Cities in distress

Fabrizio Costantini for The New York Times

“People almost feel like the city goes on in spite of city government — that city government in this case certainly doesn’t define the city — and that affects how they’re feeling about what comes next.”

– Kurt Metzger, the director of Data Driven Detroit

Imagine that. Also, read about the Benguche family who live on a block in Detroit with just a single streetlight (now considering W Rockland Street lucky). The city estimates that 40 percent of the streetlights in Detroit do not work.

Financial Crisis Just a Symptom of Detroit’s Woes [New York Times]

Let’s Go for A Spin

Todd Heisler/The New York Times

My favorite part of the latest New York Times coverage of the city’s bike share rollout is this eclectic list of items for sale by street vendor Alfred Haddenden.

“On Lafayette Street recently, where a 55-bike station has been assembled near Astor Place, a couple leaned on the kiosk as if it were a well-worn city bench, plotting their next move with their daughter waiting in her stroller. Nearby, on University Place, Alfred Haffenden, 71, sat between a bike station and his table of available consumer items —

two Al Franken books, a baby-care advice book and VHS copies of ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ and ‘Wuthering Heights.’

The stations would be a change, he said, but who would want to live in a New York that refused to try something new? ‘There’s not much you can do about that type, my friend,’ he said, leaning toward the kiosk. ‘Some people can’t see. Some people just don’t want to see.'”

Let’s go for a spin.

The Gospel of Florence + The Machine

Florence Welch is unstoppable. After a week of steady listening to the raw gospel sound of Sister Gertrude Morgan remixed, I made a sonic transition into Florence + The Machine. In some ways, they’re not so different. You can hear in both the sounds of bliss, power, hope, heartache, and triumph.

Walking through downtown Philadelphia tuned into a Florence playlist, I felt like I heard a new sound in a few of her songs. Florence’s subtle nod to gospel can be heard throughout her catalogue. It’s influence is undeniable in a song like “Lover to Lover,” which shifts into a crashing gospel-tinged meltdown near the end. Not surprised to find there’s a ‘walk into the sea’ moment in the music video.

The gospel sound is clear as day in the frenzied spirit of her breakthrough hit “You’ve Got the Love.” Disco was about esctacy and release, and The Source and Candi Staton original is essentially an early gospel/disco mashup, cathartic in every way.

Florence Welch on how it feels to sing “You’ve Got the Love” –

“As a kid, going to clubs and raves, this song made me feel love. At Bestival last year we were top of the bill on that stage, so we were thinking of an amazing cover we could do, and I thought of Candi Staton. Even in rehearsals, playing it was just the most euphoric feeling. Then playing it live and seeing everyone’s arms in the air, and the faces – it was the best feeling ever! I was dressed as a genie sea-monster, and I remember looking at my guitarist as we played the first chords, and then there was the reaction and it was like tearing ourselves open and just exploding on the crowd, and they all did it back. It’s a feeling you couldn’t express.”

Her tale of performance reminds me of the great disco singer Sylvester, whose biography is one to read.

He would often compare the ecstatic feelings that accompanied his onstage performances with the feelings experienced in a gospel choir in a Pentecostal church. When performances reached a certain level of heightened emotion, he would comment that “we had service.” [from Wiki]

“You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” ‘Nuff said.

Outsider Art and The Sister Gertrude Morgan Experience

The world-class Philadelphia Museum of Art now has a few outsiders in the house. Unless you’re familiar with the unfamiliar, don’t expect to see the work of anyone whose name you know in “Great and Mighty Things”: Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection.

At least, that’s what I thought. A child-like painting of boxy buildings with square windows, swirling with angels in hot oranges and reds caught my eye. It was the work of street preacher Sister Gertrude Morgan. I have a book of her paintings, along with a copy of the one gospel album she recorded in the 70’s, and a remix of that record later produced by the Philadelphia-based DJ King Britt. This was the first time I ever came face to face with her paintings. A book does not compare.

Sister Gertrude Morgan Singing and Playing the Tambourine on the Front Gallery of the Everlasting Gospel Mission, c. 1974 Joshua Horwitz (American, born 1955).

Sister Gertrude Morgan Singing and Playing the Tambourine on the Front Gallery of the Everlasting Gospel Mission, c. 1974 Joshua Horwitz (American, born 1955).Sister Gertrude was a preacher by calling. Like many of the outsider artists in the exhibit, she received directives from God to create (why hasn’t this happened to me?). Born in Alabama in 1900, Morgan was 39 years old when she was summoned to deliver God’s message to “the headquarters of sin.” That would be New Orleans, Louisiana. She left her husband behind and soon became a regular in the French Quarter, living in the Lower Ninth Ward – a neighborhood later devastated by Hurricane Katrina – until she died in 1980.

