The Kids Are All Red: Socialism Rises Again in the Age of Trump

Illustration by Rob Dobi

It’s one of those final, bittersweet Fridays of the summer, and a dozen people are crowded around a picnic table at the El Bar in Fishtown. With their horn-rimmed glasses, hand-rolled cigarettes and lukewarm PBRs, they look like your standard-issue young hipsters. But here’s the difference between them and the men with manicured beards across the patio: These are card-carrying members of the Democratic Socialists of America, the largest socialist group in the nation.

As the Market-Frankford train whistles above their heads and a cat prowls around their feet, they talk about what the world would look like if they called the shots.

Brittany Griebling, a bubbly 35-year-old social worker, says socialism is “people making choices for themselves”: “So what would it be like if, in health care, patients had 50 percent of the power instead of zero percent?”

Jeremy Low, another 30-something — he has the unenviable task of rolling cigarettes for his friends, or “comrades,” as these socialists often call each other — nods along. Socialism is “democracy with a small ‘d’ in all spheres of your life,” he explains. It means that “all of your material concerns would be met.”

In case you were wondering, the socialists at tonight’s happy hour don’t think any of this is unrealistic. “We’re in an age where we can easily provide for everyone on the planet,” Low says. “Oh,” he adds with a smile, “hopefully, we get rid of nations, too.”

Socialists may not be seizing the means of production in the United States anytime soon, but the chances they’ll drastically change the nation’s political system may not be as improbable as you think. The Philadelphia chapter of the DSA has increased by more than 500 percent overnight, going from 100 people in early 2016 to more than 600 today. That mirrors the explosion of the national DSA, which grew from an organization of 5,000 to nearly 30,000 in the past year. Members range from out-and-out Marxists to anarchist-communists to lefties who want a Scandinavian-style government. “When they write the history books and we’ve won,” Griebling says, “they’ll say this was the turning point.”

In a strange way, socialists have President Donald Trump to thank for their upswing: The vast majority of the Philly DSA’s new members didn’t sign up in the midst of the Bernie Sanders campaign, but joined instead in the wake of Trump’s election. “There were a lot of what we call ‘November 9th babies,’” says Griebling.

Any pundit who predicted a few years ago that socialism would rise from the dead in America would have been laughed out of a job. But today, Sanders is the most popular politician in the nation, and 51 percent of American voters support the Vermont senator’s “Medicare-for-All” proposal. Many of the Democratic Party’s likely 2020 candidates, including Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, have sponsored Sanders’s bill. And socialists have suddenly become a force in pop culture: The socialist quarterly Jacobin is getting more subscriptions than ever, the irreverently left-wing Chapo Trap House grosses $1 million annually on Patreon, and Twitter users with red roses in their handles are seemingly everywhere.

Perhaps most significantly, there seems to be room for groups like DSA to grow: According to a Harvard University poll, 51 percent of millennials don’t support capitalism. A smaller percentage of Gen Xers, though still a plurality, are skeptical of the free-market system. The only age group to decisively embrace capitalism is the 50-plus demographic.

The long-term effects of this, whatever they are, could have a real impact on Philadelphia. The city is home to several leaders in the burgeoning left-wing movement, including Sanders alums, head honchos at the DSA, and writers for Jacobin. Socialist meetings in Philly that used to draw a measly four or five people are suddenly being swarmed by more than 100. A DSA branch for Bucks and Montgomery counties has popped up in the past year, as have as chapters in Centre County and Pittsburgh. (The latter saw two of its endorsed candidates win in November.) Youth chapters have opened up at Arcadia and Penn State.

So why, exactly, are so many young people in Philadelphia — and throughout America, for that matter — warming up to an ideology that was long taboo? And can socialists actually leverage happy-hour meetings in Fishtown and canvassing sessions in University City to drag the country to the left?

Spencer Potts was 10 years old when his dad was laid off.

His father made good money — union money — as a truck driver. Then, without any warning, the Great Recession washed away his livelihood. “Things were really tight,” says Potts. The fact that his family had to live off his mom’s hairdresser wages for years changed how he saw the world. So did his dad’s reaction to it all: “It was really tough, especially on him.”

Potts remembers how hopeful his father was when Barack Obama won the 2008 election, and how disappointed he became when little changed for him afterward: “Everyone said, ‘Obama will fix this.’ But then he bailed out the bankers.”

Potts, now a 19-year-old sophomore at Arcadia University, is sitting at a picnic table on campus. He has shaggy brown hair, and a binder covered with stickers that proclaim things like “There Is Power in a Union” and “Good Night Alt-Right.” When I ask why he’s a democratic socialist, he tells me that groups like the DSA “fight for people similar to my family.” Last fall, after Trump was elected, Potts decided to start a chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists at his college. He recruited other students by “just going on Facebook and searching for which friends liked Bernie Sanders,” he laughs.

Almost every local socialist I interviewed had a story like Potts’s. Philly DSA co-chair Scott Jenkins, who is 25, says his family was “decisively proletarianized” during the economic downturn. (For any non-Marxists following along, that means they fell down a rung on the class ladder.) Natalie Midiri, an elected member of the national DSA’s political committee who lives in South Philly, graduated from college in 2013 “without any clear job prospects, like most people at that time.” Her mom was laid off during the recession, too. Melissa Naschek, a 23-year-old co-chair of the Philly DSA, found employment after school but can barely stay afloat: “Suddenly everything is just harder — keeping track of my money, constantly stressing about whether I can pay my bills.”

The majority of the Philly DSA’s members, according to Midiri, “have graduated in the last 10 or 15 years or so and are just really, really struggling.” Some can’t afford to have families, she says. Others don’t have health insurance. And few, if any, believe that Democrats have anything to offer them: “They have to represent their donors’ interests,” says Potts, “and their donors are the same people who laid off my father.”

