Why Am I Paying $110,000 a Year in College Tuition?

The author in one of his more desperate moments. Photograph by Adam Jones

The author in one of his more desperate moments. Photograph by Adam Jones

There are some jobs I would love to have. Professional baseball player. Writer for Saturday Night Live. U.S. Congressman. With the exception of baseball (I’m only five-foot-six, unfortunately), I think I’d be pretty good at those jobs. But you know what job I’d be really good at? Running a university or college.

I’ve navigated my 10-person company profitably through the economy’s ups and downs over the past 20 years. And now I have the “pleasure” of paying my kids’ college tuitions as all three of them enter their sophomore year. Yes, all three at once. Two go to state colleges (one in-state, the other out-of-state), and one goes to a private university. Total tab: $110,000 a year.

My kids love their schools. They’re happy. I’m happy that they’re happy. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. And from what I’ve seen over the past year, as both a parent and a business owner, there is lots of room for improvement. A university president? Me? Here’s what I’d do if given the chance.

Everyone would work harder.

My kids generally start classes after Labor Day and wrap up their finals by mid-December. Then they have a month off before returning to class in mid-January. A few weeks later, they have … spring break! Then the final push to the finish line in early May. Sprinkled into the year are long weekends and various public holidays, too. I did the math: They spend four months out of every year not at school. And when they are there, their schedule normally consists of one or maybe two classes a day. (And remember … professors are enjoying an equally cushy schedule.)

Can everyone just work a little harder? Does any business operate like this? I prefer the military model. Just ask any kid who attends the Naval Academy, for example, about the schedule. It’s a 12-hour class-study-exercise-eat-study program every day. Okay, maybe that’s a little extreme. But there’s a middle ground. I would change the schedule to a normal workday that runs year-round. This would easily reduce a four-year degree to a three-year degree. And that would lower tuition by 25 percent.

Tenure would go away.

In the academic world, I’m told, you can achieve tenure status only after you’ve put in years of hard work and performed vast amounts of research. In my world, after years of hard work and vast amounts of research, I get to … die. And once tenure is achieved — short of some blatant misconduct like sexual harassment or voting Republican — you can never be fired. Ever. You have a job for life.

Outside of academic-land, there’s no such thing as tenure. No business can run on such a model. To stay efficient, productive and profitable, and to grow, my company needs the flexibility to add and remove employees. It can’t be burdened with unnecessary overhead. Removing tenure would significantly reduce a university’s fixed costs. It would allow the allocation of funds elsewhere or free up additional funds that could lower tuition. And rather than being an obstacle to hiring, it would likely attract those smart, motivated people who want to work around other smart, motivated people in an innovative atmosphere — and not have to deal with the frustrations of seeing older, less competent professors earning a guaranteed salary just because they got there first.

The practical would be emphasized over the theoretical.

Colleges are supposed to be places of learning, but they’re also supposed to be places where students are prepared for jobs. When I hire a marketing student, I’m really not concerned if he can tell me how Coke built a more powerful brand than Pepsi or why Microsoft took market share away from IBM in the ’80s. Graduating from college with good grades tells me that you’re a good student and have the raw skills to hopefully/possibly/maybe be a good employee. But I need more than that. I don’t care if you’re a science, math or poetry major — the truth is that every organization needs someone who can get to work on time; who understands the business, software and procedures; and who can write, communicate, work with others, and complete tasks on time and competently.

How do we ensure more college kids can do that? More tests, assignments and group projects, and more training and required classes on these topics, regardless of the major. And more involvement from local companies who provide actual people to teach actual skills-based materials that students can apply in the real world.

Co-op experience would be required to graduate.

Drexel University has it right — you help kids get jobs, in the form of co-op programs, while they’re still in school. I’m all for enjoying your younger years before committing yourself to a life inside a cubicle. But too many college students are graduating with little relevant work experience. My clients need people who have experience and job skills. Most businesses don’t have the resources to provide a lot of training. My college would have a co-op program similar to Drexel’s, where the university and its extensive community of alumni are committed to finding students work that will better prepare them for the reality of life out of school.

Technology would be used better.

My kids sometimes have to suffer through the required (and very critical) math, business and science tutorials taught by inexpensive grad students who’ve come from far-flung places with not-so-great language skills. They also have to endure boring lectures by professors who are very smart and accomplished researchers, but not-so-great communicators.

Solution? Colleges need to adopt some of the very available services like Khan Academy, Curious.com, Google Hangouts on Air and Google Helpouts, which would allow professors who actually speak English to broadcast their lessons to students wherever they are, record them for future viewing, and even schedule one-on-one video chat conferences to answer questions. A few brave universities are dabbling in this area — but it’s still not being taken very seriously.

And news flash: Just because a college offers wi-fi doesn’t mean it’s “embracing technology.” Truly doing so means embracing the services that are now offered through better cloud and video capabilities. To create a year-round environment of learning, why not require more online lectures, testing and study groups, so students can still complete classes if they’re abroad or out of the area? Why not use the very best lecturers from other universities to deliver content to students at colleges that don’t have that expertise on-site? Wouldn’t this provide a more flexible, user-friendly, lower-cost environment, and a better educational product to boot? Wouldn’t it enable universities to accommodate more students from all over the world and drive more revenues, too?

Financial aid wouldn’t be such a mystery.

My experience with the financial aid programs at my kids’ schools has been disappointing and frustrating. These offices are understaffed and overwhelmed. And on top of that, most parents (like me) are too busy and too ignorant of all the choices and nuances to really take full advantage of what’s available. The federal aid system is complex, and there’s no way you can be aware of all the potential grants and programs to help you finance your kids’ educations. There are too many parents (like me) who are probably not getting the aid or help we deserve to make college more affordable. And any businessperson will tell you that affordability adds to value, which adds to the overall experience of the product, which then makes a happy customer. No one wants to leave money on the table. If I were in charge, I’d allocate more resources to this area, with the goal of making sure every parent of every student maximizes whatever financial resources are available for them.

Professors would be paid based on how well they teach.

Students learn more when they have better teachers. My best professor taught accounting — he buried us in assignments, grilled us in class, and kept us on our toes. He was tough, but we learned. Unfortunately, I also had plenty of drones. It’s human nature to seek out the easiest teachers who require the least amount of work. (There are websites entirely devoted to helping students find them.) But we all know this isn’t an education, nor is it what I’m paying for.

It’s not hard to evaluate professors. Many colleges do it already to varying degrees. But do student evaluations currently make much difference? These results should figure into a professor’s overall evaluation and compensation. In the end, the number one priority of universities is to teach our kids — and not just do studies of how many teaspoons of peanut butter a monkey needs to consume before contracting some rare form of cancer.

Our customers would be redefined.

For some inexplicable reason, my kids’ colleges only conduct their correspondence with them, not me. Except for one thing. Can you guess? The tuition! For that important communication, we parents are fully informed with letters, invoices, emails and cumulative statements. My child is important, but the reality is that I’m the customer. I’m paying the bills. And I want to know what I’m getting for my money. I get it that we want our kids to be more independent — they’re over 18. But the reality is that they’re still just kids. And they’re not paying. If I were running a college, I would make sure my customers (that is, the parents) had access and full communication. That’s because as a parent, I want to know if there are any academic or disciplinary issues with my kid. The diploma is the product. If anything is going on that might call into question the award of that diploma to my kid, I want to be fully aware of the situation well before it becomes a catastrophe.

Profits (gasp!) would be shared with (gasp!) investors.

The best-run organizations have some type of profit incentive. My university would have a balance of public and private representation as owners and board members. I’d change up the financial model. I want outside investors who desire a return on their investment. They’d drive better financial reporting, ownership and accountability. They’d question how resources are applied and infrastructure money is spent. (For example, do college students really need to live in dorms equivalent to a five-star hotel, or could money be either saved or better spent elsewhere?) Universities need to have profit motives if they’re to be run effectively.

Okay, the idea of me playing pro baseball is crazy. But are these such crazy ideas? Maybe to someone in academia. But not to any business owner. And definitely not to most of the suffering parents I know.

Originally published as “I Pay $110,00 a Year in Tuition” in the September 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

More From College: The Backlash

How to Skip College — and Thrive

How to Skip College — and Thrive

Grace at her South Philly home. Photograph by Adam Jones

Grace at her South Philly home. Photograph by Adam Jones

The lecture hall is packed. The elephant-gray room is set up like a mini-arena to allow for maximum capacity and good acoustics. It’s new but generic — there are probably a million of these very same tank-like spaces in universities around the world. The concrete step I’m sitting on cuts into my back as I shuffle my feet to make room for the other kids and parents who are streaming in. My mom — in her usual chic all-black attire — is perched above me; my friend Carlo and his mom are on a step right below. We are at McGill University in Montréal, the first stop on our college tour — a high-school student’s version of online dating, where we pick out some colleges we think we would like, schedule a visit, and see if sparks fly.

We look toward the middle-aged speaker, one of McGill’s top faculty members. As he rattles on about the perks of being a student here, I feel myself pull away, hearing only background noise — the audience laughing at a joke, someone standing up to ask a question. I can focus only on my quickening breath, attempting to slow it down. None of this feels right.

The program ends, and the crowd surges out of the room, chatty and eager to attend the next lecture. We make our way out the front door, and I’m blasted with a gush of arctic air. Thank God it’s cold here, I think; I can bury my face in my scarf and my hands in my pockets — no one can see that my lips are pursed tightly together, that my jaw is clenched, that my hands are in fists, that I’m doing everything I can to not cry.

We go to a French bistro for lunch, and I excuse myself to the bathroom. The lock on the heavy wooden stall door clicks, and the battle is over: My face is soaked with tears, and my mind is racing. This is supposed to be my time, the first chapter of my adult life. This isn’t nervous energy I’m feeling; it’s just plain dread. People are always reminiscing about their college days — the adventure, the possibilities, the freedom, the emotional evolution. All I can see is a socially acceptable prison.

I fake my way through lunch. We talk about junior-year exams, about which summer jobs would improve our college applications. All I want to do is something real, something meaningful, something new. As the waiter brings our check, I wonder how much he makes a year, and if it’s enough to live on. I try to figure out a way to tell my mom that all of this isn’t right for me. That college isn’t the answer to my dissatisfaction about high school. I had imagined college would be different — challenging classes, worldly people, professors who are passionate about teaching. But today had been a profound first date: I couldn’t sit in another classroom. I wanted to really learn.

This overwhelming stream of emotions was the inception of a clear and sudden reality: I wasn’t going to college.

I’VE ALWAYS BEEN EAGER to get to the next place I’m going. In middle school, I couldn’t wait to get to high school; once there, I wanted to graduate early so I could start college. Every new phase of my education taught me something about the way the world worked and how I interacted with it.

My parents are accomplished people, so school has always been important in our house. My mother, a Penn grad, has carved out an impressive career based on her passions. She co-founded the popular jewelry line Maximal Art, wrote a Sunday column for the Philadelphia Inquirer magazine, launched (and still runs) DesignPhiladelphia, and is currently the director of the Philadelphia Center for Architecture. My dad attended Boston University, where he played the trumpet and worked at the school newspaper, then went on to own his own business.

As is the case for many Philadelphia families, we moved because of the neighborhood elementary-school catchment. I attended Greenfield Elementary near Rittenhouse Square, which has a reputation as one of the best public elementary schools in the city. Even at a young age, I recognized that Greenfield wasn’t working for me — it was too crowded, and it was too easy to get lost if you were the kind of student who didn’t respond to traditional teaching methods, like I was. I could easily get through the math-problem busywork, the vocab pop quizzes, the forced silent-reading time, but not much stuck. I didn’t hate learning; I hated the way I was being taught. At home I would assign myself art projects based on my favorite mystery books, reenact David Sedaris’s monologues, and go to gallery openings and museum exhibits with my parents.

By the time I hit fourth grade, my parents were exhausted with my nightly fits over my severe dislike of my situation. They were concerned about the environment and my lack of interest in classroom learning. So I transferred to the Philadelphia School, a private school that I attended from fifth through eighth grades.

TPS was an eye-opening experience, as the teaching methods were hands-on. We called teachers by their first names, memorized Spanish vocab words through songs, took weekly field trips for science and agriculture lessons, and improvised scenes from Shakespeare plays. My happiness and grades soared. I saw that I learned the most from interactive experiences, and that finding the way that worked for me was as much of an education as what I was actually learning.

When it came time to apply to high schools, I panicked. The pressure was unspoken, but palpable: College is considered the first step of your adult life, and so which high school I went to was a big deal.

In 2007, I became a member of the 270th class of Central High, sleeping through most of my classes while maintaining mostly A’s and B’s. I was back to being bored, unchallenged, and thirsty for something that was going to have an immediate impact on my life. When junior year rolled around, we had planned to visit a slew of colleges, but I ended my tour after McGill. I had made my decision. And I was petrified.

OF MY 580 GRADUATING classmates at Central, 574 went on to college. The ones who didn’t most likely made that decision based on circumstance, not choice. Of my friends from high school, grade school, art class, family friends, I was the only person I knew who wouldn’t spend the summer buying extra-long twin dorm-room sheets and stocking up on ramen.

When conversations turned to what college I’d be heading to in the fall (as they often did), it was clear that my decision was bold but not unfounded. Business degrees and the sciences weren’t for me — I wasn’t interested in being an engineer or a computer programmer, a lawyer or a marketing major. Like most of my friends, I had no idea what I wanted to study. I would have most likely concentrated on one of the countless humanities majors. Art history or English would have been fascinating, but four years later, I would have been in a pool of highly educated graduates with no actual skills.

