Cultural Wish List

  • Wally Triplett died in Detroit earlier this month. He was 92 years old, and both an American and Penn State athletic hero:

    Wally Triplett became the first African-American to start on the Penn State Nittany Lions, play in a bowl game, and be drafted by the NFL, where he set multiple records. He was a key inspiration for Penn State’s iconic “We Are” chant, which came to signify unity as Penn Staters in the face of racial segregation.

    Kevin Horne wrote on “Wally Triplett and the Men of ‘47” earlier this year:

    Triplett’s modesty is a tenant of his personality today, as it has been for virtually all of his 91 years on this earth. But those now-weathered eyes witnessed one of the most beautiful Penn State stories ever told—one in which he was the central figure, transcending the bounds of time and, even if not the literal inspiration, embodying the meaning behind the phrase “We Are Penn State.”

    The story is told in two-parts. Triplett saw limited playing time in 1945—becoming, along with Dennie Hoggard, the first African-American to take the field for Penn State—and earned a varsity letter in 1946, also the first black player to do so for the Nittany Lions. Triplett made the switch from tailback to wingback early in the 1946 season and was the team’s most adept kick returner.

    But Wally Triplett is defined more by the game he didn’t play than the ones that he did.

    Triplett first felt trouble when he noticed that familiar name on the team schedule after he returned to campus in the fall of 1946. The University of Miami, the same school that revoked his scholarship less than two years prior because of the color of his skin, was scheduled for a home game against Penn State on November 29.

    Not only did Miami not let black players on its team but, like many southern schools, did not even allow black players on its fields with visiting teams. Miami officials alerted Penn State that traveling with Triplett and Hoggard might prove problematic. The situation gnawed at Triplett — Penn State had a solid squad that year, with only one 3-point loss to Michigan State mid-way through the season and were poised to make a run at a postseason bowl.

    Triplett has recounted what happened next hundreds of times. As the legend goes, the team met at Old Main to discuss the situation. They knew of Miami’s stance that bringing Triplett and Hoggard on the trip would make it, as their officials put it, “difficult for them to carry out arrangements for the game.”

    The team discussed the situation and held a vote. It wasn’t close. A revote was held, however, so that the few holdouts could make it unanimous. “There was no second thought,” voter Joe Sarabok recalled to the Penn Stater.  Penn State would bring all of its players, or it would not play at all.

    The dean of the School of Physical Education and Athletics, Dr. Carl Schott, relayed the team’s decision to the Daily Collegian in the November 6, 1946 newspaper:

    “We recently advised the University of Miami that two colored boys are regular members of the Penn State football squad,” Scott said, “and that it is the policy of the College to compete only under circumstances which will permit the playing of any or all members of its athletic teams.”

    There would be no game. It would not be rescheduled.

    “I call it ‘that team’,’” Triplett recalled during a visit to the All Sports Museum in 2009. “The tradition of leaving your colored players at home was going to be tolerated no more.”

    To add to the mythology, it is said that All-American captain Steve Suhey, the coach’s future son-in-law whose family line would produce generations of great Nittany Lions, stood up after the discussion and declared that the team would never have a vote of this sort again. It would never be spoken of; they already knew the answer. It was decided forever.

    “We Are Penn State,” Suhey said. “We play all or we play none. There will be no meetings.”

    Kevin relates Triplett’s story through Lincoln Hall in State College and a host of familiar, tangible landmarks that bind and unite Penn Staters:

    Penn State student government leaders voted in 2016 to use the student facilities fee to erect a monument to Triplett near the location of Old Beaver Field, and though the project went in another direction once it reached the administrative level, it is a testament to the enduring appeal of his inspirational story that today’s students were willing to honor him in that way—nearly 70 years after Triplett and “The Men of ‘47” stood in their place.

    But what compels such devotion? What is the Spirit of Penn State? Answers can be found through experiencing the ways in which the echoes of our shared past still reverberate through the places that we love. It is revering Mount Nittany. It is tipping your cap to Old Willow and admiring the remaining Elms on the Henderson Mall. It is celebrating the unique vision and singular determination of people like Evan Pugh, George Atherton, and Joe Paterno. And it is remembering places that never should have needed to exist at all, like Lincoln Hall, and the quiet dignity of the pioneers who lived there. It is learning and cherishing – and thereby keeping alive – the story of noble Lions like Wally Triplett, Steve Suhey, and a band of teammates who were ahead of their time.

