30th Street Station and its Solari board

When I passed through 30th Street Station last week, I shot this short clip of the Amtrak “Solari” board. I had read in Billy Penn that it is set to be replaced in January:

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission expects to take ownership of the world-famous Solari board as soon as January 2019. The model, which flips individual panels each time a train’s status is updated, providing that classic “clicking” sound familiar to travelers around the globe, is considered an antique. …

At that point, the sign will move 60 miles to its new home: The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg. …

Amtrak officials confirmed the expected January move date to the Inquirer and Daily News on Thursday. The installation of digital signage will begin in December, per that report, with displays installed above the stairways that lead to platforms. …

Display panels of this type are named for the manufacturer Solari di Udine, of Udine, Italy. They grew in popularity in the 1950s, and were installed en masse in airports and train stations worldwide. Even early seasons of game shows like Family Feud used them.

Now, they’re nearly extinct in the United States. To mixed emotions, New York Penn Station got rid of its Solari board two years ago. The entire Metro-North transit system replaced its network of Solari boards by 2014.

That Philadelphia’s is still around could stem from the fact that the city got into the game a little late: 30th Street Station didn’t install its flippy board until the 1970s.

“It’s an amazing time capsule,” Morrison told Billy Penn. “The sounds of a board like this one have been the soundtrack of the daily life of many Philadelphia commuters and travelers for more than three decades.”

I’m not particularly nostalgic about this, but it is the end of one technological era and the beginning of another. Better things to be appreciative about at 30th Street Station, in both the Spirit of Transportation and Angel of the Resurrection. 30th Street is a great Philadelphia public space that’s always open, that elevates those who pass through it, and that has something of the feel of a sacred place, a public place that’s still quiet in the middle of the day where it’s possible to be more or less alone with your thoughts even while you’re waiting to head someplace. It’s the sort of place that feels confident, and where the architecture and atmosphere encourage something from those who pass through in a way that many other public spaces do not.

‘A principle of periodic reduction of bureaucracy’

I caught the 5:05pm Amtrak from Washington to Philadelphia this evening, and am heading to Bismarck early in the morning for a bioethics seminar at the University of Mary the rest of this week. The flags outside of Union Station were at half mast in honor of President George H.W. Bush.

As I walked through Old City later in the night I took this photo of Independence Hall. I think it pairs well with Camille Paglia’s commentary on the illiberal nature of bureaucracy:

As government programs have incrementally multiplied, so has their regulatory apparatus, with its intrusive byzantine minutiae. Recently tagged as a source of anti-Trump conspiracy among embedded Democrats, the deep state is probably equally populated by Republicans and apolitical functionaries of Bartleby the Scrivener blandness. Its spreading sclerotic mass is wasteful, redundant, and ultimately tyrannical.

I have been trying for decades to get my fellow Democrats to realize how unchecked bureaucracy, in government or academe, is inherently authoritarian and illiberal. A persistent characteristic of civilizations in decline throughout history has been their self-strangling by slow, swollen, and stupid bureaucracies. The current atrocity of crippling student debt in the US is a direct product of an unholy alliance between college administrations and federal bureaucrats — a scandal that ballooned over two decades with barely a word of protest from our putative academic leftists, lost in their post-structuralist fantasies. Political correctness was not created by administrators, but it is ever-expanding campus bureaucracies that have constructed and currently enforce the oppressively rule-ridden regime of college life.

In the modern world, so wondrously but perilously interconnected, a principle of periodic reduction of bureaucracy should be built into every social organism. Freedom cannot survive otherwise.

Thanksgiving scenes

Happy Thanksgiving. I arrived in Philadelphia from Washington yesterday in the mid-afternoon, and spent this Thanksgiving morning enjoying a solitary walk around a mostly deserted Center City, Philadelphia, before heading across the Delaware to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner in New Jersey with family.

Richard Samuelson reflects on the establishment of a “National Thanksgiving,” and how it is that such a thing exists in a nation where we often pretend that our disinterest in establishing a national religion necessarily means that no theological imperatives are to be allowed in public life:

Consider President Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation.  He begins with the universal “duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor.”  But then he stops, as if he knew some might ask why the President is involved. Washington goes on, “Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me ‘to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a a form of government for their safety and happiness.’”  Congress asked Washington to proclaim the day.  An interesting request.  Congress did not pass a law proclaiming a day of Thanksgiving.  Such an act may, according to some constructions of the Constitution, have crossed over into an establishment of religion.  Instead, they have merely asked the President to “recommend” such an observance to the people.

