Coming soon to a Philadelphia library near you

This week in North Philly Notes, we preview three  forthcoming events at Philadelphia area libraries featuring Temple University Press authors.
The Outsider_smWednesday, August 19 at 6:30PM

Dan Rottenberg, The Outsider: Albert M. Greenfield and the Fall of the Protestant Establishment

At the Community Room of the City Institute Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1905 Locust Street.
Cost: FREE, No tickets required.

In The Outsider, veteran journalist and best-selling author Dan Rottenberg deftly chronicles the astonishing rises, falls, and countless reinventions of Albert M. Greenfield, a Russian immigrant outsider, and combative businessman.

“With The Outsider, Rottenberg [shows how] Greenfield carefully managed his public image, from the time of his emergence as a real estate trader pledged to the corrupt Vare Republican political gang of the 1910s and ’20s, through his emergence as a banking and retail baron and patron of FDR’s New Deal, to his post-World War II national prominence.”—Philadelphia Inquirer

MayanDriferFriday, September 18 at 7:30PM

An Evening with Juan Felipe Herrera, US Poet Laureate and author of  Mayan Drifter 

Parkway Central Library, 1901 Vine Street, Philadelphia

Cost: $15 General Admission, $7 Students
Ticket and Subscription Packages

Tickets on sale Thursday, September 3 at 10:00 AM!

“Grounded in ethnic identity, fueled by collective pride, yet irreducibly individual” (New York Times), Juan Felipe Herrera is the virtuosic first Mexican American U.S. Poet Laureate. The son of migrant farm workers, his writing is strongly influenced by his experiences in California as a campesino and the artistic movements he discovered in 1960s San Francisco. His poetry collections include 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border: Undocuments 1971-2007,Senegal Taxi, and Half the World in Light, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. The author of several works of prose, short stories, young adult novels, and bilingual picture books for children, Herrera joins the Free Library for a celebration of identity, cultural perspective, and the verses of a lyrical life.

Love_sm

Wednesday, October 7 at 7:30PM

Beth Kephart | Love: A Philadelphia Affair

Parkway Central Library, 1901 Vine Street, Philadelphia

Cost: FREE
No tickets required. For Info: 215-567-4341.

In conversation with Marciarose Shestack

“A gifted, even poetic writer” (New York Times), Beth Kephart is the author of 18 books across a wide range of genres, most notably the memoir. The award-winning Handling the Truth offers a thoughtful meditation on the questions that lie at the heart of the genre. Another memoir, A Slant of Sun, was a National Book Award finalist. A writing professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Kephart is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant and the Speakeasy Poetry Prize, among other honors. From the suburbs to SEPTA to Salumeria sandwiches at the Terminal Market, Kephart’s new volume of personal essays and photos is an ode to all things Philly.

Oh, the Places You’ll Go (as a Temple University Press author)

This week in North Philly Notes, Laura Katz Rizzo, author of Dancing the Fairy Tale, describes “a crazy couple of weeks” in her life as she promotes her book at various events. 

On March 5, I will speak at the Pennsylvania Ballet’s annual Luncheon and Dress Rehearsal, which is being held at 11:00 am at Estia restaurant, across the the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. The event is an opportunity for dance enthusiasts to have a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the world of ballet. Emceed by CBS 3’s Jessica Dean, the luncheon includes a presentation of my new book, Dancing the Fairy Talewhich concentrates on the important contributions women have made to the development of American classical ballet. I hope that Arantxa Ochoa, the principal of the company’s newly established school, and former principal dancer, will be there so she can hear what I have to say about how women bring the heart and soul to American ballet schools and companies. The lunch will be followed by a dress rehearsal of Christopher Wheeldon’s Swan Lake at the Academy of Music.

Dancing the Fairy Tale_sm

Soon after this event, I am taking a group of 10 undergraduate and 5 graduate students to the Northeast Regional American College Dance Festival, at Westchester University, where I will be teaching ballet, partnering and variations…obviously from The Sleeping Beauty. With the research I did for my book on that ballet, as well as the accumulated experiences from my own performance career, I want students to dance the solos I write about. In embodying the protagonist role of Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, students will get a great entry point into understanding the arguments at the heart of the book: that performers infuse life into characters, and that without the agency of dancers, the roles of the classical ballets would never come to life.

