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Falling arches and other cataclysmic changes

31 Jan

change

With sweat and angst, people struggle for years to change things, then suddenly the mighty fall simply because of changing tastes.

Powerful people and institutions use their power to create systems that sustain and protect them. But these systems always contain elements of their own destruction. They do not defend against the unexpected and the unlikely. So when that unforeseen wave rises, it crashes with the force of a tsunami.

Who could have anticipated that people would turn against McDonald’s hamburgers?

mcdonaldsIn 1994, the restaurant giant had sold 99 billion burgers – an unfathomable number. Then it stopped counting. The film Fast Food Nation cites a survey showing that 88 percent of people could identify the McDonald’s arches but only 54 percent could identify the Christian cross. Financially, the company is larger than the economies of many countries.

Yet the chaos has come.

Days ago, after only two years as McDonald’s CEO, Don Thompson announced he would step down. Profits in the last quarter dropped a precarious 21 percent. Sales have pretty much fallen or remained flat at all stores for 13 consecutive months.

McDonald’s didn’t change. We did.

“I don’t know a single person of my generation that eats at McDonald’s,” a man in his early 20s said. “When the older generations pass on, they’ll have no customers.”

People haven’t necessarily forsaken burgers. They just prefer the so-called “better burgers” at places like Five Guys and the Shake Shack, which this week had a highly successful public stock offering.

McDonald’s, with its top marketing pros, is trying to reverse the trend. Ads have changed to show that its food is actually real. Other changes must be in the works. It could turn things around and reinvent itself, but so far that hasn’t happened. If McDonald’s goes under it will leave a giant hole in the global economy. In its wake will be opportunity for others.

We are used to disruptive technologies destroying things like newspapers and video stores, but the technology related to burgers has not changed. Only taste and attitudes have changed.

Can you imagine if this happens in politics?

Political parties usually are quick to adapt. They are willing to give people what they want – or at least provide the appearance of this – in order to survive. Still, quick changes can alter much about the system.

Koch Brothers

Koch Brothers

In a political overhaul, what would happen to the conservative Koch brothers, who announced recently that their political network will spend about $900 million on the 2016 elections – more than the Republican and Democratic parties will spend.

If the political climate takes a dramatic shift, what will happen to this network, its money and its associated power, influence, special interest legislations and the intricate machinery that runs everything and keeps order? What will happen to all the other power networks? What will replace them? Will it be genuine or phony? Helpful or hurtful? Open or closeminded? Peaceful or warlike?

It was reported this week in the New York Times and elsewhere that a majority of the American public, including half of the Republicans, support government action to curb global warming. That news is bound to recast agendas in the 2016 congressional and presidential elections.

What else is coming? Lots, probably.

Young people aren’t buying homes; aren’t buying cars; aren’t living in the suburbs; aren’t using traditional banks. Maybe they will decide to stop using traditional politicians.

On a dark election night, a losing politician was heard to have said, “The people have spoken – the bastards!”

We may be hearing more of this. It’s something to think about as we eat a better burger in the back of a peer-to-peer driving service on the way to a friend’s apartment in the city.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Censorship and the self-righteous now target restaurants

26 Nov

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On a day when at least one college president was pressured to apologize for saying something rational, a minor story appeared about angry people trying to censor a restaurant.

Within just a few days, possibly while another person was making a forced apology, a second report of restaurant censorship appeared. What this means is that the movement to shut the traps of the dumb, the smart and the mediocre has reached a new and dangerous low.

While sporadic, disarrayed and multi-headed, the censorship movement is highly effective. Its practitioners sacrifice freedom for all as a way to secure kindness for all – which ends up being not so kind. Their popularity has grown with their intolerance, but God help them if they get between a hungry person and their food.

conflict-kitchen-storefrontNot going down easily is a Pittsburgh takeout joint called Conflict Kitchen. It shutdown after death threats, but has since reopened. More than 200 people – God bless them all – rallied on its behalf, singing and twisting verse from John Lennon: “All we are saying . . . is give food a chance.”