It was a beautiful morning walk, but downright wintry in temperature—the most frigid Thanksgiving I can remember.

Mirra Mitta and the occult

Happy Halloween. Ryan Briggs shares an incredible account of the Victorian-era cult of “Mirra Mitta” in South Philadelphia:

The stench of death hung heavy along South 11th Street in 1905. The smell had grown so bad that neighbors had gone to the local police district to complain. They claimed that a crazed man and woman were guarding a dead body inside a row house near Washington Avenue. They had been barring the door for weeks and, judging by the smell, the corpse had entered a state of advanced decay. There were flies covering the shutters of a rear bedroom of the building.

But they also recounted unbelievable details. Strange rituals went on inside and the residents of the home, which they had for years referred to as “House of Mystery,” worshipped a woman who they said could grant eternal life. …

On South 11th Street, they would find two gaunt and aged guardians barring the entrance to a row house that reeked of death. Even from the doorway it was clear the brick home had been transformed into a temple, replete with an alter and portraits of a woman called “Mirra Mitta” stationed astride Jesus Christ.

The elderly pair, Caroline Lang and John Rapp, said they were the last two followers of this woman, who they described as the manifestation of the biblical Holy Spirit made real on Earth. Although Mirra Mitta had died nearly two decades earlier, they had been here ever since, fasting, praying, and awaiting their goddess’ return, awaiting eternal life. For years, Lang, who called herself a high priestess, had barely left the house. …

Ryan Susurrus, an expert and lecturer on cults in Philadelphia, says that Meister was in many ways a product of her time. In the mid-19th century, interest in the occult, seances, and esoteric religion was sweeping across Europe and North America. The spread of Enlightenment ideas, the introduction of new belief systems through the spread of colonialism, and the prevalence of death in new, industrialized urban centers all contributed to this new interest in the unknown.

“A lot of people aren’t aware that spiritualism and seances were once commonplace here. This was a cottage industry. And there was a lot of focus on immortality and of one person being the conduit to mastering death and what’s beyond, very much like a medium,” Susurrus says. “People saw so much death in their lives, then. Someone who says, ‘I’m the mainline to immortality and conquering death and its only through me that you’ll access that,’ that was so appealing.” …

If Meister learned anything from these embarrassing public ordeals it was only the necessity of discretion. At this point, Anna Meister disappears from public record, never to be seen again.

Her birth name would not be mentioned in newsprint again until after her death nearly three decades later, the head of a powerful cult that had been operating in secret, known as the “Holy Ghost Society.”

By then she would only be known as “Jehovah Elimar Mirra Mitta”–“The Daughter of Jehovah, Mirra Mitta”–a name she had taken to her grave.

I think at least part of the problem with the occult, and a reason for prayer for Mirra Mitta and those like her, is the problem of confusing an awareness of the transcendent with themselves being the cause of transcendence.

I’m in transit to Chicago and then South Bend today for Notre Dame’s “Higher Powers” fall conference, well-timed for the start of November and a month traditionally focused on remembrance of the dead and prayer for their souls. An endearing little moment in the airport, heard over the speaker at one of the gates: “As your unofficial sponsor of Halloween, JetBlue is now welcoming priority passengers including ghosts, goblins, ghouls, and zombies to board at this time.”

Rittenhouse Square, early autumn

As I was walking along Walnut Street to the Collegium Institute’s symposium earlier this week, it was nearing 6pm and families and folks were out and about, walking home from work, walking to dinner, biking wherever, and still-green Rittenhouse Square was accompanied by two young musicians:

I stopped to admire the scene, experience the moment, and appreciate the whole thing. These are the little sort of moments we miss all too often in the rush to experience something else.

L e t ‘ s  s l o w  d o w n . . .

‘Strangers’ in Philadelphia

It was really great, late-summer-feeling weather in Center City Philadelphia yesterday. I’m in town wrapping up odds and ends, and as evening came on walked over to the Catholic Philopatrian Literary Institute at 19th and Walnut for the Collegium Institute‘s “Strangers in a Strange Land” talk/symposium.

Fran Maier led a fruitful conversation on the topic of Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s book of the same name, released last year. While the role and place of Christianity in American life is increasingly in doubt, there’s no doubt about the necessity of the theological virtue of Christian hope.

I think the last Collegium event I attended was Roger Scruton’s talk at Penn.

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An evening conversation about Archbishop Chaput’s recent book and the future of American Catholicism.