LKR1I will also present some of my new research on “The Architecture of Space as embodied in Neo-Classical Dance Choreography,” work that has emerged from my organization of an interdisciplinary workshop and exhibition featuring the work of New York City Ballet’s photographer, Paul Kolnik and former dancer, Kyra Nichols. This event will take place at Temple’s Center for the Arts on April 16th.  Part of my job as the Temple representative at the American College Dance Festival Association will also be driving a van full of students from North Philadelphia to Westchester, running rehearsals, checking in on students, and making sure the theater crew has all of the needed technical cues from our students.  Honestly, as long as I don’t have to call any cues, I will be OK.  Calling cues is my least favorite job in the theater!

Barbara WeisbergerAfter returning from ACDFA, I have a quick trip to the Society of Dance History Scholars’ Conference at the Peabody Institute at John’s Hopkins University where I will discuss the life of Barbara Weisberger, (in photo at left), the founding matriarch of the Pennsylvania Ballet. She was at all the right places in all the right times in order to be part of many of the significant developments in American Ballet throughout the 20th century.

Baltimore will be followed by a trip to New York City to see the finals of the Youth America Grand Prix and conduct a recruitment audition for any competitors interested in studying dance in higher education!  In the meantime, I am trying to keep up with teaching my classes at Temple University (my favorite activity) as well as work on new research in which I am exploring the intersections between ballet and entertainment wrestling. This semester I am teaching a repertory class where senior jazz musicians and sophomore dance majors are creating a collaborative piece together. I am also teaching a graduate seminar for master’s students about best practices and strategies for teaching dance.

LKR2My new research topic, that of entertainment wrestling, has taken the shape of both a performed wrestling match en pointe in concert dance venue (so much fun to both float across the stage and body slam my partner in the same ten minutes) as well as a book chapter in an upcoming volume entitled Wrestling and Performance. If you had asked me five years ago if I though The Sleeping Beauty had connections to the WWE, I’d certainly have had different answers and a changed perspective from how I see the practices today. Go figure…the world of dance studies takes me to unexpected places each day!

Celebrating the Jewish New Year with Jewish Books

This week in North Philly Notes, we showcase seven Jewish Studies titles in honor of the Jewish New Year,  5775.

Two classic Temple University Press titles highlight the Catskills resorts, which shaped American Jewish culture and attracted over a million visitors between the 1920s and the 1950s.

Catskill Culture by Phil Brown

catskill culture clBrown tells the stories of the many elements of this magical environment. Brown’s own experiences as a waiter, his mother’s culinary exploits as a chef, and his father’s jobs as maitre d’ and coffee shop operator offer a backdrop to the vital life of Catskills summers. Catskill Culture recounts the life of guests, staff, resort owners, entertainers, and local residents through the author’s memories and archival research and the memories of 120 others.

The Catskills enabled Jews to become more American while at the same time introducing the American public to immigrant Jewish culture. Catskills entertainment provided the nation with a rich supply of comedians, musicians, and singers. Legions of young men and women used the Catskills as a springboard to successful careers and marriages. A decline for the resort area beginning in the 1970s has led to many changes. Today most of the hotels and bungalow colonies are gone or in ruins, while other communities, notably those of the Hasidim, have appeared.

Catskill Culture includes an appendix listing over 900 hotels he has been able to document and invites readers to contact him with additional entries.

Borscht Belt Bungalows, by Irwin Richman

borscht belt bungalowsBorscht Belt Bungalows, by Irwin Richman, focuses not on the large hotels like Grossinger’s and the Concord, but on modest bungalow colonies and kuchaleins (“cook for yourself” places) where more than 80 percent of Catskill visitors stayed.

