A Summer at Camp Kweebec

Campers at the summer camp Camp Kweebec, outside of Philadelphia.

Here are some things kids are still doing at sleep-away summer camp: learning woodworking, taking swimming lessons, making bracelets out of colored strings and letter beads that spell EMILY or ALLIE, trudging back to a hunter green cabin after an endless sunstroke kickball game, running to the canteen for water ice on moonlit, cricket-serenade nights, writing letters home begging for gum, getting the nickname “Chunks,” zip-lining, co-opting Indian words, obsessing over the girls/boys in the other bunks, dodging bees, collecting splinters, fighting homesickness, and trying to look cool despite everything.

I witnessed many of these activities last August, when I—a full-grown man—spent most of a week embedded at Camp Kweebec, a camp for boys and girls ages six to 16 in the far suburbs of Philadelphia.

One thing I was determined to investigate upon my arrival was whether camp still smelled the same. I have vague sense-memories from my camp days decades ago, and probably the strongest is the musty aroma of the black steamer trunk, with its sturdy cardboard shelf, that I set up next to my cot. I inherited it from an older cousin who, my forensic sniff test indicated, had died in it, tragically perspiring to death after overdosing on mothballs.

I have to admit, the camp memories I’ve extracted from the mildewed footlocker of my mind are mixed and a little warped. As a kid, I attended overnight camps in New England for parts of three summers, but my experience was more Holden Caulfield than Huckleberry Finn. I was introverted, scared to swim, tiny for my age. I would have been happy to stay home playing wiffle ball and drawing comics with friends I already had. I recently dug through some old papers and found a progress report that my first camp counselor, straining to be upbeat, wrote to my parents when I was eight: “Donny has gotten over the ‘smallest kid in the cabin’ syndrome and has been getting along with the other boys fairly well. He has adjusted to the camp program and seems to enjoy it.”

One famous letter I wrote home begins: “Dear Everybody, Camp is ok but getting worse.”

The camp memory that always comes to my mind first is from a rainy day when water activities were canceled due to bad weather, a turn of events that secretly made me happy. I was watching a storm whip up the lake, along with a few kids and the swim instructor, and I got up the nerve to speak out loud for a change: “I wouldn’t want to swim in that!” The swim instructor cruelly cracked, “You can’t swim.” I guess he showed me, because I didn’t talk a lot after that. After all these years, I’ll only grudgingly forgive him now. Maybe he’s dead.

My experience isn’t typical. Thousands of delighted families across the Philadelphia region have sent offspring to overnight camps to play sports and make friends and become young adults, and those kids loved every minute of it. I know many of them as old adults. They’re pillars of society: lawyers, doctors, executives. Some couldn’t get enough; they became counselors after they couldn’t be campers anymore, then had children so they could send them.

Kweebec, founded in the 1930s, is the kind of traditional camp that generations of Philadelphians have lodged in their memories as pure and unadulterated, the sort of institution that remains the way it was when things were still great, like scorekeeping a baseball game or blowing out birthday candles. My official assignment there was to investigate how summer camp has or hasn’t changed, to contemplate why the tradition has stood the test of time. My unofficial mission was to see if I could discover what I’d missed as a kid. And maybe smell around a little.

The Shah Brothers Would Like You to Sleep With Them

THREE WEEKS BEFORE their posh new Hyatt at Lexington and 48th is due to open, I’m with Philadelphia’s biggest hotel tycoons, Jay and Neil Shah, shopping for furniture in Lower Manhattan. The chauffeured town car that whisked us this morning from the curb outside the Hersha Hospitality office at 5th and Walnut in Philly pulls up at an unmarked brick warehouse in Tribeca. Three guys in suits are coming out the front door.

“Those guys aren’t here to buy furniture,” Jay Shah says quietly after the suits are down the block a little. “They’re here to buy the building.”

Let’s just say Jay and his brother Neil know about buying buildings. According to industry consultants—there’s no official list for this—no one owns more hotels in New York City than Hersha Hospitality Trust, which was most recently valued at about $1.6 billion. That’s pretty good for a business that started when the Shahs’ parents bought an 11-room motel near Harrisburg in January 1979—two months before the Three Mile Island disaster. The Shahs have spent recent years proving that an Indian-American-immigrant-built family business can compete with the heaviest hitters in city real estate, an industry in which old wealth has a centuries-long head start. They’ve also shown that a Philadelphia company not named Comcast can swagger into New York and just start buying up the place.

