Ghost Fairs

This week in North Philly Notes, Thomas Keels, author of Sesqui!: Greed, Graft, and the Forgotten World’s Fair of 1926debuts a new video for his book and explains the appeal of World’s Fairs.


In 1964, I was ten years old and living on a farm outside Princeton, New Jersey. Like many baby boomers, I was taken to see the New York World’s Fair. Like many baby boomers, I was blown away by the fair’s gleaming vision of the 21st Century, an endless episode of The Jetsons sprung to life. Ours would be a future filled with personable robots, out-of-this-world architecture, self-driving cars, and push-button picture-phones. Not to mention an endless supply of Belgian waffles!

Later, I was haunted by images of the fair’s demise after it closed on October 17, 1965. The media were filled with pictures of such seemingly enduring attractions as the Bell Systems and IBM Pavilions being reduced to rubble by the barest touch of a bulldozer.  Like the second Mrs. de Winter revisiting Manderley, I began to dream of returning to a ghost fair magically restored to its full glory. I would stroll past the Court of the Astronauts and through a sea of fluttering flags toward the Unisphere, its fresh steel gleaming in the sun and surrounded by sparkling fountains. All of these wonders still had to exist somewhere.  How could such a perfect world be realized for only a few short months, only to be obliterated?

Perhaps this childhood experience explains why I was fascinated by the Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition of 1926 – aka “the Sesqui.” I stumbled across the Sesqui when I uncovered pictures of a giant Liberty Bell that straddled Broad Street at what is now Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia. It became the cover of my first book with Temple University Press, Forgotten Philadelphia: Lost Architecture of the Quaker City. Forgotten Phila sm I knew nothing about the fair, since I was a relative newcomer to Philadelphia. Then I realized that most people – even lifelong residents well-versed in local history – knew nothing about the Sesqui. It was a true ghost fair that survived only in faded photographs.

As I wrote Sesqui!: Greed, Graft, and the Forgotten World’s Fair of 1926, and researched the fair further, I learned how it had become a victim of the virulent boss politics that choked Philadelphia during the 20th century. Originally designed by Paul Philippe Cret to grace the Fairmount (now Ben Franklin) Parkway, the Sesqui was shoved down to the southern tip of town by a cadre of politicos in thrall to William S. Vare. Vare was the boss of Philadelphia’s all-powerful Republican Organization, and the U.S. Congressman for the city’s First District. Critics compared him to Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini for his iron grip on the city’s politics and purse-strings.

The Sesqui’s new site just happened to be in the heart of Vare’s district. His constituents gained jobs, paved streets, sewers, and trolleys. Vare’s construction company scored millions of dollars in lucrative contracts. And the Sesqui lost any chance of succeeding, since it cost over $10 million just to fill in the swampy soil before a single building went up. When the Sesqui opened on May 31, 1926, its huge exhibition halls were still wet with paint and empty of exhibits. Its first guests, a quarter-million Shriners holding their annual convention, took a gander, went home, and told their friends not to bother.

When the Sesqui closed on December 31, it had attracted roughly five million customers instead of the anticipated fifty million. Its official cost to the city was $33 million, although the real price tag was far higher. And the “Flop Heard Round the World” made Philadelphia a national joke. One of the reasons the Sesqui is forgotten today is that the Organization made a concerted effort to bury it the mSESQUI!_smoment its doors closed, both literally and figuratively. It was the only way to conceal the financial shenanigans and political chicanery that had doomed the Sesqui from the start.

I dream about the Sesqui sometimes.  Except my version is the fair that was meant to be, the visionary Cret design along the Parkway. I stand in Logan Circle and look at the great Beaux-Arts structures around me – not only the Free Library but the Palace of Justice and Victory Hall, an auditorium honoring the Great War dead. I stroll along the Parkway, lined with the new headquarters of the city’s leading institutions, from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to the Philadelphia Club. I cross the Court of Honor and ascend the steps to the Museum of Art. Heading west, I cross the Schuylkill River via a magnificent bridge copied after the Pont Alexandre III in Paris. I gaze downriver at the beautiful fountains and ornamental gardens that grace both banks of the Schuylkill. And I give thanks for the ghostly Sesqui-Centennial, the seminal event that transformed grimy, industrial Philadelphia into a true City Beautiful.

Books of critical importance in the era of Trump from Temple University Press

This week in North Philly Notes, we showcase books of importance in the era of Trump.

Undocumented Fears: Immigration and the Politics of Divide and Conquer in Hazleton, Pennsylvania
Jamie Longazel
Longazel uses the debate around Hazleton, Pennsylvania’s controversial Illegal Immigration Relief Act as a case study that reveals the mechanics of contemporary divide and conquer politics, making important connection between immigration politics and the perpetuation of racial and economic inequality.

The Gendered Executive: A Comparative Analysis of Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Chief Executives
Edited by Janet M. Martin and MaryAnne Borrelli
A critical examination of national executives, focusing on matters of identity, representation, and power. The editors and contributors address the impact of female executives through political mobilization and participation, policy- and decision-making, and institutional change.