The Conflict Kitchen – little more than a kiosk – serves food from countries in conflict with the United States. Since opening in 2011, owners Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski have prepared culinary items from nations such as Afghanistan, North Korea, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela.

The food is wrapped in paper containing information about the country’s culture and politics. The restaurant claims not to take a position but wants to present the positions of countries we may be biased against. Jon and Dawn also hold public forums to facilitate discussions.

When the Conflict Kitchen began serving Palestinian food in October, there were complaints from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, the B’nai B’rith and other groups. The restaurant closed after police received a letter with death threats against it, but it has since reopened. A police investigation continues.

Meanwhile, out in Colorado, a fellow named Pete Turner has vowed to keep open his Mexican-style restaurants in the face of community protests. Again, the complaint is not about food but about words, in this case a single word.

Pete has been operating restaurants for 20 years and has six in Boulder and Denver. It is only recently that his trouble began.

The trouble is about the name of his restaurants: Illegal Pete’s.

It is felt by the protesters that the “I-Word” is offensive and hurtful and should be removed.

Pete’s inspiration for the name came in several forms. It’s a literary reference, he said, to a bar in a novel he read as a college student. It also pays homage to anti-heroes and the counter-culture, honors the nonconformist streak of his father (also named Pete) and keeps his own name out there as well.

Pete recently attended a community meeting with his detractors. He listened politely. Several days later, he announced he would not change the restaurant’s name.

I admire his guts.

You can’t please everyone and it’s ridiculous to try. You also can’t guarantee a person a totally inoffensive day, unmarred by an indelicate word, picture, conversation, hint or suggestion. Life as a whole is offensive. Isn’t that abundantly clear? We are an aggressive, acquisitive, violent and murderous species. Must we use the proper words in the course of our murdering?

I don’t think Pete was trying to offend, but if people are free to offend, at least we will know where they stand. To me, this is preferable to having people hide their feelings and seem like something they are not.

Sometimes all we need to do is shake our heads and continue walking – or eat somewhere else.

Milton Guevara, the Salvadoran general manager of an Illegal Pete’s in Boulder, took what I think is the right “c’est la vie” attitude. He said, “I’m Hispanic, and I’m very proud to be. People come to us because they love our food . . . The name doesn’t mean anything.”

In the end, if someone is providing you with good food, how can you not like and appreciate them? If you’ve got to picket, I say picket those who can’t cook.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

I never ate there, but I always expected a line

30 Mar

7_13_500x362

I once dated a woman who knew Philadelphia much better than I. On the few occasions when we passed Broad and Belfield Avenue, she’d say, “There’s always a line at the Shrimp Corner.”

And there always was.

My friend spoke these words as if they were a cliché, something that had been repeated a thousand times by a thousand people. But I had never heard the expression and I didn’t know the Shrimp Corner.

For me, it had escaped the notoriety of, say, Pat’s King of Steaks on Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia. I knew there was always a line at Pat’s. I’d waited in it at 3 a.m. Pat’s was in an Italian neighborhood and I felt comfortable there. People went there after Phillies games. The very different Shrimp Corner is in North Philadelphia, a poor, high-crime area. I’m sure it is considered home to many, but to those in the suburbs, sadly, it was simply a place to avoid.

On Yelp someone advises that before going to the Shrimp Corner one should “practice standing around and looking tough so no one messes with you.”

philly-360-creative-ambassador-brandon-pankey-spot-check-sid-booker-s-shrimp.582.345.cFormally known as Sid Booker’s Shrimp Corner, the takeout eatery opened in 1966. As the name suggests, it juts out on a block that forms an acute angle. To order, you walk up to a window made of bulletproof glass. The food is not cheap. A dozen batter-fried shrimp with fries costs about $20. The rest of the building, painted pink, houses Sid Booker’s Stinger Lounge.

Because of the Shrimp Corner, I thought about my old girlfriend this month. As circumstance would have it, I drove by Broad and Belfield three times in the last four weeks. Each time, there was no line at the Shrimp Corner.

What changed?