The generation that came of age during the Great Depression changed forever in ways that are now familiar to us all: Long after the stock market roared back, they still feared banks and hid money in their mattresses. Some even became communists; another time socialism was hot was in the 1930s.

The peculiar habits of millennials are already developing: They’re buying fewer cars, starting families later, and investing less in stocks than other generations. The media often attribute these traits to the generation’s liberal outlook instead of to economic stresses, though.

Will millennials continue shunning capitalism, or is this just a phase? Older members of the age group lived through the relatively prosperous 1990s as children but haven’t known anything but the recession and lackluster recovery since. Some of the youngest millennials, meanwhile, have an even more black-and-white perspective: Kids like Potts can barely remember a healthy economy. To many people his age, capitalism’s success stories sound like fairy tales.

Dustin Guastella is different from most socialists in this city. The 26-year-old Jacobin writer was a conservative once upon a time.

Drinking coffee in the basement of Bella Vista’s Chapterhouse Cafe, where socialists meet regularly to discuss articles in his magazine, Guastella tells me he grew up in the Poconos. He was raised by working-class Reagan Democrats who believed that labor unions and high taxes were the root of most problems in the nation. He says the core of his parents’ conservatism, though, was powered by class rage: The little guy was being screwed over by liberal elites in coastal cities and universities.

As a student at Temple University, Guastella decided to take a course on Marxism “with the full intention of refuting all that liberal nonsense.” But he found himself won over by some of the left-wing arguments he read in class — “especially the idea that workers are in a position of constant war with their employers.” He joined the DSA soon after.

Although he’s a rare breed in Philadelphia, Guastella insists that there are lots of socialists with his background in other parts of the state. “I actually think it’s much easier to win working-class conservatives over to socialism than to win liberals over,” he says. “The anguish and anger that I had, just as much as my father, was easily translated to a socialist politics.” But, Guastella says, where the “bogeyman” in his father’s ideology was the college-educated elite, his is capitalism.

Guastella’s story underscores that any number of different factors may be fueling the resurgence in socialism. Perhaps he’s right, and some new Marxists have converted from the modern-day Republican Party, whose leader canonizes the American worker, bashes free trade, and delights in offending bourgeois sensibilities. Another theory is that socialism’s revival is a backlash against Tea Party politics: Many DSA members argue that universal social programs, such as Medicare-for-All, would be harder for small-government Republicans to kill than more moderate measures like Obamacare.

Or maybe, as others believe, it’s all a reaction to the Democratic Party’s coziness with Wall Street: Would this many kids be calling each other “comrade” if more than one top banker had gone to prison for the financial meltdown?

Guastella thinks there’s another, more straightforward factor at work: “It’s undoubtedly true that social media played a huge role in this,” he says, noting the ease with which like-minded lefties can find each other on Facebook and Twitter. He also points out that millennials are the first generation in decades that hasn’t lived under the specter of the Cold War: “They don’t remember all this propaganda about the Soviet Union and communism and how evil it was.”

But just because millennials don’t remember the horrors of Stalinism doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. So how do Philly’s socialists live with that reality? “The DSA is in a good position because we have never had a sympathetic view of Stalin,” says Guastella. “Even during the Cold War, [we] were very critical of the Soviet Union.” Potts, meanwhile, says, “We just need to learn from the mistakes.”

There may be a more profound explanation for why some city millennials have made such a sharp left turn. When Philly socialists talk about their lives, they often sound betrayed, and not just by their bosses or the Democratic Party. They seem to feel that something much bigger has failed them — something that Americans are practically told is their birthright.

“During the recession, my parents were supposed to be hitting their stride,” Potts says. “My dad was supposed to be going through a midlife crisis, not a jobs crisis, you know?”

“I started thinking, like, why is it the case that it’s so hard to get a job?” Guastella says. “I’ve done everything right. My folks have done everything right. But things just keep getting worse.”

Many of the socialists I talked to seemed to once believe — really, truly believe — in the American Dream. And now they no longer do. Perhaps when you take a generation of idealists, tell them they’ll get a house and a car if they do everything they’re told, and then fail to make good on that promise, it’s inevitable that some of them will end up being Marxists.

On a Saturday in September, about 50 young socialists huddle inside the Calvary Church in West Philly. Some of them have never done anything like this before. Others are pros at it.

They’re not here to worship; they’re preparing to knock on people’s doors in hopes of ginning up support for Sanders’s Medicare-for-All plan. They separate into small groups and brainstorm how to react to different scenarios they may encounter on the street. What if someone doesn’t want to pay more taxes to fund government health care? “Most working people’s taxes will not go above what they already pay for health care,” one man suggests they say. And if a resident points out that many poor people already get health insurance from the federal government? “You could say, ‘Yeah, but a lot of people aren’t covered right now. And they rack up these big bills,’” prompts another.

When the activists finally go outside after their hour-long practice session, they get almost none of the pushback they’ve dutifully prepared for. The first woman Guastella and Naschek accost signs their petition, no questions asked. Another person who answers the door asks the duo how to join DSA. A few doors down, an older lady pulls them inside her rowhome to talk about how “this country is too rich to be so poor.” One man says he’d “invite them in for beers” if he wasn’t so busy.

“How did you hear about Medicare-for-All?” Guastella asks him.

“It only pops up on my Facebook feed every day!” he says.

In the left-wing bubble that is Cedar Park, introducing yourself as a “democratic socialist” apparently isn’t a problem.

The Philly DSA is expecting to canvass for single-payer health care in several other neighborhoods over the next few months, possibly including conservative areas in Northeast Philly where they’ll actually risk having doors closed on them. Naschek says the group will send all the petitions it amasses to U.S. Senator Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat who hasn’t sponsored Sanders’s legislation.

