Brawl on the Square

THE WARS THAT are fought around Rittenhouse Square are usually quite civil.

Occasionally, a perfect apartment in one of the best buildings will become available and provoke a skirmish of bidding by rival buyers. The Ladies Who Donate will sometimes engage in some sharp-elbowed jockeying for chairmanship of the proper charity event. And, of course, the opening of Stephen Starr’s Frenchified Parc this July forced tout le monde to tussle not just for a good table, but for any table.

So it was a little surprising when word started spreading of a bitter fight over the fate of a dowdy little wall on a cute little side street just off the Square. Tempers began flaring in June, around the time of the signature annual soiree of the Rittenhouse set, the Ball on the Square, where nasty whispers mingled with Eddie Bruce’s cocktail music and Georges Perrier’s canapés. Not long after, a shouting match erupted inside the earnest Ethical Society, pitting neighbors in the city’s most exclusive precinct against one another. Some think the fight is simply the latest manifestation of the always-simmering conflict between Old Money and New, the battle lines drawn in the sands of taste and propriety, fought at close quarters with charges of crassness hurled against a return volley alleging elitism. “This is just insanity,” says one prominent Rittenhouse resident who was at the Ethical Society brouhaha but didn’t want his name in print. “These people are crazy. I’m not looking to get into a fight. All the people on either side have had such a crazy, emotional response. I can’t even talk to my wife about it.”

The “it” in question is a painting, a big painting — a mural that would cover the two-story side wall of an art gallery bordering what is now a 40-space parking lot run by Joe Zuritsky’s Parkway Corporation. The lot sits on a tiny block known as Rittenhouse Street, which runs east to west between 17th and 18th streets. A lot of people agree with Zuritsky’s own evaluation of the aesthetic value of the spot right now: “It’s an ugly wall behind an ugly parking lot.”

It was when someone tried to make that wall look nicer that things really got ugly. The crazy, emotional argument started after attorney Paul Rosen — whose most recent high-profile client was Alycia Lane, in her battle against CBS 3 — announced that he was planning to cover Zuritsky’s blank wall with a realistic, allegorical painting depicting “Justice,” and the role of civil attorneys like himself in its noble pursuit. The artwork would be paid for by a foundation funded by Rosen’s law firm, Spector Gadon & Rosen, PC, to help encourage positive depictions of lawyers. The actual painting would be created under the auspices of the world-renowned Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and its much-lauded and beloved director, Jane Golden.

So an ugly wall gets covered with a pretty painting about Justice. Who could argue with that?

Science: Al Gore Is a Greenhouse Gasbag

IT’s THE LAST day of November, which means winter begins in three weeks. Yet the temperature on the Penn campus is nearing 70 degrees, and it’s muggy. Walking to the offices of the Department of Earth and Environmental Science from a remote parking lot makes me sweaty. Global Warming.

Driving here this morning, I heard a report on WHYY from National Public Radio that the International Ski Federation was canceling races because there’s no snow in the Alps. Got to be Global Warming!

Yesterday, down the road in Washington, where the temperature was 16 degrees above normal, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case in which 13 state governments are suing the Environmental Protection Agency to force the government to begin controlling carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the decades-old Clean Air Act. If that doesn’t happen, the states claim, the rising sea levels caused by greenhouse gases will rob them of coastline. GLOBAL WARMING!!

And this is just one ordinary day in the new normal. Even if daily weather has nothing to do with global warming, and even if the scientific debate about it is not quite done, its cultural moment has certainly begun. Insurance companies have stopped writing policies for coastline residents. A government report out of England warns that global warming may be so economically deleterious that it will make the upheaval of the Great Depression and World War II seem benign.

Michael Crichton has already dramatized the issue in a best-selling novel. Leonardo DiCaprio is working on a documentary on the subject. A recent Time magazine cover featured a polar bear in danger of drowning and the warning: “Be Worried. Be Very Worried.”

I’ve come to Penn to see the skeptic.

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