When I first saw the Shrimp Corner more than a couple decades ago, North Philadelphia may have been at its lowest. It was in great deterioration. I know so little of these neighborhoods, but I do recall how the homes and small business were sinfully neglected. Some were actually falling down. On Broad Street, the main thoroughfare, there wasn’t a fresh coat of paint to be seen. I doubt a nickel had been invested in the place.

7_15_800x600Then, about the time when real estate prices took off and business loans were easier to get, new shopping centers went up. Franchises like CVS settled in, as did more fast food restaurants. The regional transportation authority, SEPTA, even brought in new buses.

Meanwhile, a so-so college in the heart of North Philadelphia was expanding. An incredible number of well-designed, multi-story buildings appeared on Broad Street — for miles. Temple University, once a commuter college for the working class, had become a residential college that was attracting a new generation of students seeking an urban experience.

Houses were fixed up and rented to students. New housing was constructed.

If a Temple student was stupid enough to start selling drugs, he might get busted up in his nice apartment and have his stash and cash stolen. There would be episodes like when three neighborhood girls went around smashing bricks in the faces of female students. But overall, things really seemed to improve.

Today you can drive portions of Broad Street and it looks commercially alive. Some developer even wants to build a $700 million French-themed hotel-casino complex – The Provence – on Broad just south of Vine. He said it will be “one of the most dynamic entertainment destinations on the East Coast”

So why isn’t there a line at the Shrimp Corner?

I don’t know, but I do have a suggestion.

Recently there have been a series of Flash Mobs at old, nearly forgotten, Eleanor Rigby/Father McKenzie type cathedrals. Calling themselves “Mass” Mobs, Catholics are trying to revive these still elegant structures by using social media to fill pews.

If its true that the Shrimp Corner is not the draw it once was, wouldn’t it be fun to organize a Flash Mob – call it a “Flash Fry” — and send the line at the window down the block and all the way to Temple? Sid sure would go for the idea. Maybe he could donate some of the profits to fix up North Philly’s Uptown Theater, which has been trying and trying and trying to come back but can’t.

I have no deep emotional connection to any of this, so it’s not for me to organize an event. Still, I’d love to see North Philadelphia attract more investment and make Broad Street once again a great and grand boulevard.

If not this, then I’d at least  like– for old times sake – to be able to drive by and be correct when I say to a fellow passenger, “There’s always a line at the Shrimp Corner.”

By Lanny Morgnanesi

The factories left, so did the Dodgers; but Brooklyn was been saved by al fresco

10 Sep

Hipster Brooklyn

In a prior post about Detroit, I mentioned Hipster Brooklyn – how young, creative people brought it came back from crime and decay, how it could be a model for the Motor City, which is bankrupt and hardly even a city.

Shortly after that post, I met up with a cousin whom I don’t see much. He’s an accountant from New York. Although he now lives in Manhattan, he spent years in Brooklyn, moving in when it was cheap, crime-ridden and far from hip.

Brooklyn mapI asked him about the transformation. He vividly recalled the day he became aware that Brooklyn had changed.

“Walking down the street around noon, I passed a restaurant,” he said. “A man from the restaurant was carrying a table outside. He set it up on the sidewalk, brought out two chairs, a tablecloth and a candle. I said, almost out loud, ‘Oh no, someone is going to steal that stuff – probably in the next few minutes!’ But they didn’t. That’s when I knew something remarkable had happened to Brooklyn.”

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

Should Hershey and M&M make government policy?

19 May

candy sugar lips2

I came to understand how power could ravage the individual on the day candy bars increased in price and decreased in size.

As a 10-year-old I was willing to concede that prices could go up OR size could go down. But to have both occur at once struck me as unjust and criminal. This shocking and unexpected event remained with me and prepared me for later lessons in politics, morality, pragmatism, irrationality, the market place, self-interest and hypocrisy.

In some respect then, the price I paid for that under-sized Milky Way was worth it.

Thoughts of those days, when candy was so important, came back this morning when I read a piece by Jonathan Tamari in the Philadelphia Inquirer: “Not a sweet fight: Chocolate vs. sugar.”

