Part Two: How Brandon and his dear friends forever lost the South Philadelphia Athenaeum, and an account of the events immediately preceding and following the upheaval.
Jonny and I rolled into town around eleven, and made straight for the Athenaeum. It felt better just to be back in Philadelphia, where I could have a localized effect.
We found the Juniper-Street-side door, unlocked, plastered with a big warning not to occupy the premises.
Occupancy, we rationalized, was not the same as entry. All the lights were still on. The fans, blowing. But, for the first time in 400 days, the whole compound was silent. Silent, not in the way that the night is silent, but in the way off-season amusement parks or towns ravaged by atomic holocausts are silent. I half expected the walls to start talking, just the break the suspense.
We grabbed a few critical articles, and got the fuck out.
I had sent out a mass-email over the lifeactionrevival list, the Athenaeum bulletin. But Sean Agnew from R5 Productions, bless his heart, had sent out a beautiful mass-email (probably the only thing written about us ever that I would endorse) pleading for assistance and free legal representation. He said that, for all our past efforts, we at least deserved to collect our life belongings in something more humane than a rushed, “supermarket sweep” manner. Calls and emails poured in. We were all warmed by the response and proportionate outrage.
Sean, from his email, even received offers of help from Urban Outfitters and the American Red Cross.
The first priority was negotiating more time to get out our belongings. Two hours would have been impossible (especially when the powerlines were cut dangling from the buildings, a day or so later, leaving the warehouse darker than a Turkish cave). Sean had phoned the Philadelphia Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, a pro-bono legal referral service for Philadelphia culture-makers. They had represented Sean before, when he was being hounded by ClearChannel for the crime of creating a viable musical arena in Philadelphia (I mean that quite literally). Alan and I also phoned the PVLA the night I returned, but figured an early-morning office visit would be the best display of our sincerity and need.
Ten the following morning, we found the suite at 1616 Walnut, and entered assuming that we would be treated like lessers, like little girls who’ve lost their dolls. However…
“Are you Brandon Joyce?,” the receptionist asked. “We were just holding a meeting about you.”
Alan and I smiled, each wearing our “now this is more like it” expression. They asked whether it was okay that we condense the three calls (Sean’s, Alan’s, and mine) into one case. We told them it was okay with us.
A few hours later, after a meeting with PVLA’s Tracey Batt, an angel on earth, we secured fullscale representation with a local attorney name Chris Stouffer. “Of course this is an outrage,” he said over speakerphone. “I’m going to to take your case. This is why I got into law in the first place.”
All of a sudden, modern civilization no longer seemed fallen or corrupt. Philadelphia no longer seemed like a plot of “veiled pigs,” to borrow Huelsenbeck’s phrase. A principle of justice and goodness had, at least partially, restored the order of things. We held our daily meeting in Rittenhouse Square, our newly adopted home, located conveniently in the heart of Philadelphia, by Barnes&Noble. The kindness of the weather made the eviction almost pleasant. We had gotten more sun in days than we had in the months before. And interrelations were at their tenderest.
The sight of forty homeless nerds, holding a business meeting in a local park, was enough to melt anyone.
Vincent, a member of Philadelphia’s transient population, and longtime resident of Rittenhouse, approached us.
“Is this a church meeting or something?”
“No, we got kicked out of our house.”
Vincent ‘s expression brightened and with a slow grin, he said “Me too!”
He dropped his luggage and joined us.
“When d’yall get kicked out,” he asked Jay.
“Friday night. How about you?”
“Twenty years ago.”
Our Landlord, not long after Jonny and I’s furtive visit, had secured the doors with a deadbolt, to protect the premises. It came to our attention— I don’t remember who spotted it first—- that somebody or some entity had pried off the casing and gotten inside the warehouse. We were not, under penalty of law, allowed to go in, to see whether we had been cleaned out. We called the police and we called our newly-appointed lawyer.
The police were not very sympathetic.
“Whaddya want us to do about it?”
“We just want to file a report, in case things are missing when we go in tomorrow.”