That’s just the beginning of their plans to tug Casey to the left. Guastella says he’d love for a Berniecrat to challenge the senator in the Democratic primary. And remember the town halls last spring where liberals shamed members of Congress over Trumpcare? Naschek wants to flip the script on Democrats and shout in the faces of those who aren’t backing Medicare-for-All. “Casey is up for reelection, so we can make him look pretty bad,” she says. “Honestly, he is the perfect Democrat to go after because he’s totally a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the party. He takes all this money from insurance companies.”

Of course, many Democrats think people like Naschek represent everything that’s wrong with socialists: Attacking Casey from the left in 2018, they argue, might as well be a donation to Republicans. Naschek dismisses such criticism: “I don’t owe the party anything,” she says.

The bad reputation that socialists have among some Democratic voters may be a challenge for them, though, particularly in an era in which some are actually running for office. (And yes, there are whispers the DSA could endorse a candidate for City Council by 2023.) But on this breezy day in West Philly, where practically every rowhome sympathizes with self-described socialists, such conflict seems very far away.

I ask Naschek and Guastella if they believe Medicare-for-All will actually eventually pass.

“It’s going to take a long time,” Naschek admits.

And socialism itself? Could it really happen here? In America?

“I think in our lifetimes, we could have a socialist labor party that displaces the Democrats,” Guastella says.

Laugh if you want about how idealistic and naïve you think these young people are, but they could end up having a big impact by pushing centrist politicians further left. The Tea Party only had 67,000 members on the books in 2010, but it won 47 seats in the House of Representatives that fall. Capitalism-snubbing millennials will make up more and more of the electorate in the years ahead, and they may very well continue to live under a lagging economy: By 2019, the country’s GDP is expected to have rebounded less than it did than in the 12 years after the Great Depression.

“It’s really hard to predict,” says Guastella. “I think there are episodic breaks that can make huge changes. We saw that with Sanders, and I think we’ll see that again in the future. Socialism can happen in the blink of an eye.”

Published as “Power: The Kids Are All Red” in the December 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

The Case for Raising the Roof on Philly Rowhouses

Illustration by Melissa McFeeters

Maybe you know a Philly couple with this dilemma: They’re thrilled with their rowhome but need a tad more space — maybe there’s a kid on the way, or they’re desperate for a home office. Upgrading is getting expensive in this town, though, and in contrast to the days of yore, they aren’t interested in fleeing to the ’burbs. So they build up, adding a third story, often with a roof deck. The city’s 2012 zoning code overhaul, which increased the height limit for rowhomes from 35 to 38 feet, has made this option increasingly prevalent.

Developer Philip Katz even changed careers to build a business out of such transformations. In 2012, when kids were imminent, he and his wife decided to raise the roof on their Bella Vista rowhouse instead of moving. “Six months later, we had 600 more square feet of customized space, two roof decks with spectacular views of the city, and a refinance appraisal that brought us $2 back for every $1 we put in,” Katz wrote on his 3rd Story Philly website. Building up saves money, says Chris, a 43-year-old sales executive who asked that his last name not be used. He lives near Katz and is about to add a floor to his own home: “A 2,000-square-foot three-bedroom, two-bath home in this neighborhood will run anywhere from $600,000 to $850,000. You can save $150,000 to $200,000 by adding a floor instead of moving.”

With all these advantages, who could possibly object? Not surprisingly, the neighbors — usually, says Katz, because an addition might block their view. Others have kicked up a storm about dealing with six months of construction noise and dirt. And, he adds, “It’s in our DNA to put up a fight” when change comes.

Aesthetes also worry that these add-ons will spoil the harmonious look of many rowhome blocks. Even the zoning code recognizes this, in a provision that calls for an eight-foot setback if a third story is added to a house whose neighbors have only two. But even with the setback, you can still see that add-on from the street — and once one house has three stories, its neighbors are free to tack on third floors with no setbacks.

Objections aside, there’s a reason this trend is a good thing. “It’s in the city’s best interest to have this happen,” says Chris. “People want to stay in the city. There were zero kids on this block when we moved here. Now there are 10, with more on the way.” They have to live somewhere. And if third-story add-ons mean that somewhere is in Philadelphia, then bring them on.

Published as “A Tall Tale” in the December 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Pasek and Pasek

Benj and Kathy at the Oscars. Photograph courtesy of Lester Cohen/WireImage/Getty Images

It’s a Sunday evening in late September, and 32-year-old Benj Pasek — currently the toast of both Broadway and Hollywood — is on the phone, trying to explain to me that, yes, his life is busier and more chaotic than it used to be, but honestly, it’s not nearly as glamorous as you might think.

“Justin and I feel very lucky that we’re getting the opportunity to write every day,” he says earnestly, name-checking Justin Paul, his songwriting partner since college and collaborator on the current Broadway smash Dear Evan Hansen. “You know, we really just go into a room and we bang our heads against the wall, and we collaborate until we come up with the best work we can. For us, it’s a little more nerve-racking — and mundane — than it might appear from the outside.”

The subject of Benj’s busyness has come up, in part, because of the difficulty in scheduling an interview with him. A conversation that was originally slated for June got moved to a Monday in September, and then to a Sunday in September, and then was shifted from an in-person meeting in New York to a chat on the phone so that Benj — who grew up in Ardmore — could make it to the airport for a Sunday-evening flight. Success, it seems, does not come without scheduling issues.