These were not glamorous places, and middle-class Jews today remember the colonies with either aversion or fondness. Irwin Richman’s narrative, anecdotes, and photos recapture everything from the traffic jams leaving the city to the strategies for sneaking into the casinos of the big hotels. He brings to life the attitudes of the renters and the owners, the differences between the social activities and swimming pools advertised and what people actually received. He reminisces about the changing fashion of the guests and owners—everything that made summers memorable.

The author remembers his boyhood: what it was like to spend summers outside the city, swimming in the Neversink, “noodling around,” and helping with the bungalow operation, while Grandpa charged the tenants and acted as president of Congregation B’nai.

Three sports books–one for children and one for adults–recall the legendary SPAHS, the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association basketball team.

Homecourt by Larry Needle

Homecourt CoverLarry Needle’s Homecourt is a book for young readers about Louis Klotz, who played for the SPHAs and played for and coached the Washington Generals, one of the teams that faced the Harlem Globetrotters on the basketball courts for decades.

Nicknamed “Red” for his shiny red hair, Klotz may have been one of the smallest kids in his grade in South Philadelphia in 1933, but he always knew that he wanted to play basketball. Red’s journey, which started in the “cages” of South Philly, led to playing for Villanova, and for the SPHAS, where he won an American Basketball League championship.

In Homecourt: The True Story of the Best Basketball Team You’ve Never Heard Of, Larry Needle provides a biography of Red Klotz who won most of the games he played as a kid, but professionally, he lost 10,000 games against the Globetrotters. Nevertheless, Klotz is famous for scoring the winning shot against the Globetrotters in Martin, Tennessee in January, 1971—the last time the Generals beat the Globetrotters.

This illustrated book recalls the SPHAS games at the Broadwood Hotel (which now has a historical marker commemorating the team), the team’s coach, Eddie Gottlieb, and Klotz’s post-SPHAS career. It will inspire any kid who loves—or dreams of playing—basketball.

The SPHAS by Douglas Stark

The SPHAS sm compFounded in 1918, the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association’s basketball team, known as the SPHAS, was a top squad in the American Basketball League—capturing seven championships in thirteen seasons—until it disbanded in 1959. In The SPHAS, the first book to chronicle the history of this team and its numerous achievements, Douglas Stark includes not only rare and noteworthy images of players and memorabilia but also interviews and anecdotes to recall how players like Inky Lautman, Cy Kaselman, and Shikey Gotthoffer challenged racial stereotypes of weakness and physical inferiority as they boosted the game’s popularity. Team owner Eddie Gottlieb and Temple University coach Harry Litwack, among others profiled here, began their remarkable careers with the SPHAS.

Author Douglas Stark explores the significance of basketball to the Jewish community during the early years of the game, when Jewish players dominated the sport and a distinct American Jewish identity was on the rise. At a time when basketball teams were split along ethnic lines, the SPHAS represented the Philadelphia Jewish community. This book is an inspiring and heartfelt tale of the team on and off the court.

The Mogul by Rich Westcott

MOGUL comp smallRussian-Jewish immigrant Eddie Gottlieb was one of the most powerful non-playing sports figures in Philadelphia from the 1920s until his death in 1979. A master promoter, Gottlieb—dubbed the “Mogul” for his business acumen—was influential in both basketball and baseball circles, as well as a colorful figure in his own right.

A member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, Gottlieb founded, played and coached for the legendary South Philadelphia Hebrew Association (SPHAS) basketball team in the 1920s and 1930s. Only 5’ 8”, Gottlieb was nevertheless a very good basketball player. But it was behind the scenes where he excelled. He coached, helped form the National Basketball Association, and owned the Philadelphia Warriors franchise for many years. He signed Wilt Chamberlain to his first NBA contract. He also created the NBA’s annual schedule of games for more than a quarter of a century. Outside basketball, Gottlieb’s achievements included co-owning the Philadelphia Stars baseball team in the Negro Leagues and trying unsuccessfully to buy the Philadelphia Phillies. He was Philadelphia’s leading sports booking agent from the 1920s into the 1950s for everything from sandlot baseball to semipro football to professional wrestling. Drawing upon dozens of interviews and archival sources, and featuring more than fifty photographs, The Mogul vividly portrays Eddie Gottlieb’s pivotal role in both Philadelphia’s and America’s sports history.