It details the struggle between “Big Candy” and “Big Sugar” over pending legislation governing price supports for sugar. Currently, the price of domestic sugar is kept high by a policy that limits cheaper imports from countries such as Brazil and Mexico. “Big Candy,” which must pay the higher prices for sugar, wants the restrictions removed so the price of sugar will fall. “Big Sugar” wants to maintain the restrictions to protect U.S. farmers who grow sugar and to offset the subsidies paid to foreign growers by their governments.

CandyBoth sides claim their positions save jobs. Both sides claim their positions are best for the economy. One interesting claim by “Big Sugar” is that “Big Candy” won’t lower its prices even if the cost of sugar comes down.  Why does that sound so believable?

As I read on, my thoughts turned from candy – which I no longer eat much of – to the differences between governmental policy that is piecemeal and policy that is comprehensive.

In the United States, we generally govern the first way. The second way, while enviable, is much too difficult. For now, we leave that kind of governing to the politburo of the Chinese Communist Party, which has its faults and foibles and vast problems with corruption and oppression but is made up of engineers and technocrats who take the long view.

If Congress were to act properly and strategically, it wouldn’t joust over every important piece of legislation, with one kind of action chosen in one case and an opposing kind of action in another. Rather, all actions would be supportive of an effective strategy and plan.

So instead of deciding over “Big Candy” or “Big Sugar,” government   should decide if import barriers and supports as a rule are desirable or undesirable.

Figure out what works best and employ it everywhere where it works.

It’s called National Policy and we need it in every sector.

In the end, an unhappy child may have to pay too much for too little, or his teeth may rot because sweets are cheap and abundant, but if the chosen policy boosts the nation, creating jobs and wealth, then either outcome represents reasonable pain for ultimate gain.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

On glazed doughnut sandwiches and the end of men

8 May
Photo by Aaron Dyer for Bloomberg Businessweek

Photo by Aaron Dyer for Bloomberg Businessweek

I’m linking below to a piece I wrote for the May 8  edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The headline is: Men are from high caloric Mars … but it really is about women taking over the world. Below is  the video I mention at the end of the article. It shows that there still might be hope for men. Best to read the article first.

 

 

A Christmas lament: Arrivederci to all that was great and is lost

26 Dec

I belong to something called the Societa Romana Di Mutuo Soccorso, which is based in Trenton, N.J., the tired, failing city of my birth.

The name in English means the Roman Society for Mutual Aid. Until a few years ago, the group’s meeting minutes were recorded and read in Italian. That changed, along with everything else in Trenton. Today, the society’s name is misspelled all over the Internet, a sad state of affairs for a once noble organization.Roman Hall

The Roman Society is a fraternal group whose members have ancestral roots in Rome and its surrounding provinces. Founded by 13 men in 1896, its primary purpose was to provide sick and survivor benefits. The society’s motto is the applicable but mildly unoriginal, “One for all and all for one,” which sounds less cliché in Italian: “Uno per tutti e tutti per uno.”

Dues originally were 50 cents a month. More than a century later, they are $25 a year. This is quite a deal, especially if you attend the Christmas party, which is free.

When you walk into the party, as I did a few weeks ago, there is red and white wine on the tables, along with fresh Italian bread. The first course is always Italian wedding soup. Then a salad. Next is the big favorite: two kinds of pasta, served home style. One has a red sauce, the other a white. Everyone eats both. For entrees there is a choice of roast chicken, veal Parmesan or fish.

The tradition was that one week earlier there would be a party for the children and grandchildren of members. This also was free. The food was simple – hot dogs – but there was a magician, a very impressive Santa and a respectable gift for every child, like a basketball, a nice truck or a doll.

In the summer, there is a free picnic, a feast of near excess that goes far beyond the humble burger.

When I first became a member at my father’s urging, it was a mystery to me how $25 a year could cover all this. Then I learned that the sustaining element of the Societa Romana was something called the Roman Hall. It was what made the society great and of consequence.