But what we’re doing in Tribeca today is examining two items at a designer showroom. The pieces are meant to be the finishing touches in the lobby of the Hyatt48Lex, the Shahs’ first venture into four-star hospitality, competing for midtown clientele who might otherwise stay at the Waldorf Astoria.

It’s a $100 million project, “Our largest, most significant, most innovative—” Neil says. “Most design-forward … ” Jay interjects, which as the big brother he’s entitled to do. “Hotel so far,” Neil finishes. “We’ve been working on it for six years.”

We take a freight elevator to the showroom. It’s two floors of chunky teak tables, hand-carved chairs, and sculptures made out of wizened tree trunks from Bali. The small lobby at 48Lex has been designed around a modern concept: no check-in desk. Greeters carrying iPads will welcome guests. The only place to sit will be a sleek bench that the company’s design team has recommended, and which Jay and Neil are here to see if they like—a -ninja-black carved-teak plank. It’s $7,500. Neil likes it. Jay gives it a hmm sort of look: “We don’t want it to be too comfortable.” They want to discourage lingering in the minimalist lobby.

Next we surround a lamp. It has a white stone cube as a base, with a delicate linen shade forming a second cube. It’s gorgeous, and $3,000. The designers think it will look nice on a table in the 48Lex lobby, alongside the house phone. The Shahs circle it, hands rubbing their chins. Both brothers are wearing gray pinstripe suits and bright white shirts without ties. Both incessantly chew little white pieces of gum. They wonder about a fragile $3,000 item in a public area.

“People wouldn’t be touching it,” Neil says. Jay half-nods in agreement, then says, “Well, maybe they would.”

Exactly why the CEO (Jay, 43) and president (Neil, 37) of a business whose interconnected enterprises, all told, own about 95 hotels are picking out a lamp and bench for one lobby isn’t 100 percent clear to me. But I think this visit is making a point, one that the Shahs are proving with their financial success: that an eye for style can be valuable even in a potentially mundane business; that being urban and urbane can be profitable; that guys whose main job is to secure financing, finagle acquisitions, and boost numbers like EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization) can have artsy souls (when it makes fiscal sense).

Hersha became a player pioneering a concept called “urban-core select-service.” That means taking middlebrow suburban chains—Hampton Inns, Holiday Inn Expresses, Courtyard by Marriotts—into big cities. “Select-service” is a euphemism for guests’ not being able to select some services, like a full restaurant or a fancy spa. You may remember the Clarion Hotel in Philly’s Chinatown in the late 1990s. That was the Shahs’. In 2003, they dropped a Hampton Inn into New York’s hip Chelsea district, which might seem like putting an Applebee’s on Central Park East. But it filled a gap. What often was passing for a three-star hotel in New York was an old, faded five-star. What if you created new, downtown versions of the suburban brands everyone trusted?

Hersha did. Of course, to make it work, you have to give those downscale brands a downtown feel. Every mega-brand has standards for what its places ought to look like, but “if there’s something we can do to make our room rate $300 instead of $200, it’s in the franchise’s interest to be flexible,” says Jay. “The secret sauce is, you can’t charge those urban rates at a select–service brand unless you’re thoughtful about the design.” Which explains why the Shahs sweat the $3,000 table lamps.

Hersha Hospitality Trust now has 15 hotels in New York City, and eight in Washington. In Philly, the Shahs have the unexpectedly lovely Hampton Inn behind the Convention Center, and the Independent Hotel at 13th and Locust—one of the few flagships in their newest project: their own brand of boutique hotels. Between them, the brothers own about five percent of their publicly traded company. That sounds like a small share of what began as a family business. But think about the $1.6 billion.

HASU SHAH, JAY AND NEIL’S father, came to America at 19, in 1964, from a middle-class family. He intended to earn a degree in chemical engineering, get a job, and bring cash back to Mumbai to invest in a small generic-drug factory back home. The last part didn’t happen. While Hasu was studying at Tennessee Technical University, his girlfriend Hersha from across the street in India wrote that if he wanted to marry her he’d better hurry, because her parents were starting to arrange a marriage, and he wasn’t on their list.

