May 7, 2009


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Counting beans

What is it with apartment complexes anyway?

It seems that every couple of years, one of the major apartment complexes in Chestnut Hill has a serious flare up of resident outrage.

So it was no surprise when Chestnut Hill Village resident Thomas Lind came to visit me a month ago complaining of multiple problems with the management company that owned his apartment building: AIMCO.

Lind’s complaints were not all typical, though. Yes, he said, there were pests. Yes, managers were unhelpful. And there were even concerns about college students and members of Project Transition – a program that places people who have various psychological challenges in apartment settings in an effort to reintegrate them into society.

But there was also a new wrinkle. Residents were looking at utility bills that were three and four times greater than previous bills. Lind said the complaints of residents were brushed aside. Months continued to go by and nothing was done. Lind told me he had had enough and that the residents were going to organize. Lind’s efforts and the strange saga of Chestnut Hill Village’s utility problems were detailed ably in staff writer Joel Hoffmann’s story last week “A Village at odds.”

What Joel found to be true is alarming — high utility bills that correspond to a major downturn in the economy are more significant than a simple accounting snafu —  but it is also perplexing.

For the last three years, Chestnut Hill Village has been hard at work to remake its image from a down-and-out apartment complex to a high-end, hip and youthful luxury living space. Witness the brand-new clubhouse completed this year.  How could a company interested in changing its image allow residents to be overcharged for utilities and then essentially do nothing about it?

If the Village was going luxury, that luxury was only in appearance.

As Joel’s stories — including this week’s installment about Project Transition — reveal AIMCO’s attention to its “product” has been scant. It is one more chapter of our social decline. No one believes in what they’re doing any more. The only purpose of these corporations is to make money. Whether it’s securities exchange, newspapers, apartment management or education, the people in charge seem to care little about the business they’re in. They only care about profits. They’re bean counters. Nothing more.

Like many large corporations, upper management is light years away from the actual services they are supposed to provide — in this case a comfortable home and an attentive staff. AIMCO’s actions show they are not concerned about providing these things to their residents. Complainers like Lind are not disgruntled customers but obstacles to making more money that need to be silenced through eviction or just plain old-fashioned harassment. How long can people put up with fighting to live in comfort anyway?

So long as management is distant, residents of Chestnut Hill Village can expect little improvement. Perhaps the pressure of news stories will make AIMCO clean up its act, but how long will it last? Attention to these details costs time and money. That’s an investment companies like AIMCO clearly don’t feel they need to make.

Pete Mazzaccaro


Commentary: A blessing for everything under and of the sun

We gathered on a hill at Curtis Arboretum at 6:30 a.m. as the sun struggled to climb above the horizon and above the clouds. A truly beautiful time of day in a setting rarely experienced so early in the morning.

In the Hebrew calendar, April 8 marked a once-in-28-years celebration called “Blessing of the Sun,” based on ancient astronomical calculations and linked to the biblical account of Creation, according to which, it is said, the sun was created on a Wednesday.

(The calculations are interesting, a bit complicated, but surprisingly close to understanding that a solar year is approximately, but not exactly, 365 days long.)

Standing on that hill, shivering but sensing the fervent warmth of dozens of young people and adults, singing and praying, I was once again reminded how beautiful our world is — and how fragile. A few days before I had led a Freedom Seder for the Earth, written by local peace activist Rabbi Arthur Waskow.

Seventy-five Christians, Muslims, and Jews had come together at First United Methodist Church of Germantown to acknowledge the damage done to our planet over the past few centuries, and especially the most recent decades. The Seder’s message: We cannot experience full freedom as long as the earth is not free to sustain itself and, thanks to its extraordinary powers, us as well.

That early morning we sang songs from many different traditions — from biblical verses to “Morning Has Broken.” The prayer we recited upon seeing the sunrise was simple, yet full of profound implications: “Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, Responsible for the acts of creation.”

It is not a blessing of or to the sun — an altogether pagan idea — but rather a prayer recognizing the fruits, or effects, of the sun, without which there would be no life. Only after the sun was created did living organisms appear on the planet. (Though not intended as a scientific treatise, the biblical Creation story is amazingly consistent with broad aspects of what we know about the formation of the solar system and the evolution of life.)

In Fiddler on the Roof, the rabbi is asked, “Is there a proper blessing for the czar?” He replies, “We Jews have a blessing for everything. May the Lord bless and keep the czar … far away from us.” While the blessing for the czar does not exist, the notion that there is a blessing for everything comes pretty close to reality.

And, like the blessing “for” the sun, those many blessings acknowledge and praise God, not the object being “blessed.” There is a spiritual practice that says we should recite 100 blessings a day: one hundred times we should acknowledge the intricacies, complexities, and sheer marvels of the world round about us.

