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A Modest Place of Distinction Continues to Survive

26 Sep
2018-09-26 14.13.55

Near Broad and Wolf

 

Circumstances brought me to South Philadelphia this week.

 

For those unfamiliar with this legendary locale, it is a crowded little sub-town of look-alike row homes. South Philly probably is best known as the birthplace of the Philly Cheesesteak and as the home of 50s teen idols like Fabian, Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell.

 

Traditionally, it is considered an Italian neighborhood, and although it has had its ups and down, with people moving in and people moving out, it remains intact. Its vibrancy is illustrated by the thriving Italian market that has been in existence since the early 1900s. In the movies, Rocky runs through it as part of his training.

 

The area is broken up into many neighborhoods. I was at Wolf and Broad streets, a humble section without landmarks. One day at around 1:30, I decided to find a restaurant for lunch. I knew the big name South Philly restaurants were elsewhere, but whatever place I chose had to meet at least baseline standards in order to exist here.

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The Italian Market

 

I came upon a small corner joint named Johnnie’s at 12th and Wolf. My plan was to takeout, a good idea since the place was empty save for a waitress sitting at a table. Didn’t matter. Johnnie’s was clean and decorated with wine bottles, plastic flowers and garland. There were several religious icons, including a statue of the Sacred Heart, which is Jesus exposing his bulging heart through an open robe.

 

I ordered some pasta and sandwiches, including a Cheesesteak with sauce and onions.

 

“Sauce?” the waitress said with a puzzled face.

 

“Yes, sauce and onions.”

 

“You mean red gravy?” she asked.

 

“Yes, red gravy,” I said, remembering where I was.

 

After she put in my order we chatted. Having walked down Wolf Street, I noticed a good number of the 3-story homes had been gentrified, with beautiful wooden doors and fancy nameplates displaying address numbers. I hadn’t been in one of these homes for decades, but I recollect at least two common interior features. First, all couches and chairs were protected with clear plastic slipcovers. Second, one interior wall – the whole thing — was faced with mirrors to give the narrow homes a feeling of depth. The mirrors may still be there. I’m guessing the plastic slip covers are gone.

1959_Fabian_Forte

Singer Fabian Forte, from South Philly

“How’s the neighborhood doing?” I asked the waitress.

 

“Well,” she said, “I’m not from here. I’m from the other side of Broad Street (three blocks away). But I’d say it’s doing OK. Things have picked up. For a while, I was thinking about moving. Not now. It’s pretty good.”

 

South Philly has been targeted by an army of millennials looking for a small town feel in the big city. They have made South Philly one of the hottest Philadelphia neighborhoods for rentals.

 

“What do these homes sell for?” I asked. “A good one, not a great one.”

 

She thought about it. “Maybe the low 300s. That’s what they go for on my street. Maybe the high or mid-200s.”

 

“It’s nice when a neighborhood comes back,” I said, thinking about the Chambersburg section of Trenton, which has not come back.

 

Trenton, New Jersey, was where my father was born. Our family lived there for a few years. I think we moved out when I was seven. We didn’t live in Chambersburg, but as children we’d hear talk about this very ethnic Italian neighborhood. Occasionally we’d eat at a restaurant there, but mostly we bought bread and pastries from its bakeries.

 

As an adult, while living in suburban Philadelphia, I joined my father’s Trenton-based lodge, The Roman Society. In its day it was a remarkably successful organization, and I’ve written about it here. Without repeating too much, I’ll just say the lodge owned a beautiful restaurant and banquet facility called the Roman Hall. It outlived its usefulness after the unmistakable truth became known: Chambersburg was no longer and never again would be Italian. Also, walking the streets was getting dangerous.

 

No surprise. The restaurant went under.

 

An entrepreneur wanted to turn the place into an Hispanic-style nightclub. He asked that the lodge to hold the mortgage, which it did, and our signs were taken down. For me, this was like Rome falling all over again.

 

But back to the better-fated South Philly.

 

Not far from Johnnies, a young man I know (non-Italian) lives happily with his new wife in a South Philly row home. The couple, both of whom work in Center City, got married at an old but stately South Philly high school that had been converted in a bar/banquet hall. It’s a large, slightly Greek-style building on a small, cramped side street. Hardly any parking. I’m told the wedding attendees stayed at a riverfront hotel and Ubered over.

 

South Philadelphia is an indication that things can change for the better. The defining question is how much better and for how much longer. Either way, I hope Johnnies’ dinner trade is better than its lunch trade. It’s not Dante and Luigi’s or Ralph’s or Marra’s, but it’s a nice place for quick, simple food. If you, like I, are near 12th and Wolf due to circumstances, I can recommend it. Be sure to remember it’s “red gravy,” not sauce.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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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.

 

 

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