in Philadelphia at that time, and much of the plot is driven by the schism (or Separation) suffered by Quakerism in 1827. Elias Hicks led a walkout from the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Quakers. The two factions were referred to as Hicksites and Orthodox Quakers. (Reconciliation was completed in 1955!)

Bacon makes her position clear. She depicts the Orthodox Quakers as status obsessed and materialistic, the Hicksites as salt-ot-the-earth farmers who practiced virtuous simplicity. Enrolled in the Orthodox Friends Select School for Girls, Myra is advised to keep her Hicksite background a secret. 

The other emphasis in this book is on race. Quakers disowned slave owners, supported abolition (with disagreements over process) and sometimes helped escaped slaves travel to safe areas, including Canada. Myra observes discrimination during Quaker worship – people of color, acknowledged members of Quaker congregations, were seated separately from others during worship. Based on her convictions and experience, Myra ultimately feels led to sit on the back bench with her acquaintances of African descent. 

Bacon wrote many books (mostly non-fiction), the best known being Valiant Friend, (1980), a biography of Lucretia Mott. I LOVE Mothers of Feminism, (1986). I had the good fortune to meet Margaret Hope Bacon at a Quaker event. She was there as a participant (not a speaker or workshop leader). Her name tag simply read “Margaret”. 




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The Quintessence theatre Group operates in the lively Germantown section of Philadelphia. Their specialty is classical theatrical texts, which they define as works over one hundred years old. They are housed in the 90 year old Sedgewick Theatre, a giant art deco movie palace. The current performance space occupies only a small part of the sprawling building (there’s a warehouse to the rear). Architecturally, I’m glad at least part of the building can be maintained and used for entertainment purposes. The neighborhood provides convenient restaurants and bars (and a thrift shop). Check it out, friends! Live theater is such a treat! Accessible by SEPTA. Free parking.

“Catch 22” by Joseph Heller – the book and the play


I saw Catch 22 last night at the Curio Theatre in Philadelphia. I read the book 50 years ago. This should explain any incoherence in my comments.

The setting is the European theatre of World War II. The characters are members of the Allied military stationed in Italy, and local residents they meet.

Joseph Heller, a WWII Air Force bombardier, published the book in 1962 and the theatrical adaptation in 1971. Catch 22 (either way) is black satire – funny but tragic. It deals with war as hell without actually showing the battlefield, while vividly showing the human toll.

The program note reads “This theatrical adaptation distills a non-linear 450-page book with over 60 characters…down to a mere 89 pages” with 35 characters. And it was performed with SIX actors! Character changes were signaled in many ways, not just through costume but through accents, posture, etc. All the skills of an accomplished actor. Casting ran across gender lines. (Is this becoming a norm?)

Catch 22 struck a chord with my generation as we wrestled with the Vietnam “conflict”, the first of our undeclared wars. World War II was fought by a military that relied on draftees, as was Vietnam. The difference is that we won World War II and lost in Vietnam, after which the United States shifted to an “all volunteer” military.

World War II is widely featured in fiction. I’ve read some post-Vietnam fiction, but only non-fiction from the more recent wars fought in the Middle East. Every war finds its way into literature.

Enough history for now! I was excited and impressed by the Curio Theatre Company. They perform in a renovated church in West Philadelphia, part of a localist movement that goes right down to the street level. (“Localism” is a word. I checked.) The Baltimore Avenue Business Association is a sponsor. The performance space is small and the audience sits on three sides of the stage. Lighting, sets and costumes are entirely professional. It’s an amazing accomplishment!

Catch 22 runs until May 19. You can see it! Tickets are available on line.

Penn Museum and Penn Cultural Heritage Center

My son invited me to celebrate Mother’s Day in “the city”, which in our case means Philadelphia. This is where we went:

Penn Museum

Hello India

I highly recommend both the Penn Museum and this special exhibit! First, the Museum. What a beautiful place! If you need peace and quiet and beauty, here it is. I think you can dine in the cafe without even entering the exhibit area.