    The Spirit is still there if you want to experience it. Try it. Walk down North Barnard Street and stop in front of the second house on the right. Close your eyes. If you try hard enough, it’s not difficult to imagine Wally Triplett, the African-American son of a Pennsylvania postal worker, his smile reaching ear to ear, bounding down the wood-covered concrete steps of Lincoln Hall, a duffel bag slung over his shoulder, on his way to catch the team bus to the Cotton Bowl, ready to change the course of history.

    I hope Penn State administration comes to its senses and commissions a lasting stuatuary monument to Wally Triplett someplace near Beaver Stadium. Wally Triplett, rest in peace.

  • I think that Philadelphia could transform Broad Street, its most significant public boulevard, if we decided to start replacing Broad Street’s concrete and asphalt medians with soil, grass, and trees.

    I first started thinking about this in Pittsburgh, when I saw the way that certain Pittsburgh streets have simple but elegant elevated green garden medians, and the thought really took hold during Michael Bloomberg’s time as New York City mayor when he helped inaugurate MillionTreesNYC, the city’s initiative to plant and and care for a million new trees across the five boroughs.

    There’s frequent debate about whether Philadelphia should start ticketing/towing cars parked in Broad Street’s median as you get down into South Philadelphia, and those debates go nowhere due to the entrenched interests of city councilpersons. Why not obviate that debate entirely and replace the median over time with grass and shrubs and flowers and trees? We would be transforming Philadelphia’s greatest street into Philadelphia’s grandest street, outstripping even the Ben Franklin Parkway in time for beauty.

    I don’t think there’s any one solution, and here are just a few examples of how it could be done. Here’s Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard in Harlem:

    Adam Clayton Powell Jr Boulevard, Harlem.png

    That looks relatively simple and would probably require the least expense. In other words, keep the existing median dimensions along Broad Street, but punch out the concrete and asphalt. The result is an attractive streetscape for walkers, bikers, and drivers.

    Here’s Grant Street in Pittsburgh, which I think is the street that got me thinking about this about a decade ago:

    Grant Street, Pittsburgh.png

    This is maybe even better from a safety standpoint, since it discourages jaywalking and would allow Broad Street to be narrowed a bit to accommodate a wider median and also maybe a permanent bike lane, all of which would naturally reduce speeding and accidents.

    And here’s the Champs-Élysées in Paris. I walked along this avenue when I visited there in July 2012, when I was in Europe for the London Olympics:

    Champs-Élysées, Paris.png

    The boulevard itself has no real median, but these incredibly wide (by American standards) sidewalks accommodate a double-wide planting of trees and functionally park space along the way. This could be another approach, eliminating Broad Street’s median entirely and doubling the capacity of our sidewalks and reimaging their role as public space.

    Compare these few options with the present reality. Here’s Broad and Locust:

    Broad and Locust, Philadelphia.png

    And here’s Broad and Lombard, a bit farther south:

    Broad and Lombard, Philadelphia.png

    And here’s Broad and Castle, much farther south when the median turns into overflow parking space and the buildings are set back much farther from the street:

    Broad and Castle, Philadelphia.png

    Now imagine these scenes transformed, as part of something like a “Broad Street Greenway” initiative to place a few thousand trees all along Broad Street—left, right, and center.

    Imagine the experience of walking Broad Street in the summer, when the trees serve as natural canopies alleviating the heat. Imagine the experience during the autumn when the changing colors and resplendent hues also provides jobs for dozens of seasonal workers to sweep the streets and bring a human presence to stretches of Broad Street that feel remote and desolate during certain hours. Imagine the experience during the spring when those trees serve as homes and stopping points for all sorts of birds and chirping life, bringing nature’s sounds and songs to a part of the city that desperately could benefit from something other than the sounds of horns and engines. And imagine the experience during the winter, when certain neighborhoods or the city itself might string up little white lights to festively illuminate the city’s grand street, bringing some hope and optimism and warm feeling to a time of year when many feel particularly discouraged or alone.

    Creating a Broad Street Greenway for Philadelphia wouldn’t just be a parks project, or an environmental initiative, but it would also be a great public service and a great act of revitalizing and enlivening one of best known and imagined parts of the city.

  • Evan Pugh, Penn State’s first president, lies just miles north of Penn State’s campus in historic Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. He’s buried with his wife, Rebecca Valentine, in her family’s remarkable plot in Bellefonte’s Union Cemetery. George Atherton, another great Penn State president, is buried on campus and is well honored and remembered as a result of his physical presence. But Penn Staters have forgotten Evan Pugh. If we want to remember who we are we should remember where we came from.

