In early November, I received an event notification in my email: “Presidential Hair: A Close Shave with History.” Speaker Robert McCracken Peck, Academy Curator of Art and Artifacts and Senior Fellow, was going to provide insight into the hair collection of Peter A. Browne, the subject of his book Specimens of Hair: The Curious Collection of Peter A. Browne. I couldn’t click fast enough to RSVP.A lawyer, Browne became interested in wool and fur, tracking the differences between animals and species across various geographic locales. The next step was human hair. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, Browne actively collected human hair samples, including 13 of the first US presidents, famous authors like James Fenimore Cooper, and Napoleon Bonaparte. Browne devoted his life to this project. Before DNA, Browne knew hair was a significant indicator of our identity and that through hair, we could know more about ourselves, as individuals, in addition to the human species. His immense collection, however, would have been tossed in the 1970s had it not been for Peck who stumbled upon the scrapbooks in the hallway of the Academy bound for the trash.
Peck’s book, Specimens of Hair, accounts for the collection through Rosamond Purcell’s stunning photographs and Peck’s rich text. Full of history and analysis, the book is more than just a glance into what many might consider a frivolous oddity, something to ogle and judge. Peck makes the irrefutable case of Browne’s collection being emblematic of 19th-century science, curiosity, and the adventurous spirit of scientific exploration. A week after his talk, Peck was gracious enough to host me in his office at the Academy of Natural Sciences where we discussed Browne’s mission, science literacy and advocacy, and the implications of collecting hair samples. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Philadelphia’s Passyunk Avenue appears from nowhere, cutting diagonally from Queen’s Village through South Philadelphia. Following it, you get a cross-section of old and new Philadelphia. Historical row houses bump shoulders with condos. Family businesses coexist with hot new restaurants, boutiques, and local markets. Regardless of changes to the community is the neighborhood feel of Passyunk Square. One thing, however, was missing: a bookstore. While Philadelphia has an assortment of independent and box store bookstores, local couple Christina Rosso-Schneider and Alex Schneider, saw a gap. At the start of December, their store, A Novel Idea, opened on 1726 E. Passyunk, preparing their community for a new year full of literary treatures, local art, and events aimed to bring the community together. On a brisk but beautiful day, we sat in their store talking about some of our favorite things: Scholastic book sales, cozy spaces, and the joys of loitering.
Since the seminal book by sociologist E. Digby Baltzel, Puritan Boston & Quaker Philadelphia, in 1996, articles by a range of thought leaders appear episodically to remind us that Philadelphia is a city still on the edge of greatness. But a deeper understanding of Philly shows that the city is a paradox for becoming a great city and there are advantages to being on the edge.
For total population, while not as big as the Apple, LA, and Chi-Town, the City of Brotherly Love has been battling three newcomers in the Southwest and holding its own as one of the most populated cities in the US. While not the paragon of hospitality, Philadelphia gets high marks by tourist magazines for being inviting to several subgroups such as the LGBTQ community and young African American professionals. Funny thing though, as locals we may not be the best guides to the most popular sites to see; seeing the liberty bell and other sites in Old City quickly become a faint memory from grade school. We are more likely to take you to the Whispering Wall (Memorial Hall Park), to find the statue of Chief Tedyuscung in the Wissahickon, or visit the Devil’s pocket and Swampoodle blocks of Philly. More… “A City on the Edge”
Returning to the States after two years in Poland – during which I had married, taught English, and witnessed the rise of Solidarity and the imposition of martial law – I suggested to my wife that we live in Philadelphia.
I had always liked the city, not least because I owed my existence to it. Somewhere in its folds in 1941, my father, a student at Penn Law School, met my mother, a nurse at the Children’s Hospital. As parents, upriver in New Jersey, they introduced my brothers and me to the zoo, the Franklin Institute, Connie Mack Stadium, Elfreth’s Alley. Years later, as a student at Villanova, I took the Paoli Local in to watch Big Five basketball at the Palestra and, one memorable evening, strippers at the Trocadero Theater. In my junior year I bought my first pair of round tortoiseshell glasses – the same style I wear today – at Limeburner Opticians on Chestnut Street. More… “Out of Philadelphia”
Seven years ago, I interviewed architects Robert Venturi and his wife and partner, Denise Scott Brown, for the Drexel InterView. The show, produced out of this University, showcases individuals in all walks of life who have contributed in important ways to our society. Venturi and Brown, who had done some of their major work in Philadelphia and whose practice was located in the city, had long been people I wanted to interview. Venturi had written the groundbreaking Complexity and Contradictionin Architecture in 1966 and, with Brown (and Steven Izenour), the perhaps even more influential Learning from Las Vegas in 1972. They were giants of modern architecture who had managed to oppose both modernism and postmodernism with a singular vision of their own. More… “Learning from Robert Venturi”
Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City is a ground-breaking look at American cities in many ways. It takes a deep and richly textured view into places that make up what we call cities and stretches the boundaries of that understanding beyond the often one-dimensional historical, economic, sociological, or political interpretations that try to explain urban environments. The authors do this by re-imagining, recreating, and retelling Philadelphia as a complicated story from the industrial past to the post-industrial present. They view the city through “layers” of the past that both speak to a bygone era, but also the possibilities for the future, seeing Philadelphia in a very nuanced way that challenges all of us to think differently of cities in the American context. On January 19, 2018, I had a chance to sit down with one of the authors, Nathaniel Popkin, to talk about the book and the broader attempt to interpret cities in the 21st century. It was a pleasure to take time to talk about their creative intellectual endeavor. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Daniel Dougherty is a political scientist who spends his time teaching, researching, experiencing, pondering, and talking about cities. He is Associate Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and Director of the Honors Program at Drexel University.
