Philadelphia’s Big Green Block and why it’s important

On my block in West Chester, last month, workers were boring test holes in the street to discover the best depth for surface water to drain into the subsoil. I said: “But isn’t it all clay down there?” and they said: “No, we are hitting sand and loam at about 5 feet.”

The Borough plans to install, at strategic points, “bumpouts” to absorb storm runoff into garden-like areas and from there into underground holding tanks and into the subsoil. The chief goal is to reduce runoff into streams and consequently reduce erosion and water-borne pollution.

On November 19 I found out more background through a walking tour sponsored by the SE PA Sierra Club in Philadelphia’s “Big Green Block.” My notes from the very interesting tour conducted by Sandy of the Fairmount Water Works show that…

About 60% of Philadelphia has a combined storm and sewage water system, as is common on many older cities. This works fine in dry weather, because in those areas water runoff goes through the sewage processing system and many street pollutants, like drippage from cars and pet wastes, are cleaned out of the water before it goes into the Delaware River. But it is bad in wet weather, when the combined system is overwhelmed and untreated sewage goes into the river from 164 separate overflow points.

Now, along with over 800 other cities, Philadelphia is under federal order to cure the overflow problem. They could do that by separating sewage and storm flow. But that would be extremely expensive and intrusive. So, the city is aiming to cut down on storm runoff into the combined system. This solution has the added benefits of restoring water to underground aquifers, favoring tree growth, and naturally filtering street pollutants.

bumpout-norris-aveSo as a demonstration project, Philadelphia committed some money, got some grants, and reappropriated a very large, basically abandoned block in Fishtown that had been a rail yard. This fits into the city’s comprehensive Green Waters, Clean Streams plan, now in action for over 5 years.

rain-garden-streetThe Big Green Block now houses the Kensington Creative and Performing Arts High School (the first LEED platinum high school in the whole country), a park for people and one for dogs, a rec center, and facilities specially designed to retain and absorb water: green roofs, playing fields (including underlying geothermal energy fields), rain gardens, tree trenches, a stormwater bumpout, infiltration basins, a rainwater cistern, and porous parking pavement.

The special feature that we notice most readily is the rain gardens, which create pleasant habitats for trees, flowers, grasses, and animals like insects and possibly amphibians and reptiles. Rain gardens, fortunately, are engineered not to hold standing water more than a couple of days, to be sure that they do not breed mosquitoes.

We also note that what was once a somewhat rundown area is now a flourishing neighborhood where people meet, walk, study, and play, with many new and refurbished buildings.

Meanwhile, West Chester is working on its own green infrastructure. You can see a rain garden on Dean St. and a series of catchment basins east of New St. on the WCU campus where Plum Run once flowed (a concern if the proposed new building there diverts additional drainage water into the stream). And demonstration features are planned in the Borough Hall grounds.

The Borough now has a Stream Management Program designed to control rapid runoff, including (as of January) a Stream Protection Fee that impacts property owners (including ones that otherwise are untaxable) in proportion to their amount of impermeable surface or, in other words, the amount of precipitation that potentially flows away without being absorbed. Proceeds will be used to upgrade the aging storm water drainage system and install features like rain gardens and bumpouts.

This is all to the good. Cities like Philadelphia and municipalities like those in Chester County need to be good citizens by reducing runoff, thus improving stream quality and the lives of downstream communities that drink that same water.

Could a Big Green Block be good overall element in the Borough’s still-undeveloped Wyeth property? One can dream….

Posted in Environment | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Eight election epigrams

1024px-white_house_06-02-08Half the country hopes he meant what he said and half hopes he didn’t. Just like 8 years ago, but not the same halves.

There’s right, wrong, and politics. When questions have only two answers to most voters—right and wrong—politicians beware!

The Democrats’ hoped-for version of 2010: if it doesn’t come in 2018, will it ever?

A white woman to follow a black man? That was asking more than many Americans could handle.

Workers white, black, Latino, female, male, undocumented: what do they have in common and how can men of ill will pit them against each other? US history—from the beginning to last week—shows how: it’s not the worker part. Divide et impera, as the ancients said.

All things to all people: enough people believe that a candidate is listening, hears their needs, and will work for them in office. A track record can be too long. Then, all things to all people quickly turns into some things to some people, and the equation becomes: “all minus some = disenchantment.”

If the only thing to fear is fear itself, what is the only thing to hate?

Logic 101:”A includes B” does not prove that “B includes A.” Thus: white supremacists may support X, but not all X supporters are white supremacists. Fortunately.

Offer a 70-year-old man the chance to become a good, empathetic, rational person? The triumph of hope over developmental psychology.

(Photo: public domain, from Wikimedia Commons)

Posted in Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

The triumph of global warming?

The day after the election, an azalea bush in full bloom momentarily distracted me from what happened in Pennsylvania and the country the day before.


Because of the fall colors in the leaves, you need to look a bit closely, but the bush bears dozens of purple blossoms. I’ve seen older azaleas here tricked into putting out a couple of blooms on one branch, but never a whole array in mid-November. The hot weather of most of the fall must have seemed like spring to the plants… as well as to us.

People here sometimes say at times like this: and what’s so bad about global warming? Actually, here in Chester County we are pretty lucky. Not only are we a beautiful county with a lot of preserved open space, but we don’t have big rivers and dams or low-lying sea coasts. We will need to manage our storm runoff better, as West Chester is starting to do and probably other municipalities as well; but we don’t have huge forces of nature arrayed against us. Global warming will make us hotter in summer but we can probably deal with it, and so far at least, droughts have been rare here.

