A town called Philadelphia

7 04 2011

Philadelphia is the most underrated city I know.

Whenever my European friends plan their monumental trips across America, they mention their highlights with visible pride: San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, New York. For some strange reason, the city of brotherly love, home of the pretzel and the greatest ice hockey team to populate the NHL as well as the actual birthplace of the United States of America is hardly ever on the itineraries of allegedly interested European travelers.

The original is here, folks!

Philly is often simply overlooked, left on the right hand side of I-95, the gleaming skyscrapers of Liberty Place off in the distance, as these travelers breeze down the highway from the Big Apple to our nation’s capital. And that is a real shame.

(Irony if ironies: The highway is in New Jersey, the nation’s toxic waste dump.)

There’s a lot to criticize about my hometown, but then again, what city is perfect? I know of none. Philly has a kind of unpretentious air about it, sitting in the shadow of NYCs bright lights and smog off to the north. It’s much smaller than Manhattan, but still has a healthy, diverse cultural scene and is a center for higher education. For those so inclined, there is an active and colorful Gayborhood, a Chinatown (with a big gate), and an Italian Market area in South Philly. And of course, the sports teams, which include the aforementioned Stanley Cup champions, some World Series winners and I think probably the one or the other Superbowl champ, too. (But I’d have to check on that to make sure.)

A friend of mine is a professional photographer here. He grew up in the area, and decided not to leave. He is phenomenally successful and does not know what to do with all the cash he is raking in. An artist of his caliber and business acumen would tend to move on after a while. But he stayed. And his logic was simple: “Either I stay in Philadelphia and I’m a really big fish in this pond, or I go to New York and be a guppy.”

It’s a gritty but friendly town. In the past couple of days I have reacquainted myself with the city I left long ago, and which I didn’t even know really well back then. It’s been a real journey of discovery, of joy. I walked everywhere I felt like going on a whim… by my count, 160 blocks in two and a half days. Aside from the history, which is fascinating, the tree-lined streets of Center City wrapped me in a feeling of comfort and normalcy. The regularness of it all is what’s special.

I never stopped being an unofficial ambassador for Philadelphia, but these days I am more so. Every time some professional European traveler tells me s/he is going for an all-American tour, I try to put the place on her/his maps. Unfortunately, not many of them listen to me. I’m not sure what it would take to get them to pay attention.

Though dwarfed by the gleaming office towers that have grown up around him in the past two decades, William Penn still stands tall atop of City Hall at the intersection of Broad and Market Streets. It’s good to see him up there. Enough to make me feel whole again.

Master of all he surveys.

Taking South Beach at night, on eight wheels

3 04 2011

OK, folks, “cool” does not begin to describe Friday’s night skate on South Beach. I don’t think there is an adjective in the English language that can adequately portray this athletic carousing on the streets of one of the hippest towns in North America. I am still reeling.

Friday night, Lincoln Road in South Beach, Miami. I knew I was in the right place for the “official” SoBe night skate as wheeled, helmeted, spandex-clad aliens emerged from the gutters to congregate at a street corner downtown. They really stuck out among Miami’s beautiful people, all dressed up, walking their doggie-carriages and preparing for a night out in Party-Central, USA.

A SoBe mama and her canine baby.

The police who would be accompanying us on our tour announced their presence with a blip of sirens, piercing blue and red lights flashing (cops also just want to have fun after all).

As we pushed off at 7pm sharp, I looked around and counted 34 skaters and five cyclists. Escorted by no less than ten police cars.

I asked a fellow skater more familiar with the ride why the cops take two hours out of their (surely very busy) Friday nights fighting crime to escort three dozen weirdos on skates through town – closing streets, blocking traffic and otherwise making themselves generally unpopular, especially among motorists. He said they use the monthly skate events as practice for when someone really significant comes to town, like the President. (Who, incidentally, showed up last month, forcing the cancellation of the SoBe night skate because the cops had to get back to their day jobs.)

And the escort service was quite professional, if I might say so. Skaters were more likely to get hit by a speeding police cruiser, racing up from behind to block off the next intersection, than any other vehicle.

Stay right or perish.

The nice policemen and -women also transported bottles of water for the participants and were kind enough to dispose of the empties afterwards, too.