“We were different castes, even though our families were neighbors,” Hasu Shah says. “We spoke the same language. Same religion. They were in business, we were in business. But I never could be on their list.”

Ultimately, the two did marry. Both got jobs with the police at a crime lab in Trenton (Hersha had studied microbiology in India), doing CSI-style forensics for narcotics, rape and homicide cases.

When Hasu got a state job in Pennsylvania, they moved to Harrisburg and stayed with an Indian co-worker while Hersha, wearing a sari and toting infant son Jay, roamed town trying to find an apartment.

It’s a Wawa World

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JEREMY PLAUCHE IS A burly, rowdy-looking guy—six feet, maybe 300 pounds, with the bold facial hair of a modern 24-year-old—but he admits that when he was getting the Wawa logo tattooed on his right inner biceps, the second “wa” kind of hurt. It’s just a little more tender in there closer to the torso. Totally worth it, though.
Plauche works night shifts for the rescue squad in Millville, New Jersey, where he also went to high school. It’s a little town about 45 miles south of Philadelphia, with a population of roughly 27,000 and four Wawas within about two miles. He’s made countless Wawa runs. He’s candid about his favorite product: “I’ll be honest with you—the peach iced tea.”

“I’m originally from Louisiana,” he says. “I tried to explain to my friends there what Wawa was and what it means to people who live up here … and they kind of didn’t believe me. Wawa is part of our culture. It’s part of our way of life.”
So he decided to let the body art speak. He photographed a Wawa sign and took the image to a tattoo parlor in Vineland, where they stabbed it into his flesh.

“I definitely proved my point,” he says. And there was a bonus: When Wawa found out, “I got the hookup for a little bit, free stuff for a while. I had coupons out the wazoo.”

By now, it’s obvious that Wawa, our homegrown convenience-store chain, has achieved the level of cult-like customer devotion that every consumer brand on the globe dreams about. To build a world-class cult, you need a core of gung-ho zealots and a mass of zombie followers, and Wawa is fully loaded in both categories. There are the five young women from West Chester who in 2009 completed an almost two-year trek to visit every Wawa in existence (then 586 stores). There are the high-school graduates who choose a college based at least partly on campus proximity to a Wawa, and there are the University of Maryland students who, when the company announced it would close an on-campus Wawa in 2007, flash-mobbed the closing store, “screaming and reminiscing,” according to the school paper. There’s the official Wawa page on Facebook, which has 753,394 “likes,” and there are the splinter Facebook groups, such as “People who miss Wawa” (after moving away from the store’s five-state realm) and one group called “If Wawa was a person I would get married to it.” And there are Scott Gaddis and Cindy Richardson, who in 2008 got married at the Wawa store in Abingdon, Maryland. (They conveniently had the reception there, too.)

Wawa’s cult status became official with a 2006 article about the company called “Convenience Cult?” in the New York Times Magazine (there are no Wawas in New York), which attributed the chain’s unlikely rock-star appeal to its yummy house-brand foods and friendly staff. (CEO Howard Stoeckel tells employees they’re not just making a sandwich; they’re helping their friends and neighbors have a better day.) The Times piece was inspired by a Harvard Business Review article that put Wawa’s customer service in the league of Nordstrom and the Ritz-Carlton.

2011 Shore Issue: The Shore House

Tradition occasionally bends down the Shore, but you need a pretty good reason to break it. What would you want to change? After a year of deadlines and data and not knowing what worry lurks next, here’s the escape key, a week of no surprises, its commitments as light as the sea breeze, its rhythms as sure as the tide.

It was the summer of 1969 when Leonard and Ann Giunta first drove from West Chester as a newly married couple, with their baby, Andrew, to spend some time at the South Jersey shore. Now—August 2010—they’ve got seven grown children, most with their own kids, and they still come every year. They’re a huge pack now, 16 adults and 14 kids. It’s always the first week in August, lately in Avalon, though there were years in Stone Harbor and, they still smile and remember, 1970s Wildwood.

The biggest rental house they could find in 2009 was a tight fit with 10 bedrooms, so now the family has broken into two divisions, like an expanding sports league, filling two immense houses on 15th Street, on the exclusive block where the addresses all have “East” in them: the block closest to the beach. Each of the houses rents for something like $5,000 a week. The split-up is a twist on tradition, but it will have to do. It’s a big expense for Len Giunta, now 69, but he works hard and does well, and this week spent smothered by family is how he takes his winnings.