Eighteen months ago, Pasek and Paul, as they’re known, were rising, if still somewhat obscure, young Broadway composers. Today, they’re among a handful of people helping to move the musical back to the center of pop culture’s stage. In January, the pair, along with composer Justin Hurwitz, snagged a Golden Globe for their song “City of Stars” from the movie La La Land; seven weeks later, the trio landed yet another statue for that song at the Oscars. Four months after that, Dear Evan Hansen — an affecting musical about teenage loneliness, loosely based on an incident from Pasek’s days as a student at Friends’ Central — cleaned up at the Tony Awards, in the process establishing itself as the biggest Broadway phenomenon since Hamilton. And things show no sign of slowing down: Up next are a live-TV production of Pasek and Paul’s stage musical A Christmas Story (airing on Fox on December 17th) and the December 20th opening of The Greatest Showman, a musical film about P.T. Barnum for which the duo has written the songs.

Meanwhile, in the midst of it all, Pasek also managed to go viral thanks to a heartfelt shout-out to his mother, Kathy, during his Oscar-night acceptance speech. “I want to thank my mom, who is amazing and my date tonight,” the fresh-faced Pasek said breathlessly as he stood at the podium in a tuxedo, looking like James Bond at his bar mitzvah. “She let me quit the JCC soccer league to be in a school musical. So this is dedicated to all the kids who sing in the rain and all the moms who let them!” The camera cut to Kathy, who stood glowing at her seat and waving at her son.

To the average viewer at home, it was a sweet moment between a grateful kid and his proud mother. To those in the know, it was something more.

For the past three decades, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek has been one of America’s foremost experts on childhood development — a Temple professor, a Brookings scholar, and the author of more than a dozen books on parenting, development and education. And the great theme of her work is one that aligns beautifully with the sentiment her son hinted at on Oscar night: that in our hyper-competitive, helicopter-parenting world, we’ve gotten way off track when it comes to what matters in raising and educating kids.

“I mean, both,” Benj says when I ask if his Oscar-speech reference to giving up soccer was meant literally or metaphorically. “I was definitely in the JCC soccer league for many years. And I actually loved it. Kobe Bryant’s dad, Joe, was one of my coaches. But I remember I definitely felt more of a pull to be in the plays and the musicals. And my parents were really supportive of me pursuing that passion.”

On the surface, it makes for a neat, tidy narrative: parenting scholar takes the principles she’s developed in her research, applies them to one of her children, and — voilà! — out comes a brilliant young man crushing it in his chosen field. But if you’re looking at the Paseks as a blueprint for how to turn your kid into an overachiever, you’re missing the point of their story.

On a rainy day in October, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, who’s 64, is sitting comfortably in the Ardmore home where she and her husband Jeff, a lawyer at Cozen O’Connor, raised their three kids. (Josh, the oldest, is a professor of communication at the University of Michigan; Mikey, the youngest, is a PhD candidate in social psychology at Penn State.) With short brown hair and bright eyes, she has the warmth and enthusiasm of everybody’s favorite kindergarten teacher. Which isn’t to say she doesn’t get exasperated. The object of her ire at the moment is the slew of high-tech parenting contraptions she’s seen of late, including one called the Babypod.

“It’s a new tampon-like device that a pregnant woman can insert so she can make sure the baby is hearing well before it’s born,” she says, those bright eyes all but rolling. “Now, you wouldn’t have that device if parents weren’t obsessed.” It’s not the only gizmo that’s got her goat. “There’s another new device to help with potty training where instead of just having a kiddie potty, you put an iPod in front and click it so the app can help your child.” She sighs. “I mean, are we kidding? Are we kidding?”

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek has spent much of the last couple of decades trying to get America’s educated, upper-middle-class parents — the folks most obsessed with churning out “successful” kids — to calm down a little bit, while simultaneously trying to identify the policies, strategies and tactics that can help all kids thrive. Much of her work has been scholarly, but twice, she and her frequent collaborator, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, have written popular books geared toward more general audiences. In 2003 they published Einstein Never Used Flash Cards, a research-backed argument for why play is vastly superior to academic drilling for toddlers; last year they came out with Becoming Brilliant, a blueprint for what education should look like in the 21st century. (CliffsNotes version: less focus on test scores, more on skills — from collaboration to creativity — that will help children reach their potential.)

“We’ve got a whole country that’s obsessed with the idea that success equals how well you do on your reading and math test,” she says. “But if you ask any parent would you rather have that or a happy, healthy, caring, thinking, creative individual … every parent chooses the latter.”

The style of education and child-rearing that Hirsh-Pasek promotes seemed to happen more easily in a less-stressed age. She remembers the freedom and encouragement she got from her family growing up in Harrisburg, whether she was inventing a new kind of bowling alley in her basement or — she swears she’s not making this up — planning to become a Broadway composer. “My mom and grandmother said to me, ‘Are you gonna do music? You’re so fascinated by it.’ And I said, ‘I’m gonna write a Broadway show.’ Most parents would have said, ‘Oh, you’re crazy.’ But my grandmother and mother said, ‘Then you will.’”

She ultimately chose a different path, getting a PhD in human development at Penn and settling into a teaching and research career at Temple. Studying childhood is an interesting way to make a living, since unlike in, say, economics, you can’t really leave your work at the office — at least, if you’re a mom. The thing you focus on during the day — kids — is the same thing you come home to at night. But Hirsh-Pasek insists the combination was valuable, less because she and her husband were applying research to raising their kids than because raising kids gave her ideas about research. Those ideas sometimes went against the grain. When the American Academy of Pediatrics issued an edict several years ago that no child should watch TV before age two, she pushed back: “I said to them, you know what, guys? Moms need a break. We have to make dinner. We have to take a shower. What do you expect of moms?”

In the midst of raising kids and doing research, she also found herself drawn back to her first love: music. When her three boys were small, she started writing songs from a kid’s point of view and eventually co-founded a group called Kamotion that over the course of several years played concerts and recorded five albums. Kamotion’s peak came in 1994, when they were invited to perform at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll.

