Category Archives: Philadelphia

It’s our Independence Day, too

 

 

I know it’s been too long since I actually blogged here – even though my book is finally done! But this crosspost is kind of time-specific.

Today, politicians both active and aspiring are pressing the flesh at Fourth of July gatherings. Many, perhaps especially on the Tea Party end of things, have been claiming the mantle of that week in July pretty hard for the past few years. And now, just in time, Harvard University tells us that Fourth of July parades inherently turn kids into Republicans, claiming that “there is a political congruence between the patriotism promoted on the  Fourth of July and the values associated with the Republican Party. Fourth of July celebrations in Republican-dominated counties may thus be more politically biased events that socialize children into Republicans.”

But like Jonathan Turley, who teaches at Harvard, I refuse to concede the Fourth of July, or the idea of America, to any one political faction. Today belongs to me, too.

It belongs to women too, from Abigail Adams to Sally Hemings, mother of some of Thomas Jefferson’s children; from Maj. Alice Davey Sheldon to Dolores Huerta (left), co-founder of the United Farm Workers.

The best of those Fourth of July parades are the small-town ones, like the one I saw 20 years ago in Saugerties, N.Y., where moms cheered the local Junior ROTC contingent and everyone sang the town song, “Oh Saugerties,” before the Star-Spangled Banner. Or they’re the raucous multicultural festivals we see in Los Angeles, New York, Seattle and Philadelphia, where tonight I’ll stand and watch fireworks not far from where the Declaration of Independence was brewed.

I don’t claim to know whether that document was a simple declaration of war, with all that “general welfare” stuff thrown in for fun, as pundits have claimed. But I do know that those words have been cited by men and women around the world, from hundreds of countries and a thousand political perspectives. And today is about celebrating the sense of infinite possibility that America at its  best can represent. And yes, we could all list what America at its worst might mean. But that’s not what today is about.

I’ve watched fireworks on the Fourth when I was 13 and called myself a “democratic socialist”; when I was 16 and a fan of Atlas Shrugged, like Ron Paul; when I was 35 in San Francisco and newly realizing I was a lesbian. None of those times came with a partisan agenda, though my determination to preserve that sense of possibility has only increased. So has the range of fighters for freedom worth applauding. Yesterday, it included the kids, from 3 to 19 years old, dancing at a block party nearby. They deserve the Fourth, too.

Thank you, crazy 18th-century men who gave us this day. Before I go out tonight, I’ll make sure to watch a little of that movie.

missing cairo

Like everyone else, I’ve been mesmerized this whole month by events in Cairo : by the stirring scenes from Egypt, careening from the January 25 Facebook-organized protests, with hundreds of thousands converging in Cairo, Alexandria and elsewhere to demand that their leader relinquish power after 30 years; to the harsh, government-inspired “Days of Rage” of February 2; to Friday’s “Day of Departure,”with redoubled protests and open negotiations for the future.

It’s 21 years since my only visit (sob!) to that part of the world. My Cairo memories are mostly blurred (nowhere near as vivid as those of the masseuse who befriended me at Sharm-el-Shaikh, or what I still call “the Pyramids of New Jersey”). I do remember its insane traffic and brutal smog, and like everyone else felt the reports of the smog clearing this week (due to cars being replaced by bodies) a harbinger of something good.

Of course, I went off to find the women in this story, to post them at my other shop.

The names most often associated with these world-changing events were, of course, those of prominent Egyptian men, such as President Hosni Mubarak, nuclear scientist and popular opposition figure Mohammed el-Baradei, Army strongman and vice president Omar Suleiman and Mohamed Beltagui of the Muslim Brotherhood. On today’s chat shows, you’ll likely see those names tossed around as Middle East experts try to predict the future.

But what we’ll most remember is the women’s leadership that has evolved right alongside these protests —including human rights activist Nawal al-Saadawi, who speaks above about her return to Egypt years after being imprisoned and exiled by successive Egyptian regimes. Hundreds of images like these adorn the Women Of Egypt Facebook page. “The country’s sisterhood,” notes the Los Angeles Times, “has sparked a movement within a movement.”

Much more here,, including tons of video and Mona Eltahawy laughing in Bill Maher’s face.

A national crisis, now hyper-local

Notice: I am neither dead nor AWOL. Just busier than ever, with a suddenly-really-pending deadline, new blogging at Guernica, and reporting for Newsworks.org – the web portal of WHYY, my local PBS/NPR station.

Here is the very first story I ever pitched to WHYY’s Alan Tu, back in September, Given my background in sussing out tenant stories in Manhattan, I knew quickly that there had to be a story in our slice of the national foreclosure crisis. It’s a story about predatory lending, about neighborhoods, and about a pioneering legislator who figured out 30 years ago what to do about all this.

The story’s also a phoenix: it sat in the pending pile, right behind breaking news, until the city suspended all foreclosures AND I happened upon the perfect interview subject. I hope it absorbs and amuses some folks.