Our first stop was the special exhibit “Cultures in the Crossfire”. One of the heartbreaking aspects of war is the destruction of artifacts, buildings and neighborhoods – all the things that make up a way of life. People are displaced. Language and identify become blurred. This is what the Cultural Heritage Center has to say about itself: “…(our) mission is to activate conversations about why the past is important…” The stories from Iraq and Syria conveyed in this exhibition are very sad.

We moved on to one of the classic permanent exhibits. Who can resist mummies?

Finally, we visited an additional special exhibit, “Native American Voices: The People – Here and Now”. I especially admired the contemporary silver jewelry.

We decided to continue the multicultural theme of our day by dining at an Indian restaurant with a great buffet, the “New Delhi” at 4004 Chestnut Street. Highly recommended! Let’s not forget that culture includes food.

“The Trials of a Common Pleas Judge” by The Honorable Mark I. Bernstein

I’m part of the baby boom retirement crush. Born in 1949, I have lots of company on the path from full time employment to whatever comes next. Presently, I am either employed half time, or semiretired, depending on when you ask me. My friends and I are busy cooking up retirement schemes and plans. Here’s one that is, so far, unique!

Mark Bernstein is writing a serial novel! You can see it at www.judgebernstein.org Two chapters have been posted, and he promises a new chapter each month. So far, it’s got atmosphere, and time travel. Of course, I like the fact that it takes place in Philadelphia. I can’t tell yet if it fits into the category of historical fiction.

My only prior experience with a serial novel was reading Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic by David J Schwartz in 2013. It was delivered to my Kindle weekly, one chapter at a time, one of many offerings in the what-happens-after-Hogwarts subgenre. Silly and fun! It read better when I finally had the whole book.

Mark Bernstein’s book is likely to be fun but not silly, and I expect to enjoy it.

“Ecology of Center City, Philadelphia” by Kenneth D. Frank

Yes, this is the same Ken Frank I wrote about on December 6.

Ken Frank is a hugely talented and enthusiastic amateur naturalist. He refers to his field of study as “the history of natural history”. Having lived in Center City, Philadelphia for 40 years, in retirement (from his career as a physician) he writes about the LIFE in the neighborhood he knows so well.

“If this book has a unifying theme, it is the many ways people have shaped communities of plants and animals that inhabit downtown, the ways these communities have defied human control and survived in spite of, or because of dense urban development…. The ecology of Center City has been dynamic and resilient – qualities I expect will endure.”

Ken Frank notices everything! Who ever heard of the bridge spider? It’s attracted to artificial light, and Frank identifies Walnut Street as a favored habitat. They build beautiful and intricate webs.

Frank documents the “pee line” on trees, where the presence or absence of dog pee determines the identity and color of lichens.

There’s a whole chapter on fireflies, and a page on morning glories. Frank claims to have found 26 species of plants growing on the paved “islands” in the middle of South Broad Street.

The photographs in this book are delightful.

“Ecology of Center City, Philadelphia” makes a great coffee table book, but it is extensively indexed and documented, hence useful to scientists and teachers in their work.

Ken Frank plans to post this masterpiece on line. What a great find it will be for curious future investigators! The publisher is Fitler Square Press.

“Centennial of the Introduction of the Japanese beetle into North America near Philadelphia”, a lecture by Ken Frank

Now really, is this a thrilling title? Sounds like a real yawn, right?? Nope! Not when Ken Frank is telling the story. A mash-up of politics, science and human frailty! Lots of drama!

In this case, “near Philadelphia” means Riverton, NJ, on the Delaware River just north of the Tacony Palmyra Bridge. Right in my back yard.

Consider the timing, just before World War I. It was well known that introduced insect pests could wreak havoc on farming and the economy in general, but comprehensive regulatory controls were not in place.

The date of this unfortunate introduction is known with some precision. In 1916, agricultural inspectors found unfamiliar beetles at the Henry Dreer Nursery in Riverton. Perhaps they had wandered up from the American south? Further investigation was postponed.