It’s a hot, hot Saturday, just after noon. Andy, 42, and Edsel, 30, are hauling provisions for the week—cases of Gatorade, water, snacks—up the stairs to the second floor of what we’ll call the main house, where Len and Ann, these days “Poppy” and “Granna,” are stationed. If you’ve ever wondered what those crowded-together, supersized Shore houses look like inside, here’s the mystery unveiled: They’re filled with zillions of little bedrooms, usually spread over three floors. Everything seems new, but not new-new. Once-new. The kitchen/dining area is on the second floor, so you can take a coffee or beer out to the porch and, from certain angles, see the water.

“I can’t wait to have a baby, so I can opt out of the unloading,” Edsel says, mock-complaining as he hauls more food upstairs. He’s the only one of the seven adult Giunta siblings (four girls, three boys) who isn’t married. Two of the four sisters, Mary and Susie, are at the Shore very pregnant this year (Susie with her first). Matt Giunta and his wife, Kate, have brought their three-month-old girl, Gianna. Edsel is here with his girlfriend, Stacey, but Len won’t let them bunk together—part of having traditions is having rules—so Edsel is sharing a room with Father Michael Collins. Father Collins watched the kids grow up, as a priest at Archmere Academy in Delaware, where the boys went to play football, and he has presided over all the Giunta siblings’ weddings. He’s usually a guest for Shore week.

Jenna arrives in the kitchen with Alia, a three-year-old with Shirley Temple curls who’s scored the week’s first boo-boo—fell in the garage and scraped her chin.

Marc Rayfield: Boss of the Blowhards

There’s a cluster of framed photos atop a filing cabinet in Marc Rayfield’s corner office in the Center City building where WYSP and KYW Radio have their studios. Two of the pictures really jump out at you. One shows Rayfield and his family frolicking with former Phillies ace Steve Carlton. In the other, Rayfield is posing with President Obama in a hallway at the White House.

This may disappoint you, but the behind-the-scenes story I’m going to tell is not about the “Lefty” photo, but about the Obama one, because it’s going to help you understand something about Marc Rayfield.

It’s August 2009. Obama has invited WPHT radio talker Michael Smerconish to interview him at the White House. Rayfield is along because he’s Smerconish’s boss, in charge of CBS Radio’s five Philadelphia stations. Rayfield is a Democrat who supported Obama even in the primaries—odd for a guy who runs a conservative talk station, but we’ll get to that.

After the interview, Rayfield gets a moment of his own with the President. Both men are tall and lean. Both have two young daughters, and they commiserate about the joys of fatherhood. (Both men were left by their fathers when they were very young.) Rayfield remembers that in his jacket there’s a blank birthday card he’d picked up for his daughter.

Obama signs it: “To Eliza. Happy birthday. Dream big dreams. Barack Obama.”

“It was an unbelievable moment. A kid from the Northeast having personal conversations with President Obama,” says Rayfield, who often speaks as if he’s excited by his own life.

About two weeks after that meeting, it’s announced that Obama will deliver a national address to students about “the importance of taking responsibility for their success in school.” Naturally, a firestorm erupts; the segment of the media industry built on the suggestion that Obama can’t be trusted begins rolling its assembly lines. Kansas City talker Chris Stigall, guest-hosting on the national Lou Dobbs program, wonders why Obama wants to speak with our children without parents present.

“What other piece of helpful advice could the President disseminate at noon while you’re not around?” Stigall asks. “I wouldn’t let my next-door neighbor talk to my kid alone; I’m sure as hell not letting Barack Obama talk to him alone.”

Long story short: Not much later, Rayfield hires Stigall to do a talk-radio show five mornings a week in Philadelphia.

Wait—what? I spent a lot of time trying to make sense of this after Rayfield told me about his Obama moment. Yes, I get the idea that work is important. If your job is to make a conservative radio station thrive, that’s what you do. Still, it seemed Rayfield was suppressing something deeper than personal politics.

Obama’s inspirational note to Rayfield’s daughter had stirred him. Then he hired someone who said Obama can’t be trusted to deliver a message to children. It seemed to me the kind of willful mental divergence that could make a guy crazy.