Traditional education is under attack, and my trepidation was in synch with the unavoidable data: College prices are soaring; the post-graduation job market is weak; online education is challenging the idea of what one truly gets out of going to school.

The newsmakers of my generation are the ones who took the traditional way of doing things and flipped it upside down. You never hear those people saying that college was their catalyst. Their message is bigger: To be successful today, the most important thing one needs is gumption.

My rationale was met with a surprising number of nods of agreement from adults. They had a different perspective — but also, I wasn’t their kid. (Thank goodness, I could hear them think.) My friends were supportive and understanding but scared for me. Most of them tried to convince me to at least apply to a couple of schools. How could they not be worried? Hell, I was freaking out, too.

For the first time in my life, my plan was a non-plan. Explaining that to my mother and father was my first challenge. My parents have always encouraged me to be true to myself, mapping out certain expectations they had along the way, like getting good grades, staying out of trouble, no drugs … the usual parent stuff. They are also incredibly open-minded and caring. Still, I was terrified to tell them about my decision. At first, it didn’t go over well. I’ll put it this way: I had one conversation with them about the fact that I date both men and women. I had eight conversations about not going to college — in the first week alone.

Once they came around to the idea, we sat down together and sketched out what a non-college life would look like for me. There were ground rules. I had to work and support myself until I figured out what I wanted to do. They would supplement me financially, just as they would have if I’d gone to college. When I became economically stable, I’d move out. I’ve always loved to work and had savings to fall back on, but I was still scared.

I landed a job as a nanny right away. After about a year, I was working with so many families that I could have started my own child-care agency. Working with kids was rewarding and enlightening. I figured out how to watch as many as five young children at a time. (The key, I discovered, is to create actual activities, not just plop them in front of the TV.) I was forced to be flexible, adapting to each family and each child’s challenges. There was no guidebook — being prepared and imaginative was crucial.

Being a nanny made me realize that I want to have kids. Lots of them. Working with these families opened my eyes to the fact that kids aren’t cheap. So I decided a more lucrative path was important to my future. I tapped into my creative side and got an internship working with the Mural Arts Program.

Being around creative people was inspiring, and I was surprised to discover that I had a passion for organization and management. I decided to take two eight-week courses at Temple Real Estate Institute to get my real estate license — a field my dad is currently in. It’s an in-demand industry that I had the skills for and the interest in, and the total cost for the courses was around $600.

For the past year, I’ve been working in real estate property management and freelancing as a social media manager. The jobs have given me financial independence and the freedom to pursue other interests. At the age of 20, I was able to move out of my parents’ house and pay my own way, which was an education all its own.

At the time that I was looking for somewhere to live, my parents were searching for an investment property. We went to see a house one day, and I loved it right away. It’s a stereotypical South Philly house and was preserved in its full 1970s glory, with shag carpeting, wallpapered ceilings and wood paneling. A few days later, my parents put in a preliminary offer and asked if I would be interested in fixing it up.

I moved in with two roommates. We had an official contract with my parents — in exchange for discounted rent, we would clean and renovate the space. The challenge was daunting, but I was excited. I was going to get to redo an entire house.

My first lesson: Never move in with your friends. After about three weeks of working on the house (after work and on weekends), I had cleaned and painted my room, both bathrooms and a walk-in closet, and had started de-carpeting the living room. My roommate was still on the first coat of paint in his room.

It was around this time, as the house started to shape up, that I finally felt like my decision was working out. I began to be more confident. My friends would come over and marvel at the vintage decor I picked out. I took pride in being the one responsible for paying the bills (especially because I was the youngest in the house) and in having a large-scale project to work on. I had tasks, and I knocked them down. I felt like I was becoming the kind of person I wanted to be.

As I settled into my independent life, I had more time to explore. I went to First Fridays in Old City, where I was exposed to all kinds of art. I volunteered at Philly AIDS Thrift, where there was always someone interesting to talk to. I checked out new neighborhoods. I went to free concerts at the Piazza in Northern Liberties and saw new bands. I started reading again, too. I hadn’t really read on my own since high school, and I enjoyed reading whatever and whenever I wanted to. I wouldn’t let myself slow down.

I DON’T REGRET my decision, but that doesn’t mean it’s without challenges. Given my education, background and socioeconomic status, non-college has come to define me a bit. It’s a regular topic of conversation with everyone from my parents to random people I meet in bars. Actually, it’s a great conversation starter. The first question I’m asked on a date is usually “So, where’d you go to college?” The way people react to my answer tells me immediately if they’re the type of people I want to spend time with. Surprisingly, I’ve found that most people tend to understand why I’m doing it this way. There was only one guy who, on our first date, was actually offensive. His reaction to my situation: “Well, don’t think I’ll be supporting you ’cause you can’t get a job since you don’t have a degree.” Just for a frame of reference, at the time he was working (unhappily) as a bike mechanic. His degree was in philosophy.

If there’s one thing I’ve missed out on, it’s the social stuff. The first year was the hardest. While my friends were posting pictures on Facebook of the ’80s-themed and toga parties they were going to every weekend, I was spending my nights looking at their Facebook photos. I was happy for them, but keenly missed having a go-to group. Most of the people I’ve grown close to these past few years are in their early 30s — about 10 years older than me. I’ve met a lot of great new people, but it hasn’t been easy.

Not all of my high-school friends understand my decision, but I’ve stayed close with the ones who respect it. When I go visit my friends at their schools, we talk about their classes, and they show me projects they’ve been working on. When they visit me, they stop by my office and hang out with my new friends. Carlo and I have remained close. We like to reflect on our separate decisions — we had completely different journeys, yet our priorities are the same. He recently graduated from McGill and has landed a job in politics, a field he’s wanted to work in since high school. When we compare our lives and those of old classmates of ours, Carlo always notes that he admires how I didn’t waste time and learned in my own way.

I know that for the rest of my life, I’ll have to explain myself to future employers. My hope is that my work and life experience become of such high quality that my education (or lack thereof) will fall off the bottom of my résumé. I’m aware it will be an uphill battle. Traveling was always a part of my plan, and last year I applied to the Peace Corps. I was told I was rejected for one reason: my lack of a college education. It was a speed bump, but I wasn’t deterred. In fact, I recently left my real estate job for a nine-month volunteer community-service-focused exchange program in Israel. I’ll work in a school, learn about agriculture, and be immersed in different cultures.

I’m not sure what kind of person I’ll be when I return, or if I’ll come home with any clarity for what’s next. But I’m confident that I’m putting myself in a position where I’ll be forced to grow and change, and situations like those have always been my best learning experiences.

If I had gone to a traditional four-year college, I would be graduating next spring. For some of my friends, college has been a great tool. Others were unsure what they wanted to do going into college, and feel the same now that they’re coming out. I think I’m no worse off than they are, and am proud of all the things I’ve accomplished and learned. I look at my path as just one of the options. It’s not for the lighthearted or unmotivated. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll even find myself walking onto a university campus. If so, I know I’ll be there with purpose.

Originally published as “College? Nope.” in the September 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

More From College: The Backlash

Why Am I Paying $110,000 a Year in College Tuition?

Bonus Slideshow: The Working Dog Center

Enjoy these behind-the-scenes shots from the Working Dog Center, featured in “This Puppy Could Save Your Life” in the September 2014 Philadelphia magazine.

Philadelphia Pop-Ups Are Why We Can’t Keep Nice Things

Illustration by Nick Massarelli

Illustration by Nick Massarelli

If any one thing cinched Spruce Street Harbor Park as the summer’s best pop-up, it was probably the hammocks — dozens of them scattered in the shade, cocooning people reading or napping or making out. The sprawling swatch of riverfront, complete with swan boats and floating barges and water lily gardens, was so picturesque that it felt more like the Hollywood set of a park than it did an actual park nestled on the southeastern edge of Philadelphia, within spitting distance of the I-95 on-ramp.

If this were a movie set, it would be for one of those cheery rom-coms, the type where the city is all twinkle and no grit. (In essence: More Nora Ephron than Woody Allen.) Just look! Down the river there’s a boardwalk lined with shipping crates that hold hot-dog vendors and games like air hockey; behind that, children play with four-foot-high chess pieces and venture barefoot into a wading fountain. Around them, dozens of park-goers are sprawled out on beach chairs or waiting in line for a Jose Garces truffle-and-cheddar burger, while park employees hand out maps and greet newcomers: “Hi there, welcome to Spruce Street Harbor Park.”

That this place appeared to draw and delight every possible demographic is no wonder, really. The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, collaborating with David Fierabend from Groundswell Design Group, did such an amazing job creating this $600,000 shaded Shangri-la that upon entering, you forgot it was very recently a boring swath of nothingness sandwiched between the Independence Seaport Museum and the USS Olympia. You forgot that behind those greeters is the rest of the city, where people sit in airless cabs, where planters are dead-bolted to front porches. And you forgot, until too late, not to fall in love with this place that will eventually vanish as quickly as it popped up, like a vaguely hipster Brigadoon. (Update, 8/27: You now have a one-month reprieve — the new closing date is September 28th.)

BY NOW, WE’RE USED TO loving and losing; used to going to bed with a twinkle-lit garden and waking up with a trash-strewn empty lot.

That’s the nature of living in Philadelphia, a.k.a. Pop-Up City — a world in which every new project from chef collaborations to art galleries to beer gardens is here, celebrated, and then gone, sometimes within the space of 24 hours. Maybe, over the course of the past year, you supped on jerk chicken in the formerly vacant lot at 15th and South, turned into the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s fourth iteration of its gorgeous pop-up gardens. Maybe you watched a movie over at the parking-lot-cum-park at Eakins Oval. You might have bought clothes at the Smak Parlour pop-up in Rittenhouse; picnicked with your friends at that one-night white party known as Dîner en Blanc; atoned with pop-up yoga in the Magic Gardens; watched the Orchestra, dressed in street clothes, play a pop-up concert at the Kimmel; and visited Eastern State Penitentiary’s pop-up exhibit on historic shanks.

I could go on, but the moral of our story is clear: If you’re not popping up, then you’re just, well … sitting there. And who wants to just sit there anymore? It’s 2014. On my seven-
minute bus ride to work, I make dinner reservations, answer emails and catch up on world news. That’s the thing about this ephemeral new world: It moves fast, and rewards the nimble. Slow and steady is about as appealing these days as dial-up Internet.

There was a time when I might have written about our fascination with the fleeting as a metaphor for life in the big city: Pop-ups are exciting! Ever-changing! They suit our increasingly short attention spans and a post-recession dearth of funding for new enterprises. Hence: They’re hip!

But I think we’ve hit critical mass. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not siding with those buzzkills in the state legislature fretting over the liquor license loopholes that allow for pop-up booze service. They’re idiots. I’m just … exhausted. When everything worth doing has an expiration date, even having fun becomes just another deadline to hit. It may seem ironic to tire of a trend that’s based entirely on impermanence, but there you have it. I’m to the point now where pop-ups even seem a little nefarious. Here they are, indulging us in our fecklessness. Here they are, leaving nothing behind but empty lots and memories of splendor.

I wonder when we’re going to tire of this citywide one-and-done craze and go back to craving some long-term commitment. Or is there simply no turning back now that we’ve experienced this carpe-diem brand of joy, this breezy Snapchat version of city life?

IT’S TOUGH TO PINPOINT exactly when stuff “popping up” turned from the exception to the rule around here. All a person can say for sure is that the earliest iterations were such wild success stories that it’s no wonder everyone wanted in.

In 2010, it was Stephen Starr (who else?) who first took the cue from the New York pop-up restaurant scene. (New York had taken its cue from secret roving supper clubs in Latin America and Europe.) Starr launched a three-day collaboration with Talula’s Table owner Aimee Olexy in an empty restaurant space just off Washington Square. The concept was such a success that Starr paired permanently with Olexy. (Hence, Talula’s Garden, now a beloved food fixture in the city.)

Retailers, meantime, were busy realizing that popping up was especially well suited to the little guy, the starving artist, the Etsy-store owner who wanted to toe-dip into the brick-and-mortar world. Old City in particular began to bloom with month-long pop-ups in formerly empty storefronts. More chefs were selling out pop-up collaborations. In 2011, the first PHS pop-up garden opened to the public at 20th and Market, blooming full of vegetables and mini-classes. The movement had officially taken hold.

Until recently, it’s been hard to find a reason not to get on board with this moveable feast and the fizzy energy it injected into the city. Pop-ups got people talking, got them to visit neighborhoods they’d never have gone to, raised money for causes, highlighted the problem of unused urban land, and showed us time and again the potential this city has for greatness in almost all avenues.

Even more notable is the pragmatism we’ve seen at play. Quick, relatively inexpensive pop-ups have helped chefs, civic planners and artists work around impenetrable Philly obstacles: rising rents, bureaucratic red tape, liquor licenses that hover around $85,000. (That’s almost triple what they cost a decade ago.) In fact, there might not be a city anywhere better suited for pop-ups to take hold, considering the number of blockades that need circumventing here. And as it’s happened, while these entrepreneurs were doing their best with smaller budgets, crazy spaces and creative thinking, some pretty amazing ideas have come to pass.

Now that we’ve seen the potential, perhaps it’s time we aim to realize some of that potential, you know … permanently. I know it may seem sinful to expend an iota of thought on pop-ups while our schools circle the drains and our roads literally crumble beneath us. But maybe our obsession with popping up is a symptom of the disease afflicting those schools and those roads: We’re living moment-to-moment in an era that demands some foresight.

I wonder, sometimes, what earlier generations would think of this blink-and-you-miss-it world we’ve cultivated. If the ghosts of Ben Franklin and Ed Bacon materialized today, what would they say about a society that rewards ephemerality over stick-to-itiveness? Would they shake their heads at our lack of long-term planning? Or would they just marvel at our indifference to legacy, then float on over to that PHS garden on South, in a hurry to get a beer before they — and the garden — disappear into nothingness?