The 12-mile (20-km) route led through some of the most expensive and attractive neighborhoods in the country. One community of mansions even opened its massive iron gates for us to cruise through. Don’t bother asking the price of a property here, you definitely can’t afford it. (Even if you win this week’s PowerBall jackpot, currently standing at 218 million green ones.)

What the SoBe skate lacks in masses it more than makes up in exclusivity.

Following the sanctioned event, a small group of about 15 skaters gathered for the second, unofficial skate, which, in hindsight, can only be accurately described as a mildly insane, suicidal free-for-all. But of course I didn’t know this before I enthusiastically declared my participation… I was skating here for the first time.

Strength in numbers gave us the confidence and the adrenaline rush we needed to take back the streets on our own (who needs cops?): Careening down tourist-trap Ocean Drive at speed; using parked and moving vehicles for slalom practice; whistling, howling and whooping it up at puzzled passers-by and baffled restaurant patrons. As we passed Gianni Versace’s villa, one skater launched into her rendition of “Strangers in the Night” while three others discussed the harmful health effects of carbon monoxide. Oh, did we just run a red light? Oops.

By the end of the hour-long late skate the group was crooning Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” while evading traffic on Washington Avenue, downtown’s main north-south four-lane thoroughfare.

It appears that this is all normal weekend behavior in South Beach, and it did not elicit a single noise violation, rowdiness citation or traffic ticket. My kind of town.

Lock these people up, they are a danger to my health.

By the end of the evening, I had close to 20 miles (32 kilometers) in my legs. Not quite a marathon, but then again, I never did a marathon in tropical heat and humidity while dodging SUV’s and chatting with a Swiss geophysics professor skating next to me. My ankles were screaming for mercy and the next morning the rest of my body expressed similar sentiments.

So…. when do we get to do this again? Ooooo I can’t wait!

The sad state of inline skating in the USA

1 04 2011

Coming to the land of new innovative sports and the birthplace of inline skating, I thought I would arrive in an El Dorado for rollerbladers, the likes of which I will have never seen before. Especially in Florida, where the weather is conducive to outdoor sports pretty much the whole year round.

Sadly, that is not the case.

Before I arrived here in Florida, I found a group on the Internet that conducts a weekly night skate. I was ecstatic. I imagined hundreds if not thousands of skaters, collectively taking back the streets, just like they do in every European capital at least once per summer month. (Think: Skaterparties in Paris, Berlin, London…) Even in Zurich our Monday Night Skate attracts anything from 2000-6000 participants every second Monday from May to September.

The Wednesday night gang.

The first time I joined the skate group here in Hollywood, I found eight people waiting at the assigned meeting point. And I asked… “Is this the skate group? This is it?” One of the other skaters answered, “Oh, this is a great turnout.” Last night’s group was 14 strong, a real army.

This is how I discovered that the skater demographic here is um… small and not really, shall we say… sustainable.

The folks I met in the group and also when I’m out skating on my own are great – very friendly and chatty people, we have a grand time. But they are all… well… middle-aged. There are Tom and Dave, who are in their late 40s probably; Karen is a few years younger. Then there’s Harry, who I would have guessed is in his late 40s but is actually 62 (a true testament to the youthful effect of skating). Those are a couple of the regulars. I have never seen anyone at the meetings that was under, say, 35.

Then there’s also George, who looks like he’s 70, but is probably 85. He is out every morning at 7:00 a.m., skating his laps along the beach like there’s no tomorrow.

They all complained to me that for some reason young people are not interested in the sport. And even though the group officially has more than 370 members (according to their website), only a fraction of those show up for the weekly meetings. Kids don’t seem to find skating “cool” anymore.

There is no decent skate shop in a 100 mile radius and I know of no organized races within a day’s drive.

George told me that for a few years, Disney organized an annual skate marathon in Orlando, but declining participant numbers prompted them to cancel it. Unfathomable for us in Europe, like the folks at the Berlin Marathon, who have to turn away hundreds of skaters every year because the event is sold out six months before the race.

My skate friends here say that for the monthly Miami South Beach Friday night skate (the epitome of coolness if there ever was one) usually about 50 skaters show up. If the weather is good, maybe five more will come. That event is tomorrow night, and I can’t wait to cruise through the Art Deco streets, escorted by police, past curious onlookers and irate motorists. I’m sure it will be a blast.

And I will be wondering where the thousands of other skaters, who would make it truly an experience of a lifetime, are hiding. They must be out there somewhere.

South Beach at sunset.