Two books about Jewish History and Life in Philadelphia

Philadelphia Jewish Life edited by Murray Friedman

philadelphia jewish lifeIn a city with a long history of high social barriers and forbidding aristocratic preserves, Philadelphia Jews, in the last half of the twentieth century, became a force to reckon with in the cultural, political and economic life of the region. From the poor neighborhoods of original immigrant settlement, in South and West Philadelphia, Jews have made, as editor Murray Friedman recounts, the move from “outsiders” to “insiders” in Philadelphia life. Essays by a diverse range of contributors tell the story of this transformation in many spheres of life, both in and out of the Jewish community: from sports, politics, political alliances with other minority groups, to the significant debate between Zionists and anti-Zionists during and immediately after the war.

Friedman takes the history of Philadelphia Jewish life to the close of the twentieth century, and looks back on how Jews have shaped—and have been shaped by—Philadelphia and its long immigrant history.

The Outsider by Dan Rottenberg

The Outsider_smAlbert M. Greenfield (1887–1967), a Russian immigrant outsider, was courted for his business acumen by mayors, senators, governors, and presidents, including Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. He built a business empire that encompassed real estate, department and specialty stores (Bonwit Teller and Tiffany & Co.), hotels (the Ben Franklin and the Bellevue-Stratford), banks, newspapers, transportation companies, and the Loft Candy Corporation. Greenfield challenged Philadelphia’s entrenched business elite by forming alliances among Jews, Catholics, and African Americans. He was also instrumental in bringing both major political conventions to Philadelphia in 1948.

In The Outsider, veteran journalist and best-selling author Dan Rottenberg deftly chronicles the astonishing rises, falls, and countless reinventions of this combative businessman. Greenfield’s power allowed him to cross social, religious, and ethnic boundaries with impunity. He alarmed Philadelphia’s conservative business and social leaders—Christians and Jews alike—some of whom plotted his downfall.

In this engaging account of Greenfield’s fascinating life, Rottenberg demonstrates the extent to which one uniquely brilliant and energetic man pushed the boundaries of society’s limitations on individual potential. The Outsider provides a microcosmic look at three twentieth-century upheavals: the rise of Jews as a crucial American business force, the decline of America’s Protestant Establishment, and the transformation of American cities.

 

A Q&A with Dan Rottenberg, author of THE OUTSIDER

This week, in North Philly Notes, a Q&A with Dan Rottenberg, author of The Outsider: Albert M. Greenfield and the Fall of the Protestant Establishment.

How and why did you come to study Albert M. Greenfield?
Like most authors, I’ve always had several books on the back burner. One, for years, was a book about how Jews have changed business in America and vice versa. Another was a book about the decline of the Protestant establishment in America. I came across Albert M. Greenfield, and I realized this man ties into both of those themes, and that’s what I was really interested in. He was the quintessential Russian immigrant hustler who terrified the Protestant establishment in Philadelphia. They tried to shut him down in 1930. They thought they had. He came back and shut many of them down.

What surprised you in researching and telling Greenfield’s story?
What surprised me was that I couldn’t quite get a handle on him: Do I like this man or don’t I like him? There were a lot of things about Greenfield that I really liked and that I found I had in common with him—he was a tremendous optimist, and had no use for people who whined and complained—I’m pretty much the same way. He had very little empathy for people who had problems. He said take your problems somewhere else. On the other hand, he did a lot of things that were not quite ethical. He had his own narrative of his life, a lot of it was total nonsense. What I had to do as the writer was sift out the myth from the facts.

The Outsider_smHow do you think Greenfield used his Jewishness, or broke away from the stereotype in his business affairs?
Greenfield was Jewish, but he really broke all boundaries, and all rules. His basic mantra was, I can define myself as whatever I want. Sometimes he defined himself as Jewish, sometimes he thought he was the second coming of Benjamin Franklin. He was all over the place.