One of the guest soloists in their set? Nine-year-old Benj Pasek.

Benj believes it’s no accident that the musical — in the form of Hamilton and Glee and Frozen and, yes, La La Land and Dear Evan Hansen — is finding new life these days. After all, the first movies he and his fellow millennials paid attention to were the animated Disney musicals scored by Alan Menken. “It makes a lot of sense, if The Little Mermaid is the first movie you ever see, that you have an appetite for musical content in a way that previous generations didn’t,” he says.

Kathy insists she had no particular inkling her middle son was headed for musical success: “Did I know he was a smart kid? Sure. But everybody has a smart kid. Do I personally like his melodies? Yeah, what Jewish mom wouldn’t like her kid’s melodies? I wish I could tell you I’m prescient. I’m not.”

In truth, it took a proverbial village to help Benj develop his musical abilities. He credits a trio of teachers at Friends’ Central for exposing him to sophisticated music and theater while he was still young (Sondheim! In middle school!), as well as his friendship with Justin Paul, which began during their summer orientation at the University of Michigan. (Not helpful: the high-school piano teacher who, Kathy says, “fired” Benj as a student because he didn’t like to practice. Hope she enjoyed the Tonys.)

After writing a song cycle as undergrads at Michigan, Pasek and Paul moved to New York in 2007 to take their shot at show biz. They fairly quickly … succeeded. Over the course of a half dozen years, they wrote for the NBC show Smash, composed the score for a new musical version of James and the Giant Peach, created an off-Broadway show called Dogfight, and finally hit the Great White Way with a musical adaptation of the holiday cable hit A Christmas Story, which was nominated for a Tony in 2013.

It was that same year, on a trip to Los Angeles to meet with writer Steven Levenson, that they began working in earnest on what would become Dear Evan Hansen. The idea grew out of a memory that had stuck with Benj for years — of the way he and others reacted to a fellow student’s death when they were at Friends’ Central: “I was always really interested in why so many of my peers, and why so many in the school community, felt the need to be so public in their grieving. And I was just as complicit in this as anybody else.” Also on his and his collaborators’ minds was the way their generation had dealt with 9/11, including the fact that some people lied in their college entrance essays about connections to people who died that day: “We were sort of struck by why particularly people of our generation were so keen on inserting themselves into a tragedy that they had no place being part of.”

In Dear Evan Hansen, the title character is an awkward teen with severe social anxiety and few connections to other people, including his parents (a feeling of loneliness captured achingly in the song “Waving Through a Window,” with its refrain: “I’m tap, tap, tapping on the glass/I’m waving through a window”). When Evan inadvertently exaggerates the friendship he had with another student, Connor, who has died by suicide, his popularity and social status skyrocket. What’s fascinating about the show is the way it takes a dark, cynical situation and flips it on its head. “Tragedy, oddly, allows us to be openly emotional and connect to a community,” Benj says.

Dear Evan Hansen debuted in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2015, not long after Pasek and Paul began working on songs for La La Land. The movie opened across the country last December, and that same month, Dear Evan Hansen premiered on Broadway. Two months after that, Benj was onstage at the Oscars, saying thanks to his mom.

Dear Evan Hansen is a show very much of its time, but in the end, maybe not surprisingly, it’s also a story about something more universal: the relationship between parents and children. Some of the show’s most powerful moments are when Connor’s parents try to come to terms with their son’s suicide, and when Evan’s mother fully understands how absent she’s been from her son’s life.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek says one of the dangers we face when raising kids today is exactly that: missing the moments when we can truly connect with our kids in a human way. The problem with potty training your kid through an app, in other words, isn’t the app; it’s the missed opportunity to look your kid in the eyes.

She describes a study that she and some colleagues at Temple recently did in which they asked parents to teach two new words to their two-year-olds. While one word was being taught, the study’s authors did nothing; while the other word was, they interrupted the parents with a cell-phone call. The kids learned the first word just fine. The second? Not so much. “It’s almost as if we’ve lost the human connection,” Hirsh-Pasek says. “And you know, I think Benj tapped into that in Dear Evan Hansen — that you’re tap, tap, tapping from the outside, looking in.”

Hirsh-Pasek has two big initiatives she’s focused on. One is continuing to push out the education ideas covered in Becoming Brilliant. The other is Learning Landscapes, an initiative that attempts to create more moments for creative play — and parent-child interaction — in low-income areas. (One project, Playful Learning City, is funded by the William Penn Foundation and under way in West Philly.)

Her middle son, meanwhile, in addition to this month’s premieres, seems to have come full circle in his creative life. He and Justin Paul are now working on two upcoming Disney live-action movies, Snow White and Aladdin. Their collaborator on the latter film? Alan Menken.

“We still get nervous to be in the room with him,” Benj admits. “But he’s such a warm and kind guy, and it really feels like getting to be in the room with your hero.”

Which is not to say he only has one. “She was the best date a boy could have dreamed of,” Benj says of Oscar night with his mother. “My mom had to be my date. She was the person who was always by my side.” It’s a reminder of the impact we make as parents, one way or another.

Published as “Characters: Pasek and Pasek” in the December 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Should We Be Worried About Market East?

Illustration by Gluekit; Market Street: Claudia Gavin; sign and shoppers: iStockPhoto

All eyes are on Philadelphia’s Market East district, the relatively small patch of city that could soon be the site of Philadelphia’s latest great reawakening. A handful of giddy developers are squeezing hundreds of units into apartment towers that now dot the streets of the district, and retail announcements are slowly rolling in. The mixed-use, city-block-spanning East Market project alone is promising a T.J. Maxx, a City Fitness, a Wawa, and an outpost of Iron Hill brewpub. A new Five Below recently opened, and MOM’s Organic Market and Target are already top performers. Optimism practically overflowed in May when real estate analysts at JLL proclaimed Market East the country’s most desirable retail corridor.