    I discovered Evan and Rebecca’s gravesite many years ago thanks to an old Penn Stater. I vividly remember the feeling of first being present at their graves as if it were just moments ago that I was standing there in the cold of an autumn night. Our young founder Evan, bold and visionary, and his lovely wife Rebecca, strong and faithful, in this idyllic resting place nestled in the Central Pennsylvania mountains.

    Yet time threatens to rob Penn Staters not only of the memory of their resting place, but also of the dignity of this tranquil place. Rebecca Valentine grew up in Bellefonte, and her family figured prominently in this place, but the Valentines there have left the stage. With their departure the dignity of Evan and Rebecca’s gravesite is at risk:

    • the once stately wrought iron fencing is corroding and in serious need of cleaning and painting;
    • in certain places the fencing has disappeared entirely (a significant section is missing, and the gate itself was wholly removed from its hinges at some point) due to a combination of age and vandalism, and much of the fencing’s decorative finials have been forcibly snapped off and stolen;
    • despite some initial volunteer cleaning of Rebecca’s marker, most of the markers in the Valentine plot are terribly filthy, evidenced by the stark difference between the recently cleaned stone of Bond Valentine versus that of Mattie, his wife;
    • the ground on which the visitor treads near their graves is unkempt and overgrown with weeds of all varieties, and the soil itself pocked and uneven;
    • the stones are weathered with the the light filth of seasons and time;
    • and the stone foundation of Evan’s marker itself is cracked from front to back, which seems likely lead to the eventual collapse of his grave marker—his stone is already leaning slightly, compared to his wife’s;
    • no flowers of any kind, let alone perennials, blossom near Evan and Rebecca’s graves to witness the love of those who remember both of them.

    Penn Staters celebrate a “Founders Day” each February, but what do Penn State students, professors, alumni, and others do to tangibly honor their founders? There are many words, but no obvious deeds of remembrance for Evan and Rebecca.

    We should restore the memory of Evan and Rebecca, and incorporate honoring them into Penn State’s Homecoming celebrations when tens of thousands of students and alumni come together to remember who they are, and recommit themselves to the ideals of the university. The mangy scene of Evan and Rebecca’s graves that I captured in the film above this spring can change, and during Homecoming (and after restoration) it would even better and far more magical than it did in this photo taken decades ago, before neglect and damage left their mark.

    A simple plan of action looks something like this:

    1. Who legally owns/controls Evan & Rebecca Valentine’s resting place? Can Penn Staters earn the right to conserve this special place?
    2. Who is able and willing to restore the stately fencing, recreating its missing sections, repairing its finials, and cleaning and restoring it in its entirety?
    3. Who is able and willing to check the stability of Evan Pugh’s grave marker, and restore or replace its base as necessary?
    4. Who is able and willing to regrade the soil and repair or replace the grass?
    5. Who is willing to plant appropriate perennial flowers to bloom in remembrance?
    6. Who is willing to clean each of the grave stones to restore them to their original luster? Is it possible to add a protective enamel to the stones?
    7. Is Penn State willing to incorporate perpetual conservation/restoration of both Evan and Rebecca’s grave sites and the entire Valentine family plot into the tasks of one of its departments, either the Office of Physical Plant or other appropriate department?
    8. Is the Penn State Alumni Association or another authority willing to incorporate an annual ceremony of remembrance in Bellefonte (including public remarks and Bellefonte reception) during the Thursday of Homecoming each year?
    9. Can a cutting from Old Willow, near Old Main, be successfully planted near Evan and Rebecca’s gravesite—bringing a descendant of the same tree Evan brought from England upon his appointment as president to shade his resting place? Failing this, another stately tree to replace those that have gone missing from the older autumnal photo above?
    10. Are local media outlets willing to make coverage of this remembrance a tradition in and of itself, particularly The Penn Stater, Town & Gown, Centre County Gazette, State College Magazine, Onward State, The Daily Collegian, and others?
    11. Is the Penn State historical marker commission willing to refresh its Evan Pugh historical marker to incorporate mention of Evan and Rebecca’s Union Cemetery resting place, with a photo to ensure every student knows how to pay their respects to our founders?

    It’s my dream that even in the far distant future, students and family and townspeople and friendly visitors will be able to marvel at the way Penn Staters celebrate Evan and Rebecca and honor the dignity of their resting place, saying “Look at the love Penn Staters carry with them!” and wondering how they can imitate that love and bring it into their own lives and homes.