The punk music scene in Philadelphia is deeply rooted in the prominent hardcore clubs and bands that made the city their home in the 1980s, and it continues to thrive today. College radio stations, like Drexel University’s WKDU and the University of Pennsylvania’s WXPN, also played a crucial role in establishing the scene. While the genre frequently rages against the establishment in both content and performance, it was predominantly men who were on stage and behind the mic, giving voice to the anti-establishment message — at least in the beginning.
Or so the story of punk (particularly hardcore punk) goes. The reality is that Philadelphia’s punk scene has a much more complicated relationship with gender and with the representation of women in that scene. Looking at the broader landscape of punk today, it is not hard to see the legacy of early female punk bands, like the Slits or the more recent Riot Grrrl movement. Philadelphia is no exception to that, with many current bands that have significant female representation and have adopted overt third-wave feminist viewpoints. But this is not necessarily a new formation for Philly punk; the “institutions” of Philadelphia punk — show houses, basements, clubs, and radio stations — have been testing grounds for new and more progressive identity politics, which themselves have been reflections of broader social movements that account for feminist and queer perspectives, for decades.
This year I made a resolution to bike through the winter. Usually by January I’ve traded in my bike for public transportation and taxis, but I always feel biking’s absence from my life. It’s not just the exercise. In winter it’s too easy to spend your days shuffling tiredly between dark and dark. It’s too easy to hibernate, to let your life shrink down until you could live it on the tip of a pencil.
I bought my first bike — as an adult, I mean — at age 30, on something of a whim. I was in the midst of a protracted breakup, and I needed a little fun in my life. At first I only cruised around Philadelphia on weekends, or took slow rides on a path by the river, though soon enough I found myself biking to work. I found myself biking to run errands and to meet friends at bars and restaurants. Within a year I’d gotten rid of my car.
I always tell people I don’t believe in resolutions, but each year I find myself making a few anyway. I always tell people I don’t care about birthdays, but I recently turned 39, and it feels like a big one.
Last Halloween, my husband opened our closet door and reached for the topmost shelf where he keeps his Zipperhead mask.
“Not again,” I said.
He ignored me as he is often wont to do and pulled it on over his face.
My husband had worn this mask all through the 90s and now, in 2015, looked forward to going out in public in it that very evening. The rubbery skin covered my husband’s face. A half-opened zipper to match the one painted on the store’s façade next to the gigantic metal ants, stitched through the mask’s forehead and nested in the mask’s crown of red, kidney-shaped brains. He opened a flap and beneath it found two switches. He flicked them on and the exposed brain particle lit up with tiny dancing lights. My husband also dug out his black Dr. Martens and a Zipperhead T-shirt. Punk is long dead. My husband sold Zipperhead in 2000 to Rob and Steph, his two top employees who were married to each other. They ran it as Zipperhead for several years, then relocated it around the corner in a smaller space, and renamed it with a touch of levity Crash Bang Boom. More… “Philly’s Flagship Store”
Harriet Levin Millan‘s debut novel, How Fast Can You Run, based on the life of “Lost Boy” of Sudan Michael Majok Kuch has been selected as a Charter for Compassion Global Read. She’s the author of two books of poetry, and a third to appear in 2018. Among her prizes are the Barnard New Women Poets Prize and the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and directs the Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing at Drexel University. Click here for more essays on The Smart Set.
Smedley Darlington Butler was a Major General in the Marine Corps and the only “Devil Dog” to ever win two Medals of Honor and a Marine Corps Brevet Medal. For two years, Butler, known occasionally as “Old Gimlet Eye,” was the Director of Public Safety for his hometown of Philadelphia. Given the unenviable task of enforcing the Volstead Act in extra wet Philly, Butler’s first forty-eight hours in office constituted a “shock and awe” campaign against the city’s illegal speakeasies, cabarets, brothels, poolrooms, and other dens of iniquity. According to Hans Schmidt, Butler’s greatest biographer and the author of Maverick Marine: General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History, in those two days Butler and his men closed down 973 of the 1,200 saloons that sold blackmarket hooch in the city, while another 80 percent of known underworld haunts were closed temporarily. Philadelphia bootleggers showed their appreciation for Butler’s tactics by firing shots at the top cop one morning in 1924.