IN THE CASE AGAINST pop-ups, arguing semantics might seem like a nitpicky route to take, but consider: The summer’s (world’s?) best pop-up wasn’t actually a pop-up. As it happens, Spruce Street Harbor Park will almost certainly be returning to us next year.

And not only that, says Jodie Milkman, vice president of communications and programming at the DRWC: The idea here was never actually about popping up and then disappearing. “In fact,” she says, “we’d really rather people think of it as a seasonal park.”

So why is everyone calling it a pop-up? The DRWC hopped on that bandwagon for a few reasons, Milkman says, one of which was just savvy marketing. It wanted to convey the sense of excitement “pop-up” has undeniably become shorthand for — the notion that there’s a time factor involved. Also, she says, like many pop-ups, the park relied on almost no advertising: Word of the project spread via social media and sidewalk chatter. And finally, Milkman points out, “Call something a ‘pop-up’ and you manage expectations.” Sure, the Blue Anchor — the park’s burger stand — might be run by the Jose Garces Group, but it’s pop-up Jose Garces: less pricey, more casual, more fun. Jose Garces in flip-flops.

Milkman says plans for the park go beyond next summer in scope: This glorious oasis is part of a wide-ranging long-term vision to transform the waterfront into a series of glorious oases. (Indeed, Washington Avenue Pier opened nearby last month.) Spruce Street Harbor aims to “show the potential of what this riverfront could be” to investors and developers who will, it’s hoped, witness the magic, see the long game, and work with the DRWC to create more of a riverfront fixture. It is, in essence, a semi-permanent phenomenon with a far-reaching goal. (You can see why they went with “pop-up” instead.) It doesn’t feel fleeting or capricious. It feels sensible.

The pop-up as dry run and/or investor bait has worked before — there was Talula’s Garden, for one. You can also look at the Porch at 30th Street Station. That’s Paul Levy’s example, anyway, of popping-up done right. The founding CEO of the Center City District and civic planner extraordinaire points to the “relatively low-cost test cases” (beer gardens, mini golf, various performances throughout the year) that helped the University City District see what people wanted, and what worked, and thus plan lasting improvements to the once-barren site.

“I think it would have been very hard to convince a lot of skeptics about the potential had they not seen it done,” Levy says. “Pop-ups can work really well as a means to an end.”

But what of all the pop-ups that are an end in themselves? The many, many one-night stands we see on the regular? Could they have any lasting legacy in this city beyond the usual shtick of “raising awareness” and some lively Instagram feeds?

“Sure there’s a lasting impact,” says Josh Dubin. He’s the executive director of both the great newish (and permanent) Paine’s Skate Park and South Street’s annual beer-focused festival Bloktoberfest, and one of those guys who always seem to know what the city wants a beat before we know we want it.

“Some of these pop-ups are actually becoming traditions,” he points out. “Philly is discovering new traditions through them.” Just look at Night Market, he says. The Food Trust’s wildly popular one-night culinary fests started popping up in different neighborhoods in 2010 and have garnered a massive following. “Some pop-ups might be temporal in some ways,” Dubin continues, “but they’re institutions in other ways. We’re starting to cross the line here, finding the tipping point of the pop-up identity and tradition.”

It’s a good observation, and the notion that pop-ups themselves are evolving makes me certain that we should evolve along with them. The first step in the right direction? Let’s tamp down on the need to call every single thing a pop-up. It no longer sets something apart, no longer promises the buzzy and experimental cool that it used to. Once mega-brands like Nordstrom and Kate Spade started doing pop-ups as part of their global marketing strategies, it became like the moment Tostitos started calling its chips “artisanal.” The word has lost all meaning.

For accuracy’s sake alone, it would be nice to move on. Seasonal is seasonal. And — like Christmastime, or the onset of sweater weather — it should be celebrated as such. Annual festivals? Not pop-ups. Food trucks? Also not pop-ups. Neither are any regularly scheduled events, concerts that have been planned for months, or catered food tables set up at a party.

But hey, you can’t fight the zeitgeist. Evolution takes time, and some things just have to play all the way out. One co-worker of mine laughingly suggested that the trend won’t really hit its apex until the guy who’s sold breakfast sandwiches for the past decade from the tiny metal trailer in front of our office labels himself a pop-up.

You can see it now: He’ll add some microbrews to the menu, artisanal chips, and suddenly the line will stretch around the corner. Then you’ll read on a foodie blog that he’s shutting down the sandwich cart, and you’ll be sad, but not for long. The next month, he’ll launch another pop-up: Same cart, same corner, only this time with vegetarian dumplings and $7 whiskey cocktails.

For a limited time only. Of course.

Originally published as “Pop-Up City” in the September 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Killer Wasps

killer-wasps-cover-amy-korman-400x602When antiques store owner Kristin Clark stumbles upon Barclay Shields, Bryn Mawr’s newest real estate developer, lying unconscious beneath the hydrangea bushes lining the driveway of one of the area’s most distinguished estates, the entire town is abuzz with intrigue and gossip.

In this excerpt from Amy Korman’s new novel, Killer Wasps, Kristin and her three best friends — Holly, a glamorous chicken nugget heiress with a penchant for high fashion; Joe, a decorator who’s determined to land his own HGTV show; and Bootsie, a preppy but nosy newspaper reporter — have joined forces to solve the crime. And since they’ve been invited to a cocktail party at the home of Barclay’s soon-to-be-ex-wife Sophie Shields — well, what can they do but go to the soiree, drink, and snoop?

The debut novel by Korman, a former Philly Mag senior editor, is available from Witness Impulse on September 16th.

“THESE ARE MY FRIENDS, Holly Jones and Joe Delafield,” I said to Sophie. “Sophie Shields,” I added unnecessarily to Holly and Joe. “And you know Bootsie.”

“Good to meet you. And nice to see you, Beebee,” Sophie added to Bootsie, who nodded and then rudely took off, making a beeline for the house with a determined look.

“I think she’s hungry,” I explained, embarrassed. I knew exactly what Bootsie was up to. It had nothing to do with the buffet, and everything to do with rummaging through Sophie’s belongings.

“Your friend with the flowered outfits doesn’t waste any time!” giggled Sophie good-naturedly, watching Bootsie dash past the loaded hors d’oeuvres table and up a flight of stairs into the house. “I guess she must need to use the little girls’ room! ’Cause the party’s outside, not inside. But that’s okay!” The only thing Bootsie was interested by in the bathroom were the contents of Sophie’s medicine chest, and that would be only the first stop on a full forensic snooping tour of the house. Hopefully Sophie didn’t mind Bootsie rifling through her shoe cabinets and flinging open the drawers of her nightstands.

“This is so nice,” I said to Sophie, gesturing to the pool, where more guests had arrived, including Honey Potts, in a Bermuda-shorts ensemble, and Mariellen Merriwether, in her usual tasteful linen dress accessorized with opera-length pearls. The Colketts were there, too, futzing around with some potted boxwoods.

“You look amazing!” I added to Sophie, not sure what else to say about her appearance. She looked attractive enough, to be sure, but amazing was the best I could muster up at the moment.

“It’s Versace!” blinked Sophie. “Listen, I gotta go mingle, but I’m so glad you came over to my humble abode!”

“Speaking of which,” said Joe smoothly, “Sophie, who’s your decorator on this, um, fabulous place? Let’s get a drink.” He took her arm and guided her down to the pool as he started his pitch.

“Sophie’s husband has mafia ties!” I hissed to Holly as soon as Sophie was out of earshot. “That is, he probably does.” I gave her a quick update as we made our way along a slate walkway flanked by Colkett-installed peonies.

“I love it,” said Holly happily. “This town is seriously lacking in organized crime. Just think of how great it would be to have an occasional drive-by shooting!” I was about to remind her that we weren’t exactly Drea de Matteo and Edie Falco, but she’d lost interest already.

“HELLO, GORGEOUS!” sang out Tim Colkett at the sight of Holly, who smiled up at him.

“Most beautiful girl in Philadelphia!” Tom Colkett said to Holly, kissing her hand and then greeting me with as much enthusiasm as he could muster.

“What do you think of the new rose garden?” whispered Tim. “This place was a complete dump yesterday morning. It took four truckloads of plants, and thirty yards of mulch.”

“This is going to be nothing, though, compared to your yard,” Tom assured Holly. “Now, that’s going to be freaky-chic! That Cipriani Hotel theme you’ve dreamed up is totally Sophia Loren.”

Just then, on a patio above us, we heard — and saw — Chef Gianni. With his parachute pants billowing and earrings glinting, he launched into a tirade of abuse at a frightened teenage waiter who was about to descend the stairs down to the pool area holding a large silver tray of Parmesan puffs. At the sound of Gianni’s screaming, the Colketts froze in terror, then blurted, “Excuse me, dolls,” to Holly and me, and bolted toward the far end of the pool and busied themselves rearranging some flowers on the cocktail tables.

“What’s with them?” asked Joe, who’d returned from wooing Sophie as a design client, and was in line to get us drinks from the bar.

“They have post-traumatic chef disorder,” Holly told him.

Who could blame them? I thought, as Joe handed me a glass of champagne. I’d visit the buffet, which I could see consisted of a Kilimanjaro of jumbo shrimp and stone crab claws, then try to convince Bootsie to drive me home.

I put three shrimp on a little plate, then reached for the tongs again and added another, ladled a large dollop of cocktail sauce next to them, dipped a shrimp, and stuffed it into my mouth.

“The shrimp are great,” said a tall man next to me, who was wielding the silver serving pieces to score himself some crab claws. “Little high in cholesterol, though.”

I looked up, disconcerted at being caught mid-gulp. But then I noticed that the guy had nice blue eyes, brown hair with some gray in it, and was smiling down at me in a friendly way. I instantly revised my position. The guy was in his late thirties, I guessed, and actually was incredibly good-looking. Plus, while he was way more well-groomed than my usual scruffy type, there was an appealing hint of five-o’clock shadow forming on his handsome jaw. This man was obviously just concerned with my health.

He squeezed half a lemon on his crab, and in a gentlemanly way offered to squeeze some on my shrimp.

“Thanks,” I said, proffering my plate for the lemon spritz. “Honestly, these shrimp are so good, they’re worth it.”

“You’re right,” he said, popping some crab in his mouth. “I have a theory about buffets. You need to skip all the extraneous stuff — like bread, salad, anything that’s just filler — and focus on the key items. Any kind of fish or filet mignon comes first.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that about the shrimp,” he added apologetically. He really had nice eyes with some great crinkly lines around them, which made him all the more appealing. “I just read a story in a medical journal about some of the health risks of shellfish, but it’s not good cocktail conversation.”

Was he a doctor? I love doctors. As Holly would say, they’re so medical.

“You’re a doctor?” I asked hopefully.

“I’m a vet,” he said. “Large animals, mostly. But I read the AMA journal, too. Sometimes research on people can have implications for how we treat our animal patients. Not that the animals I treat are eating a lot of shrimp.” I tried to follow along with the conversation, but was preoccupied by taking in his deep tan and the sexy lines around his blue eyes.

He also had this kind of incredibly honest look to him. His vibe was: Going to gas up my station wagon, then take a jog around Bryn Mawr, grill a steak, and go to sleep. In other words, he seemed really normal.

“I have a dog,” I told him. “He’s a really sweet basset hound. He’s a little stubborn, but he’s so lovable …” My voice trailed off for a second as I was momentarily distracted by the sight of Honey and Mariellen lurking near the house. “It’s too bad that Lilly isn’t here tonight,” I heard Honey growl. “Where is she, again?”

“Tennis tournament,” Mariellen drawled. “Up in Greenwich. You know my daughter, she won’t miss a tennis match.”

And then I noticed that standing next to Honey was a man in a navy blazer, khakis, and what appeared to be Gucci loafers. He was youngish, handsome, and not too tall. He looked perfectly at ease among the symphony crowd. And then I almost dropped my drink, because the man was grinning at me, and the man was Mike Woodford.

His hair had been combed, his stubble had been shorn, and he looked positively symphony-ready. You could have popped him into a box at the opera hall downtown, stuck a program for Mozart’s Requiem in his hand, and no one would have blinked an eye.

What was Mike doing here? And more importantly, what was he doing in Gucci loafers?

I suddenly felt Mariellen’s icy blue gaze fixed on me. Surprised, I looked away, then looked back, and saw La Merriwether stub out her cigarette in a glass ashtray in a positively sinister, Joan-Crawford-in-Mommie-Dearest way, still eyeing me with evident disdain. What had I done to upset her? Was there cocktail sauce on my face? Or did she know that I was the trespasser who’d helped make an unfortunate discovery at her best friend’s estate three nights before? Then I looked back, and noticed that her malevolent glare had been transferred to the good-looking veterinarian.

It was probably time to head home.

“Oh, hiya, Kristin, ya having fun?” squeaked Sophie suddenly, appearing at my elbow. “Like the shrimp? They’re from Palm Beach! Gianni had ’em flown in!”

“They’re fantastic,” I told her. “Thank you so much, they’re really incredible, and so, uh, big! Sophie Shields, this is …” I gestured toward the vet, realizing I didn’t know his name.

“John Hall,” he said, shaking Sophie’s teeny hand, which was obscured by two giant cocktail rings. “Thank you for having me.”

“Think nothing of it!” she said, looking over her shoulder nervously. “Eek, Gerda looks a little mad.” She giggled. “She’s my Pilates instructor,” she whispered to John Hall. “The one over there with the clipboard.”