Do you find that his business savvy was his sheer love of business, versus fear of financial failure?
When you come right down to it, he was not really that concerned with making money or power, he really just loved to play the game. He lost a fortune twice in his life, and came back and each time, he really got the sense that he enjoyed the comeback. It was much more fun. He once said, “I’d rather fall off the highest rung than never climb the ladder.”

Greenfield was active in real estate, banking, retail, and politics, among other things. What do you think was his greatest accomplishment?
In business, he built up a huge empire, including department store chains up and down the east coast. He built some of the major building that still stand to this day, including the Ben Franklin Hotel and the Philadelphia Building, which for years was called the Bankers’ Security Building, named for his company.  But really his business empire collapsed shortly after he died. It was largely a one-man band. His legacy really lies elsewhere.

What was his greatest disaster?
Probably the failure of the Banker’s Trust Company in 1930—his venture into banking. He just assumed he was smarter than everybody else and he could succeed at anything he put his hand to. Banking turned out to be something very different than real estate. In real estate, the biggest asset is your optimism, your ability to inspire confidence in your investors or tenants. In a banker, your biggest asset is your reputation for prudence, caution, and reliability. Totally different things.

What do you think Greenfield’s legacy in Philadelphia is today?
I would say his greatest legacy is the message that his life transmits to people, that you, as a private, ordinary citizen, can really exert tremendous influence on your community, your country—if you really want to. The idea that we ought to be a little more optimistic about the future—that we ought to be a little more accepting of change. You can make your own identity, whatever you want it to be, and collectively, we can make this community and this world a better place if we want. I also think his legacy is the importance of immigrants in our society. Every generation there is a fear of immigrants and a feeling that immigrants don’t really know what America is about. Greenfield had the opposite idea. He said immigrants really appreciate America more than anybody else does.

About the author
Dan Rottenberg is the author of eleven books, including The Man Who Made Wall Street: Anthony J. Drexel and the Rise of Modern Finance, and the founding editor of the Broad Street Review, an arts and culture website.

 

Harvey Milk’s lasting influence in the labor history of queer America

In this blog entry, Miriam Frank, author of Out in the Union, explores Harvey Milk’s political vision of union involvement and LGBT progress.

article-stamp-0404Two months ago the United States Postal Service issued a new “Forever” postage stamp to honor Harvey Milk. I remember when Harvey Milk won his seat on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in 1977. He was California’s first openly gay elected official.

A year later Milk was still campaigning, but not for himself. A new amendment to California’s state constitution was on the ballot for the November election. If Proposition 6 passed, it would require local boards of education to fire school employees for public or private declarations of their queer identities, as well as any school worker, straight or gay, who affirmed or advocated gay existence.

In June 1978, Milk spoke out against the menace of Proposition 6 to hundreds of thousands of gay people at San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day rally. He challenged supporters to defy the threat by making their gayness more open than ever. “Come out to your friends, if they indeed are your friends,” he said. “Come out to your neighbors, to your fellow workers, to the people who work where you eat and shop.”

Milk organized hard against the amendment. Throughout the summer, he was on TV for interviews, or for debates with state Senator John Briggs, Proposition 6’s author. Milk’s prominence and charisma kept the battle in the news, but central to the fight were California’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens: city dwellers, suburbanites, rural folks. Many so feared how the amendment would affect their lives that they did come out. Sons, daughters, friends and co-workers told the people in their lives the truth about what the amendment would mean for their futures. One by one they asked their families and neighbors to vote “no on 6.” And one by one, they broke through the secrecy and fear that had held them back from living open, authentic lives as equals in civil society.

The decision to come out had to be an individual one, but LGBT people who were fighting Proposition 6 were not alone. Harvey Milk was not only dedicated to the gay community of the Castro but had also supported the municipal workers’ unions and a successful Teamster-led boycott of Coors beer in the neighborhood’s gay bars. Unionists were familiar with Senator Briggs’ record of hostility to labor’s issues and opposed the amendment because it would undermine collective bargaining and legalize workplace discrimination. Three days after the Gay Freedom Day rally, the San Francisco’s Labor Council announced its unanimous opposition to Proposition 6.