As it goes with outsider artists, Morgan had no formal artistic training of any kind. She began painting in her 50s, working with whatever she had around, adding color and divine messages to lamp shades and pieces of cardboard. Though she received recognition for her artwork during her lifetime, Morgan had little interest in pursuing a career as a painter.
Around 1970, Sister Gertrude laid down the tracks to Let’s Make A Record in New Orleans at Preservation Hall, her first and only foray into the recording business. She had no interest in being a musician either, but you can’t tell that from the raw gospel album she created. Morgan’s fiery vocals, the frenetic shake of her tambourine, and the occasional sound of a stomping foot together make an intense collection of sounds, full of transcendent moments and a kind of voodoo spirit.

The album cover for King Britt Presents: Sister Gertrude Morgan shows one of Sister Gertrude’s colorful self-portraits.That the obscure record would attract the attention of an electronic music DJ years later now seems like part of some divine plan. In 2005, King Britt released a remix of Let’s Make A Record. Layered with kinetic beats, King Britt Presents: Sister Gertrude Morgan brought a new energy to Morgan’s solo verse. The addition of electric basslines, lap steel slide guitar, percussion, piano, and other instrumentation add depth to Morgan’s rhythm.

I’m not a religious person, but I find catharsis in music, and there is plenty of that in gospel and electronica.

Touring as “The Sister Gertrude Morgan Experience,” King Britt and co-producer Tim Motzer turned World Cafe Live in Philadelphia into Morgan’s Everlasting Gospel Ministry, where even after death, she possessed the ability to physically move believers and non-believers.

And that is how I was first introduced to Sister Gertrude.

“Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light.”

My favorite track on the album is “Precious Lord Lead Me On,” a rendition of the 1931 gospel song “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” written by the Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey, based on an old hymn by the American composer George Nelson Allen. Dorsey wrote the song as a way out of his own inconsolable grief after the death of his wife and infant son.

What attracts me most about “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” is the incredible sense of self-awareness in the lyrics and of the moment.

I give pause whenever I hear any version of it. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Godmother of rock & roll, sings the song in 1941 with a rebellious spirit, lightness, and her signature electric guitar – you just know she’ll make it through. Elvis Presley croons sweetly with The Jordanaires in 1957 in an endearing ‘put your head on my shoulder’ kind of way – a reminder to ‘love the one you’re with,’ to borrow from another song. Mahalia Jackson will make you want to go to church, or walk into the sea depending on your mood.

A favorite hymn of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., there are reports that it was the last song he requested moments before he was shot to death at the Lorraine Motel. Mahalia sang it at his funeral in 1968.

Imagine the song’s meaning bending during the civil rights movement, reaching deep into crowds to inspire perseverance and courage, a vocal balm soothing broken spirits.

Just three days after King’s assassination, the great Nina Simone wrapped listeners in the song quietly, bidding adieu at the end of a live performance at the Westbury Music Fair. “Goodnight, everybody,” she whispered at the end of her set.

“I sing God’s music because it makes me feel free,” Mahalia Jackson once said.

Why did Sister Gertrude choose to sing? Was it freedom? Or, just another way to spread the Word?

Though the song comes from the black hole of grief, I can’t help but feel a renewed sense of promise after listening, especially in King Britt and Sister Gertrude’s version, with the soaring strings and light tambourine tap.

The exhibition “Great and Mighty Things” left me with similar feelings of promise. Outsider artists are often poor or marginalized, yet here they are on display in the Parthenon on the Parkway. (And would that matter to any of them?)

What I admire about the Bonovitz’s collection is that they don’t see a difference between outsider art and mainstream work. There is only good and bad art.

It matters not that Sister Gertrude painted on toilet paper rolls, used ballpoint pen, or even cared about her art at all. At the end of the day, she was a preacher by calling. Her paintings, like the record she recorded, were merely tools of her ministry.

In an interview with culture critic Stephan Salisbury, exhibition co-curator Sheldon Bonovitz said:

“There’s no fence around genius. It’s just available. People are creative given the opportunity. Given the opportunity, they can succeed.”

Something to think about, and hope for.

Sister Gertrude Morgan

Additional Listening and Viewing: 

For the quickest intro into the art and music of Sister Gertrude Morgan, listen to Joel Rose’s report on NPR:Preacher-Artist Gertrude Morgan, Remixed.

Watch King Britt and Tim Motzer discuss what it was like “collaborating” with Sister Gertrude.

Thomas A. Dorsey tells the story behind “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” in the great documentary, Say Amen, Somebody – jump to the 5:09 minute mark. I likely never would have seen this film had I not begged my way into Professor Gayle Wald‘s English course on identity and popular music at the George Washington University. Was this also part of some divine plan?