Gerda glared at Sophie from her check-in station, and crunched angrily on a stalk of raw broccoli. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Mariellen and Honey walking swiftly toward Sophie’s house. Either they needed a bathroom break, or they were succumbing to the same impulse to snoop that Bootsie had given in to.

Gerda got up from her table, and hotfooted it after Mariellen and Honey, perhaps sensing an imminent ransacking of her and Sophie’s desks and closets. She pointed at Sophie’s glass of champagne, shaking her head in disapproval as she disappeared inside the house.

“Gerda banned me from drinking anything alcoholic or carbonated. Champagne’s a double no-no, so I gotta sneak it,” Sophie told me and John, turning her back on Gerda to chug a flute of Mumm.

“Oh fuck!” shrieked Sophie, glancing up at the house, where Gianni stood on a little patio outside the kitchen. “There’s the chef, flagging me down with that goddamn dish towel again. I gotta go.”

“Sophie!” yelled the chef from his terrace, his tall form bent over the railing to shout across the pool to Sophie. “There is big problem with your stove!”

Sophie hustled toward him as quickly as her tiny frame and giant heels would take her toward the house, but just as she neared the edge of the pool near the house, Gianni erupted in Italian.

We all looked up, including Sophie, whose mouth formed an O of horror.

The chef had somehow lost his balance: He tumbled off the balcony, Crocs flying, arms flailing, and did a mid-air somersault as he thumped heavily into a bank of rosebushes below. He also managed to topple onto the string quartet’s cello player. His colleagues crashed to a halt in their song, while Sophie, just inches away, was unhurt. She seemed frozen on the spot, and indeed for a moment, no one spoke, or even breathed.

“Merda!” screamed the chef, finally breaking the silence.

“Ouch,” moaned the cellist.

“Ohmigod!” exploded Sophie. “Chef Gianni’s dead!”

From the forthcoming book KILLER WASPS by Amy Korman. Copyright © 2014 by Amy Korman. To be published on September 16, 2014, by Witness Impulse, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

Amy Korman is a former senior editor for Philadelphia magazine and author of Frommer’s Guide to Philadelphia. She has written for Town & Country, House Beautiful, Men’s Health, and Cosmopolitan. She lives outside Philadelphia with her family and their Basset hound. Killer Wasps is her first novel.

The Fall of the Main Line Drug Ring

Montco D.A. Risa Ferman with an AR-15 rifle and drugs seized by the police.  / Associated Press

Montco D.A. Risa Ferman with an AR-15 rifle and drugs seized by the police. / Associated Press

On the afternoon of April 21st, 18-year-old Timothy Brooks arrived at a courthouse in Ardmore, a mile east of his alma mater, the Haverford School. His appearance — khaki pants, blue blazer, square jaw — suggested good breeding. Walking alone, in handcuffs, he lifted his head and smiled at the assorted cameras before him. “Why are you smiling?” a reporter asked. Brooks said nothing and marched forward into the courthouse.

Twenty-five-year-old Neil Scott, Brooks’s alleged co-conspirator and fellow Haverford graduate, showed up looking less composed. Escorted by police, he covered his face with his blood-orange prison jumpsuit — his bail was set higher than Brooks’s, and his parents had declined to pay it — and told the assembled media to “get the fuck out of my face.” Then he popped out two middle fingers and concluded his remarks with a drawn-out “Fuuu-uck you.”

The perp walk was a fittingly theatrical start to the day’s proceedings. Scott and Brooks, along with nine suspected sub-dealers, were being charged with running a drug ring that aimed to supply marijuana, cocaine and Ecstasy to some of the finest high schools, colleges and weekend house parties in Greater Philadelphia. (The prosecutors’ allegations were outlined in painstaking detail in a 77-page affidavit.) Brooks called the operation the Main Line Takeover Project, and soon, so would everyone else. “Every Nug on the mainline is about to come from you and me,” he’d texted Scott last fall. “We will crush it,” Scott echoed in a separate text-message conversation. “Once you go tax free it’s hard to go back.”

Announcing the charges at a press conference, Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said, “You’re dealing with kids from one of the finest institutions probably in the country. To take those skills and turn it into this kind of illegal enterprise is very distressing.” In front of her was a table covered in drug-bust evidence: $11,035 in cash, eight pounds of marijuana, 23 grams of cocaine, 11 grams of Ecstasy, eight cell phones, one computer, one .223 AR-15 rifle, one .22 AR-15 rifle, one 9mm handgun — and, to emphasize her point, a lacrosse stick.

Ferman’s still life, with its discordant juxtaposition of semi-automatic weaponry and sports equipment, had the desired effect. The New York Times assigned two reporters to the story. The Washington Post ran an oddly gleeful breakdown of the case, grabbing Facebook screenshots and comparing the defendants to the characters in The Social Network. Gawker ran its inevitable “Philly Lax Bros Charged With Running Complex Prep School Drug Ring” headline. The Daily Beast published two articles, and Britain’s Daily Mail eventually joined the parade. CBS This Morning just sounded concerned.

The appeal of the story was obvious. On one hand, that such illicit behavior was being practiced on such rarefied real estate suggested a fascinating contraction, as if the Katharine Hepburn character in The Philadelphia Story had been caught taking a massive bong rip. On the other hand, the allegations corresponded neatly with our preconceptions about the corrupting influence of wealth and privilege. (Katharine Hepburn, upon consideration, was drunk for much of The Philadelphia Story.) Whatever the precise reason for its gossipy appeal, the case promised a dose of karmic justice: Rich white lax bros, the types who have long smoked weed and snorted coke to zero consequence, were facing near-certain jail time.

But there’s at least one sense in which the perception surrounding the case doesn’t match reality. Brooks and Scott’s blue-chip all-boys prep school was more of a safety net than a launching pad, a trusty home base from which to recover a measure of lost high-school glory. The story, accordingly, was never really about the drug ring. It was about the culture that spawned the scheme, and the way everyone around it — media, law enforcement, elite prep schools, guarded alums and tight-lipped Main Line parents — reacted after the whole thing fell apart.

THE GRANDDADDY of unlikely main line drug lords was a dentist named Larry Lavin. He started out as a pot smoker at Phillips Exeter, then moved on to pot-dealing at the University of Pennsylvania before ultimately running what would become the largest cocaine trafficking operation in Philadelphia history. Lavin employed, among others, lawyers, stockbrokers, music executives, accountants, fellow dentists and at least one airline pilot. His ring was dubbed the “The Yuppie Conspiracy.” Prior to his trial, Lavin fled his house in Devon, in 1984. By the time he was captured a year and a half later, it was estimated that he had been moving up to 110 pounds of cocaine a month to customers in 14 states, Canada and the District of Columbia.

Neil Scott’s operation was somewhat less glamorous. Home base, according to prosecutors, was literally his home, a cramped apartment on the second floor of a flimsy-looking rental house off Lancaster Avenue, less than 900 feet from the Haverford School. He owned a black 2007 Toyota 4Runner and lived alone with a small brown puppy. He wore sneakers and jeans: He looked like any other underemployed kid in his mid-20s. His neighbors suspected nothing. Hala Imms, who lived across the street, remembers only that she yelled at him when he once parked his car in her spot after a snowstorm. “I’d give him shitty looks because he’d never pick up his dog poop from the front yard,” says another neighbor, who asked not to be identified. “There were like 500 dog turds.”

Un-Lavin-like though he was, Scott seems to have drawn inspiration from the dentist kingpin. When detectives raided his Haverford apartment in February, one of the items they reportedly found was Doctor Dealer, Mark Bowden’s 1987 book about Lavin and his side job. Alongside it was more evidence of his ambition: Cornbread Mafia, about a Kentucky drug ring that thrived in the ’80s, and American Desperado, about a macho smuggler of the infamous Colombian Medellin cartel.

Indicators of Scott’s bravado weren’t confined to the bookshelf. One afternoon in late December 2013, two men in their mid-20s pulled up to Scott’s rental and climbed the wooden staircase to its upstairs apartment. They were there to buy an ounce of weed from Scott for the quite reasonable price of $215. One of the men — we’ll call him Jack — remembered Scott from the prep-school lacrosse circuit. Jack, his buddy and Scott sat down on a couch and shot the breeze for a few minutes. On the table in front of them was the ounce of weed and the scale Scott had used to measure it. Next to it, more notably, was a 9mm handgun. “He had his guns out in plain view,” Jack recalls. “White kids see a gun, myself included, they’re not going to cause a problem.”

Quickly, Jack says, Scott became a go-to dealer for Haverford students and graduates and assorted suburbanites. “A lot of the kids on the Main Line were buying from him,” Jack says. “Whether they knew it or not.” To be sure, there was already plenty of weed in circulation. As “Tom,” a current Main Line high-schooler, puts it, “Weed is very, very big on the Main Line because everyone can afford it. So many kids have come and gone and been dealers for a couple of months, made a ton of money and never got caught.” What distinguished Scott and Brooks was their attempt to control the supply chain in a market that was mostly decentralized, with dealers sticking mainly to their own schools and selling largely to their friends. Scott and Brooks, says one former Lower Merion High School dealer, seemed to be “unique in the fact that they actively went to high-school kids and said, ‘You wanna be a drug dealer? It’s cool, it’s going to be fun.’”

Brooks and Scott’s business plan was less reliant on the “skills” they picked up at Haverford, as Ferman suggested, than on the connections they had made there. The pair had both played lacrosse at Haverford, as had Christian “Stocky” Euler, a 23-year-old Lafayette student and alleged sub-dealer, and 23-year-old Chester “Chet” Simmons, another alleged sub-dealer, who was named in the prosecution’s affidavit but not charged. “That was such a tight-knit group,” says a 2012 Haverford grad of his school’s national-powerhouse lacrosse team. “They thought of themselves as elite. They had their own little culture.” And that culture, says a member of the school’s class of 2013, was bound up in recreational drug use: “If you took one sport and said, ‘Which one parties the most?,’ it’s the lacrosse guys.”

To a certain extent, by using alumni of the program to push drugs, Brooks and Scott were capitalizing on those connections, in the same way their coaches helped them find part-time coaching gigs after high school. But the way they turned their alumni status into a black-market LinkedIn has more to do with desperation than ingenuity. Scott had flamed out of the Connecticut College lacrosse program before dropping out of school altogether, heading to California, running out of money, and ultimately returning home. Brooks — a team captain at Haverford — sustained a serious injury as a University of Richmond freshman, withdrew from school, and moved back into his childhood bedroom.

Unlike Larry Lavin, the two men didn’t have other careers. Their connections to the Main Line, to the Haverford School, were all they had left. That, and a certain sense of destiny instilled by their alma mater. “Haverford builds you up,” says “Rob,” a recent graduate. “The expectation is, you’ll go on and do big things.”

HERE’S ONE INDICATOR that the Main Line Takeover Project wasn’t exactly the rich-kid caper it was made out to be: Wealthy lax bro number one wasn’t really wealthy at all. Neil Scott grew up in a one-story house in Paoli in a residential pocket adjacent to a retirement community. His father, a carpenter, sent him to Conestoga High School until his junior year, when he transferred to the Haverford School to play goalie on a lacrosse scholarship. A photo from his freshman yearbook at Conestoga reveals his jet black hair coiffed into the wind-swept surfer swoosh that was in vogue in the mid-2000s. “He was always a very cynical, sarcastic kid,” says one Haverford School schoolmate, not disapprovingly. Nobody I spoke with recalled him dealing drugs.

If there was a prevailing sentiment among the high-school classmates and college lacrosse teammates who had anything at all to say about Scott, it was that he was a mediocre athlete. Clay Hillyer, a fellow member of the Connecticut College class of 2012, calls him “terrible”; another teammate concurs, adding that he was a lazy kid with an occasional aggressive streak. “I remember him getting heated,” he recalls. “Like, if you fucked with him or whatever, he would kind of snap.” Also: “His room always smelled like weed.”

These observations turn out to be salient. After one season, Scott stopped playing lacrosse. In his sophomore year, he was sanctioned by the college for smoking pot and making fake IDs, prompting him to drop out and move back home. Within a few months, he had decamped to a white bungalow in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, a beach community 30 minutes north of San Diego, where he coached at various area public schools. Zack Burke, who had hired him in February 2013 to work for his lacrosse training business, told the Daily News that Scott explained he’d come to San Diego to flee the “drugs and trouble” back home. Despite that, he began working at a medical marijuana dispensary at some point. And about two months after he hired Scott, Burke said, he found him cursing at a 10-year-old and fired him: “He started losing grip with reality a bit.” Around that time, he added, Scott began dating an older woman who plied him with Xanax and other prescription pills: “I feel like she made him crazy. I heard he packed up his car and went back to Philly in September.” (Burke declined repeated Philadelphia magazine requests for comment.)

According to text messages released by the prosecution, Scott soon got in touch with his former teammate Stocky Euler, then a senior at Lafayette. Stocky, says a close friend, had himself lost his way post-Haverford, after leaving the Lafayette lacrosse team. “Yo stocky, it’s Neil from Hford,” Scott wrote. “Just got back from Cali, got a bunch of greens. Know anybody around Philly who might be interests?” [sic] “Hahah yoo brotha how are you?” Stocky wrote back the next day, asking, “Like weight?” “Doing pretty well man, yeah got a lot of weight. Constant supply. Great numbers.” Neil Scott was in business.