The Great Refusal: Herbert Marcuse and Contemporary Social Movements
Edited by Andrew T. Lamas, Todd Wolfson, and Peter N. Funke
With a Foreword by Angela Y. Davis
The Great Refusal provides an analysis of contemporary social movements around the world—such as the Zapatistas in Mexico, the Arab Spring, and the Occupy movement—with particular reference to Marcuse’s revolutionary concept.

Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the New York City Hyperghetto
Eric Tang
Eric Tang tells the harrowing and inspiring stories of Cambodian refugees to make sense of how and why the displaced migrants have been resettled in New York City’s “hyperghetto.”

Terrorizing Latina/o Immigrants; Race, Gender, and Immigration Politics in the Age of Security
Anna Sampaio
Winner! American Political Science Association’s Latino Politics Best Book Prize, 2016
Immigration politics has been significantly altered by the advent of America’s war on terror and the proliferation of security measures. Terrorizing Latina/o Immigrants examines how these processes are racialized and gendered and how they impose inequitable burdens on Latina/o immigrants.

Vanishing Eden: White Construction of Memory, Meaning, and Identity in a Racially Changing City
Michael T. Maly and Heather M. Dalmage
Examining how racial solidarity and whiteness were created and maintained, the authors provide an intriguing analysis of the experiences and memories of whites who lived in Chicago neighborhoods experiencing racial change during the 1950s through the 1980s.

Deregulating Desire: Flight Attendant Activism, Family Politics, and Workplace Justice
Ryan Patrick Murphy
Situating the flight attendant union movement in the history of debates about family and work, Ryan Patrick Murphy offers an economic and a cultural analysis to show how the workplace has been the primary venue to enact feminist and LGBTQ politics.

The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics
Revised and Expanded Edition
George Lipsitz
In this unflinching look at white supremacy, Lipsitz argues that racism is a matter of interests as well as attitudes. He analyzes the centrality of whiteness to U.S. culture, and identifies the sustained and perceptive critique of white privilege.

Look, a White!: Philosophical Essays on Whiteness
George Yancy
Foreword by Naomi Zack
Look, a White! returns the problem of whiteness to white people. Prompted by Eric Holder’s charge, that as Americans, we are cowards when it comes to discussing the issue of race, Yancy identifies the ways white power and privilege operate.

Looking at the past to see Major League Baseball’s future

This week in North Philly Notes, Lincoln Mitchell, author of Will Big League Baseball Surivive? considers how MLB has changed since Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ’round the world.”

On November 23rd of this year, 90 year old former big league pitcher Ralph Branca died. Bianca was a solid pitcher, winning 88 games with a very respectable 3.79 ERA over 11 year seasons in the 1940s and 1950s. Branca, however, is mostly remembered for giving up the most famous home run in baseball history. He was the relief pitcher who gave up a three run home run to Bobby Thomson in the bottom of the 9th inning of the third and final game of a playoff series to determine the National League pennant in 1951. Even casual baseball fans have seen the clip of Thomson running the bases, Branca looking dejected and the Giants fans at the old Polo Grounds in northern Manhattan going crazy while announcer Russ Hodges keeps repeating “the Giants win the Pennant.”

That was, by any measure a great game, unless I suppose, if you were a Brooklyn Dodger fan. Thomson’s home run highlighted the Giants comeback after trailing by 4-1 in the last inning. Five future Hall of Famers, including Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays, played in that game between two teams who had been rivals for over half a century. The game was further immortalized by Dom DeLillo who opened his Cold War Epic The Underworld with a fictional scene of Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, Toots Shor and J. Edgar Hoover sitting together at that game.

Perhaps the most interesting and overlooked statistic about that game is that there were 20,000 empty seats for this most exciting and anticipated of games. Baseball fans today assume that big league baseball was always played by the best players in the world in front of full stadiums, but for much of baseball’s history that was not true. Ironically, while baseball played a bigger role in our culture then—it is hard to imagine any home run in the 21st century becoming as widely remembered as Thomson’s or known as the “shot heard ‘round the world’—it was a much smaller industry.

will-big-league-baseball-survive_smThis is significant because to understand where Major League Baseball (MLB) is going, it is essential to understand how it got to be where it is. In 1951, only a few years after Jackie Robinson made his debut with the Dodgers, baseball at the major league level, was still a game played entirely in the northeast and Midwest in mostly empty ballparks. Integration was still in its nascent stage as there were informal limits on the number of African-American players on each team, and Latinos with dark skin were still almost entirely excluded.

Baseball’s journey to becoming a multi-billion dollar industry with the best players from the baseball-playing world vying for lucrative spots on 30 teams in North America was a complex one. Baseball did some things well, like being ahead of the national curve on integration and adapting well to new technologies, notably the internet, but it also encountered problems such as its mishandling of the steroid crisis while poor attendance remained a problem as recently as the 1990s when baseball considered eliminating two teams.