But lately, uncertainty regarding one of the neighborhood’s most-watched projects — the redo of the fortress mall once known as the Gallery — has some folks wondering if developers overshot their mark. Just when we were getting excited about outlet shopping on our lunch break, the much-ballyhooed Fashion Outlets Philadelphia concept for the reborn Gallery was scrapped for a more traditional retail mix. (Industry observers thought outlet shopping could be a bulwark against e-tail.) That the rechristened “Fashion District Philadelphia,” which still hasn’t committed to an opening date, has announced just a handful of tenants has spurred nervous hand-wringing in some corners.

“The project won’t make sense if the plan is to just reproduce stores that are elsewhere in the city,” says Wharton marketing professor Barbara Kahn. For instance, does Center City really need a third H&M? “And if there are vacancies in the mall and on the streets of Market East, it will send a bad signal to consumers that this place is still not open for business.”

An early rendering of the proposed Gallery redo. Courtesy of JPRA Architects

JLL’s analysis was predicated on low rent-per-square-foot. Between 2017 and 2019, Market East will have nearly one million square feet of new or renovated retail space coming, the report found. Is it too much? “We’re looking at this area’s absorption rate, and right now, supply is being absorbed slower than most would like to see,” says Douglas Green, a managing principal at MSC Retail, a Center City real estate firm. But even so, Green believes that once stores begin to open, things will fall into place: “You’ll find that in the next 12 to 36 months, the absorption rate will increase tremendously because Iron Hill is going to open, and AT&T and Wawa and T.J. Maxx … ”

John Connors, a developer with Brickstone, the firm behind the newly opened Fine Wine & Good Spirits and PetSmart nearby on Chestnut, shares Green’s optimism. “We were shocked by the incredible pent-up demand for retail in the neighborhood,” he says. “South 11th Street is unrecognizable from what it was 24 months ago.”

Joseph Coradino, the CEO of PREIT, which is leading the $350 million Gallery makeover with real estate trust Macerich, says observers need to get a few things straight. First, this isn’t going to be a mall — at least, not a traditional mall. It’s a building atop a train station that delivers 22 million commuters a year. That distinguishes it from the average suburban mall. And that it won’t be inward-facing like the Gallery changes everything.

Coradino emphasizes that “only bad malls do poorly.” His team says the development is about 70 percent committed, with retailers that include Skechers, Columbia, Francesca’s and Burlington. For entertainment and dining, they’ve announced an AMC movie theater (brokered by MSC), Market Eats (an upscale food court), and an as-yet-undisclosed European food retailer’s first U.S. location. “If I’m not antsy about this, you all shouldn’t be,” Coradino says, as only a Philly guy can. “I’m a Philadelphian born and bred. I live and breathe Philadelphia. And when this is done, we’ll have redefined Philadelphia retail.”

Consider us … cautiously optimistic.

Published as “Should We Be Worried About Market East?” in the December 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

It’s a Mad, Mad World at Mad Rex

This past fall, a team of entrepreneurs with an appetite for — shall we call it “razzle-dazzle”? — opened Mad Rex, a multimillion-dollar “Restaurant Entertainment Xperience” in Fishtown, across from Sugarhouse Casino. It’s kind of like a Hard Rock Cafe but with an after-Kim-Jung-Un-does-us-in theme. Death and decay? It doesn’t come cheap, so here’s some of what went into the making of the world’s first post-Apocalypse restaurant.

Photograph courtesy of Society Hill Films

Creepy mannequins
Assembled by four different artists based in Russia, Poland and the U.S. at a cost of $4,000 apiece. (There are 15 of them.)

Photograph courtesy of Ted Nghiem

Armory wall art
Some weapons were made from scrap metal and junkyard bric-a-brac; those came out to about $100 each. The model AK-47? Upwards of $1,300.

Photograph courtesy of Ted Nghiem

Shipped in from a Florida salvage yard for $3,000. Made pretty by local graffiti artist Alloyius Mcilwaine, who also painted the airplane chassis (see below).

Photograph courtesy of Ted Nghiem

IV cocktails
How to booze when you’ve got giant VR goggles strapped to your face? The staff sets you up with an alcoholic “IV drip” — meaning you pick your poison and slurp it through a tube.

Photograph courtesy of Kory Aversa

Lava rocks
For cooking your own steak. Brought to your table at 500° after heating in one of the two $15,000 specialty ovens. The menu has elevated pub fare, and it’s better than you think.

Photograph courtesy of Kory Aversa

Custom decor
Hand-torching the tables for a post-apocalyptic effect cost more than $5,000. These light-up skull lamps? $450 each.

Photograph courtesy of Ted Nghiem

Airplane chassis
Purchased on eBay for $3,000, plus whatever it cost to crash-land it through the restaurant’s ceiling.

Photograph courtesy of Society Hill Films

Battle truck
The life-size underlit war truck ($7,500) that sits on the sidewalk transforms into a full-blown DJ booth during events.

Photograph courtesy of Ted Nghiem

VR room
The gaming equipment came to around $100,000, and the room is outfitted with leather chairs, personal lockers and a vintage rug.

Published as “It’s a Mad, Mad World” in the December 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

The PGA Pretended That Golf Has a Future

Teeing off into the sunset. (

On Tuesday the PGA Tour, organizer of professional golf events, announced it had awarded the 2027 Championship (as well as the 2020 Women’s PGA Championship) to Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square. This was very exciting news for the 27 people who are still spending four hours every weekend at their clubs, playing golf. No, no, we jest. There are more than 27 people who still enjoy golf, even though their number has plummeted from a 2005 high of 30 million to 24.1 million. And the number of young people hitting the links has nosedived 35 percent in the past decade. And everybody says the sport is dying, from Money to Men’s Journal to Business Insider to The Economist to, um, the U.S. Golf Association, whose former president himself noted golf’s “significant legacy of exclusion and elitism.” (It was just this year that Scotland’s venerable Muirfield voted to allow women to join. This. Year!)