Meanwhile, Timothy Brooks — younger, richer, a more talented lacrosse player — appears to have backed into the drug trade in a remarkably similar fashion. Brooks grew up in Villanova on one of those wide, leafy streets where the houses are far enough apart that you rarely run the risk of having to greet your neighbors. His father, Clint, a lacrosse player himself at the University of Vermont, is an executive for a local HR firm. Brooks also transferred into Haverford, from Harriton High School, and played on the lacrosse, squash and golf teams, graduating five years after Brooks did. “He kind of exuded an air of being a cool kid,” says one former squash teammate. “He wasn’t super-intelligent, from what I could tell.” Adds one member of the class of 2013, “He was a strong, confident guy, really gifted athletically. For a while, for 90 percent of his life, he had success in almost everything he did.” His high-school Twitter account displays that jock swagger. “S/o to my boys at the wingbowl. Send me some titty pics,” read one entry from February 2013. A couple months earlier, he wrote: “If someone ever decides to write like Shakespeare again, they should be beat up. #hamlet #essays.”

By September 2013, less than a month into his freshman year at Richmond, Brooks sustained a shoulder injury. He underwent surgery, withdrew from school, then began living at home again. “That physical disappointment manifested itself a little bit socially,” says “Joel,” a former Haverford classmate. “I think he couldn’t quite handle it, between not being able to play lacrosse to the ability [he wanted] and maybe not fitting in right away.”

Nobody I spoke with could recall Brooks ever dealing drugs or showing interest in it. In fact, Joel says, once Brooks wound up back home, his initial plan to relieve boredom and earn pocket money was to create an Internet start-up — “something to do with clothes.” Before Brooks was charged, according to prosecutors, he was employed by a “local investment firm.” What Timmy Brooks, Neil Scott and Stocky Euler all had in common were lacrosse careers that ended prematurely, along with a certain entrepreneurial spirit that, under different circumstances, their Haverford teachers might have applauded: They identified a growth market and moved quickly, if not shrewdly, to fill a need.

IT REMAINS UNCLEAR exactly who conceived of the Main Line Takeover Project — that is, a drug operation designed to traffic in more than just a little Saturday-night Molly before an EDM concert. Scott’s and Brooks’s lawyers are jockeying to pin the blame on each other’s clients. “He’s a nice young man and comes from a very nice family and he’s sorry for what he did and he’s ready to accept responsibility,” Brooks’s lawyer, Greg Pagano, has said; on a separate occasion, he told reporters that his client’s “level of culpability is much less than that of his co-defendant.” Scott’s lawyer, Tom Egan, has stated that “Brooks comes from a lot of money,” while his client “comes from a pure middle-class background.” More to the point, Egan told me, “The Main Line Takeover Project — that is not a term ever used by my guy or what he tried to do. That is a term used by Brooks.”

Text messages and testimony provided by investigators show that Scott and Brooks started working together around mid-November 2013, for not-dissimilar reasons. By late fall, Scott told investigators, he had burned through the cash he’d saved in California and taken up pot dealing, since, according to the criminal affidavit, “everyone between 15 and 55 loves good weed.” And he could get it, en masse, from a guy in California. Brooks, meanwhile, told detectives he linked up with Scott because he was having trouble at home and wanted to earn enough cash to move out.

In October, Scott began driving to Lafayette College and Gettysburg College to deliver weed to two former Haverford schoolmates, Euler and Chet Simmons. Meanwhile, Brooks appears to have been working at least one of his own contacts, then-Haverford senior Dan McGrath. On November 13th, Brooks updated Scott regarding his progress with McGrath, in one of the earliest dated text messages released by the prosecution. “Just convinced my Haverford guy to build his empire and stop grams,” Brooks wrote, meaning he was encouraging him to graduate to a more substantial level of dealing — it was a plan for sustainable growth, essentially. The affidavit says Brooks referred to McGrath, who grew up middle-class in Glenolden, as a “highly motivated poor kid.” Scott, whose own socioeconomic status isn’t so different from McGrath’s, responded, “Sounds good to me. Like those kinds of kids.”

A week later, Brooks made an effort to solidify his partnership with Scott. “Idk what you make a week but I want to make [$2,000] if I do this,” he texted. “And there are still a lot of holes to fill cause I have to grow my business. I’ll be straight with you on how I flip it. And we can work the numbers out.” Scott replied: “I’ll help you with whatever I can, [$2,000] is definitely feasible.” After agreeing to buy a pound of weed from Scott, Brooks texted, “Like I said I’m trying to start a business and I’m learning how to run this 1 well.”

As the conversation proceeded, the two allowed themselves to think a little bigger:

Brooks: “When you were a senior at Haverford did u ever think that you could pull that”

Scott: “Only dreamed it There is a much bigger market than just a lb at each of these school. [Conestoga] alone is a couple a week!”

Scott: “Just have to find the right people. And don’t rush it. Everything has a way of falling into line.”

Brooks: “Yeah the question is, can I find the right guy that can run that operation”

Brooks: “Defiantly in time” [sic]

Brooks, according to the affidavit, soon began establishing contacts at Lower Merion High School, Radnor High School, Harriton High and, later, Haverford College. Scott, meanwhile, started branching out into Philadelphia. “My main line take over project is coming together fast,” Brooks texted Scott at one point. “And I’m telling all my guys I never want there [sic] schools to be dry. Cause I always got pissed as shit when I couldn’t find bud. But now it will never happen for the rest of my life. Cause I got u.” He added: “This last week has made me realize how much I love money.”

If you talk to enough Main Line kids in the age-16-to-24 demographic, it appears there was some vague awareness that Neil Scott and Timmy Brooks were, if not running a sophisticated narcotics operation, trying to pull something off. Jack describes what seemed to be their business model: “It was better for them all price-wise to work as a co-op, rather than small-time it on their own.”

Scott, however, appeared to fancy himself more hard-core than your friendly neighborhood herb supplier. “You have a thousand dollar bounty on your head, I will find you,” Scott texted to an unnamed minion. “Piece of shit, heard you ripped off more people on your campus.” While Scott issued threats, Brooks was the good cop, trying to play up the bling aspect of their trade. “One of them had approached a good friend of mine,” says the former Lower Merion dealer, referring to Brooks. “He showed him a large amount of pot, wearing a suit.”

Brooks offered the friend the drugs on credit, asking that his new sub-dealer pay him back a certain amount once he sold off a solid chunk of it himself. (This m.o. is consistent with how the prosecution alleges the ring was run.) But it seems Brooks and Scott got greedy, misjudged their market, or both. “They were encouraging their dealers to sell all these drugs,” the former LMHS dealer says. “There was too much supply and not enough demand. Somebody’s going to get fucked over, and they’re not going to hesitate to rat you out.”

Whatever the chain of events that led to Brooks and Scott’s arrests, they neglected to take the sorts of precautions that allowed Lavin and Co. to operate unobstructed for six years — or even to demonstrate a basic pop-culture understanding of narco-trade strategy. The alleged ringleaders used their own personal cell phones, and had packages of weed shipped to their own homes. Scott may have bought three books about massively successful drug rings, but it doesn’t appear he read them. “Think of North Philadelphia,” says Jonathan Duecker, special agent in charge of the state attorney general’s Bureau of Narcotics Investigation and Drug Control. “The organizations there are very good at counter-surveillance, being communication-sensitive. They don’t talk on the phone, they dump their phones. … On the Main Line, they’re not as good. They didn’t grow up being drug dealers.”

In January, less than two months after its genesis, the Main Line Takeover Project began to fall apart. First, detectives from Montgomery County’s Narcotics Enforcement Team (NET) pinpointed four confidential informants to conduct a series of controlled drug buys. The first informant led them to “M.G.M.,” a 17-year-old Lower Merion High School dealer who collected Air Jordans and flaunted his credentials under the Instagram handle “Hustle Tree Daily.” (“Honestly, that might be the dumbest kid I’ve met,” says a childhood friend.) Once they found three more informants, NET was able to build up sufficient evidence to confront Brooks and Scott over the course of a couple of days in late February and early March, and induced quick confessions out of them. Over the next two months, they rounded up the other eight defendants: Euler and McGrath; Domenic Curcio, a 29-year-old machinist from Manayunk; Willow Orr, 22, an illustrator from Point Breeze; 18-year-old Haverford College freshmen Reid Cohen and Garrett Johnson; 21-year-old Lafayette College junior John Cole Rosemann; and a 17-year-old Radnor High student. They charged the suspects not only with dealing drugs — and dealing them to minors — but with participating in a “corrupt organization,” the Pennsylvania statute equivalent of the RICO charges federal prosecutors have slapped on the Hells Angels and the Gambino crime family.

One rainy evening in mid-June, I drove to Paoli to seek an interview with Neil Scott’s parents. The previous weekend, I had already been rebuffed by Clint Brooks, Timmy’s father, who closed his front door on me the minute I identified myself as a reporter. It was dinnertime when I arrived to find Robert and Denise Scott eating in front of the TV. The couple quickly declined comment and shut the door on me. Several moments later, however, seized by some fierce maternal instinct, Denise Scott peered at me through a window and yelled: “It’s a pack of lies!”

WHEN I ASKED ROB, who knew several of the suspects, if he thought the Main Line Takeover Project had Breaking Bad-style ambition, he demurred. The better comparison, he said, was the Seth Rogen stoner-caper comedy Pineapple Express. Neil Scott not only admitted his involvement when confronted, but also told detectives he would have “loved” to employ a dealer at Villanova and was working on expanding to West Chester University. The rest of the alleged sub-dealers handled their arrests with all the savvy of someone who has never seen an episode of Law & Order. When confronted in their homes and dorm rooms by Montgomery County detectives, none of them thought to stay silent and wait for their lawyers. Instead, police say, nearly all of them copped to dealing drugs and admitted sending incriminatory text messages. Only “M.G.M.” tried to save his own skin. But his attempt to toss a jar of weed from his bedroom window fell short, alas, when the drugs landed in the arms of a detective standing on his front lawn.

Sensing an opportunity, several defense lawyers may try to spin their clients’ incompetence into lighter sentences. Attorney Steven Fairlie says of his client John Cole Rosemann’s swift cooperation with police: “That’s what a good law-abiding kid does when he gets caught.” (Fairlie admits Rosemann did not abide by the law.) Greg Pagano, Brooks’s lawyer, is doing his best to belittle his client’s Walter White delusions: “He was involved in the conspiracy for a relatively short period of time,” Pagano said in a written statement. “He possessed no weapons.”

The Haverford School, painted by the press as a $35,000-per-year mecca of preppy entitlement, has attempted to strike a similar balance between condemning and downplaying the actions of its graduates. “We will make sure that something like this never, ever happens again,” John Nagl, the eccentric first-year headmaster of the school, told the New York Times. (A decorated military veteran who helped to develop the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, Nagl has been known to adopt an alter ego, “Slim,” who has made school-wide announcements in a digitally altered evil-villain voice. He also said “the United States will regret” marijuana legalization.) In the Times interview, however, Nagl pointed out that McGrath, the Haverford student who was charged, was only accused of making $40 to $50 a week off his trade. “We didn’t believe we had a significant problem,” he said. “And we honestly still don’t believe we have a significant problem.”

A recent graduate we’ll call “Alex” shared a similar take. “The school is just an absolutely incredible school to the point where it’s perfect,” he said. The real culprit in this story, as Alex sees it, isn’t a couple of wayward alums, but rather a ravenous public high on schadenfreude. And the real victim is the Haverford School: “When someone’s successful and prosperous, people want to see you fail.” I asked if he thought the school had a drug problem. “No,” he said. “Everybody smokes pot. It’s not a big deal.”

That Alex can assert that pot-smoking is rampant but simultaneously not “a problem” reflects, to some extent, the growing cultural and political acceptability of marijuana consumption. (Philadelphia’s City Council passed a bill in June decriminalizing up to an ounce of weed.) But it also suggests that Alex never expected anyone from his school to actually face consequences for dealing pot. As one Haverford parent — who, like most everyone else interviewed for this story, requested anonymity — told me, “I just think that everyone probably assumed [this drug bust] was going to happen at someone else’s school.”

In an attempt to avoid any more unwanted jolts to their community, the school and its alumni have assumed a defensive crouch. Nagl postponed a scheduled interview with me twice, eventually agreeing to answer written questions submitted by email. When I reached out to Nagl’s predecessor, Joe Cox, he replied amiably that he would love to talk but had been told by “school leadership” not to communicate with the media. Nagl also advised students not to speak to reporters. He told me he didn’t want them to “cause hurt to people whom we care about very deeply.”

The vast majority of Haverford alumni I contacted, likewise, were more than a little skittish about speaking with me, ignoring messages or hastily declining to talk. “I went to Haverford for 13 years and will send my kids there over any other school in the area still,” said 2012 graduate Henry Blynn. “I would appreciate if you stopped harassing my friends and classmates.” Recent grad Rob explained their reluctance further: “When these kids got caught, it was like someone in our family totally fucked up and now we all look bad.”

That sentiment surfaced at the Haverford School’s 130th commencement ceremony, which took place on June 6th at the campus field house. The choir sang. The boys received their diplomas. A speaker in a robe tossed off some quotes from Bob Dylan and William Butler Yeats. William Gray Warden III, ’50, was joined onstage by William Gray Warden IV, ’75, who was in turn joined onstage by William Gray Warden V, ’14.

The only way to distinguish this year’s ceremony from any other’s was a set of remarks made at the very end by the chairman of the school’s board of trustees, a lawyer named John Stoviak. “I’ll briefly just touch on the subject that’s been the subject of more media than I could ever imagine,” he said. “And I’ll declare from this stage, and from any pulpit that I can get, that the Haverford School will not — will not — be defined by the bad decisions of a few people. We as a community — all the faculty, all the parents, all the students — will not let that happen. We will fight to continue to earn our well-deserved, outstanding reputation as an extraordinary school with remarkable boys.”