Within a few years, due to the geometric population growth of the beetles, the situation was out of control. The only, long shot solution was applying a “scorched earth” policy to Dreer’s nursery – excavation, poisoning, fire…

Dreer fought back, accusing supporters of even relatively mild measures like quarantine of TREASON, because of interference with the economies of our World War allies. Dreer was publicly “outed” as the source of the appalling infestation. Ken Black compares Dreer’s response to that of climate deniers. Dreer’s political strength was formidable. When quarantine and embargo were finally imposed, they applied only to CORN. Nurseries were completely exempted from regulation.

The Japanese beetle continued its spread. Today it afflicts about half the continental United States, and the annual cost of control is estimated to be in the billions of dollars. California, not yet afflicted, takes stringent measures against Japanese beetles.

That’s not even half the story! This turned out to be a situation in which the “cure” was worse than the disease. The pesticide of choice used against the Japanese beetle was LEAD ARSENATE, a very slight improvement over the previously popular copper arsenate. The quantities recommended boggle the mind – 1500 pounds per acre.

There were several big intellectual disconnects here.

  • Nobody seemed to ask where the lead arsenate would end up.
  • Nobody seemed to consider its toxicity to mammals (including humans).
  • Nobody seemed to consider its toxicity to non target insects including potential natural enemies of the Japanese beetle.

Ken Frank took his investigation of this episode to Riverton, where he talked to residents, including a Master Gardener. Three citizens of Riverton came to hear his lecture. They provided insight into the area’s agricultural past, and shared their concern that they may still be living with the consequences of the very heavy application of LEAD ARSENATE in areas now occupied by suburban housing. They believe the incidence of cancer in the Riverton area may be abnormally high. (I know, as a former public health employee, how hard it is to define and evaluate a “cancer cluster”.)

Ken Frank credits the Japanese beetle outbreak and subsequent control efforts with inspiring Rachel Carson to investigate the impact of DDT on the environment. Carson was born in western Pennsylvania in 1907. She is credited with stimulating the American environmental movement which led to passage of major legislation in the early 1970s. Right when I graduated from college and jumped ship, leaving the field of chemistry to become a pollution control specialist!

Ken Frank’s lecture was great and I hope he writes an article soon, so it can be shared. There’s a great deal to be learned from this tale. We are still learning how to manage ourselves and our environment, and the complexities and demands on our scientific judgment continue to increase.

Ken Frank’s lecture took place at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, at a meeting of the American Entomological Society. Science is fun! Check out the Academy or the AES to get in on the action.

“Renewable – One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness, and Hope” by Eileen Flanagan

I’m surprised I’ve never met or even heard of Eileen Flanagan, because we move in circles that overlap. I said the same about Judy Wicks, author of Good Morning, Beautiful Business (see my blog entry of April 8, 2015). Flanagan is a decade or so younger than Wicks and I. Wicks and Flanagan both reside in Philadelphia.

Renewable begins with Flanagan’s recent act of chaining herself to the White House fence during a climate change protest. Then she circles back to recount how she came to that moment.

A major factor in her personal and spiritual growth was her Peace Corps service. She joined in 1984 and was sent to Botswana, a country known to me only through the writing of Alexander McCall Smith, who created the delightful No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series, set in Botswana. Flanagan’s reflections on Botswana are enhanced by her analysis of the comparative impacts of colonialism on Africa and Ireland, her ancestral home.

Upon her return from the Peace Corps, Flanagan went to graduate school at Yale to earn a Master’s degree in African studies. Then she faced the complications of seeking simplicity while raising children in urban America. Familiar territory!

Interestingly, one of Flanagan’s companions in the White House protest described above was civil rights activist Julian Bond, who died this week.

City Gardens – Philadelphia and Berlin

I didn’t WANT to go into Philadelphia yesterday, but was forced by the urgent need to be fingerprinted. Every volunteer who works with children must be fingerprinted. I also had to fill out extensive forms. The computer rejected my NJ mailing address and rebuked me for failing to list my parents under “who have you lived with since 1975?” Getting clearance to work with kids isn’t easy.