Now to my follow-up story, and to cutting my book manuscript by two-thirds.

Judy Shepard: the true “mama grizzly”

When you hear the phrase “mama grizzly” thrown around as a Republican buzzword, it’s useful to think of heroic women who live up to that phrase. I had the privilege of meeting one last week, at the University of Pennsylvania.

“I was just a mom, who cared about her boys,” said the lovely 5’4″ woman to the 50 people crowding in to hear her, in a campus bookstore at the University of Pennsylvania.  “I was not a public person.”

Yet today, Judy Shepard’s life is entirely public, so much so that she said good-naturedly of her life: “I spend a lot of time on airplanes.” And on, June 27  she was one of three grand marshals in one of New York City’s largest parades: the 41st annual NYC Pride march, urging full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.

Not that Shepard herself is among them. But ever since her son, Matthew Shepard,  died nearly 12 years ago at the hands of two men who’d been looking for  a gay man to assault, Shepard and her family have worked every day to end such hate crimes.
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any pre-1980 Hunter High alums in Philadelphia?

I’m sitting here listening to WHYY and Talk of the Nation’s report on Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. I’m as obsessed with the nomination as many women in America — especially those who, like me, attended Hunter College High School around the same time she did. When I called my best friend, who I met in 1974 during the first week of school there, she didn’t need to ask why: “Is the press conference starting?” were her words upon answering the phone.

But I was calling instead to tell her that the New York Times had run perhaps the first published mention of our reality back then:

The school, which then occupied two floors of an office building at 46th Street and Lexington Avenue, was and remains one of New York’s elite public high schools. It drew girls from across the city and an array of backgrounds — all admitted on the strength of their performance on an entrance exam, rather than money or family connections.

“We were really exposed to tremendous diversity there — whether it was a Jewish girl from the Upper West Side or a cop’s kid from the Bronx or the daughter of a C.E.O. from the Upper East Side or kids whose parents worked in sweatshops in Chinatown,” said Ellen M. Purtell, a high school classmate of Ms. Kagan’s. “It was never about what you were wearing. It was: Did you bring your best game academically with you today and could you contribute to the discussion?”

I wish I knew the exact day in September that I first got into the elevator of that office building — to me, my exact crossover from the east Bronx into a bigger world. And its all-girl status was part of its magic, one that has been lost for awhile. (I was in the first class that admitted boys, but they were too a test case, and too few to change that magic.)
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Ten reasons to love Mount Airy, Philadelphia

Former New Yorker that I am, I’ve often told friends that where I live now is kind of like Park Slope, in Brooklyn. But as I’ve lived here, I’ve had to adapt that analogy, which applies pretty well to one of our main commercial strips;  other parts remind me more of Berkeley, California, while so many admit to no comparison at all (like the 19th-century stone houses at right).

I’m writing this on one of our first warm days, after a brutal winter; behind me the kids are running around, kids who call my fiancee “Miss Rachel” just as we call our neighbors Mr. X and Miss Y; it’s the local tradition. Scout, my feline muse, is alert, looking out the window and wondering where all these small humans come from all of a sudden. (For so long, there was only snowy, silent streets).

Today we went wandering off to the 40th Annual Mount Airy Day, in Germantown proper. Actually, legally we’re in Germantown too; I suspect the term “Mount Airy” was originally coined by realtors, just like my old NY neighborhood “Hudson Heights.”  (The latter now distinguishes the  blocks northwest of uptown’s Dominican communities, even though the synagogue next door still has WASHINGTON HEIGHTS carved into its sidewalk.) We saw a good number of people we knew and met some we hadn’t; the whole event made me decide it’s time to write here again, and  with a list of ten things that tell me I was  right to move here.
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Henrietta Lacks’ grandkids: "How can you judge the 1950s by the ethics of today?"

When Rebecca Skloot walked into the Kimmel Cancer Center in Philadelphia last week to talk about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, she was riding a wave of positive reviews for the book she had been working on for nearly half her life. The Boston Globe had called it “a well-written, carefully researched, complex saga of medical research, bioethics, and race in America.” Salon termed it “a heroic work of cultural and medical journalism,” and the New York Times thought it “a thorny and provocative book about cancer, racism, scientific ethics and crippling poverty [that] floods over you like a narrative dam break.”

At the Kimmel Cancer Center (part of Thomas Jefferson University), the crowd was made up of scientists and physicians, many of whom knew Henrietta Lacks only as HeLa, for the cell line named after her unusual, fast-growing cells. Over the years, HeLa cells have been used for cancer research, to test the polio vaccine, unlock the secrets of DNA transcription, and thousands of other medical projects.

Among the crowd was Dr. Leonard Freedman, dean of research at Thomas Jefferson, whose lab invented a new tool for DNA research using HeLa. “You know, I used to do a lot of science with these cell lines,” Freedman said to this reporter just before the lecture. But the book was a revelation: “We knew the cells came from some woman, but we even had her name wrong. And we certainly didn’t know any of what’s in the book.”
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