The recently concluded season ended on a high note as the Chicago Cubs won their first World Series since 1908. The final game of the World Series between the Cubs and the Cleveland Indians drew more viewers than any game in the last quarter century. Since the World Series, the major baseball story has been the efforts to renegotiate the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the players and the owners. The most visible issues that have been raised with regards to the CBA thus far have been the possibility of adding a 26th player to big league rosters and introducing an international draft for all amateur players around the world.

These issues, however, are only very dim reflections of the bigger challenges baseball will confront in the coming decade or two. In the last 10-20 years globalization has brought more top players from everywhere in the world to MLB, but as globalization continues, many baseball loving countries, particularly those with some economic power, will chafe at this system, while MLB may realize that concentrating entirely in North America leaves many markets untapped. Similarly, new technologies and ways of consuming information will make lucrative cable contracts a thing of the past while MLB will need to find ways to more efficiently monetize its impressive advanced media products. Additionally, as fewer American children grow up playing more than one sport, fewer Americans grow into adulthood with a working knowledge of the game, raising important questions about how baseball will find the next generation of fans.

The last decade or two have been almost a perfect storm for MLB. Cable revenues have remained high while advanced media has brought in even more money. Globalization has made the best players available to American teams, while not being quite powerful enough to challenge American baseball hegemony; and there are still enough middle aged and older Americans who grew up with the game to fill stadiums and watch the postseason on television. This won’t continue and how baseball responds to these changing conditions will determine the future of this complicated and rarely fully understood American institution.

 

 

 

Telling the story of a bitter conflict over sexuality in the airline industry

This week in North Philly Notes, Ryan Patrick Murphy, author of Deregulating Desire, blogs about the flight attendants’s gains. 

In August 2016, flight attendants for United Airlines ratified a new contract that raised the top wage to over $71,000 per year. The deal provides pay and benefits that far exceed the standard for most jobs in the service economy. Whereas workers in restaurants and in big box stores can be forced into overtime at the last minute, United flight attendants get time and a half if they volunteer to work on busy days. Whereas those in retail and in fast food lose pay when business is slow, United flight attendants are guaranteed their monthly wage regardless of the demand for air travel. In an era when white men continue to out-earn other workers, the new United contract delivers a living wage to a majority woman workforce in which half of new hires are people of color.

deregulating-desire_smFour decades of tireless organizing allowed United flight attendants to lock in these gains. Since the middle of the 1960s, flight attendants have been on the cutting edge of social change. In an era when most middle class white women married and had children right out of high school, flight attendants – or stewardesses as the airlines still called them – stayed single, married later, and delayed motherhood. Living in the downtown areas of major U.S. cities, many stewardesses joined the women’s, gay, and lesbian liberation movements, and helped transform dominant cultural ideas about love, sex, and kinship.  As people’s attitudes about sexuality changed in the 1970s, however, the economy failed to keep pace with the social transformation. On the one hand, most people’s families began to look more like flight attendants’, with people marrying later, having children outside of marriage, or choosing same-sex relationships. But on the other hand, the ideal of the traditional nuclear family became ever more important to the political debates of the 1970s and 1980s as phrases like “female headed households,” and “out of wedlock births” became means to blame poor women – and especially women of color – for their poverty.

Rather than avoiding these heated cultural debates, flight attendants made ideas about family and about sexuality the centerpiece of their union agenda. They built alliances with LGBT and feminist groups outside of the industry, and argued that a living wage, affordable health insurance, and a secure retirement should not be reserved for white men in heavy industry and in corporate management. Flight attendants’ new movement was immensely successful, and real wages for flight attendants at many airlines doubled between 1975 and 1985.

While the category of sexuality galvanized flight attendants, it also became the centerpiece of management’s effort to challenge the flight attendant union movement.  Business leaders in the airline industry – and among the Wall Street bankers who financed their operations – argued that a decade of rapid social change had undermined the values that had always made America strong. To alleviate the vast new economic pressures facing the middle class in the 1970s, managers pushed to restore those bedrock values: deferred gratification, personal responsibility, and hard work. Ordinary families’ stability, big business argued, rested on rolling back the cultural changes that flight attendants and many of their allies had initiated in the 1960s and 1970s. The new alliance between pro-business and pro-family activists presented a daunting challenge for flight attendants, and by the 1990s, unions at many airlines had been forced to forfeit many of their previous gains.

Deregulating Desire tells the story of this bitter conflict over sexuality in the airline industry. While it illuminates the challenges that flight attendants and all feminized service workers have faced as neoliberal reforms transformed their industry, the book shows that an ongoing commitment to feminist and LGBT activist movements has helped them maintain a heavily unionized workplace. As the recent victory at United Airlines demonstrates, flight attendant unions have delivered concrete economic resources for their members, resources that most workers – including much of the white middle class – lack in the 21st century. In an age when economic inequality is the centerpiece of national political debates, and when there is little concrete analysis of nuts-and-bolts efforts to fight economic inequality, Deregulating Desire documents flight attendants’ often successful struggle for workplace justice.

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