The King of the Philly Diner

The vintage sign on the side remains, as kitschy as ever. It says MELROSE DINER in neon, with a clock in the shape of a coffee mug, its two hands  —  a fork and knife  —  promising to take you back to an earlier time. The Melrose opened in 1956 on this triangle drawn by 15th and Snyder and Passyunk, and it still stays open no matter where those utensils are pointing. Lately, though, particularly since Michael Petrogiannis bought the place, some other things aren’t exactly the way they were, and you know how people can get about that.

Most strikingly: the jarring red roof. For decades, the stainless steel Melrose had a flat top and an understated burgundy ribbon around the perimeter, with mustard-yellow letters that said FOODS TO TAKE HOME and SEAFOOD and BAKERY ON PREMISES. Classic. One admiring book called the South Philly landmark “a silver wedding cake.” This September, Petrogiannis, who bought the Melrose in 2007, pulled the iconic letters off, installed bright exterior lights, and plunked a giant, generic red-and-silver topper on the building, hoping to attract more street traffic.

“The letters said ‘FOOD TO GO,’ something like that. People know you can get food to go,” Petrogiannis explains, as if the information content of the words is what mattered. Sigh. What’s next? Spackling the crack in the Liberty Bell? Breaking up Hall and Oates? Knocking down the Spectrum?

“The best I can say about it is that it could be worse,” says Randy Garbin, who publishes the website Roadside Online about classic diners and lives in Jenkintown. Garbin may be thinking of last year, when Petrogiannis installed a blocky red crown atop the sleek steel Mayfair Diner, which he bought in 2006. Jack Mulholland, whose family owned the Mayfair for 80 years before selling to Petrogiannis, reasoned, forgivingly, “You have to do what you think is right.” Then, after seeing the Melrose: “He likes those toppings.”

Michael Petrogiannis talks with a strong Greek accent. He’s 55 years old, an old-school 55. His look might remind you of a manager on a baseball card, his face furrowed and weary, his hair dark and combed back, his hands and forearms strong. He’s a businessman and a pragmatist, seemingly unsentimental for someone who has made diners his life, has been working in them since he came to America at age 16 by jumping ship from a Greek oil tanker. These days, he works too hard to spend a lot of time agonizing over things like cultural history.

“Before, you drive up and down Passyunk or Snyder at night, and it looked dark,” he explains one morning. “Look like the place was closed. Now it’s nice and bright.”

After breakfast, the Melrose’s a.m. manager, Christine Holland, takes a cigarette break in the parking lot. She likes the new roof and suggests the glare of daylight isn’t the best setting to really appreciate it. “You should see it lit up at 6:30,” she says. “It looks like a stadium.”

 

Todd Carmichael’s Excellent Adventures

A hilly road in Gladwyne isn’t exactly Death Valley. But the thermometer in my car hit 97 on the way over, and here I was on foot, with a harness around my waist and a chain behind it dragging two car tires, mostly uphill, along the pavement of Conshohocken State Road.

Todd Carmichael had courteously shoved barbell weights and water bottles inside my hollow tires, because I guess having just air in there wasn’t enough to make my little whiff of his world as fun and puke-inducing as it could be. Moving steadily ahead of me, like someone who’d done it before, he was pulling just one tire himself – something off an 18-wheeler truck.

Twenty seconds into the workout, I’d started wondering how many days it would take my legs to recover. A couple minutes in, the way my calves felt made me think of a chicken leg when you’re eating it, tearing the meat off the bone. “The first 10 -minutes – that’s what it feels like for the first three days in Antarctica,” Carmichael told me. And he’d know, because there was that time in 2008 when he walked 690 miles to the South Pole, alone in whiteout weather and subzero temperatures, suffering from frostbite and hallucinations, in 39 days, seven hours and 49 minutes, breaking a world record. “The feeling that you can’t go on any farther, like you’re going to die, is just your body’s way of telling you it doesn’t want to do it,” Carmichael says. “But once it realizes you’re going to do it anyway, it adjusts.”

The road we were on, using tires in the least efficient way possible, was one lane in each direction, so the Audis and Lexuses and SUVs veered around us. A few drivers slowed to joke (“Need me to call Triple A?”) or snap photos. Carmichael, who is co-founder of Philly-based coffee roaster La Colombe Torrefaction, must have looked to some like a heat-induced vision: unshaven, in a desert-style turban, dragging his curious load past the entrance to Beth David synagogue.