They informed us that, for some mysterious reason, we were not allowed to file a report. That it was unnecessary.
The officers were well aware of the raid and treated us accordingly.
“We can’t watch the place for yous.”
“Officer, we’re not asking you to guard the place. We just want to file a report.”
With our lawyer present, we got them to agree to let us put a new deadbolt on the door. If, we promised not to step foot inside the doorframe. We were to consider ourselves warned… Jesus.
Worse yet, all the utilities had been cut. Literally. The powerlines that had once snaked into the Athenæum, off of the grid, were left dangling from the poles. The gas and water company had been by, with torches and boltcutters.
The Athenæum had been returned to a suitably medieval state.
While I was conversing with the gas company, trying to dodge questions that were too specific, a red sedan materialized from out the ether, driven by a cigar-smoking spectre, beckoning me to get in. Which I did, without excusing myself.
“What did they want?,” asked the spectre.
“They cut the utilities.”
He shrugged “it was bound to happen eventually. Oh well. Any more news?”
“Yeah, we move out tomorrow.”
We continued conversing as we circled the block.
“Okay, Brandon keep me posted.”
I got out, just out of view. The vehicle then once again vanished into the ether.
It may be hard, since I’m not at liberty to release full details, to get a firm grasp on the utmost, movie-perfect absurdity of that week. Our Landlord would schedule meetings with us, over breakfast, to weigh strategies.
He was genuinely baffled.
“Something is rotten. For thirty years I’ve had that building. I’ve done a lot of crazy things in there. Never have I seen this. They don’t even call me. They don’t give you a warning. I want to get to the bottom of this,” ending his sentences with a sharply meaningful, Southern Italian humpf.
Our Landlord was a true member of old South Philadelphia. This cataclysm was, for him, more like a collision of logics. All problems should be solved internally; never did higher-up city officials, like the Lieutenant Commisioner of L&I, get involved in such matters. He called around; speaking with, to put it cryptically, as high-up an authority as you can possibly imagine.
They told him. “Someone is doing favors.”
This, as well as other clues, fueled conspiracy. Not so much of the Freemason/ClearChannel variety, but just in that “there is something, however minor, that we’re not being told.” Nothing neatly stacked or dovetailed. We later learned that the only results of the break-in were that Rich’s hardrive had been stolen and Drew’s room pried open and all the valuables left in tact. Nothing else, no computers or valuables, had been even touched.
It added to the dark disequilibrium that was driving the whole story, the gothic idea that the full set of causes would never be revealed….
Moving Day. A true circus. The police were there. Our lawyer was there. License and Inspection. Moving fans. All of us. Helping hands. Mothers. Public Radio. Tracey and Quinn from PVLA had even come out, with water and flashlights.
I had purchased a headlamp to quicken my pace. Police had roped off the block.
Once everyone was present, our lawyer took the Inspector aside. It was beyond obvious by this point, that the city knew it had overreacted, to say the least. It was the way the Lt. Commisioner liked to do things: with characeristically loose-cannon flair. He and his colleagues had been severely chastised in the past by courts, in language unheard of in court transcripts. Courts had even granted licenses to unworthy licensees simply to make amends for L&I’s inquisitorial sadism, cowboy antics, and purposeful employment of humiliation.
The tone today, of another inspector, was distinctly softer. We were all waiting, and psyched, to go in. It was like a episode of Double Dare. Two hours, choose your favorite possessions, on your mark, get set, go.
Even with the ingestion of near-toxic levels of caffeine, the task was demanding. The staircase would bottleneck. The portable halogens would blow. Light and darkness and shouts of “one hour, twenty minutes remaining.”
The atmosphere was comparable to a Pakistani earthquake recovery. Sweat poured down our brows, as we parsed the essential from the inessential. Passports. Computers. Bass amps. Winter Clothes.
Outside, the sidewalk was quickly turning into a Mount Everest of multicolored crap.
Neighbors looked on in awe.
A reporter from public radio interviewed me in the middle of the rush. I told her what I could; that the Athenæum was an “experimental space and a center of classical learning,” populated by musicians, artists, and “philosophers.”