BY QUICKLY PROMISING to study the matter and possibly undergo reforms, the Haverford School is signaling it can do a better job of living up to its lofty mission statement: “Preparing Boys for Life.” But the embarrassment and the soul-searching and the PR scramble also suggest the Haverford community is well aware that this story had less to do with the nature of the alleged crimes than with those accused of committing them. It was about where they were from and where they went to high school. It was less about breaking laws than it was about betraying the honor code. It reflected a community and a school that promise you so much that when your grand plans don’t work out, you instinctively return to them and try to milk them one last time. Because despite appearances, Brooks and Scott weren’t invincible. They were utterly mortal, facing a reality nobody prepared them for: out of school and out of money, with their lacrosse careers derailed. Not everyone goes on to do big things.

It had to be about all that, because it couldn’t have been about the drugs. Here is a list of much larger local busts that didn’t make headlines on Gawker: In May 2013, Ferman’s own Operation Weed Whacker cracked open a $14.6 million ring based in Blue Bell. The year 2011 saw the demise of a tri-county barbershop cocaine ring, from which four pounds of coke were seized. Just last May, 44 alleged members of an organization that had close ties to Mexico’s notorious La Familia cartel were arrested, a bust prosecutors said was the biggest in Chester County’s history. By contrast, less than one ounce of cocaine was seized in Operation Main Line Takeover. And yet Neil Scott’s bail was set at a million dollars, the same as that of the defendants in the Mexican cartel case and nearly three times Larry Lavin’s (adjusted for inflation).

Law enforcement officers not working under Ferman seem somewhat underwhelmed by the bust. “The size of the marijuana distribution operation is standard, so that did not surprise me,” says Chester County District Attorney Thomas Hogan. “The fact that it was happening at a school like Haverford also did not surprise me.” Duecker, meanwhile, is baffled that so much ink was spilled on the case. “In the context of the growing heroin and opioid-painkiller pill issue that we have throughout the state, what we had in that particular case was not extraordinary,” he says. “What was interesting to me was not the trafficking, not the fact that they were doing it. I was amazed at what a prominent story it was.”

For that, we partly have the prosecution to thank, not only for arranging its press conference for maximum public consumption but also for issuing an affidavit of probable cause so intricately detailed that one defense lawyer in the case called it the longest he had ever seen. When I suggested to Lower Merion police superintendent Mike McGrath that the lengthy affidavit proved not unhelpful to reporters, he smiled and said, “I think that’s why they did it.” Ferman, a cynic might point out, is up for reelection next year.

Outside the media gaze, the case trundles on, slowly and uneventfully. Lawyers are trying to avoid the mandatory minimum sentencing requirements likely to fell some of their clients. Timmy Brooks, sources say, went to rehab. Neil Scott is in jail; his lawyer says he’d rather begin serving his sentence now than get out on bail. The trial, if the case goes that far, may not occur for months. And the rest of the Main Line? “Kids will always want to smoke pot,” a high-school student in the area told me. “And if they get caught, someone will always come along and replace them.”

Originally published as “High Hopes” in the August 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

What Does My Kid’s Apartment Say About Me?

Illustration by Alexander Purdy

Illustration by Alexander Purdy

I’m standing in an aisle at HomeGoods, holding a spoon rest. It’s a pretty thing, bright orange, shaped like a sunflower, and it only costs $3.99. I don’t happen to need a spoon rest, and anyway, my kitchen’s red, not orange. But my daughter Marcy’s kitchen has one orange wall. This would look perfect in it.

I’m pretty sure she doesn’t have a spoon rest. She doesn’t have a lot of stuff. She and her husband, Basil, are just a year out of school now, working their starter jobs, living in West Philly amidst hand-me-downs and thrift-shop buys and found-on-the-street reclamations, the way most people do at that age. They’re perfectly happy, but I know Marcy would like to have more — to have nice things. They will, someday. Meantime, I’m buying this spoon rest for her.

For most of my life, I wasn’t much of a shopper. Who had time to mosey through HomeGoods, what with the Girl Scout troop and PTA projects and going to field hockey and football games? I look back on those years and marvel — where did I ever get the energy to keep up with it all? These days, with the kids gone, I’ve got plenty of time to fill up. I have a regular circuit on weekend afternoons — HomeGoods, T.J. Maxx, the great little thrift shop in town.

My widowed dad took to shopping once we kids were out of the house, too. I thought it was a little weird, then, that he’d drive to Macy’s or Strawbridge’s by himself and wander through. He always had a mission, something he was comparison-shopping for, checking out prices: a window fan, maybe, or a new vacuum. He bought himself a lot of shirts.

I understand the impulse now. It’s something to do to keep yourself busy, a way to pass the hours between Phillies games and mowing the lawn. There’s another mom I know, a teacher from Marcy’s high school. We seem to have the same circuit; I run into her all the time on my shopping trips. She, too, is always buying stuff for her grown daughter. There’s something furtive in the glances we exchange, in our rushed hellos. We recognize in one another what we won’t admit about ourselves: We’re over-engaged but don’t know how to gear down.

This is my mission: to find something nice for Marcy now that she’s got a place of her own. Her brother Jake’s still in a dorm room, so there’s not much I can do for him in the way of home decor.

I know just where she’ll put the spoon rest: atop the oven, close to the pot holders I gave her that are orange and pink, that go with the tablecloth I got such a great deal on, that covers up the thrift-shop table I bought her. I like to think of her in her apartment surrounded by all these pretty little things she’s too frugal to buy for herself.

I DON’T WORRY about what Basil will think of the spoon rest. Frankly, I don’t think he’ll even notice it. He’s a modern guy; he’s interested in big-screen TVs and stereo speakers and computer monitors, not dish towels and hot pads. When Marcy first moved in with him and his brother — that’s how they met; the brothers needed a third roommate — the living room contained two identical beige sofas and a TV. That was it.

In came Marcy with her table and chairs and houseplants and party lights, and nothing was ever the same.

Now that he’s making good money, Basil is knocking off items on his wish list. He bought a gas grill. The TVs keep getting bigger. They’ve got Netflix. He’s got a gym membership. He wants a car, but he has to be able to drive first. When he left his home in Kenya for college here in Philly, he hadn’t learned how.

His wish list doesn’t overlap with Marcy’s. She wants a new sofa, to replace the one I got them at the thrift shop. She’d like a bistro table and chairs for their backyard. Surroundings matter to her in a way they don’t to him. I saw her once in her living room, staring at the throw pillows on the armchair and smiling. She caught me looking. “They make me happy, the way they go together,” she said, a little abashed.

I told her: “I know what you mean.”

It can take my husband, Doug, weeks to notice that I’ve hung a new picture or reupholstered a chair. My dad was the same way. My mom never asked him what color he thought she should paint the living room. If she was the one buying the paint and working the roller, she figured, it was up to her.

Besides, asking only complicates things. I remember going with Doug 30 years ago to register for our wedding at Wanamaker’s. I was so astonished when he actually had opinions about what kinds of plates we would be eating off, and with what silverware. Opinions, I should note, that varied significantly from mine.

But modern couples are different, I guess. I show up at Marcy and Basil’s one day with a new treasure for them in my car: an ornate mint green candle stand for the backyard. Marcy claps her hands in delight when I open the trunk. “Oh,” she says, “it’s just like the one we saw the other day that I wanted to buy! Remember?” she appeals to Basil. “And you wouldn’t let me.”


IF YOU WANT TO SEND something to Kenya, or send something from Kenya to here, you don’t mail it; the postal service is too expensive and unreliable. You find someone who’s visiting and send it along with him. This might seem less reliable than the postal service could possibly be, but there’s a lot of back-and-forth across the ocean, and Basil has tons of cousins and uncles and aunts.

I’ve only met his mother twice, when she came for his college graduation. It was the first time they’d seen each other in more than five years. I found just the idea of her formidable. Widowed at an early age, she sent all three of her boys to boarding school and then the oldest two to America to study. I couldn’t stand it when Marcy went to Mexico for a semester. How could Basil’s mom bear to be away from her sons for so long?

She and Basil’s uncle came to our house for dinner while they were in the States. We were all crazy-nervous and on our best behavior. Gradually we thawed out, and by the end of the meal, we were laughing like old friends. Marcy said afterward that Basil’s mom said she was glad her son had such a nice family to be with here. I don’t think I would have been so gracious. The way I see it, she’s the loser in this game. The kids are here, and I can drop in anytime I want after work, and buy them candlesticks and spoon rests. She’s 7,000 miles away.

By odd coincidence, she and Marcy and I all have the same gigantic feet — size 11. We sent her home with a suitcase full of books and shoes.

ONE OF THE FIRST things Marcy bought for herself when she moved in with Basil was a big statue of the Buddha. She’s not religious, but she likes the idea of serenity. She set the statue on the floor of the apartment and surrounded it with candles. She had a hard time convincing Basil’s mom that this was home decorating and not a shrine.

Basil’s mom is religious. On her visit, she presented Marcy with a leso — a big bright cloth, orange and yellow and black, screen-printed with fish and the Swahili for “In everything is God.” In Kenya, lesos are utilitarian; women wear them. Marcy wanted to hang hers on the kitchen wall. Basil balked at that; he didn’t think it was appropriate. But she talked him around.

I thought of that when, one Saturday afternoon, I discovered that HomeGoods was having a “Buy African”-themed sale. The front of the store was filled with colorful woven baskets from Swaziland, wooden tribal masks from Zimbabwe, soapstone bowls from Tanzania, South African animal carvings. Some of them were signed by the craftspeople who’d made them. The whole thing felt weird — like high-school kids who go to Rwanda for two weeks so they can add it to their college applications. The cheery guilt-culture was urging me to “Buy African” to benefit some faceless continental monolith, but I was pretty sure Basil would be taken aback if I gave him a tribal mask.

I bought a little wooden bowl inlaid with pieces of black and white stone, though, because it was from Kenya. Marcy gave it a place of honor on the drop-leaf table ($45 at the thrift shop) in their living room.

When she and Basil were in school, it didn’t seem strange to me at all to give them gifts: a lamp, a chair, dishes, pots and pans. Now that they’re married, though, it feels a little … intrusive. Like I’m trying to manage their household as well as my own.

Take the groceries. When they were students, every month or so I’d stop by after work with the car and take them grocery-shopping, so they could stock up. I’d pay with my Visa — hell, they didn’t have any money. It was just a way to help out.

When we took a recent grocery trip, though, I watched with my Visa in hand as the cashier rang up the total. “Is it all right if I pay?” I asked Basil.

He shook his head, firmly. “No.”

FOR MEMORIAL DAY, the two of them host a barbecue in their tiny backyard. They go to the Italian Market for goat to roast on the new gas grill; Marcy makes ugali, a sort of cornmeal porridge, along with kale and rice and beans. None of these are things she learned to cook from me. Basil and his mom taught her how.

I try to think back to when Doug and I were first married. I may have made meatloaf because he liked it, but I never made meatloaf the way his mom does. I made meatloaf my way.

Of course, there isn’t really any American equivalent to ugali. Or barbecued goat, for that matter.

This round goes to Basil’s mom.

Marcy and Basil travel to Boston for a weekend, for the wedding of one of his cousins. I drop by their place a week or so after they get back. It’s a light trip for me; all I’ve brought them is some bottles of the soda Basil likes and a couple of citronella candles for the backyard.

I’m no sooner in the door than I stare at a new leso hanging on the living room wall. This one shows a parade of warriors bearing shields and spears. It’s shockingly fierce — about as far from those HomeGoods “Buy African” tchotchkes as anything could be.

“A cousin came to the wedding from Kenya with a box of presents for us from Basil’s mom,” Marcy explains.

“It’s … ” What? “Striking,” I say.

“These, too.” She indicates a tall carving of a warrior that’s on the speaker next to the TV, right beside my little wooden bowl from Kenya, and another warrior on the set of wrought iron shelves I trash-picked for them in Ocean City last summer.

And here I thought we were being so civilized in this rivalry.

The leso and the carvings are scary. They look as out of place to me as ugali would at Thanksgiving. They don’t belong with the jacquard curtains I made, the prim blue armchair I donated, the pastoral Chinese paintings that belonged to my dad and now hang on the adjacent wall. They certainly don’t go with the Buddha, for heaven’s sake.

I don’t say any of this, though. I just hand over the sodas and the citronella candles, and sit at the kitchen table and chat with my daughter underneath a banner that declares (not that I can read it) “In everything is God.” Neither of us mentions the elephant — there’s one of those, too, painted on a new bowl — in the room.

One of Marcy’s professors once asked her what I thought of her and Basil. Marcy laughed and told her, “Oh, she’s fine with it. She says she’s come around to the fact that her grandkids won’t look like her.”

“They’ll look like her,” the professor said. “They just won’t be white.”

This apartment is Marcy’s and Basil’s. It looks like them now.

It isn’t until later, as I’m driving home across the scant miles that separate my daughter and me, that I realize: Basil’s mom’s gifts were only overwhelming because they arrived all at once, in one box. She isn’t doing anything that I haven’t been doing bit by bit all along, with pot holders and houseplants and drapes. She’s staking out her territory, laying claim, saying to her child from a distance: Don’t forget where you came from. Don’t you forget you’re mine.

Close enough or far away, it’s harder than you’d think to let go.

Originally published as “Interior Designs” in the August 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

The Top Ten Philly Sports Announcers of All Time

MASTERS OF THE MIC: From left, Kalas, Hart, Reese, Andersen, Ashburn and Franzke.

MASTERS OF THE MIC: From left, Kalas, Hart, Reese, Andersen, Ashburn and Franzke.