The hall dates to 1938. Back then the nation had yet to whip the Great Depression, but the society and it 300 members had more than $14,000 in the bank. For such a time and for such an organization, this was an incredible sum. Seeing an opportunity, two members, Dr. Albert Moriconi and Sylvester Stella, decided the money should be used to allow Italians to do what Italians do best: cook.

And so the society, with its own money and its own labor, built the Roman Hall, a meeting place, restaurant and banquet facility. It was built in the Chambersburg section, a Trenton neighborhood filled with supportive Italians. The building is there still. It’s the Italians that have gone.

For many years the Roman Hall did well. Renovations and expansions were common. As a child I remember hearing people say with delight and anticipation, “We’re going to the Roman Hall tonight!” My family moved out of Trenton when I was young so I don’t have early memories of the place. When I grew up, however, I had the urge to return and erase this blank spot.

I visited shortly after the release of the film, “The Godfather.” I was home from college and living in a Philadelphia suburb with my parents.  My goal was a good meal but more importantly I wanted to experience some of the dripping Italianness I had seen in the Coppola film.

While I didn’t bump into any mobsters, the food and service were first-rate. The building – large, with many rooms — was brilliant white on the outside with black trim. The exterior was somewhat boxy but attempted a Romanesque style. The interior was heavy on columns, statues, gilded mirrors and chandeliers.

After I joined the society, it felt cool to be a member of an organization that owned something like the Roman Hall. I’d take my friends there for dinner, use my discount card and say only half in jest that I was a part owner.

Of course, I’d walk around like I was.

One of the reasons I joined the society was because my father said the hall paid dividends to members who held shares, that with each year you gained more shares, and that when a father died his member son would get his shares.

It seemed like a good investment.

But best of all were the Christmas parties.

They were lively, even though most attendees were very old. There wasn’t much going on except for talk, but this talk generated such energy. Much of it was about old times in the old neighborhood, Chambersburg. I would attend with my father, now 93, and mother, my wife and son, and sometimes my sisters’ families.

Often, there were people at our table we didn’t know. Still, after names and old addresses were exchanged, near ancient connections were always found.

“I knew your great-aunt,” a white-haired woman might say. “She lived down the street from the bakery, near the grocery store. Your grandmother was Cecelia. I knew her. She made great biscotti.”

One man asked where my family originally came from.

“My father’s father is from Perugia, in Umbria,” I said.

“You’re a Mountain Lion,” he responded. “A Mountain Lion.”

“What do you mean?”

“Your family is from the area around Monte Leone – the Lion Mountain. That makes you a Mountain Lion. You’re very stubborn and very strong. You will not let life defeat you.”

Pieces of information like that made the parties fun and deepened my identity; made me feel more complete.

Still, underlying all this frenetic chitchatting was an understated sadness. Chambersburg, home to the Italian culture, with modest but well-kept townhouses, great restaurants and bakeries, had somehow evaporated. People moved away as they prospered and became real Americans. Bankers, doctors, lawyers, politicians, publishers, commercial pilots. There was no longer a need to huddle together for protection. The immigrants and children of immigrants now could make it on their own.

As they did, something of inestimable value was lost.

What had been Italian transformed into something Hispanic.

Still, some refused to give up. They stayed.

“I was mugged for the fourth time last week,” a frail, wiry woman told me without a trace of fear in her voice. “They took my purse.”

Part of the problem with crime is the lack of good jobs in Trenton. It was once an industrial town with a broad manufacturing base. The dominant presence was the John A. Roebling mill that produced wire rope. The city was so proud of itself that on a bridge across the Delaware River it erected a huge sign proclaiming: TRENTON MAKES, THE WORLD TAKES.

I cannot recall ever seeing such a pronounced, public boast by a city. I certainly cannot recall one that remained so public so long after it ceased to be true.

In Jersey, an amusing pastime is to update, add to, or parody the slogan with something like: WHAT TRENTON USES, THE WORLD REFUSES.