She probably thought I was just being light-minded.
Again, the inspectors and police produced some infallible soundbytes for the media. One officer gathered us round and said “as long as you’re all safe. I’m just happy you’re here to argue with me.”
Makes sense: that they threw 30 nerds out on the streets of Philadelphia, in the middle of the night, out of concern for our safety.
Time ran down and the Athenæum was locked until the next available convenience. That was that.
The following evening was a very special evening. The South Philadelphia Athenæum had been mentioned in National Geographic Traveler’s “Philadelphia: the Next Great City” issue (charmingly, on the same day as our eviction). I had been invited to join the mayor, the magazine, and the Philadelphia tourism board at a classy affair at Cuba Libre in Old City. In gratitude for all her efforts well beyond the call of duty, I invited Tracey along to the event, as my plus one. I had hoped, along with everyone else, that I could perhaps borrow the municipal ear, for just a moment, to explain our circumstances. I thought I could at least collect a few business cards.
Seconds after arrival, I understood. When I informed anyone of the South Philadelphian diapsora, their excitement turned to still-grinning discomfort and they would shrink away with an “ooh, jeez, sorry, well, good luck with all that.” This was supposed to be a celebratory occasion, a chance for Philadelphia to trumpet its dedication to the arts. A Tourist Board circlejerk. The city officials had obviously just received the invites from their secretaries and thought to themselves “hell, why not… Free mojitos.” They got there, intermingled, laughed in that weird, loud way that only powerbrokers can.
Outside of those characters were the unmissably rodent-like members of the tourist industry. 50-year-old women with pink powersuits and neurotic smiles, laughing really hard at jokes, constantly nodding, making sure the evening would remain a memorably networked one.
The presentation began when Mayor Street and the Lt. Governor arrived. The invite had hinted at “a very special announcement.” Mayor Street took the podium, the height of mayorial disingenuousness, and read off lines from invisible cue cards about Philadelphia being the next great cultural capital. Afterall, do you know how many restaurants we have, he asked… A lot.
I was standing between the city controller and one of his colleagues. He would lean over me and say, impatiently, “why doesn’t he mentioned the parks? And what’s with all that over there? Do something about it, will ya.”
He followed the order by adjusting his tie and cracking his neck.
Then, came the special announcement. The magazine, the mayor, the lieutenant governor, the tourist suits all mounted the stage. Local news cameras were ready. Papyruses were unscrolled. Plaques held high. And in all the confusion, I’m not completely sure, but I think the city of Philadelphia gave itself an award. That was the special announcement. Then, the waitresses collected empty mojito glasses and everyone filed out and into their taxis.
With them went all the municipal ears.
I realized after that evening that culture-making is, and always has been, something that happens despite governments and infrastructure. That, aside from the occasional grant, I could expect no real sympathy.
The dissolution of the South Philadelphia Athenæum will be the mythic prototype for an event that will surely recur countless times in my life. My mood matched Satan’s in Paradise Lost, who said after he defied and suffered against Holy Tyranny, banished from the citadel of Heaven, “Though the field is lost. All is not lost; the Unconquerable Will…And what is else not to be overcome.” Like Satan, I now add to all my previous motivations, spite. I will rebuild, if for nothing else, than for spite. Spite is such a prime motivator. It burns so clean.
It is fortunate for me that the city of Philadelphia cannot execute me, as in times past. The can’t even really throw me in prison. Though, if they had been trying to dismantle a budding cultural circle, to hit us where it hurts, they couldn’t have done a better job. An epicenter fell. All plans were deferred and knocked offcourse.
For the time being, I consider the eviction as very little worse than an extended Winter Break, hoping to secure a space in the spring. After some months in Argentina. Most of the Power Squad is still present, if hidden in mouseholes all over the city. It won’t be long until we’re on the watchlist again. You can be sure that the next incarnation will have twice the power. Ever upwards and onwards. I’ll write more about the week on a future post.
A parting shot of the South Philadlephia Athenæum.
(photographs courtesy of Rich)