But speaking of presidents, the real death knell for golf is the fact that Donald J. Trump enjoys it. Who wants to risk running into him on a precious day off? Not to mention all his shady friends. Hey, congrats, Aronimink. We’re happy for you. Really. And who knows? Maybe golf can survive this presidency.

Follow @SandyHingston on Twitter.


At the UniverSoul Circus, the Audience Is Part of the Show

The Caribbean Dynasty dance ensemble leads off the main show at this year’s UniverSoul Circus. | Photos: UniverSoul Circus

“Soul is not a color – it’s an experience.”

That pretty much sums up what makes the UniverSoul Circus different from any other circus you’ve been to. You’ll find that legend emblazoned on the T-shirts and tote bags the circus sells at the merchandise shop on your way in and out of the big top in West Fairmount Park.

Since the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus folded its tents, the 24-year-old UniverSoul is the one surviving link to the old-school circus tradition now touring nationwide. But it’s old school with several twists.

One of them is alluded to in that phrase above. The UniverSoul Circus is at the same time global and deeply rooted in African-American traditions. When did the ringmaster at “The Greatest Show on Earth” ever do a call-and-response with the audience? Or lead everyone in a blessing at the end?

That audience involvement sets this show apart from other circuses too. It takes numerous forms, like the “Soul Train” dance competition my date volunteered me for, or the “Making the Band” routine, where a fellow who communicates solely via a whistle gets four random people to come into the ring and mimic the crazy dance moves he makes. And then there’s the between-acts bit in the second half when they bring out the enormous beach balls and set them in motion among the — well, by then, it’s really not accurate to call it an audience. Fellow performers is more like it. The engagement between the cast and the audience raises the energy level of the UniverSoul to heights not normally reached in a traditional circus.

Performers from 30 countries around the world have appeared in the circus since its debut in 1994, with a special emphasis on the Southern Hemisphere and the Caribbean. That fellow with the whistle — I learned from the show’s publicity that his name is Sfiso — hails from South Africa, for instance. So does Lucky the ringmaster. And this year’s edition opens with a colorful spectacle featuring stiltwalkers, dancers and limbo performers from Trinidad and Tobago. My companion, whose family comes from Trinidad, ate this up, as did I.

The performance features a host of traditional circus acts, including acrobats showing off their balance on a “Wheel of Death,” contortionists from West Africa with bodies so flexible they’ll astonish your yoga instructor, slapstick clowns, and motocross daredevils.

The Flatout Freestyle motocross daredevils end the first act with a roar.

And trained animals — zebras, camels, horses, ponies and an elephant, to the delight of the children and the dismay of the animal-rights activists.

But even these traditions get an injection of new jack soul. For instance, the show’s featured clowns, the Detroit-based Fresh the Clownsss, dispense with the red noses, big shoes and oversized pantomime in favor of Technicolor braids, baseball jerseys and languid, fluid moves. And they too find audience members to incorporate into their act.

If you decide to check this circus out, be prepared to make some noise. Not only do the ringleaders encourage it, the contests are judged based on audience response.

The intimate scale of the UniverSoul circus tent makes all this possible. Everyone gets up close and personal with all the action in this space, and that in turn fuels all the interactivity. If you aren’t troubled by the animal acts, and you’d like to experience an old-fashioned circus with a multicultural flavor, you should experience this show full of soul. There’s more fun in UniverSoul’s one ring than there ever was in Ringling Brothers’ three.

The UniverSoul Circus performs under the big top at 52nd Street and Parkside Avenue in West Fairmount Park (next to the Mann Music Center) through Nov. 26. For more information and tickets, visit the UniverSoul Circus website.

Philly Just Lost Its Chance to Be the First to Enforce a Wage Equity Law

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA downtown city skyline. Sean Pavone | iStock

Though Philadelphia was the first city to sign wage equity legislation, it lost its chance to be the country’s first city to actually enforce it. That title went to New York City at the beginning of the month when it passed a law that bans all public and private employers from asking about a candidate’s pay history.

Philadelphia’s law was supposed to take effect May 23 this year, following Mayor Kenney’s approval back in January, but the city halted enforcement due to a lawsuit from the Chamber of Commerce. I last reported on the lawsuit in June after a judge threw out the Chamber’s legal challenge. But the organization submitted an amended complaint soon after and claimed that Philly institutions like CHOP, Comcast and Drexel would be harmed by the law.

So what’s the status of the ordinance now? According to the city, both parties have completed all briefing regarding the Chamber’s motion to preliminarily enjoin the law and presently awaiting a decision from the court. And there could be further proceedings depending on the court’s decision.

“We believe the legislation is lawful and the law department intends to fully defend it as this lawsuit plays out,” city spokesman Mike Dunn told me. “They have thoroughly reviewed the legal concerns of the business community, and the administration is confident that the law will withstand this challenge.”

The Chamber of Commerce said it could not comment on the status of the lawsuit.

Similar laws are popping up all over the country. Puerto Rico, California and Massachusetts have each banned all kinds of employers from asking about a candidate’s pay history and their laws take effect in 2018. Delaware has also banned the question — its law will go into effect sooner in December 2017. Wage history questions will be illegal in Oregon beginning in 2019. On the city level, both New Orleans and Pittsburgh have pay equity laws already in effect as of early to mid 2017, but they only ban wage history inquiries at city departments and agencies.