Out in the Union_smUnion endorsements and donations enabled wide canvassing and publicity. By mid-summer, liberal religious groups and civil liberties organizations were also involved in the expanding grassroots campaign. Squads of queer activists knocked on doors in city and suburban neighborhoods and visited community meetings at union halls and country churches. In September, an endorsement of “No on 6” by former Governor Ronald Reagan, a right-wing rival of Senator Briggs, swung many more voters. Unions released the power of their political machine in late October with phone banks, a front- page editorial in the AFL-CIO newsletter and 2.3 million palm cards at the polls. On election day, Proposition 6 was rejected by 58 percent of California voters.

California’s successful defeat of Proposition 6 in 1978 was the first major political coalition to connect the fresh and angry power of gay liberation with labor’s long-haul commitment to fairness and equality. Many other great LGBT labor collaborations have flowed forth since then.

In my book, Out in the Union, I interviewed people who participated in those coalitions. My research began in 1995 and my search for stories continued for another several years. To explore the lives and achievements of primary activists, I conducted interviews in New York City, Boston, Detroit, Washington DC, Portland, Oregon, San Francisco, Seattle, Tacoma, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and many places in between.

The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender union members who have told me their stories have been newspaper workers, nurses and health technicians, bus drivers, telephone installers, construction tradespeople, store clerks, hotel and restaurant employees, factory workers, social service workers and employees of AIDS clinics. Their queer lives have taken them through extraordinary adventures and long phases of everyday routine; and their everyday jobs are as various and their unions as diverse as the labor movement itself. Some have founded new union locals; others have negotiated innovative contracts; and still others have fought to save jobs when their plants were being closed. They are the people of Out in the Union.

Harvey Milk did not live to see the great changes that his activism started.  But  I like to think that he would have been proud of all that the labor and LGBT movements have accomplished.

 

Appreciating Philadelphia’s Mural Arts @ 30

In this blog entry, David Updike, co-editor of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts @ 30, offers his thoughts on the book and what he learned about Mural Arts along the way.

I think it’s safe to say that over the last thirty years, Philadelphia has become a city of murals. As you crisscross the city, you find them in just about every neighborhood, often where you’d least expect them. They’ve become a part of our landscape, and something that people here and elsewhere associate with Philadelphia. A lot of the credit for that goes to Jane Golden, because it wouldn’t have happened without her energy and her vision, but it also wouldn’t have been possible if the city itself hadn’t embraced the idea that public art matters. And it matters, not just because it improves our aesthetic environment, but more importantly, because it has a lasting impact on the people who participate in the process.

The Mural Arts offices are a buzzing hive of activity. In the hallways you pass a steady stream of people coming and going, to and from mural sites, or classes, or canvassing neighborhoods. And these are people who, to borrow an old phrase from Bill Clinton, look like Philadelphia. They’re young and old, they’re black, white, Asian, Hispanic. And they all carry themselves with a sense of purpose. In the gallery downstairs you’ll see exhibitions of art—some of it quite remarkable—made by everyone from elementary school students to inmates serving life sentences at Graterford. And then there’s the room upstairs with the very skylight under which Thomas Eakins painted The Gross Clinic. And I suspect that our city’s greatest painter, were he alive today, would approve of this populist endeavor, which seeks to embrace the city he loved in all of its aspects.

I’m very fortunate to work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one of our city’s other great cultural institutions. And it occurred to me as I started working on this book that, in a way, the Art Museum and the Mural Arts Program have opposite but entirely complementary missions. At the Museum we work very hard to get people to come to us and experience great art. But Mural Arts brings art to the people in the places where they live and work. And what Mural Arts brings to these communities is not a particular product or aesthetic. Rather, it’s a process of engagement and dialogue and co-creation that takes place over months and years, and whose effects remain long after the paint on the walls has dried.