The voices carried me home. Dating back to high school, on most weekends in the summer I’d drive to the Jersey Shore and relax with friends and family who owned or rented houses there (see: mooching). Seaside Heights, Ocean City, Sea Isle, Avalon, Wildwood — I’ve slept on porches and tight couches and in sheets decorated with conch shells. Sundays meant the dreaded trip home, and the worst stretch was usually where the Garden State Parkway meets the Atlantic City Expressway. Traffic crawled. The air conditioner in my black 1994 Chevy Cavalier was broken. It’s a safe bet I was dehydrated, from the sun or booze or both.

Far more important to me than a cool blast of air was my radio. Music was the soundtrack for the ride to the Shore; Sundays were for the Phillies, and for Harry. As the heat and my stress level rose, Harry Kalas turned my sweatbox-on-wheels into a Buddhist monastery where baseball was peace and Harry the K’s play-by-play was a Zen koan. You can still hear his voice, like that of a grandfather or dad who told stories that held you rapt, or a friend who could talk sports for hours: “Struck’im ouuuuut!” During that long drought between 1993 and 2007, when the Fightins mostly stunk like a Vet Stadium bathroom, you tuned in not just for baseball, but for a version of the game as described by Harry. It was often better than what you’d see with your own eyes.

By contrast, a lousy broadcaster can ruin the experience. Like former Sixers color man Eric Snow, who was so dull he once apparently put himself to sleep. On the air. Or the current Phillies television crew, who should begin each inning with a narcolepsy warning. (Google “Matt Stairs Wing Bowl” for proof of a far more entertaining guy than you’ve heard so far. Jamie Moyer? I think he may have a future on NPR.)

With the window now officially closed on the Phillies’ ’08 championship era, and with no basketball, hockey or meaningful football till the fall, it feels like we’re all stuck in a hot car on the Philadelphia sports highway — going nowhere and not happy about it. Which makes this the perfect time to recognize the local TV and radio play-by-play men and color analysts who’ve made our best sports memories better and helped us survive the lean years. To rank them, I’ve looked at three categories: voice (smooth delivery, unmistakable sound), calls (moments that will live in Philly sports history), and general awesomeness (would you want to have a beer or play a round of golf with this guy?).

What makes a broadcaster special is more than the ability to interpret the infield fly rule or describe the action; it’s the weird, deeply personal one-sided relationships that fans develop with him over time. These broadcasters will likely never know you, but they’re part of your family for the big game and your co-pilot on long drives home.

10. Mike Emrick

Flyers TV 1983–’93
“Doc” had an impossible act to follow, taking over the Flyers’ TV duties from then-living-legend Gene Hart. (Indeed, Emrick was eventually let go to give Hart his job back.) His encyclopedic knowledge of the game, creative vocabulary (players “sashayed”; passes were “shillelaghed”) and recall of obscure facts made him seem like a buttoned-up professor in contrast with Hart’s emotional delivery. But Emrick’s style and his “Scooooore!” calls were so synonymous with the game that he was the first media member inducted into the sport’s Hall of Fame. Sportswriter Peter King once said Emrick was to hockey what Jack Buck was to baseball. High praise indeed. Doc deserves it.

9. Tom McGinnis

Sixers radio 1995–present
In the nearly two decades McGinnis has been calling Sixers games, there’s been exactly one thrilling season. The other 18 have varied from Andre-Iguodala-interesting-at-times to Eddie-Jordan-excruciating, and McGinnis has done yeoman duty at tempering enthusiasm with reality (and somehow not leading a march off the Walt Whitman Bridge). Think of that glorious Iverson-led run to the Finals in 2001, and it’s hard not to hear McGinnis’s “Are you kidding me?” as the soundtrack to your mental highlights. Most impressive is that McGinnis is a one-man show, juggling the roles of both analyst and play-caller. It’s a display of broadcast wizardry akin to passing the ball to yourself and finishing with an alley-oop dunk.

8. Tom Brookshier

Eagles radio 1962–’64; CBS TV 1965–’87
Including Brookie on this list is a stretch if you only consider his relatively brief stint as color man for the Birds. But the ex-Eagle All Pro left town to join Pat Summerall on CBS, and for years the duo was the network’s A-team for football — so I’m claiming him. Brookshier would become one of the first jocks skilled enough to handle play-by-play work; in the early days, athletes were usually pigeonholed as sidemen. He also left an indelible mark — or stain, some might say — on this city as one of the fore- fathers of sports talk radio: His morning show on fledgling WIP eventually became Brookie and the Rookie and launched the career of his sidekick, a young Inquirer beat writer named Angelo Cataldi.

7. Jim Jackson

Flyers TV 1993–present; Phillies radio 2010–present
Jackson has quietly anchored Flyers broadcasts for 20 seasons, and like an umpire in baseball, he’s so steady that he sometimes goes unnoticed until he makes a mistake. Thing is, “JJ” rarely does — he’s the sublime balance of insight and emotion, the Mr. Dependable of Philly sports. It’s an especially impressive feat considering the pace of hockey and all those tongue-twisting foreign names. (You try saying “Niittymäki stops Kovalchuk, clears to Pitkänen, who passes to Zhitnik!”) What does he do in his spare time? Handles the middle innings across the street for the Phillies with the same skill and expertise, only slower.

6. Bill Campbell

Eagles radio 1952–’66; Phillies TV and radio 1963–’70; Sixers TV and radio 1972–’81; Warriors radio 1946–’62; Big Five basketball radio various years
I was in first grade when “The Dean” retired from broadcasting, so my only references for Campbell’s work are YouTube clips and talk-radio impressions. (If Joe Conklin did a By Saam, he’d be on this list, too.) But even if you never saw or heard Campbell call a game, the man’s body of work stands untouched. It takes a true sportsman to cover basketball, baseball and football, both pro and collegiate, with skill and smarts. You get the sense that if someone asked Campbell to do play-by-play of a halfball tournament or dice game, he’d oblige, and sound great doing it. He was so beloved in his prime that the Phillies were roundly eviscerated after replacing him with some punk from Houston. Wrote Stan Hochman in the Daily News, “The new guy’s name is pronounced Kal-us, as in callous.” There’s also a retro-coolness to Campbell, from his broadcast of Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game to his classic beer pitches, during which he’d pour a cold one on live television: “Why don’t you join me in a glass of Schmidt’s?” How much does this man love Philly sports? At 90, he’s blogging about them.

5. Richie Ashburn

Phillies TV and radio 1963–’97
When Ashburn died in 1997, the Phillies played the Mets at Shea Stadium. In the outfield, the American flag flew at half-staff. That’s how respected Whitey was around the league, not just as a Cooperstown kind of ballplayer, but throughout his 35 years in the booth. For 27 of those seasons, his partner was Harry Kalas, and together, they defined the sound of Philadelphia sports. As a color man, Whitey knew when to step in with his dry Nebraska wit and when to let Kalas lead. “His Whiteness” presided mostly over losing seasons, but his enthusiasm for the game and front-porch-with-a-cold-one rapport with Harry never waned. Someone asked him once how it felt to be an institution. In typical style, he cracked he hoped to be one before he was sent to one.

4. Scott Franzke | Larry Andersen

Phillies radio 2006–present | Phillies radio 1998–present
Franzke and L.A. are inseparable for the purposes of this ranking, since the whole here is better than the sum of its parts. Andersen has long been a steady presence on Phillies broadcasts, but it wasn’t until he teamed up with Franzke that the former Phils reliever hit his stride. Together, they recall the easy banter of Harry and Whitey, as if sometimes they forget their mics are on. Franzke pokes fun at L.A.’s flub while reading an advertising promo; Andersen goes on a rant about players with big egos, or umpires with big egos, or pretty much everything umpires do. The duo was at their best in 2009, when Jimmy Rollins knocked in two runs in the bottom of the ninth against the Dodgers in the NLCS. “Rollins has won it! They stream out of the dugout!” Franzke says, as Andersen yells “Yes!” and howls in the background. They’ve earned the loftiest praise one can give in this hi-def video age — with Franzke and L.A., even when the game is on TV, sometimes it’s more fun to just listen. (Memo to the Comcast SportsNet brass: Get these two on TV. They could be the best reason to watch the team next season.)

3. Gene Hart

Flyers TV and radio 1967–’95
The call stands among the greatest in Philadelphia sports. It’s one phrase, repeated four times, that somehow encapsulates how we felt then and still feel today, in those rare moments when our teams win the big one. “Ladies and gentlemen, the Flyers are going to win the Stanley Cup!” Can you believe it? Is this really happening? “The Flyers win the Stanley Cup! The Flyers win the Stanley Cup!” My God, this is really happening! “The Flyers have won the Stanley Cup!” We did it! Hart was more than the mouthpiece for a franchise — he was a teacher who helped us understand a strange new game on ice skates played by guys from Flin Flon and Medicine Hat. Early on, when only a handful of games were televised, Hart served as the public-address announcer, explaining why offside and icing drew whistles. There was also no finer sign-off in all of sports, one that serves as both legacy and epitaph: “Good night and good hockey.”

2. Harry Kalas

Phillies TV and radio 1971–2009
Harry. No surname necessary. He didn’t get to broadcast the 1980 World Series because Vin Scully was on the job for CBS Radio; he’d later credit outraged Phillies fans for pressuring the league to allow local radio stations to carry the Fall Classic. We needed him behind the microphone in case the Phils won again. With words, he framed so many memories between ’80 and ’08 — Schmitty’s 500th home run, Thome’s 400th long ball (“Take a bow, big man!”), Chase Utley’s all-hustle score from second base (“Chase Utley, you are the man!”), and every ball that left the park to the tune of “Outta heerrrre!” He sang “High Hopes,” knowing that in many years, hope was all we had. In the end, he lost a bit on his fastball, but it didn’t matter — we finally got his call, the call: “The Philadelphia Phillies are 2008 world champions of baseball!” A year later, thousands passed by his casket behind home plate. For them, for all of us, he wasn’t just an announcer. He was a friend, a father, a yarn-spinner who turned sport into story. He was also the smoky voice of the NFL’s highlight reels, and a guy who you hoped would share some of the untold tales from the road and the locker room if you could buy him a few gin-and-tonics. Today, he’s a statue, the name on a ballpark re­staurant — and, still, Harry is Phillies baseball.

1. Merrill Reese

Eagles radio 1977–present
Like Harry, Merrill has achieved single-name status, and in the realm of Philadelphia sports broadcasting, it’s a two-horse race for the crown. By the numbers, these two are a statistical tie. Merrill has his share of classic calls, among them the Miracle at the Meadowlands parts I, II and III; Reggie’s sacks; Randall’s scrambles; and every clutch field goal (“It’s gooooooooood!”). Football is a gritty game, but Merrill brings a certain eloquence to it — his voice doesn’t rumble; it floats, soaring weightless and falling heavy as the drama demands. But what sets him apart is what he doesn’t have. Harry enjoyed 162-plus games every season, each one filled with mound conferences and batter’s-box ballets that gave him time and space to muse about baseball, life, anything. Merrill has 16 Sundays and covers a game that speeds by faster, with so many moving parts. In baseball, everyone sees an error; in football, it takes a special eye not just to catch a lineman out of place or a missed coverage, but to recognize its significance. Harry also had Whitey, an icon in his own right; Merrill often shined despite his partner. (Woe unto thee who must turn to Stan Walters for insight. Even Mike Quick took a few seasons to find his groove.) Harry wasn’t a homer, per se, but he rarely criticized the Phils. With the Eagles, you turned down the television and turned up the radio because you knew that when Andy Reid wasted a time out, Merrill would say what you were thinking. Merrill is us, but better — he understands the game the way we wish we did, describes it in ways we wish we could, and admits he’s perplexed, frustrated or pissed off without throwing things. All this, and at age 71, he’s as sharp as ever. Merrill deserves a statue, too — hopefully not for a long time, and, like Harry, after the parade.

Originally published as “Play-by-Players” in the August 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

One of Us: Cecily Tynan

Illustration by Andy Friedman

Illustration by Andy Friedman

My name is … Cecily Tynan. I had a Great-Uncle Cecil in England, and they just added the “y.” My parents actually thought they invented the name, but I’ve met some other Cecilys since, including some named after me, which is very flattering.

I am a … perfectionist.

My standard Wawa order … is a turkey Shorti, wheat.

When I turned 45 this year … I felt better than I did when I was 25.

I live in … a stone house with a pool and a lot of woods for our three dogs to run.

Before I go on TV each night, I always … check my teeth. I like to eat spinach salads and pistachios, and let’s just say those aren’t good things to eat right before you go on the air.

On Sunday mornings … I love to cook bacon and eggs for my family, but I have to ration the bacon. My kids are big bacon eaters.

I am perpetually … 10 minutes late. But never for newscasts.

Each summer, I love to … water-ski. Slalom waterskiing is my new obsession. I am really sore every Monday morning in the summer.

If I weren’t doing this … I would probably be working at an animal shelter. I’m tempted to buy a big farm so I can adopt more, but I don’t think my husband is going to let that happen.

My worst subject in high school was … geometry. I still have nightmares about it.

I shouldn’t tell you this about Jim Gardner, but … he can sing most Broadway show tunes.

The first album I ever bought … was Bryan Adams. The one with “Summer of ’69” on it.

I drive … a Lexus SUV with close to 220,000 miles on it. I’m very practical.

One food I love to eat but shouldn’t … is I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! spray. I have to say, I like it on everything. I consider it liquid gold.

My workout routine … is a mix of running, boot-camp class and boxing.

I love buying … clothes for my kids at the Target across the street from the studio. My son likes anything Shaun White, and my daughter likes anything Hello Kitty. I buy a pound of coffee and a cart full of clothes.

My secret talent … is that I can write pretty well in cursive with my toes. But I have really horrible feet, because I went from ballet dancing to running. I have E.T. toes.