Philly’s law aims to reduce the impact of historical salary discrimination, but some business community members leading the backlash say it is not the answer to closing the gender wage gap. Supporters of the law have said its necessary since workers can’t count on the city’s businesses to do the right thing. Others have said that while the law looks good on paper, it might actually lead to unintended consequences that ultimately hurt women.

Dunn says the debate over the law has actually given the Kenney administration a chance to more fully hear the concerns of the business community, and not just to this measure but also to other laws that some consider burdensome.

“We know that Chamber members are committed to ending wage discrimination, and we are hopeful that moving forward we can have a better partnership on this and other issues of concern to business owners and their employees.”

Cards Against Humanity Throws Up Wall Against Trump

Cards Against Humanity has inserted itself and 150,000 of its fans between President Donald Trump and his stated desire to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. | iStock photo of border fence between New Mexico and Chihuahua, Mexico, by ElFlacodelNorte

If President Donald Trump manages to actually build that wall along the U.S.-Mexico border he promised to erect, he will have to work his way past 150,000 American citizens and a bevy of lawyers first.

That’s because the Chicago comedians behind the popular game “Cards Against Humanity” bought a strip of land along that border and syndicated it to its fans.

The holiday promotion, dubbed “Cards Against Humanity Saves America,” offered 150,000 slots to customers who paid $15 per slot to receive “six America-saving surprises [delivered] right to your doorstep.” The first of those six surprises: An illustrated map of the land the company bought, a certificate of its promise to fight against the wall, some new game-playing cards, and most importantly, an ownership stake in a parcel of land surrounding the border, according to the promotion’s website. The promotion was announced this past Tuesday (Nov. 14th) and sold out on Wednesday.

Cards Against Humanity also said that it has retained a law firm that specializes in eminent domain cases to fight any government attempts to take the strip in order to prolong the process of building the wall.

This isn’t the first time the Cards writers have used land as a holiday promotional come-on, according to a Bisnow report on this latest purchase. In 2014, Cards Against Humanity bought Birch Island, a six-acre island in Maine, for $200,000, renamed it “Hawaii 2,” then sold 250,000 buyers “exclusive” rights to one square foot of the island. The company also ran a similar holiday promotion the following year, buying an Irish castle, renaming it, and offering buyers 15 minutes of dominion as “King of Castle Sensible.” And last year, the company took in $100,000 from buyers who paid to watch a live stream of a backhoe digging a huge hole somewhere in the United States.

The America-saving surprises will ship six times throughout December. Wonder what kind of land-office business they’ll do next holiday season?

Cards Against Humanity Buying Eminent Domain Challenge to Trump’s Border Wall [Bisnow Chicago]

What Leading Philly Democrats Have to Say About the Jewell Williams Harassment Allegations

sheriff, sexual harassment, jewell williams

Jewell Williams

On Thursday, we asked six top Philly Democrats to comment on sexual harassment allegations against Sheriff Jewell Williams.

The accusations come from three current and former employees: 40-year-old Vanessa Bines, an administrative assistant in the Sheriff’s Office who claimed in a federal lawsuit that, over the course of two years, Williams invited her to private dinners, made genitalia jokes and then retaliated against her after she rejected his advances; Marlaina Williams, who alleged in a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that Williams made inappropriate comments about his sex life and repeatedly attempted to kiss her; and Karan M. Rogers, whom Democrats paid $30,000 to settle her 2011 claim that Williams, then a state representative, harassed her while she worked as his legislative aide, as reported by the Inquirer and the Daily News.

Earlier this week, Philly’s Democratic Party leader Bob Brady told WHYY that the “time to make a decision” regarding Williams “is not right now”: “They are allegations, we hope the allegations are false, and if they become true, we have to make to a decision.”

On Thursday, we asked a group of leading local Democrats three questions:

  1. Do you think Sheriff Williams should resign?
  2. Do you think the sexual harassment and misconduct allegations against Sheriff Williams are credible?
  3. In light of reports that Democrats paid $30,000 to settle a sexual harassment claim against Sheriff Williams in 2012, do you think the party has taken necessary measures to prevent and address this alleged situation?

None of them answered all three of the questions. Three did not respond at all.

Here are the answers we got.

Mayor Jim Kenney

Kenney was the first to answer and gave the strongest statement.

“I think he should step down,” Kenney told Philly Mag. “Three women have come forward, and one was paid a significant sum to settle her claim just a few years ago. I think that anytime a pattern of sexual harassment is revealed, it’s smart practice for that organization to review its policies and make any necessary changes.”

City Council President Darrell Clarke

No response.

City Controller-elect Rebecca Rhynhart

Rhynhart said she would conduct a “detailed audit” of the Sheriff’s Office next year.

“I think that there should be a process to review the claims of harassment, such as an outside investigator experienced in workplace investigations brought in to evaluate the claims promptly,” Rhynhart said. “Victims should be believed and too often in society they are not. It is the responsibility of government leaders to ensure that the workplace is free from harassment.”
She added that, “as a private citizen, I am troubled by these multiple accusations and think this must be vigorously investigated.”

U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans

Evans provided the following statement: “Sexual harassment is never acceptable and should never be tolerated in the workplace. I believe all sexual harassment claims should be vigorously and fairly investigated. I in no way condone sexual harassment of any kind and believe all sexual harassment claims should be taken incredibly seriously. I along with all of the staff members in my Philadelphia and Washington, DC office are required to complete the House of Representatives Office of Compliance sexual harassment awareness training. Sexual harassment is not an issue we as a nation can stand to take lightly or an action we can allow in any way.”

State Sen. Anthony Williams

A spokesperson for Williams said the senator has “no comment at this time.”

State Rep. and Philadelphia delegation leader Maria Donatucci

No response.

With reporting by Holly Otterbein.