Sunday, March 27, 2011

Prayer for Philadelphia

Prayer for Philadelphia, by Coyopa Productions. (via Vimeo)

I came across this gorgeous video today, which the creator made from over 5,000 still images. This one gets me pumped for the coming summer, and a larger Philly timelapse that I'm hoping to put together. Hopefully that will come out half as nice as this one did.

Click through to Vimeo for the full video in HD.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Schuylkill River Cruising

From last fall's Friends of the Schuylkill Banks Cruise.

Mapping Location Through Cell Phone Tracking

A friend sent along an interesting New York Times article about German privacy advocate Malte Spitz's efforts to obtain the location information collected through his cellphone from Deutsche Telekom. After a court battle, he obtained the records collected via his 'handy' (love that nickname), and was given an astonishing spreadsheet, containing each of the 35,831 pieces of information that had been collected about him over the previous six months. That's more than one piece of data every 7 and a half minutes. As a privacy activist and member of Germany's Green Party, he chose to make his findings public, via Google Document, in an effort to show the extent of the data collected.

Working with Spitz, the German newspaper Die Zeit created an incredible interactive map of the data. In addition to mapping the location information provided by Deutsche Telekom, Die Zeit integrated Spitz calling and SMS texting use, and "augmented" that information Spitz's tweets, blog postings, and public appearances to create a full-bodied, interactive portrait of one man's life over the course of six months.

A screenshot from the interactive map of six months of Spitz's life. (via Die Zeit Online)

The resulting infographic is utterly fascinating. While its creator surely intended for it to be a frightening reflection of just how much personal data is collected by others, I'm more interested by the possibilities it opens then the fearsome Big Brother it reveals. Spitz's movements are thoroughly plotted across the map, and reveal information not just about location, bu about movement, and the relative speed of different modes of travel. Tied in with his blogging, tweets, and cell phone use, the data creates a remarkable chronicle of thoughts and activities, along with their ties to place. What was one looking at when a great idea struck and was tweeted? Where was one standing when they took a photo and posted it to Facebook?

I understand and appreciate the desire for privacy, and think that those who wish to remain anonymous should be able to, but my first reaction when I read this article was, "I wish I could get my records." The ties between space, time, and human activities fascinates me - for instance, I have been manually recording all of my movements through Philadelphia by foot and bicycle since October of last year, mostly as a way of keeping a diary through maps. Even now I can look back at the maps I've accumulated and recall the responsibilities and activities, both mundane and extraordinary, that propelled me around the city on any given day. I would love to be able to tie that movement data so closely to the other actions I took.

While the possibility of the misuse of data such as that found by Herr Spitz is plausible, and its abuse is conceivable, its power is undeniable. This data, severed of its links to individuals offers a wealth of information with already proposed data mining concepts, like traffic management. Without safeguards to protect anonymity, such tracking can be ethically murky, but the ability of this information to transform the way that we see cities and movement. Still, even severed from a specific identity, it's not too hard to figure out whose map is whose. A brief glimpse at the maps I've made clearly shows where I live, along with regular trips that I make, for instance to collect rents from my rental property and deposit them at the bank on the first of every month. Such maps of movement are incredibly legible and revealing - perhaps this is why they fascinate me so.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Evolution of Manhattan's Grid

Scrolling through the history of Manhattan's streets. (New York Times)

In honor of the 200th anniversary of the creation of the iconic grid that covers the northern three-quarters of Manhattan, the New York Times ran an interesting article recounting the history of the grid. Even more interesting was the accompanying interactive feature that layers the historical iterations of the map of new York over one another, along with a sliding timeline of street openings.

The timeline lets you check in on the map of New York at any point in its history. It's a fascinating way to see how living patterns evolved over the course of the city's history. Like reading tree rings, one can see periods of boom and bust as the map evolved from that of a growing boom town to a stable, mature metropolis. My other favorite element of this article was some of the trivia about the grid, like the fact that the Brevoort family fought the division of their land, and hence there is no 11th Street between Broadway and 4th. Both the article and the engrossing add-on are worth your time.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Academy of Music Chandelier

The Academy of Music Chandelier from high above. (Kimmel Center Flikr)

We went to see the Pennsylvania Ballet production of Swan Lake at the Academy of Music on Broad Street last night. The evening marked my first visit to the Academy which is a truly beautiful space - one that Philadelphia is very lucky to have. One of our favorite aspects of the theater is the fact that the grand chandelier raises and lowers to come in and out of view at each intermission. We were sitting in the nosebleeds and got a fine view of it during both intermissions. The chandelier, 20 feet tall, and 12 feet in diameter was originally gas-lit, and has been in the building since it opened in 1857. This evening I found some great up close shots of said chandelier during a $1.75 million 2007 restoration. You can view the full set on the Kimmel Center's Flikr here.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Penn Park Construction