These days, fingerprinting is accomplished at the UPS store. (Cost is $27.) You touch a glass plate and the computer records your prints. No more ink!

Errand accomplished, I met my son for a stroll in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood. We unexpectedly found ourselves at the gate of the Schuylkill River Park Community Garden. A sign invited us in, asking that we refrain from picking anything, and stay out of the garden plots. Fine! What a beautiful place! In the central gazebo, we found information about the organization that runs the garden. You can check it out at www.srpcg.org.

Parts of the garden are dedicated to growing food for a distribution program. Every individually worked plot is different! Wildly different! Some are devoted to tomatoes, others to flowers. Sunflowers tower here and there. I was impressed by the number of birds to be seen, especially at the central arbor/gazebo. I felt jealous of gardeners who don’t have to worry about deer, and may even be protected against rabbits!

The day was hot. We saw no one working, but the place didn’t feel deserted. I’m sure if I had given in to temptation and snitched a cherry tomato, I would have been caught.

This is an aristocrat among Philadelphia’s community gardens. I see other, more casual gardens from the train as I come and go from 30th Street station, and I know there are cultivated lots in many neighborhoods. When we left, we wandered down to the bike trail beside the Schuylkill, another improvement that makes Philadelphia a pleasant city.

This surprise visit reminded me of the garden plots in Berlin (Germany), where I spent a summer as a student. World War II was almost 30 years in the past, but people were still contentedly living in sheds in the gardens! Periodically, the government tried to relocate them, but without success. The garden plots in Berlin were big – I’m guessing 25 by 50 feet or more. The sheds looked sturdy. Most plots had a grass section and lawn furniture. One evening an apartment dwelling friend took me out to his plot with his family. This was a ritual – evening drinks in the garden, a ten minute drive from home. Surely it made apartment life more pleasant.

I Googled ‘Berlin allotment gardens” and found this excellent article. http://www.slowtravelberlin.com/berlins-community-gardens/

The author observed “The gardens were immaculately groomed, yet densely populated with vegetables, flowers and often a fruit tree or two. It made me wonder if Berlin’s multicultural quilt included elves and gnomes.”

Author Jonathan Thompson suggests similar gardens would improve American cities. I agree, and would love to see them added to the urban landscape.

Take back the streets! (Pitney Road)

Municipal planners will tell you that a “road” and a “street” are two different entities, despite the interchangeable use of the terms, along with a multitude of other synonyms like “lane”, “drive” and “way”. The difference is summed up as follows: a road is for cars, a street is for people.

I accept this distinction. I live on a road. People (except in their cars) venture onto it at their peril. Where can I go to experience a “street”? In Egg Harbor City, I can at least wander from restaurant to Library to hardware store. Some effort has been made to soften the hardscape with trees and a bench or two. There’s a pub. Let’s call Philadelphia Avenue 15% “street”. Much better than 100% road!

The two big cities I know best (Boston and Philadelphia) have sections where the streets are alive. Alive! Often these are the areas popular with young adults. Lively streets provide shopping and entertainment. There are opportunities to “see and be seen”. You might run into a friend. A street is public, social space.

My Quaker meeting is located on a road – no doubt about it. Pitney Road is, at times, annoyingly busy with cars and a tad dangerous. But we put the “street” back into Pitney Road on Saturday morning with our annual fundraiser. Who would have thought heirloom tomato plants would be so popular?

For a few hours, our part of Pitney Road became “people territory”. Cars slowed down! “Meet and greet” became the order of the day. Joggers and dog walkers materialized. The merits of “Rutgers” tomatoes were debated, the Spring weather analyzed, summer plans discussed.

The tomato plant sale was a successful fundraiser, but better than that, we hosted a neighborhood social event! We turned Pitney Road into a STREET for a few hours. Thanks to ALL for a great Saturday morning!