Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Obituary for a House

Have you ever read an obit for a house? Brace yourself! 8 Longford, Greenbelt Knoll, Holmesburg was my official home, until September 1, 2010. It was a sad day when my son Michael (58) e-mailed me. I was $108G’s richer. But infinitely poorer, even though it only cost US 23G’s in 1959. I say US because in 1970 we became THEM when my wife Mary divorced me.

She had complained of becoming stir-crazy in Levittown where we settled when I got my first teaching job at Trenton State. That same magical year, 1957, I went IVY with a Carnegie postdoctoral grant to create a new Mass Society course in American Studies at Penn. She got the short end of my shtick with three kids, Michael (5), Cathy (3) and Tim (1) to raise.

For us ultra-liberals, it was a big plus that Greenbelt Knoll was Morris Milgram’s experiment as the first integrated community in Philly. (It was ironic that we got a shot at 8 Longford because the wife of the first owner felt uncomfortable with “colored”! And we got the thrilling ambiance of 100 foot trees in a gently hilly park because this slice of Pennypack Park was the “wrong” side of the railroad tracks feeding the shopping mall at Welsh and Roosevelt Boulevard. The architects that year got an AIA Award for siting, and Morris became internationally famous. Contentiously discussed in faraway Johannesburg, South Africa.

The 19 houses were modern, not Modernoid. (More of the architecture later.) It was the neighbors who made it vibrant. Robert N.C. Nix, the Philly’s first black congressman, invited me to sleep over in his D.C apartment, the better to understand Congress. Alas, his chairmanship of the Post Office Committee would later on vibrate painfully on my Post Office son Tim who didn’t get along with the black supervisors!

Later Charles Fuller, the Pulitzer Prize playwright, was a great neighbor until his wife passed and he moved downtown with his new girl. There were professors, cops and great artists like the furniture designer James Camp and industrial designer Art Friedmann. Roosevelt Barlow was my favorite pal, as he briefed me on the ambiguities of being the first black fire chief in Philly.

But the Reverend Leon Sullivan, the so-dubbed Lion from Zion (Baptist Church), was my biggest intellectual challenge. One Saturday by the pool, he chided me for belonging to Penn’s new Annenberg School because their patron Walter as publisher of the Inquirer was suppressing the news of the Black Pastors Tastykake boycott. (You don’t hire blacks, we won't let them eat KAKES!) Always ready for an academic fight I was at the Inky bright and early Monday morning to chide Walter. I was frisked (my mouth has always been my only weapon!) for the first and last time in my tame academic life.

As I entered his 13th floor eyrie, I was stunned to see a sign on his desk, I WILL SO LIVE MY LIFE AS TO HONOR THE LIFE OF MY FATHER: His father Moe had gone to the Federal Pokey for income tax evasion! When I passed on Leon’s complaint, Walter called in his executive editor., E.Z.Dimitman, who observed that they had hired a colored copyboy last summer, but he “hadn’t cut the mustard.” I began to understand the complexities of billionaire donors! It was the end of my Annenberg “Career”. We had to rent #8 as I went off to Honolulu to head their new Institute of American Studies, domiciling in a tiny little house of an unmarried professor on sabbatical.

The place seemed even smaller when I discovered my No. 2 had been in the CIA for the ten years since his Ph.D. He was there to keep radical students from Asia and the U.S. under scrutiny. It was a great relief to get back to #8 as English Chairman at Beaver College. One year, and several summers, they sent us to London to run their overseas program.

In 1970, Mary declared she hated the runaround and sent me to Tijuana to get an uncontested divorce. (In Pennsylvania, only adultery would qualify, which was hardly pertinent since she went off to Newark with man next door!) Tim went with her for a while. Michael and Cathy were off at college. So it was me and Barnaby when I got home from San Francisco and London after a triumphal tour of my global girlfriends. When Barnaby cashed in, I settled for Toby the cat, and her successor, Twoby.

The house was now cleared for ceremonies. Studs Terkel, speaking at the Annenberg School, came out to a signing party for the paperback edition of “Working” which I had assigned to my Am Lit students. He fell into conversation with a lesbian student which led to a fascinating essay on the subject of how the college treated her. But my favotite “do” was the Sunday jury duty of voices like Peter Binzen, George Gerbner, and MOMA William Sloan.

They were to decide which undergraduate would get the IZZIE award, for the best work in the style of I.F. Stone, a national competition sponsored by the Free Library of Philadelphia. Arizona State got the first prize for their monthly critique of Arizona media dubbed “Pretentious Idea." That was the sneering reply of the editor of the Arizona Republic when he was asked to support the venture. Izzy, in nearby Haddonfield, was thrilled by the winning entry as well as by the teacher in Atlantic City whose J-class uncovered fiscal hanky-panky in their AV department! When the Del Vall reporters asked Izzie how he felt about getting an honorary B.A. (he dropped out in 1928), he replied with a smile, “Got out of Phys Ed.”

In 1986, when current and old time Knollers met to celebrate our Golden Anniversary, there was an astonishing revelation. Philadelphia’s greatest twentieth century architect, Louis Kahn, had designed the houses! Kahn had a soft heart, and always needed cash to keep juggling his secret affairs. He financed his busy life by working under the table. You can hear this story in a Precious Places documentary.

Now I live in a 1873 villa on the third floor at Seifengasse 10. (Goethe lived at Seifengasse 1.) The views are great, the sounds are pastoral (except during the annual World Football Series.) But classy as it is, it doesn’t have the warmth and charm of Greenbelt Knoll. Thank you, Morris Milgram. And good luck, Ms. Alvarado.

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