Construction of the Paley Bridge extension in Penn Park. (Penn flickr)

The fine folks over at Penn's Communications Department have posted a group of photos from a tour of the construction at Penn Park, the new green space being constructed on the former Postal lands between Penn and the Schuylkill River. It looks like the project, which is heavily infrastructure-driven, is coming along well, and should open on time for the Fall 2011 semester. You can view the full set here.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Traces of Whitemarsh Hall

Recently, I've been commuting out to the Philadelphia suburbs two or three times a week for work. I loathe commuting by car, but the trip to the north suburbs is both blessedly and cursedly free of freeways, so most of the travel is on surface streets. My trip up Kelly Drive and through the Wissahickon is generally a pretty one, if not always pleasant. One of the unique little landmarks I pass each trip is a wildly out of scale entrance to a small neighborhood along Willow Grove Avenue in Wyndmoor. Two twenty-five foot tall, urn-topped limestone pillars flank a standard-looking suburban subdivision street.

I figured there was more to the story of these pillars than an overzealous tract house developer, but in the routine bustle of getting from here to there, I never took a chance to explore. The answer to this little riddle came to me in a rather roundabout way last night.

Perched on the couch a little after midnight, I was reading my current book, Bill Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life. The book is a fairly manic one, framed as a history of the world told from within the author's home, and it pings among subjects, from rodent reproduction to a history of black pepper to a discussion of Victorian architecture in a single chapter. A number of the topics Bryson touched on have piqued my interest to the point where I've gone online to do more research, or seek out images. (This is one book where the reading experience is probably much enriched on a web-enabled e-reader) As I read last night, Bryson related the history of Eva Stotesbury, a legendary spender of her husband's money, as a way of introducing the tale of the fascinating architect Addison Mizner.* Mizner designed the Stotesbury's Florida home, but in the course of the introduction, Bryson briefly described their primary residence, Whitemarsh Hall in Philadelphia.

I'd never heard of Whitemarsh Hall, which Bryson describes as "a house so big that no two accounts ever describe it in quite the same way. Depending on whose figures you credit, it had 154, 172, or 272 rooms. All agree that it had fourteen elevators, considerably more than most hotels. It cost Mr. Stotesbury nearly $1 million a year just to maintain. He employed forty gardeners and ninety other staff there." Surely this was a house I should have heard of. Intriqued, I went to the net today, looking for pictures and history of Whitemarsh Hall.

The gatehouse and vista approaching Whitmarsh Hall at the time of its construction.

I came across this great site that has a thorough history of the house and lots of great pictures (some of which I borrowed below). Long story short: the house was built between 1916 and 1921, as designed by Horace Trumbauer, the great Philadelphia Classicist architect who also designed the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was the site of lavish parties throughout the 1920's though with the onset of the Great Depression and the death of Mr. Stotesbury, the house became less and less practical. The widow Stotesbury closed the house in 1938 and moved to Florida full-time. During World War Two, Whitemarsh Hall's two-mile long steel fence was dismantled and given to the War Department, providing the material for some 16,000 guns. The house was used briefly as a chemical research laboratory before being sold to a property developer who began the slow process of demolition by neglect.

Whitemarsh Hall during its deterioration in the 1970's.

In the end, Whitemarsh was demolished in April of 1980, and replaced by a townhouse development dubbed Stotesbury Estates. But the house wasn't eradicated entirely. Portions of its grand gardens, reminiscent of those at Versailles, were retained. A fountain or two, several pieces of statuary, the stepped garden wall, and the Classical Portico of the main house all remain, scattered throughout a vinyl-sided 1980's sub division.

Garden stairs and the original Ionic portico of the main house among their more modern neighbors.

This is why I love reading - one never knows when or how what they are reading will reveal some secret. Even if it's just the answer to the oft-wondered at pillars on the side of the road. So, as Bill Bryson wrote about the history of the rooms in his house in the English countryside, he's enriched my drive to work. One of these days, I'll have to make time to cruise through the neighborhood and see what remains.

*Mizner's story is a comical and fascinating one on its own, and as I researched this little piece, I found another connection to Philadelphia's great houses: Mizner designed La Ronda, the Mediterranean Revival tour de force in Bryn Mawr that had its own date with the wrecking ball on October 9th, 2009.