    In that way, we’ll be honoring Evan and Rebecca twice, by cultivating a better people, too.

    We can never talk credibly about there being a “Penn State family” as long as we neglect and dishonor Penn State’s patriarch and matriarch through this forgetfulness.

    Let’s restore their resting place and honor them.

    Let’s put in the work.

  • Little Free Libraries

    I snapped this photo back in February when I was visiting Penn State/State College with my brother Nick. This “Little Free Library” is located at the Penn State Arboretum, and I think these are generally super-clever and valuable contributions to community life.

    Little Free Libraries are often expressions of a particular neighborhood as much as a community or wider place. The people of a place make them what they are, placing books that are often specific to that place rather than just whatever was left lying around. They become a way for a community to communicate bits about itself to each other and to visitors.

    And they’re valuable for suggesting Here’s how you might like to spend some of your morning when you’re enjoying a distinctive place like an arboretum’s gardens, or when you’ve reached the summit of Mount Nittany and are ready to find a tree or rock to lean up against and enjoy a secluded afternoon with friends or by yourself.

    I think adding one of these to Mount Nittany’s trailhead would be the perfect way to say, A hike can be more than just coming and going. Linger a bit—and enjoy this story while you do…

  • State College streetcars

    I’m writing to share a romantic vision. I’m telling you this right off the bat to so that you can take a hike if you’re the cold hearted, unsentimental type. If you don’t care about aesthetics, and if you don’t know where nostalgia lives, then get out and save yourself the grief of what’s to come…

    I believe that the Penn State/Nittany Valley communities are among the most distinctive and special places in the country. I think there’s a genius loci to the place, a pervading spirit of at least practical relational and economic if not also spiritual magnetism. It’s one of my aims in life to do whatever I can to help cultivate an even more distinctive and romantic spirit in the place that more than a million living American college graduates will have called their home in this century.

    It’s with this aim in mind of conserving the specialness of place in Happy Valley that I also consider what’s not special about the place. A thing that’s not special about Penn State and the region? These:


    They’re just regular buses. They’re somewhat quiet. They’re not hideous. But they’re buses. And they’re big and formuliac. They are at war with an otherwise nostalgic aesthetic.

    I understand that for most of CATA’s regional routes (the routes throughout the wider Centre County region) that these buses make the most practical and financial sense. But wait. Look again at that beautifully and legitimately arresting scene of that black and yellow San Francisco streetcar above. Now imagine that in navy blue and white, with elegant chimes at each stop, trundling its way along the Blue and White Loops that circle Penn State’s campus and State College’s downtown. Do you hear it? Listen…

    And because even abstracted art is an attempt to speak to the essence and nature of its subject, imagine those blue and white streetcars, little bells chiming politely, as a part of Richard Greenleaf’s incomparable College Avenue watercolors:


    Wouldn’t that be just one of the most unusual experiences of local and neighborhood travel you’ve ever had? And wouldn’t it be just one of the most beautiful things to see snaking itself through town and campus? Can’t you just see that blue and white streetcar there? Maybe it’s already there…

    Think State College streetcars aren’t feasible? They’re uniquely feasible—even practical: “They work best in places with some fundamentals already in place, says Daniel Malouff, a Washington transportation expert. There are a few basic things he says a city needs for a streetcar to work: dense population, easy walkability, a line that moves relatively quickly and some frequency of service. ‘If you can get all four, you will have a smashing success,’ Malouff says.”

    So a limited route like this is practical. It’s not grandiose, and it would still serve the needs of the Blue and White loops that are currently served by those unremarkable buses that are totally beneath the aesthetic of one of the most special places in the country. If nothing else, why not making this place more resilient by making it more distinctive from every other college town? It would be fun, and that used to be half the point to any public initiative.

    (I stole the photo above from Julia Kern, who took it in San Francisco and was the inspiration for this post. I’ve had a vague feeling about this for years, but her photo was the spark for this post.)

  • Crosswalks

    I think every town should be distinctive—even in the ordinary features that are a part of any community.

    I was in Ocean City, NJ recently, and noticed these sunburst crosswalks along Asbury Street downtown. We need crosswalks at intersections. We don’t need uniform, identical, boring stripes at every intersection in every town and state in the country. It’s good to have a local spin on things.

    I’d guess that Ocean City’s sunburst design isn’t unique to this shore town alone, but it’s at least unusual enough to make it distinctive. Imagine if State College, Pennsylvania transformed their crosswalks into etchings telling the stories of The Legends of the Nittany Valley, stories uniquely rooted in the folklore of the place.