Fran Maier: Senior Advisor to the Archbishop of Philadelphia and former editor of the National Catholic Register.

Michael P. Moreland: University Professor of Law and Religion, and Director of the Eleanor H. McCullen Center for Law, Religion and Public Policy at Villanova University.

Jessica Murdoch: Associate Professor of Fundamental and Dogmatic Theology at Villanova University, and member of the National Advisory Council of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

30th Street at night

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Here’s 30th Street Station in Philadelphia late on September 11th. I had just arrived back in town from Washington, and it was a warm and fittingly summerlike night.

Drexel Square is in progress just to the left of this view if you were to stand where I was standing. That’ll be a public park soon, on what has been a surface parking lot for as long as I can remember. Good for Philadelphia. And Schyulkill Yards, the larger redevelopment vision for this part of the city, will be underway in earnest before much longer.

I’m excited for these projects, for The Laurel’s recent groundbreaking on Rittenhouse Square (replacing what has been a rocky patch of grass), and a number of other projects. Philadelphia continues to redevelop and to grow, and it’s a great thing worth taking a moment to celebrate.

First Bank

Anna Merriman reports that the First Bank of the United States in Old City, Philadelphia will soon be refurbished as likely reopened in the next few years. Here’s the First Bank from Google Streetview:

The bank, built by the federal government in the late 18th century, received an $8 million state grant last week, which will allow workers to refurbish the structure …

The First Bank money will go first toward bringing the South 3rd Street building’s heating and air conditioning up to date, as well as restrooms and masonry repairs, according to Philly.com.

It’s a big step for the building, which has been closed to the public for years. It was constructed following the Revolutionary War, when Alexander Hamilton proposed the idea of a national bank, allowing the government more financial control in the wake of war-related debt.

The First Bank remained until the early 1800s, when it was turned into Girard Bank, according to the National Parks Service. The interior was renovated a century later and, finally, in 1955, the building was purchased by the National Parks Service.

The Second Bank of the United States is right around the corner, now in the same Independence National Historical Park.

When I lived in Old City a few years ago I would often walk the block or so from our second floor Market Street apartment over to the First Bank and sit on its steps or (in warmer weather) splay out on the grass surrounding it to do work or take phone calls. I was sitting on those steps when we decided to commit to raising $50,000 to endow the Michael D. Walsh Student Broadcasters Trustee Scholarship at Penn State, for instance. That’s one of the things that springs to mind when I see that old facade.

I’m looking forward to seeing inside at some point.

Tuskegee Airman encounter

On Friday evening I hailed an Uber to the Philadelphia Country Club in Gladwyne for the Pennsylvania Eagle Forum’s 2018 Annual Dinner. I had been invited by a friend, and took her up on it so we could catch up and because I know a number of the people who would be there.

Phyllis Shlafly’s Eagle Forum is a patriotic/political organization. Andy Schlafly, one of Phyllis Shlafly’s sons, was in attendance, and he and Bobby Schindler have spoken together in the past. I met Phyllis Schlafly years ago in Washington, and remember growing up my grandmother being an admirer of Schlafly’s various advocacy efforts, particularly on the risk of adopting basically libertarian laws that would de-emphasis natural human relationships in favor of market/commercial rights that themselves would reorder society. I expect within the next few years that a form of the Equal Rights Amendment will be ratified by new states, and that a push will be made to recognize it as the 28th constitutional amendment.

Corey Lewandowski was the keynote speaker. I was not impressed by him either in substance or style. Far too much hero-worship of the presidency and a great deal of self-aggrandizement. Congressman Glenn Thompson joined a half dozen or so candidates for office, and he was great. I met Thompson when I was a student at Penn State and when he was still Centre County Republican Party chairman, just before he won his 5th district office. Thanks to Pennsylvania redistricting, Centre County has now been split in two, and Rep. Thompson’s district designation becomes the 15th this November.

The highlight of the evening was in hearing from Dr. Eugene Richardson, one of the few surviving Tuskegee Airmen:

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American military aviators in the United States Armed Forces. During World War II, black Americans in many U.S. states were still subject to the Jim Crow laws and the American military was racially segregated, as was much of the federal government. The Tuskegee Airmen were subjected to discrimination, both within and outside the army. …

Before the Tuskegee Airmen, no African-American had been a U.S. military pilot. In 1917, African-American men had tried to become aerial observers, but were rejected. African-American Eugene Bullard served in the French air service during World War I, because he was not allowed to serve in an American unit. Instead, Bullard returned to infantry duty with the French.