The farthest I’ve ever run … is 50k, 31 miles. It was years ago in Maryland, my first and only ultra. I won it because it was two loops, and after the first loop, all the other women kept going, but I stopped and had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a Gatorade. Well, all the women in front of me bonked, and the peanut butter won the race.

The truth about predicting the weather … is that we are right most of the time. People say, “If I could be wrong 90 percent of the time and still have my job, I would love that.” But the truth is that we are almost always right.

Originally published in the August 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Growing Up in Philadelphia: The Lost City

Children playing in the Art Museum fountains, August 1973.

Children playing in the Art Museum fountains in August 1973. Photograph by Dick Swanson/The National Archive

Eddie Gindi seems genuinely excited as he stands at the dais in the Union League. The executive vice president and co-owner of Century 21 department stores is explaining why a new Philadelphia location at 8th and Market is the logical next step for a chic discount chain that until now has stuck to New York and New Jersey. “I saw with my own eyes,” he says, “the massive money and time being spent to make Philadelphia a retail center.” Philadelphians, he says, are fashion-savvy, creative and artistic: “They get it.”

The audience at this meeting of the Central Philadelphia Development Corp. laps it up. The gauzy visions of a prosperous and dynamic Center City that once seemed like pipe dreams have, in large part, become reality.

Center City’s population is growing. Developers are breaking ground on skyscrapers. National retailers like Intermix and Michael Kors are coming to Walnut Street, where rents soar above the national average. Last year, Philadelphia was feted in the New York Times, the Toronto Star, the Guardian, the Washington Post, Food & Wine, the Globe and Mail, Condé Nast Traveler, Bon Appétit, and countless online outlets. GQ wrote, “Philadelphia has more going for it now than ever.”

Every now and then, a well-dressed woman will stop me and ask for directions: “Where is the shopping street? I think it’s called Walnut?” I’ll point the way, and then imagine her browsing at Barneys and Lagos, then having a drink at Rouge’s sidewalk cafe before heading back to her room at the Hotel Monaco. “Who is this woman?” I’ll think. Does she imagine she’s in some sophisticated, classy city? I suppose so.

For some native Philadelphians like me, all of this is difficult to absorb. This city has been the butt of jokes for so long — going back to W.C. Fields, after all — that it’s still hard to believe that newcomers and investors finally consider it worthy.

I mean, I’ve been singing Philly’s praises since I was a kid, but the moniker “Filthadelphia” (and its concomitant reputation) was so widespread, it was the first thing a new friend brought up to me when we met during my semester abroad. In Spain.

Yet I sometimes miss the grimy Center City of my youth. I liked its gritty spirit.

I WAS BORN AT Hahnemann Hospital in 1968, swaddled, and taken to a studio apartment, where I slept in a dresser drawer until the crib arrived.

My parents bought a house on Rodman Street soon thereafter, and all the photos from my toddler days seem to show one neighbor or another lying flat on his back, with a big smile, obviously intoxicated by some natural plant.

The late ’60s and early ’70s in Philadelphia were pretty relaxed. The Lombard Swim Club had a topless section. My friend’s dad picked us up in his car one day without any clothes on. Parents kept their stashes in the open. Kids discussed open marriages in art class, and the 2000 block of Sansom Street was the bohemian center of the west-of-Broad universe, with head shops, cafes and clubs that leaked strains of poetry, jazz, disco, and the smoke of that natural plant.

There were also those nightclubs and discos: Élan, Black Banana, Artemis, Revival, London Victory Club — which, in glossy Studio 54 hindsight, must make Center City sound somewhat glamorous. It was anything but.

Philadelphia’s decline was well under way by the time I was born. Manufacturing was collapsing, the population was falling, and the tax base was turning to dust. Frank Rizzo dominated City Hall, first as police commissioner, then as mayor. Crime spiked. There wasn’t the money to pay for things like clean streets. Racial strife and police brutality were endemic. Center City fared better than most neighborhoods, but it wasn’t immune.

Schuylkill River Park, now family-friendly with its dog park (with special areas for big and small dogs) and creative landscape architecture, was rather seedy. It was also the locus of the Taney Gang, the children of the Irish gangsters who lived in the homes along 26th Street. They ruled that neighborhood. It was the kind of place where if you wanted to rape a girl or light a homeless guy on fire, you could get away with it. They tortured me and my friends during grade school because we had no choice but to encroach on their turf: Our school was at 25th and Lombard, and recess was at “their” park.

Fitler Square wasn’t much better. Patty Brett, the owner of the uniquely unchanging Doobies at 22nd and Lombard, remembers packs of wild dogs running loose in the area: “There were many abandoned churches and gas stations in our neighborhood. Lots of graffiti on everything, and a general fear of walking down the street late at night. People were mugged a lot, and women didn’t travel in most Center City areas alone.”

In my high-school years, street crime was so commonplace that we hardly took note of it. My boyfriend was pulled into an alley between Walnut and Chestnut and held at knifepoint; my necklace was ripped off while I was walking; my mother was mugged; purses were torn from shoulders; people threw bottles into store windows on days when the Phillies lost. The sense of lawlessness was pervasive. When we walked to school at 17th and the Parkway, dealers would try to sell us drugs (and I have no doubt they sometimes succeeded).

City Hall was a mess. That beautiful building’s courtyard was the kind of place you either avoided or walked through as quickly as possible, dodging mysterious puddles and smells, with soot or something like it crunching beneath your feet. Last summer, Kurt Vile played a concert in that now clean, bright courtyard, and I looked at the people in line at food trucks, friends meeting up and hugging each other, people dancing, and I thought, “What the hell happened to this place?” That courtyard has gone from 12 Monkeys to Frank Capra on Ecstasy. A lot of Center City has.

I MEET SO MANY people now who have moved to Philadelphia in the past 10 years — and stayed. I’m both stunned that they chose Philly and aggravated by all their c­omplaints — which, if they’ve moved here from Portland, can be quite numerous.

It’s dirty. There’s too much crime. The buses and subways are gross. There’s trash everywhere. People don’t pick up after their dogs. There are rats in Rittenhouse Square. There aren’t enough bike lanes.

Bike lanes? BIKE LANES?

Recently, a seersucker-and-madras-clad man at a Mural Arts event I went to railed against graffiti’s “cancerous, corrosive effect” on Philadelphia. He got puckered and red in the face and stomped out of the room. I guess he wasn’t here in 1976, when KAP the Bicentennial Kid tagged the Art Museum and the Liberty Bell. When I was a kid, the graffiti was so omnipresent, it became the city’s signature.

Likewise, when transplants complain about SEPTA subway cars and buses, I marvel. Back then, these were not only the primary vectors for graffiti, but had torn and broken seats and rusted poles. In 1980, this magazine called subway trains “slums-on-wheels.” Buses weren’t much better. (I got to smoke my first cigarette on the 40.) The transit stations and concourses were so much more dismal back then that now when I find a SEPTA station unpleasant, I recall what used to be and think, “Aw, that’s just a tiny puddle of pee. It’s almost cute.”

We’ve got it so good, it’s unreal. So why do I long for the old days?

In part, it’s basic childhood nostalgia. But I think it’s also that we Center City kids of the ’70s and early ’80s enjoyed a lot of freedom in our comparatively down-at-its-heels, unmanicured downtown. Today, I can get stopped at the doors of an upscale hotel or silently ejected from a fancy boutique with an icy glare. Back then, it was like there was no one on duty. It was great fun.

THERE WERE A PAIR of arcades on Chestnut Street between 15th and 17th: the dark, dirty Zounds, and the shiny new Supercade. Zounds was rough. You could get your wallet stolen, or at the least your pile of quarters. People might offer you drugs. You might take drugs. But it felt like home. Supercade was too fresh and clean. Too eager. We didn’t trust it. (This suspicion of nice things began early.)

Once the quarters were spent, or stolen, we could head over to Day’s Deli at 18th and Spruce to get fries. Or we could go to Deluxe Diner for milkshakes; the Midtowns I through IV; one of the two Little Pete’s; or even R&W, which was kind of repulsive but good for private conversations in the empty back room. Now R&W is the Japanese restaurant Zama. The food is better, but kids don’t go there to spill secrets over a shared can of seltzer and a ham and cheese sandwich.

Day’s Deli was my favorite, until it closed; the rumor was that someone affiliated with the restaurant had “put the profits up his nose.” It adjoined a convenience store, and in back were rows of booths where you could while away hours smoking cigarettes with Jasons, Jennifers and Michaels. At the time, we felt our conversations were only a shade less sophisticated than My Dinner With Andre.

During the Mummers Parade, my friends and I would zoom through the halls of the Bellevue-Stratford hotel, dashing between parties full of strangers in the rooms that faced Broad Street. There was always a lot of food and drink, and no one noticed the kids who’d sneak in and out, grabbing rolled salami off of linen-draped deli trays.

One year, we heard “a judge” was hosting one of these parade-watching parties. Only one of us was brave enough to go in; the rest waited outside, flat against the wall, like felons in a lineup. Our friend came out with big news: There was a baggie of cocaine in the room. Cocaine! Wow! I remember thinking we might get in trouble, and also feeling jealous that my friend seemed to be able to identify cocaine.

PEOPLE OFTEN FEEL sorry for me because they assume Center City wasn’t a real neighborhood. But it was. Many of us went to preschool, elementary school and high school together. Mostly latchkey kids, we stuck together after class ended. We knew every corner of each other’s homes, including whose Rittenhouse Square rooftop made for the best water-balloon launching pad.

Jason’s exotically beautiful mom lived on Pine Street, but his dad’s place was on the Square. Sandy and her three sisters lived at 22nd and Delancey, across from Valerie and, randomly, Julius Erving, who’d open the door sometimes, be very tall, and close the door again. Susan and Lizzy were on Panama, right across the street from each other, while Liz No. 3 lived at 17th and Pine with her mom and stepdad and the largest dining room table I’d ever seen.

The boy I loved unrequited all through high school was on 21st and Delancey. The girl who took me to Houlihan’s on the Square with all the cool kids lived at 18th and Delancey, across the street from towheaded Laura and her little brother Adam, both of whom have passed away, which is a sentence I shouldn’t have to write while I’m still in my 40s. Sweet Tom, who took me to both proms and was basically my first husband, lived at 25th and Lombard. And so on.

The point is, it was plenty neighborhoody. And instead of a suburban Dairy Queen parking lot, we had Rittenhouse Square.

This was the center of our universe. This was where we went to try new things — to kiss, to reveal secrets, to drink, to smoke. This was the place to reconnoiter, the hub, the treehouse club, the HQ. Life unfolded there.

The Square had no profusion of roses in front of the lion statue. The pillars around the fountain were chipping, like teeth losing their enamel. Tumbleweeds of garbage traveled by. The old benches, the ones without armrests in the middle, were wide and deep enough that homeless people could sleep on them. And they did.

Later, the park would get a curfew; we’d get in trouble for standing bare-legged in the fountain; we’d be turned out while tux-wearing dancers ate fancy food. One thing remains the same, though: the rats. I admire them for sticking it out.

ONE BOY WHO accompanied our Bellevue wanderings was the son of a South Street fortune-teller. He was missing several teeth. He gave me my first French kiss at the TLA, back when it was a movie theater that showed cartoons during the day, repertory film at night, and Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight.

The boy moved to New York, which was sad (according to my diary), but I miss the old TLA more. In fact, I miss all the movie theaters of my youth. There were so many: the Eric Twin Rittenhouse at 19th and Walnut; Sam’s Place and the SamEric at 19th and Chestnut; Eric’s Place at 15th and Chestnut; Eric’s Mark 1 at 18th and Market; the Goldman Theatre at Broad and Chestnut; the Roxy (when it showed films from odd places like Canada); more I’m not thinking of. Now these places are a CVS, a Mandee, an empty lot, a soon-to-be-demolished historic relic.

Not surprisingly, we saw movies constantly, and relied upon them as instructional manuals. Senior year, a friend and I went to see Hannah and Her Sisters. I was just starting to understand that I’d have to become a grown-up, and I didn’t really know what that meant.

In Philly, it was hard to tell what adulthood was. There was no single grown-up world, no monolith. This was no bland suburb, no Peyton Place. Sit in the Square, as we did, and it was a pageant: People were black and white, gay and straight, rich and poor. Many were hobbled by some kind of frailty. There was the Duck Lady (who quacked); the Pigeon Lady (who stood for hours with pigeons all over her); the Wow Bum, who just yelled, “Wow!”; any number of “bag ladies” who’d walk through the Square laden with belongings; the men who exposed themselves. Then there were our parents, the incense vendors, all those hookers on Broad and on 13th, my Quaker teachers with the puzzling facial hair. Which kind of adult would I be? How would I find my way?

I sat and watched Hannah and Her Sisters in the theater at 19th and Chestnut and found a tiny fragment of a road map. Yesterday, in the same building, I found a bottle of sunscreen.

AS A PERSON WHO works in Center City — and who writes about real estate and economic development — I can’t claim to be disappointed by downtown’s success. By any measure, Center City is booming, and that is a good thing. I don’t want to step in dog waste, or walk 10 blocks before I can find a trash can. I don’t want a Rittenhouse Square ringed by abandoned construction sites rather than beautiful hotels. I want people to live here, to thrive here. I want jobs and revenue and, yes, maybe digital signage, if that’s what it takes to lure serious investment into more challenging parts of town.

But there’s something about the national retail chains, about the people in teal, about the loss of diners and movie theaters — in all their sticky-floored glory — that makes me feel Center City has edged a bit too far toward the post-Giuliani NYC model of moneyed, sterilized urbanity.

Or maybe I just miss my old neighborhood.

Originally published as “The Lost City” in the August 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

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