    We should do that.

  • Art in unexpected places

    After leaving my office in Narberth, I realized I arrived a few minutes early to the train station heading into Center City, Philadelphia. It was a beautiful spring day, and I noticed the garden with a weatherproof reproduction of Camille Pissarro’s Fair on a Sunny Afternoon:

    I’ve always liked the idea of public art being more publicly displayed to ensure the average citizen is more likely to come into contact with it at some point in life. I doubt I ever would have come into contact with Camille Pissarro if it weren’t for this “Art in unexpected places” initiative.

  • I’ve written a bit before about the aspiration to create a “Culture of Life Center” in Philadelphia.

    There are at least a half dozen pro-life nonprofits and social enterprises in the Greater Philadelphia area, but they’re dispersed and disconnected. There are no operational economies of scale, and people who are all part of a similar cultural movement aren’t connecting as often or as meaningfully as they should. A central Culture of Life Center would be an experimental step toward solving that problem.

    Elodie Larousse wrote recently on the “effect of leadership on community” in the context of coworking spaces. The takeaway is that a coworking space can’t just be a facility with a manager. It requires a leader, and for any Culture of Life Center, which would likely be run by the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia, that means adding another responsibility onto our Executive Director’s plate, or finding a creative way to meet the need for conscious, intentional community-building in such a space.

    Simply working near other people, however similar, isn’t likely to make an impact.

  • When I lived in Old City, Philadelphia I would frequently pass the Natural Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall. This was around the same time that I had joined the board of the Catholic Philopatrian Literary Institute, which played a central role in the 19th-cenutry creation of the American Catholic school system.

    Growing familiar with the Catholic history of the city, and seeing how American Jewish history was being told in a relevant way to international visitors, started me thinking seriously about the role that a “National Museum of Catholic History” could serve.

    There is no such museum or cultural center for Catholic in the United States today. I think Catholics tend to view their Christian life in a much smaller, humbler, and more parochial way, so this makes sense to a degree. Catholics tend not to see themselves as a national constituency in the same way that other Christian denominations do.

    But it’s also past time we learned to start doing that—seeing ourselves as a people, and curating our story so that future generations can understand their role as Catholics in American life.

    A few thoughts on what such an institution might look like:

    • A museum that tells the Catholic story from its beginning—the one, holy, Catholic, and Apostolic church
    • A museum and cultural center focused as much on artifacts as cultural conservation—on the living out of the orthodox faith in the present
    • A place for Catholic thinkers, leaders, and educators to serve on fellowship to teach in a coordinated way, developing curriculum that could be used nationally in schools and parishes
    • Not limited to history of Catholicism in America, but that still speaks to it in a special way—speaking to ways that Christianity has shaped the American experiment, and the ways it has to stand apart from the state
    • A headquarters in Philadelphia with sister institutions in other cities that speaks to Philadelphia’s unique role as a “Holy Experiment” and Pennsylvania’s special role in crafting American pluralism and religious toleration
    • A welcoming place for all types of visitors that is nonetheless unapologetic in conveying the particularities of the universal faith

    The Knights of Columbus seem like a natural organization to spearhead something like this. It could, however, be too narrow if created by any single constituency. It’s for this same reason I’d be hesitant about the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops organizing it by themselves.

    I’ll probably develop this further as time goes on.

  • Bucks County, Pennsylvania was a great place to grow up. The neighborhood I grew up in had been built on former orchard fields in the 1960s. It was walkable. It was connected enough to the local bowling alley, convenience store, etc. which meant kids could safely ride their bike and explore without crossing highways. There were woods within a block where I could spend summer afternoons with friends or alone under the trees. There were creeks and trails nearby too.

    But one of the things I remember most is the giant Oak tree that my grandfather planted in the front yard that’s growing larger every year. The tree seemed enormous to me then. I would sit under it selling lemonade. I would collect and play with its acorns. I would sit against it. I would try to climb it. It became a part of my childhood experience.

    Trees can also be tremendous symbols. What any single generation chooses to conserve forms the first draft of its history. When we take care of great trees, we pass along something that lives beyond us and can touch the lives of people for decades, centuries, and sometimes even longer.

    It’s worth planting trees. But if you want a tree to have the potential impact that Oak had for me, it’s got to be intentional. Not decorative trees, but great trees.

    Great trees convey a vision. Decorative trees convey a fashion.