At 47, Todd Carmichael plans to spend the last 10 days of September walking across Death Valley on the California-Nevada border, about 155 miles, alone, without help, no cheating. That would be a record – actually, a first. There’s a young stud who claims he was the first to walk Death Valley alone, in 2008, but he’d stashed food and water in caches along the way. Carmichael will carry everything he needs, hundreds of pounds (mostly water), as he did in Antarctica. Actually, he’ll pull it behind him, in a cart he’s designed, and that explains his weeks of tire-pull training and also the turban. Unlike a Phillies cap, he says, a desert turban keeps a layer of water on your head, and that conserves maybe a liter a day, about 20 fewer pounds of water to carry.

Pulse: Chatter: Safe House Beautiful

As long as the world keeps ending, business will be good for George Welhaf Jr. His company, Green Eye Technology in Feasterville, sells high-end underground shelters to customers who think they might eventually need to live — in style — beneath the Earth’s surface for as long as five years. These aren’t your father’s bomb shelters: The fiberglass modules run from $150,000 for a modest family unit up to many millions for fancier models. For one client in West Virginia, Green Eye buried a dome 60 feet in diameter and two stories high, containing a 25-seat movie theater, office space, and tunnels to kitchen and bedroom space for 25 people.

 “We customized that installation, because our client didn’t actually need living space for 25. They only needed room for a husband, a wife and a dog,” says Welhaf, 60, who switched to underground shelters about five years ago, as his old business — building high-end homes (he was in Plasterers’ Union Local 8 for about 20 years) — grew stagnant.

Welhaf counts it as a good career move. “We’ve done work for music industry executives and stars, for sports figures — really, really well-known people,” he says. Of course, he won’t name names. “We don’t even keep the records of our clients in the building. They’re at my lawyer’s because of confidentiality.” One client, Welhaf says, went so far as to fly the whole installation crew from the U.S. to Australia so as not to tip off any fellow Aussies. Others get creative in camouflaging the entrances to their subterranean lairs. “One fellow set it up like a little cemetery,” Welhaf recalls. The trapdoor? A remote-control hatch hidden among prop tombstones.

So, um, what do these people know that we don’t? “I pretty much try to stay away from asking why. I try not to build on their concerns,” Welhaf says. “By the time someone calls, the level of concern is there. I don’t need to convince anybody.” Green Eye advertises in upscale magazines like the duPont Registry and Robb Report, but the best marketing, he says, is done for him — “CNN, the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, with all this Armageddon stuff, Nostradamus.”

In the end, though (so to speak), Welhaf is an optimist, a survivalist only when it comes to his business, which he runs with his two sons. “I don’t live every day worrying,” he says. “It’s hard to build a business that you hope will have a long-term future if you think the world is going to end in 2012.”

Journeys: Rivers Run Through Us

There are a hundred reasons why a Walmart occupying prime Philadelphia waterfront along the Delaware River is a civic travesty, a cruel suburbanization of what should be the most vibrant city riverbank in the country, a symbol representing decades of failed vision and forsaken plans.

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 But there is one benefit. If you’re in a boat on the Delaware in Philadelphia, and you really need a four-pound tub of Twizzlers or some back-to-school pants, there’s a way to get into the store.

I’m not saying what we did is legal. I probably shouldn’t be mentioning it. But if you can look past the homeless men and feral cats and NO TRESPASSING signs on Pier 70 behind the Walmart on Columbus Boulevard, there’s a hole approximately the size of a shopping cart cut out of the chain-link fence that separates the parking lot from the abandoned pier. Apparently, somebody felt this particular connection between the city and the river was lacking — someone with a good set of wire cutters. I’d heard that tugboat crews routinely dock here to pop in and buy provisions. I had to give it a try. Here I was on this boat voyage, a quest to discover why a city situated between two rivers doesn’t feel much like a city on the water at all.

Captain Joe nuzzled his 25-foot fishing boat, the Impetuous, alongside the decaying pier. I scanned the water for Coast Guard boats and the shore for Philly cops. The river was calm. The coast looked clear. I put a foot up on the side of the boat, and she rocked a little.