The racially motivated rejections of World War I African-American recruits sparked more than two decades of advocacy by African-Americans who wished to enlist and train as military aviators. The effort was led by such prominent civil rights leaders as Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, labor union leader A. Philip Randolph, and Judge William H. Hastie. Finally, on 3 April 1939, Appropriations Bill Public Law 18 was passed by Congress containing an amendment by Senator Harry H. Schwartz, designating funds for training African-American pilots. The War Department managed to put the money into funds of civilian flight schools willing to train black Americans.[5]

War Department tradition and policy mandated the segregation of African-Americans into separate military units staffed by white officers, as had been done previously with the 9th Cavalry, 10th Cavalry, 24th Infantry Regiment and 25th Infantry Regiment.

It was an honor to meet Dr. Richardson and some of his brothers-in-arms. It was surreal to hear him speak about President Truman as a contemporary rather than purely as a historical figure. (Truman’s Executive Order 9981 ended segregation of the armed forces.) And it was a gift to speak with him briefly afterwards. Dr. Richardson is 94 or thereabouts, and this year my grandfather—who also served in World War II in the U.S. Army Air Corps—would have turned 91. I thought of him as we spoke.

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Dr. Richardson is also a Philadelphian and a Penn Stater:

Tuskegee became the center for training African Americans for air operations and was the only source of black military pilots in World War II. Today, the airfield where they once trained is known as the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.

Richardson’s interest in flight began in 1930, when as a young boy his father and a friend took him along to see the Colored Air Circus, a group of black aviators performing an air show in Mansfield, Ohio. At 17 he decided to join the Army Air Corps in order to become a pilot. A few months later – at the age of 18 – he completed basic training and went on to Tuskegee Army Airfield for 40 weeks of pilot training. He later received gunnery training at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida and went on to Walterboro, S.C., for combat training.

While he and 37 others finished their flight training in March 1945, the war ended in the European theater just two months later so they never saw any combat. Of the 38 pilots in his class, 23, including Richardson, graduated as fighter pilots and 15 as B-25 bomber pilots.

Richardson was discharged in 1946 and returned to Philadelphia, where he finished his high school degree and did his undergraduate work at Temple University. He also earned master’s and doctor of education degrees from Penn State. Pursuing a career in education rather than aviation because of the lack of career opportunities for black pilots, he became a high school principal in Philadelphia’s school system. He is now retired and tours the United States and Canada speaking about and teaching the story of the Tuskegee Airmen.

His experiences have inspired a generation of African Americans, including his son, Eugene Richardson III, who became a fighter pilot and an airline executive.

In an interview at Penn State Dr. Richardson reflected: “Every way we can possibly— every vehicle we can possibly use—to let the world know that people are people. Because they’ve had different experiences, because they come from different environments, doesn’t make them any different. They still have the same basic needs and the same basic desires. And we need to help people realize that.”

Beyond human concepts

First, scenes from Center City Philadelphia recently, when the afternoon light was casting City Hall’s shadow onto the rich brickwork of the old Market Street National Bank building across the street. A new glass tower will be built adjacent to this building in the next few years on top of what’s presently a surface parking lot. A large mural on the side of the old bank building will be lost, I think.

Second, I saw the excerpt below shared on Instagram earlier this week. A page from a book was shared, and this excerpt stood apart from the rest to me. I searched a bit, but couldn’t readily find whatever book this came from:

Saint John of the Cross and Thomas Merton are just two voices in a huge choir of seekers who, throughout the ages, have understood this concept [of goodness despite disappointment and loss] clearly. It is not in getting what we want that we find true joy. We find true joy when we give up wanting. Then we can discover the beauty and joy inherent in what is. Immaculée Ilibagiza, author of the extraordinary book Left to Tell: Discovering God amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, is another, more recent member of this choir. Having watching her entire family and most of her friends brutally beaten, raped, tortured, and murdered, Ilibagiza shares a story of survival that is an astounding portrayal of miracles and forgiveness. The greatest miracle of all is her ability to both love and forgive those who tortured and murdered her family. Through witnessing humanity at its worst, she was catapulted into a pure, unconditional love beyond all human concepts, values, and limitations. …

God is within us. Always within us. But we have forgotten. We don’t notice. We mechanically stumble through life thinking that we know what we need to be happy, and we know where we can find it. Yet we keep looking in all the wrong places.