For those with the right kind of eyes and umph, Philadelphia is a playground, from one end to the other. The labyrinth of experience, laid in grey, brick, and rainbow Legos. I felt the openness and the open-endedness on my first stroll down Ben Franklin parkway into Center City: the space, statues, mazes, the twists and turns and secret passageways; the open doors and welcoming tones. A refreshing change of pace from the creepy Lovecraftish claustrophobia of Providence, Rhode Island.
Philadelphia is magnanimous. The Spirit of Franklin looms. This reads like a brochure blurb, I know, but the city highlights and points-of-interest that fascinate me most about the city are certainly not the same crap you would find tooted at the Tourist Information Bureau; activities more or less designed to draw the out-of-town Dollar. I’m interested in the transformative possibilities of the cityscape, the hidden world that exists outside of the economic, political, and historical contours of the city— even when we happen to be standing mid-foodcourt at Market East Mall. I’m interested in pressing new desires into old realities.
So how do we go about doing this? Simple: by passing over those realities. By transformative misuse. One person, one transformation, one bad idea at a time. Probably the best— most organic, poetic, and athletic response to urbanism— is skateboarding. It takes the everyday forms surrounding us-— the curbs, steps, handrails, and newspaper dispensers— and turns them into something truly beautiful. Into backside heelflips and noseblunt-slides and daredevil leaps and near-sexual attraction to marble. Arthur Cravan said it best: “Genius is nothing more than an extraordinary manifestation of the body.”
Ofcourse, the Philadelphia politicos made their personal opinion of transformation crystal-fucking-clear with their decision to render the internationally skatemecca Love Park, basically unskateable. And the ubiquity of skatestoppers on all downtown rails and marble is another giveaway that the Philly Bigwigs have little appreciation for the democratic genius of our “useless wooden toys.” But, no need to worry. Where skateboarding fails, horseplay will triumph, along with an infinite litter of misuses that defy all interdiction—”Please, Wheelchairs Are Not Toys”—”All Passengers Must Ride Inside Elevator”—”Subway Surfing Punishable by Hundred Dollar Fine.” I would actually enjoy watching them trying to cork the flow of freeplay, making up rules as fast as we can break them. I want them to understand that, no matter how many warnings and videocameras they put up, we are still going to find a way to injure ourselves on their property.
Anywho. What follows then is the beginning of a compendium of small, unplanned transformative possibilities of the Philadelphia cityscape, which we will tentatively call, The Philadelphia Experiment (a title which I’m sure is a little overplayed by now). It will be the sophomoric, American counterpart to Walter Benjamin’s Passengen-Werk- The Arcades Project- which has just been compiled and translated into English. Unlike the Passengen-Werk, which provides an analysis, a critique, of the brick-and-mortar culmination of the “ideological mask of bourgeois consciousness” or whatever, our Philadelphia Experiment will offer strategies; cat-and-mouse games with custodians, horseplay, neat little tricks, superrad highlights, devil-may-care attitudes toward Posts and Warnings and even hidden cameras; Function follows Form. It may give some history or excerpts. It may imbue meanings with mythos. Overall though, it will be Fun.
Who could say as much for the melancholic walkthrough of Walter Benjamin? Benjamin talks endlessly about history, trinkets, and boredom, but where in the reams and reams of notes does he scrawl something to the effect of “here is how I finally overcame Boredom” or “The next time you walk into an umbrella store…” There is no action, no possibilities, no reason to think that Walter Benjamin is anything more than Casper the ghost floating through the realities of a Parisian bazaar. And this is the point, implicitly. He comes from the Baudelairean bloodline of the flaneur, which by its own philosophy, is the alienated spectator who traverses space and streets and Montmartre like a ghost— invisible, inconsequential, and uninvested in the landscape he haunts. The city presents itself to him, to his sharp, unerring gaze. The flaneur, sitting drunk on absinthe sur la terrasse, observes the crowds, observes Life, observes the urban expanse, but will not bring himself to become part of it all. The American counterpart is embodied; loving the nostrilfulls of car exhaust on a cold December day; laughing his head off when others commute to work as he climbs the inside of the Christmas tree in the Love Park fountain. The American counterpart disagrees with the Situationist cry that little adventure is possible outside of revolution. There is plenty to do, plenty of action and adventure, in the meantime. Benjamin wanted to reveal the “true history” behind the glass and asphault of modernity; his American counterpart revels in the Instant and the Future, the domains of human agency, where he turns for his kicks and philosophical work-up of modernity. Benjamin, like the Situationists and Lefevbre, was an ardent Marxist, and therefore skeptical of human agency independent of “economic, political, or historical contours.” Just think of our approach—
the City-as-FreePlayGround approach- as a small plea to consider otherwise.