Phila Mural Arts 30_smThis book seeks, above all else, to document what takes place off the walls. And really, this gets to the heart and soul of what Mural Arts does. Yes, it’s about transforming places, but mostly it’s about transforming people. We wanted to look at that process and its effects through many lenses, so we brought together a diverse group of authors from different disciplines—social sciences, public health, art education, restorative justice—to paint as broad a picture as possible of what a socially engaged art practice looks like, and what it can do, especially when it works in tandem with other organizations to address big issues like homelessness, youth violence, or urban blight.

In the book, Jeremy Nowack aptly refers to what happens in the course of creating a mural as a kind of “social contract” that arises between all of the stakeholders involved in a project—neighbors, business owners, community leaders, schools, artists. And the key word here is “stakeholders.” People feel a sense of investment and ownership in the murals. They take pride in them. They show them off to visitors. New stories and rituals grow up around them. People now ride the Market-Frankford El in West Philly just to see Steve Powers’ 50 Love Letters unfold. Inspired by the murals, couples have gotten engaged and even married on that 20-block stretch along Market Street.

Other stories around the murals are more painful, more challenging, but also rewarding in ways that aren’t necessarily visible to someone looking only at the end result. A particularly poignant example is James Burns’s Finding the Light Within, which took on the issue of youth suicide, not just with a very powerful and personal mural, but also with community meetings, writing workshops, collage workshops, and a participatory blog, all of which provided safe, supportive spaces in which survivors could share their stories. More than 800 people participated in those activities, and hopefully found some measure of healing in the process.

Elizabeth Thomas begins her essay with a provocative question: “Who makes culture?” In other words, Who decides what messages we see and read and hear? Whose stories count? Every day we’re bombarded by images and messages that tell us what we should wear, eat, drink, watch, listen to. But how often do we see our own struggles and achievements reflected in our environment, or our own stories projected into the public discourse? Socially engaged art practice has begun to address this problem of who gets represented—and who does the representing—in public culture. It’s happening in different ways in different cities around the country, but in Philadelphia its most visible proponent is the Mural Arts Program.

Much of the work that Mural Arts has done in recent years has sought to expand the definition of what a mural is and what it can do. For the mural project called Peace Is a Haiku Song, the poet Sonia Sanchez initiated what became, in essence, a citywide collaborative poem cycle. She began with a mental image of haiku by children hanging like cherry blossoms from the trees in Philadelphia. This evolved into an invitation to people of all ages to contribute poems in a series of community workshops and through a dedicated website. The poems didn’t end up hanging from the trees, but many of them ended up on posters around the city that were created by youth working with graphic designer Tony Smyrski.

The experience of seeing your own words and your own images projected into the world is an empowering one, especially for young people. As Cynthia Weiss points out, kids participating in mural projects often gain practical, real-world skills, like photography and graphic design. But they also gain a sense of agency that may be hard to come by elsewhere in their lives. And that type of experience can have a lasting impact on a person’s life in ways that we’re really only beginning to understand.

This is the essence of what Mural Arts does. It’s about creating situations in which people are drawn out of their everyday selves and both challenged and empowered to reach for something more. So while this book marks a milestone in the history of the Mural Arts Program, our hope is that it also points the way forward for others who want to use the power of art to change things for the better.

To listen to a podcast of David Updike and Jane Golden’s presentation at the Free Library of Philadelphia from March 26, click here: http://libwww.freelibrary.org/authorevents/podcast.cfm?podcastID=1216

Remembering and Honoring the Late Adrienne Asch

Adrienne Asch, co-editor with Michelle Fine, of Women with Disabilitiesrecently lost her battle against cancer. In this blog entry, friends and colleagues remember  and honor the late Temple University Press author and disability activist.