Poor Philadelphia: The Other Side of City Life in Philly Painting

Home sick and watching videos. Came across two new documentaries about the Philly Painting project, which I first explored a few months ago. I’ve been struggling to understand the scale of the project, but noneless its drawn me in and I’ve been watching it with curiosity.

North Philadelphia is stressed. There has been a lot of media coverage about the Philly Painting project, much of which glosses over the extent of the damage in the neighborhood, both structural and emotional. It’s interesting that Hub Footwear, a dutch sneaker brand and maker of the videos, would take one of the most objective looks. The documentaries represent another track of life in Philadelphia, the true realities of which took a back seat in many reports on the mural. How real does it get? Watch the artists Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn explain to filmmakers why they don’t wear seatbelts – you never know when you’ll need to duck and cover from gunfire riding through North Philly.

Sit back and watch, if you’re interested in neighborhood dynamics, poverty and violence in cities, art, and community. Highly recommend, even if I now have more questions than before.

If you’re following the Philly Painting project for the longhaul, another story worth reading is architecture critic Inga Saffron’s review, which asked whether or not the colorful intervention will actually drive economic growth in the commercial corridor and result in measaurable impact. “It’s naive to think that painting over this depopulated blightscape can do anything more than mask the avenue’s failure,” wrote Saffron. That critique was pounced on by many, but none of the responses adequately discussed what is next for the corridor, important for a number of reasons.

The project afterall was positioned by the City of Philadelphia as part of a “larger economic development plan” for the neighborhood. Even the people in the video below are asking, “What’s next” – from the artists themselves to shoppers and residents.

“Enthusiasm can turn pretty quickly into disappointment,” says Gary P. Steuer, the City’s Chief Cultural Officer, adding “we need to think about how we sustain that enthusiasm.”

At the closing of the short follow-up vide, a member of the painting crew comments –

“A lot of people making promises, so we waiting to see if people put they money where they mouth is at.”

Philly Painting is a complex project, worthy of continued exploration.

So what is next?

These are appropriate questions.

Philly Painting is a collaboration between the City of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program and the Dutch artists Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn, also known as Haas & Hahn (or the Favela Painters). 

[8 min. Challenge the Obvious: This is not the end – January 2013]

Dre Urhahn: “You don’t paint questions away, you paint them to the surface… What happens next? What happens with the street after its painted?”

[30 min. Challenge the Obvious: A day in the life of Haas & Hahn – September 2012]

Jereon Koolhaas: “[American] people have the idea that when you are poor, that you are not really living life.”

Dancing around the Bride

Bride, 1912. Marcel Duchamp.

Bride, 1912. Marcel Duchamp.

Marcel Duchamp.Experiencing the work of composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham, and visual artists Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg all in one space could very well be described as Dancing around the Bride, a fitting exhibition title. Shaped around Duchamp’sBride, the exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art depicts artists in conversation, as they play, push, pull, inspire, and honor one another.

Zigzagging through the exhibition is best, I think. Just as there is a logic to the placement of each piece, experiencing the rooms out of order takes you deeper.

“Ma’am, you are too close to the artwork,” a guard leaned in and whispered politely to me on one visit.

It’s like slowly being let in on the inside joke, and at that moment, I got it.

You’ll find a sense of movement in the space at anytime.

Without the dancers, you dance.

With the dancers, you might feel even the paintings on the walls breathing. The dancers seem to invoke an aliveness in the other works of art and sound, and the performances themselves are thrilling.

Each time, it seemed I could not take my eyes off of Andrea Weber until the door closed behind her and I had no choice. She performed solos as well as duets with Rashaun Mitchell during one of my visits.

Andrea Weber and Rashaun Mitchell in Dancing Around the Bride, December 22, 2012.

Andrea Weber and Rashaun Mitchell in Dancing Around the Bride, December 22, 2012.

I could try and describe their movement here, but Alastair Macaulay has captured it all so well, why bother —

Many moments in these solos are like the sudden exclamations and figures of speech that make some Shakespearean soliloquies so present-tense. As a dancer re-examines a step or a position — although there’s nothing that could be labeled acting — we might be watching the movement equivalents of Angelo’s “What’s this? What’s this?” in “Measure for Measure” or Hamlet’s “Ay, there’s the rub.”

Macaulay attended one of the same performances as I did. Tucked in a mostly glowing review, he notes the scheduling of the dances, with gaps lasting several minutes inbetween, does not match the energy of performers nor the audience, and that some of the activity in the exhibition space during his visits was distracting. I wonder, would we feel the dances in the same way if we were seated in rows of a black box theater watching them one after the next?