There are blessings for bread and for other grain products, for wine, vegetables, and fruits — each one a little different, as if to say, “Don’t take anything for granted. Every part of God’s creation is a miracle in and of itself.”

There are blessings to recite when in the presence of a secular scholar and a Jewish scholar. There’s a blessing that acknowledges a fair ruler. There are separate blessings when beholding a rainbow, spotting the ocean, or hearing thunder. There is a blessing to say after escaping danger or illness.

There’s a blessing to recite upon seeing an exceptionally beautiful person, tree, or field — and another one upon seeing a person or animal of unusual, even deformed, physique. The blessing used over the sun is also used when seeing lightning, experiencing an earthquake, or seeing a comet, exceptionally lofty mountains or exceptionally large rivers.

What can we make of this practice? What is its “meta-message”? I think it says something profound about all creatures and inanimate objects: that — in the words of faith — all of them come from God. Even those that are unsightly. Even those that are different. And so we have an obligation to preserve the earth around us, lest we lose the opportunity to praise God in every particular way imaginable.

We need to see the divine in every creature, including in people who are different from us. Rather than fear “the other,” we need to embrace them. The Cubans, the Palestinians. And, yes, gays.

Rabbi George Stern is executive director of Neighborhood Interfaith Movement (NIM), a coalition of 60 Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Unitarian congregations and faith institutions dedicated to building a vibrant, just, and caring community through learning, service, and advocacy.


A neighborhood and a middle school are breaking new ground

Pickett Middle School, at Wayne Avenue and Rittenhouse Street in Germantown, was one of the worst performing schools in Philadelphia. It had a high rate  of violence and dropouts, which led to a great deal of tension and mistrust between the school’s community and the neighborhood. 

But in the fall of 2007, that all changed.

Today Pickett is run and managed by Mastery Charter School.  There are four of these schools in the city of Philadelphia and they all have a common theme: success. 

Started eight years ago by the current CEO Scott Gordon, and a coalition of businesses and civic leaders, Mastery Charter School’s goal is for 85 percent of its students to enroll in higher education and have a less than 10 percent withdrawal or transfer rate. 

According to its 2009 overview, more than 93 percent of Mastery’s first three graduating classes enrolled in higher education, 67 percent in a four-year college. Violence dropped 85 percent and student turnover dropped by nearly half.

What’s its secret? 

“Mastery hires the best teachers and has very high expectations.” Gordon said. “Part of turning around a school that is failing and has a bad reputation in the community and a lot of antagonism, is to build relationships with parents and the community. And so a community garden is an awesome way to do that.  We have a gardening club in the school, and neighbors can participate.”

Mastery English teacher Sarah Cadwallader  is an example of the dedication of the staff and commitment to the students and the school. 

With the help of Nicole Juday from the Wyck historic house and garden, City Harvest, 35 Penn State students, Mastery staff, students and neighbors, Cadwallader and fellow teacher Meredith McGlinchy organized a new garden on what was once a decrepit, old tennis court on the school grounds.

“This was a broken up tennis court, vines, trees through the cracks,” said Wyck gardener Juday. “The school, this winter, cleared all the black top off and then Wyck got involved with the design and the planning process. We worked with City Harvest to get many of the plants donated. Tons of volunteers came out today — over 100 — building this garden, which will function as the after school garden club. Then, hopefully in the summer of 2010, there will be a summer program. 

“We have tons of crops and seeds that we’ll be planting, but we’ve already put in asparagus, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and we’ll be putting in some brassicas.  But this day is about getting a lot of community input to get the garden going.  Then we’ll start having the kids grow their own food.  In the summertime it will function as a community garden, so anyone who’s involved in the process at this point, in exchange for working will get to harvest some of the food.”  

“I’m hoping that it will bring the neighborhood together. You walk out your door and the neighbors really don’t know one another,” said April Brown, who lives across the street from the school. “I’ve met a lot of people and it gives my children the opportunity to grow some fresh vegetables and eat healthier.”

At least 250 lbs. of produce will be donated to a charity of the students’ choice.  This was the agreement made with City Harvest for all its help and donations.  The kids will have to decide what will happen with the rest.

“It really is a marriage between the community and the school,” Juday said. “Wyck is just helping to facilitate the whole thing.”


Dave Montgomery: Phils’ ticket sales up in a down economy

When Philadelphia Phillies president Dave Montgomery and I sat down to talk about his World Series champions, it was just three days after his longtime friend and Phils’ voice Harry Kalas died in the broadcast booth at Nationals Park in Washington. Understandably the conversation began with some of Montgomery’s memories and what the Kalas loss meant to his team.