“Adrienne Asch was brilliant, funny, and provocative. In the early 1970s, just after abortion rights were secured, she would turn to me and say, ‘We need to write on disability justice and abortion rights.’ When the families of babies with spina bifida were denying them treatment at birth, she would say to me, ‘We need to write on the autonomy and human rights of these babies.’ With wisdom and reflection, Adrienne dared to enter intellectual and political territory that others (including me) feared. Gifted with an outstanding mind and a compassionate heart, she was patient with my stumbling responses: But what about the consequences of such writings? And might these efforts be used against women’s rights? Or against families’ rights?  Together we navigated politically and ethically treacherous territory, gently carving a space for dialogue and debate, honoring sacred rights to reproductive freedom and to disability justice.  She held my hand as we wandered with pen and paper into territory where varied social justice movements sat in silent tension. This is perhaps just one instance of the myriad ways in which Adrienne transformed my life. women with disabilitiesShe was a friend and a colleague who taught me about music, food, the depths of loyalty, the significance of thinking deeply and dangerously about what is and what could be. We would walk across the street, and strangers would grab her arm and escort her in another direction—all in the name of ‘care.’ She was outraged; for years I would secretly apologize to these strangers after her brusque response.  Soon I too took offense, stopped apologizing, and appreciated the incredible patience she exercised with those of us who are temporarily able bodied, deluded by our own sense of ‘innocence’ and ‘care.’ I miss her much, owe her much, love her always.”—Michelle Fine, coeditor of Women with Disabilities 

“Adrienne was a brilliant thinker on so many topics; women and disability, the area in which I worked most closely with her, was just the tip of the iceberg. But aside from her many professional accomplishments—her resume was 33 pages—she had an extraordinarily large, diverse network of friends, who stayed in close touch with her virtually as well as literally—some traveling from across the country and around the world—during the last months of her life. In the last few weeks, her bedside was crowded with people from all walks of life who shared stories and remembrances, read aloud some of her many writings, organized early music concerts, participated in Shabbat services, and were just there for her.  There are enough Friends of Adrienne, as we were called, to form a small town and definitely a community. Her death is an irreparable loss to all of us who knew her and to so many fields to which she made major contributions—disability rights/studies, women and disability, reproductive rights, bioethics, and numerous others.”—Harilyn Rousso, author of Don’t Call me Inspirational

“I have known Adrienne since I was seventeen, and she a year older.  My relationship to her was a personal, and not a professional one.  She came to my wedding, knew all my children from birth, and developed her own independent relationship with them over the years.  Despite our never living in the same city, and often not the same country, we always stayed in touch with telephone calls and visits, and of course since the advent of email, in that way as well.  I may be one of the few people who did not develop that personal relationship out of a professional one.  She dated my brother in high school, and I think we both assumed she might be my sister-in-law one day.  Instead, we became sisterly without the assistance of my brother, and shared over the many years we have known each other the ups and downs of relationships, and the happinesses and setbacks of life.  We shared a deep love of Judaism, and of Jewish liturgical music.  We went to syngogogue together during our visits, and attended our first Havurah Institute together in 2000, and then continued to attend together over the next few years.  She went on to become a board member of the Institute.  Adrienne never did things half-way.  Of course I have read Adrienne’s books, and some of her many articles, and attended the “famous” Peter Singer debate at Darmouth.  And of course we have talked about the issues for which Adrienne is so well known—prenatal testing, abortion, surrogate motherhood, disability.  But mostly, we lived into some of those issues together in our real lives.   Adrienne also shared in my life as well—she never forgot  single important date in my life, and came to every single important event she could.  She was as rigorous in maintaining the work of our friendship as she was about her professional work.  That we never lost touch, even when I lived in Canada and Israel, is to her credit.  She came to visit me wherever I, and my family, was.  I will miss our long telephone calls, her taking my arm when we walked as a concession to me and my fear of tripping over her cane. I will even miss her despair and anger when she was treated like a child during our travels together.  Her anger, though sometimes uncomfortably sharp, was well-placed.  I attended  the National Federation of the Blind convention this year for the first time, and came to understand why this organization was so important to her.  I had a wonderful time, and learned to dodge hundreds of canes, and laugh about it.  I know Adrienne’s death is a big loss to many professional communities, but for me, I will simply miss her presence, her indominable spirit, her stubbornness, her deep capacity for love.”—Randi Stein, dance/movement therapist, M.A., DMT

 Adrienne Asch’s obituary appeared in the New York Times on November 23, 2013.

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