The dancers push museumgoers, even in ways we might find agitating. Yes, we sometimes-annoying people, with our chatter and cell phones and movement — are part of the exchange. We crowd around the platform during the action, as if gathering for an impromptu street performance, and just as quickly withdraw our gazes when the dancers leave the floor, turning back to our friends and the still pieces throughout the gallery. We occupy the space with our thoughts. Does the light switch on Jasper Johns’ Field Painting actually power the glowing neon letter “R”? I wish the bicycle wheels between the chairs were slowly spinning. We circle the dancers, moving around them. We collaborate as we linger on the stairs talking quietly in the minutes between dances. Was that your conversation I overheard, or part of the recorded soundscape bouncing around the speakers hanging from the ceiling? I can’t be certain.

“I believe that art is not only a selfish act, but also an attempt to create something bigger than you,” says Philippe Parreno, the metteur en scène, or orchestrator of Dancing around the Bride. One could say he is the exhibit’s sixth artist. Is the audience the seventh? Why not.

We are part of the show and together, with the works by Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Duchamp, we fill the room.

Further reading:
ART REVIEW by Holland Cotter, A Sun’s Influence on a Galaxy of Stars.
CRITIC’S NOTEBOOK by Alastair Macaulay, Present-Tense Movement, With Memory.
Notes by Susan Landers.

Play It As It Lays

Finished reading Play It As It Lays by Joan Dideon. Loved the book. A perfect summer read (that is if you’re looking for a dark, dramatic, perhaps a bit depressing page turner). It is about 1960s Hollywood, after all. My favorite chapter:


“‘I want a very large steak,’ she said to Les Goodwin in a restaurant on Melrose at eight o’clock that night. ‘And before the very large steak I want three drinks. And after the steak I want to go somewhere with very loud music.’

‘Like where.’

‘I don’t know where. You ought to know where. You know a lot of places with loud music.’

‘What’s the matter with you.’

‘I am just very very very tired of listening to you all.'”

This passage stuck with me. I read these few sentences a second time immediately after I read it the first and have since re-read it at least a dozen times. I can feel this scene. Stylistically, the book is written in snippets like these, very cinematic. I appreciate the blunt language. Read it, if you haven’t!

Next up on the reading list, Marya: A Life by Joyce Carol Oates. Coincidentally, two protagonists in a row named Marya albeit spelled a bit differently. Like Emily and Emaleigh. On the second page of Play It As It Lays, the protagonist declares: “My name is Maria Wyeth. That is pronounced Mar-eye-ah, to get it straight at the outset.” Funny how that goes.


“CNN Interview Request.” That’s a mighty email subject header! Earlier this week, my sister and I were interviewed by CNN All Platform Journalist Sarah Hoye about our block revitalization project. Sarah read an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about our efforts that sparked her interest, and she thought we would be great for CNN’s new In Depth: Listening Tour series.

I blogged about the whole affair (which was an amazing experience) on One thing that I’ll repost here is this:

It’s great for Philadelphia to have been included in this series. Politics aside, for us, the biggest statement that we want to share with the public is the importance of being an active citizen. It seems small to say,”Do what you can.” Yet, when you actually do what you can, the results can be tremendous. This reminds me of a favorite quote from Theodore Roosevelt: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Believe it!

The segment aired nationally on Thursday, June 9 during CNN Newsroom with Brooke Baldwin. The online version of the story is the lead video on today! Check out the full article and video here:

CNN: Philadelphia residents speak out on politics, budget cuts, jobs

There are two other Philly voices featured in the piece: Ebony Baylis, a member of Youth United for Change, and Leroi Simmons, a pastor at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church. Hear what we all have to say!

6-ABC Action News covers Grow This Block! : “Germantown neighbors plant new life”

On Saturday, May 28, at the start of Memorial Day Weekend, the 6-ABC Action News team came out to shoot a segment on Grow This Block! – the community project my sister and I organized. When the assignment editor confirmed the story, I figured just a camera person would be sent to get some footage. I was thrilled to see both doors of the Action News van swing open! Reporter Cathy Gandolfo spent nearly an hour on the block as she strolled up and down W Rockland Street interviewing residents about their planting projects. Both my sister and I also talked with Cathy about the ideas behind the project.

In my work, I’m always pitching stories about Canary clients to TV media and arranging interviews for other people. I’m very comfortable in front of the camera but it still always feels slightly odd to switch places and be the interviewee!

The Action News segment was the lead during the six o’clock evening news and teased several times throughout the broadcast by anchor Rob Jennings.

Watch it on the 6-ABC website here: Germantown neighbors plant new life.