But when Trenton thrived, the money earned by Trentonians helped support local businesses, including restaurants like the Roman Hall. Its three banquet rooms – for groups of 55, 160 and 300 – were places where Italians and non-Italians celebrated joyful events.  Like many restaurants in Chambersburg, the Roman Hall had a reputation outside the city. It fed the likes of George H. W. Bush, Larry Holmes, Derek Jeter and an assortment of famous governors and senators. We lost out on Sinatra, who went down the road to Creco’s, perhaps the best of the Chambersburg restaurants.

I’m not sure what’s there now, but it’s not Creco’s.

When people stopped coming to the Roman Hall, the society tried different approaches to keep it going. None worked. Members debated over what to do. Some couldn’t stomach the idea of a sale. Others said it should have been done years ago. As the talk continued, things got worse. In 2009 a buyer was sought and found and the Roman Hall, as the Roman Hall, was no more.

It was replaced by something more fitting for the times: a Hispanic nightclub called the Infinity Lounge. The society holds the mortgage, so the detachment is not yet one hundred percent complete. I’m unsure if that is a consolation or a concern.Infinity Lounge

As might be expected, the Infinity Lounge has its critics. At a city council meeting there were complaints of loud music, public urination, unruly crowds and sex acts. On an Internet site, one person complained of vacant storefronts being plastered with posters for the Infinity and other “ghetto nightclubs.”

At the council meeting, Antonio Martinez, a lawyer for the club owner, defended the Infinity saying the neighborhood had been a “ghost town” and now life had been restored. He added that the Roman Hall never had a chance, that it existed only because it was being propped up.

“That restaurant survived because it was funded by the society of Roman Hall … otherwise it would have closed years ago,” he said.

He didn’t realize it was the hall that was supposed to prop up the society.

For the last three years or so, the society’s Christmas party was held at a place in suburban Trenton called Cedar Gardens.  The name is grander than the building, which resembles a down-at-the-heels relic from the 60s. The food was not bad, but the much-loved red and white pasta was no longer homemade fettuccine. It was penne and rigatoni from a box.

Another casualty was the children’s party.

Decisions on the fate of the Roman Hall were made at the hall during monthly meetings of the society. Before the working sessions there was always free pasta and beer. Throughout my membership I only went to one or two meetings. The hall is about an hour’s drive from my house and I couldn’t get there in time after work. Also, I guess the interest was never very strong. The society was really run by an old guard with ties to Trenton. As a Pennsylvanian, I felt like an outsider.

In addition, I somehow thought the Roman Hall would always be there.

Now that it’s over, now that the Roman Hall has lost its flesh and has been reduced to stories and memories, I wish I had been more involved. Maybe I could have found a real estate speculator to invest in the area. Much of dilapidated Philadelphia is coming back, with a strong interest in forgotten neighborhoods.

Why not Trenton?

I actually like the row houses in the blocks surrounding the Roman Hall. If they were fixed up, if the restaurants came back, the neighborhood would be ideal for employees of the one vibrant industry left in Trenton, state government.

In recent decades, the forces of decline have taken hold of so much that was enviable and worthwhile. Sure, we moved out of the city on our own, but – naively — we didn’t know that would destroy it.

Could it be that we deserved all the good things then and don’t deserve them now? Could it be that we wanted them then and really don’t want them now?

Either way, it troubles me how we casually watched it all go away. There was no fight. Was there even a way to win?

In science there is a concept called entropy, a gradual tendency toward disorder. A college professor told me time was the path on which entropy travels. Living today, in an eclipse, one can easily believe that. Little gets better. Instead, it unravels and decays.

Entropy.

But if science shows us anything, it shows us nature favor the cyclical. This leaves the possibility that the macro entropy of our cities, our economy and our culture will halt and reverse. Rebirth and growth might lie ahead.

With respect to the cities, the trend has already started. Young people like the urban culture, even with its grit and danger. They are moving back. Our cities may one day be great again, reverting back to the creative founts of thought, energy and commerce that would never be squandered or abused.

I can see it.

It just a shame that it won’t happen in time for next year’s Christmas party at the Societa Romana Di Mutuo Soccorso.

 –By Lanny Morgnanesi

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