The tide lifted us high enough that my hands could reach up to the pier’s concrete surface. I hoisted myself and stood in the breeze. It didn’t smell terrible. Once upon a time, great ships from distant lands lined up at this and nearly 160 other bustling finger-piers along the Delaware, to haul the output of Philadelphia’s factories to the world. My eyes darted, and I scampered over cracked concrete and weedy overgrowth toward the cut-through in the fence. Walmart ho!

I’D HAD THIS VISION-QUEST for years, to circumnavigate Philadelphia by boat. Partly, it was a because it’s there thing. Could it even be done? The rivers have to connect somewhere, right?

Mostly, I longed to solve an urban mystery. I’ve lived in Boston and New York and London, three cities (among many) that seem to have cracked the waterfront code: how to have parks, museums, stores, bars, vibrant neighborhoods, all together at the water’s edge. But though Philadelphia has 40-some miles of riverfront — more than Manhattan, which is an island — there’s almost no place where our waterfront really meshes with the places where we live, work, eat, play. Why? Rather than imagine, I decided to get in a boat and go — to search for clues along the banks, to see what’s there and maybe where we’re headed. You can’t go all the way around, of course. What you can do is get in a boat at Philadelphia’s northern borderline on the Delaware River in Torresdale, where the Poquessing Creek divides Philly from Bucks County. You can motor down past Tacony and Fishtown and b and South Philly, around the sprawling Navy Yard, which is as big as Center City, then — yes — right “up the butt” of the Schuylkill, winding north until you reach the waterfall between the Art Museum and Boathouse Row. There you need to stop, having gone about 27 miles in all. It would be eight miles farther to the city’s northernmost point on the Schuylkill, in Roxborough.

 

Movies: The Gospel According to Tigre

WE’RE IN THE cutting room. Actually, we’re upstairs in the Wynnefield house where Tigre Hill grew up. This was his grandfather’s bedroom when Hill was a kid. Since 1998, he’s lived in the house mostly alone. It looks just like a house that used to belong to a hardworking mom — china cabinet in the living room, long blue drapes, encyclopedias on the shelves — that has suffered frat-house entropy in the care of a distracted 42-year-old single guy. (“Please do not look at the kitchen,” Hill begs.)

[sidebar]The only area that doesn’t resemble a detonated Blockbuster video store is this uncluttered former bedroom, where at the moment Hill and his associate producer, Matt Cohn, are editing The Barrel of a Gun, Hill’s documentary about the Mumia Abu-Jamal case. The film’s take on the matter is that Mumia is guilty as charged — and convicted — in the 1981 killing of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Hill released an incendiary three-minute trailer for Barrel in September, and the global outrage arrived on cue. Abu-Jamal supporters began labeling it an “anti-Mumia lynch-mob movie” and Hill an Uncle Tom. Protest-tourists from around the world started printing up signs to wave at the film’s premiere, which may be in Philadelphia, maybe this month or next, at least according to the last time Hill pushed back the timetable.  

On a Power Mac screen, with Hill leaning back on a little couch, Cohn brings up archival footage of a segment about the Black Panthers that 60 Minutes aired in 1970. Mike Wallace is showing a Panthers-run day-care center in “a black ghetto” in Brooklyn. Kindergarten-age kids are holding little safety scissors for a crafts project while their teacher leads them in a cheery fists-raised chant: “Off the pigs!”

Hill’s exposition in Barrel places Mumia in the context, and under the influence, of a radical culture that viewed cop-killing as a form of empowerment. “The first part of the film is called ‘Revolution,’” Hill told me. “It goes into Mumia’s background, all the people who influenced him — the Panthers, Mao Tse-tung, Che Guevara — and what they believed. Basically, they wanted to start urban guerrilla warfare in the United States. There was a lot of cop-killing going on back then, targeted cop killings. When you put that in context all together, I think it gives you a new view of the whole incident.”

Abu-Jamal, at age 15, helped start the Philadelphia branch of the Black Panthers, after he’d been attacked by white goons and kicked by a cop at a George Wallace rally in North Philadelphia. It was Mao who said, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” As a teenager, Mumia recited the line to Acel Moore of the Inquirer, and the prosecution later used the newspaper quote against him at his sentencing hearing. Now it’s the name of Hill’s movie. Barrel, Hill says, will reveal new information about the night of the shooting, and offer a theory that the killing of Faulkner was premeditated, a setup.

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