“Harry and I spent 38 years and a little more together,” Montgomery said. “The strongest thing that I feel about him was that he treated everybody the same. He had this incredible passion for the game. The fans knew that. He connected with them in such a strong way.

“They connected with Harry as a talent and the voice and the gifted announcer and also with Harry the person. He never turned anybody down. He was man of the fans.”

Montgomery, like many others, was thrilled that Kalas got to call the final Series-clinching out last October.

“All of the announcers wanted Harry to [call the last game’s last inning],” he said. “That call took place at the end of what may have been the most bizarre game in World Series history.”

To set the scene: When the game was begun on Monday, Oct. 27, it rained so hard that the game was played in conditions that were ultimately deemed unplayable. With the score tied at 2, the game was suspended, resuming two days later when the Phils won it 4-3, capturing the Series, 4 games to 1.

Montgomery, 62, reflected on his feelings as that weird and ultimately, from a Phillies point of view, wonderful game unfolded.

“I felt very conflicted,” he said in the interview in his Wyndmoor home. “What I mean by that is I know the desire was not [to have] the outcome of that game be truncated.

“On the one hand, I was hoping we would get [the whole game played]. Then, where you have the lead, you’re saying, ‘Wow, once we get by five innings we could be world champs.’ That’s what I mean by ‘conflicted.’ The beauty of it was, as it turned out, that it was the best thing for baseball that it was tied.”

If it hadn’t been tied they would have had to go into a long rain delay. If it were tied, then the game could be suspended.

“As much as I wanted to win, period,” Montgomery said, “the fact that the game that night under those conditions was stopped, made me proud of our fans, who came back 48 hours later.

“The way it worked out made it so much more special. We start at 8:37 on Wednesday and from the time Geoff Jenkins hits that ball into the right centerfield gap until the end our fans never sat down.”

After all the celebration for the series victory, Montgomery, the team and its fans were looking forward to the beginning of the new season. The hope is, of course, that the Phillies will repeat, something that is very hard to do these days in a 30-team sport that has had only five repeat winners since 1970: the Oakland Athletics, 1972-74; the Cincinnati Reds, 1975-76; the New York Yankees, 1977-78 and 1998-2000; and the Toronto Blue Jays, 1992-93.

“History would show that it’s not easy [to repeat] since it hasn’t been done in our league since the Big Red Machine in 1975-76,” Montgomery said. “I think it’s tough in our sport to be one of the four in the National League to get back to post-season [play]. Unlike baseball and hockey, which take about half the clubs into the playoffs, baseball only takes a quarter.”

“You play double the season of basketball and hockey and only half the number of clubs qualify,” he said, noting that if you’re one of those eight clubs, “anything can happen.”

With the Phils the world champions, plans needed to be made for the next season. The most significant change made in the off-season was the release of popular left fielder Pat Burrell, a move, Montgomery said, the team didn’t take lightly.

They told Burrell, he said, that if he came back to the Phils he would be replaced for defensive purposes toward the end of ballgames and might get more at bats, and more chances to really help his club in the American League, which has the designated hitter.

Montgomery was pleased with Burrell’s reaction to the release and said that from the beginning he acted in a typically classy fashion. Getting the opportunity to return to Philadelphia for the two pre-season games and then being at the ceremony when the World Series rings were awarded demonstrates just how classy Burrell is, Montgomery said. The fans and the Phillies organization were delighted to have him here, and the players will miss his presence in the locker room.

Montgomery said Raul Ibanez replaced Burrell in left field. In Ibanez, he said, “we have a more complete player.”

“Raul has been described to me in the category of Dale Murphy and Jim Thome,” he said. “In the clubhouse there’s no higher compliment then to be put in the category with those two gentlemen. [On the field he has speed that allows him] to go first to third, as opposed to Pat who was base to base.”

While the Burrell loss got the most headlines, Montgomery said that the most important changes to this year’s team “are in the [pitching] rotation.”

“A year ago we didn’t have [Joe] Blanton, Cole [Hamels] hadn’t emerged and Brett [Myers] had a tough time adjusting to the rotation,” he explained. “We were encouraged by the way Brett threw in the second half [of last season].”

As the current season gets underway, the national economy is facing difficult times, to say the least. But thanks to the Phillies’ World Series victory, “we’re very fortunate right now,” Montgomery said.

“If you were cutting out something [because of the recession], they’re not cutting us out yet,” he added.

Season ticket sales have risen about 20 percent over last year, from 20,389 to 24,300.

“We were so fortunate in the face of the economy and all the struggles people all around us are having,” he said. “If you had to pick one year that you would like to have been successful in order to not feel the effects the way other [teams] have, this would be the year.”