The irony of this year’s election is that people who voted for the national winner are more likely than we are (he lost Chester County by 25,000 more votes) to suffer the consequences as time goes on. His most ardent supporters will see declines in health care, public education, and employment options (it will turn out that “reform” unfortunately does not mean “recreate and improve”). Meanwhile, those who live along the Mississippi and the Gulf and East Coasts will see the storm waters rising around them.

From the Delmarva peninsula south to just short of Miami, and then around the Gulf Coast almost to Mexico, the man who called global warming a hoax predominated in voting. People there will not be any more immune to megastorms and tidal surges than those in the endangered Pacific islands. But in West Chester, we’ll continue to enjoy our gardens into what used to be thought of as late fall.

Posted in Environment | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Now what do I do with those political signs and wickets?

Winners exult, losers lament, and all of us wonder what to do with our growing collection of political signs and their metal support rods (AKA wickets).

They were so important to sway voters’ minds… maybe… and now??

If your candidate might ever run again for the same office, 6 months or 2 or 4 years from now, save the sign in garage or basement. A little rust won’t hurt; in fact, it makes them more secure in the ground and less easy for evil-doers to pull out.

256px-2008-08-03_White_German_Shepherd_supporting_Barack_ObamaPhoto by Ildar Sagdejev from Wikimedia Commons

You might wish  to keep one sign as a memento of each campaign of historic importance… for a future collage on your garage wall, maybe?


• The sign, perched on its wicket and slanted at a judicious angle, is great for shading delicate plants and transplants from hot summer sun.

• A sign can also temporarily block holes in picket fences where rabbits and rodents might otherwise enter your back yard (e.g., while you’ve removed pickets for repainting).

• The paper or plastic part of signs makes a good paint drop cloth. Add more signs to cover more area. Or cut the plastic signs at the sides and fold them out to be twice as large.

• Lay plastic signs on the ground under your eaves to prevent water infiltration, and cover them with dirt or stones.

• In messy weather, use signs to protect carpet underfoot in your car (just be sure not to give a ride to the candidate in question during that time).

• The wicket is excellent for propping up floppy bushes and flowers.

For lower plants, cut or bend the wicket supports. For really tall ones, straighten the metal out.

The collapsible type of wickets, whose two legs are separate, with no link across the top, are a terrible pain in political use (because the legs keep falling off), but the components serve well as individual plant supports (with ties or string).

The type of wicket that looks like a ladder with two prongs extending up into a corrugated sign are great for supporting plants, which are held in place by the arms.

• Here’s a remedy for those clothes hangers that dry cleaners send back pants hanging on, and whose sticky cardboard crosspiece tends to sag on reuse: cut a piece of wicket to the right length and insert it inside the cardboard. That one won’t ever sag again!

• Use a wicket segment to stick between a window sash and the frame above (e.g., above an air conditioner) to prevent it from being raised from the outside.

• Insert wicket lengths between studs to hold up wall insulation and prevent sagging.

• I’ve used a wicket folded triple ply to insert inside a bamboo pole and then into a flag holder whose opening was too small for the bamboo. The metal made a strong link where wood and thinner bamboo had collapsed under the strain.

• To stitch together segments of chicken wire or garden netting to keep off birds and rodents, whether vertically or horizontally: straighten out a wicket (they are surprisingly long in a straight line) and thread the resulting steel rod through the two adjoining segments.

• In art works. No kidding, I’ve seen in museums what looked to me like vertical clumps of campaign wickets with pieces of wood or corks jammed onto them. Adaptive reuse at its most esthetic.

How to cut regular metal wickets by repeated bending? Some wickets are thinner and much more bendable than others. Be careful; use gloves and eye protection. It can be done by brute hand strength, or by pliers, to bend repeatedly until the metal fatigues and breaks. Hack saws take too long; this is tough metal! I guess a bolt cutter would work.

If all adaptive reuse fails, an enterprising person or organization can collect wickets and sell them to the scrap yard for a few pennies a pound and the satisfaction of recycling metal and thereby reducing carbon emissions.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Wasif Qureshi, Emerge USA, and the Muslim Vote

On November 5 I talked with local resident Wasif Qureshi, chair of the Emerge USA/PA Foundation.

What is Emerge USA?

Emerge USA started in southern Florida about ten years ago in order to encourage Muslims to take a more active role in civic life. Emerge USA educates the voter base about civic rights, issues, and candidates. It then spread to other states such as Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan, and Delaware.

When was it founded and what has it accomplished so far?

Emerge USA was active in the 2008 and 2012 elections and now in 2016. Its theme is “emerging leaders – emerging voters – emerging data.” The data allow Emerge USA to track legislative performance, create educated citizens, and to keep in contact with Muslim voters, especially building for the future by getting youth involved and teaching them political leadership skills with the Emerging Leaders Program.

Registering voters at Eid, 2016
emerge-voter-infoAre there many Muslims in the US?

About 3.3 million. It is not an ethnic category: many African Americans are Muslims; many Arabs are Christians, many South Asians are Hindus. Many live in urban areas such as New York City and Philadelphia (over 200,000).

How did you move into your current role in Emerge USA?

My involvement redoubled in the current election cycle. My son started crying unconsolably after catching a glimpse of the Republican primary debates. “They are going to throw us out or kill us all,” he sobbed. As a father and medical doctor, I had to do all I could after that to counteract rhetoric that terrifies our children and puts our women in the front line, as they can be more identifiable as “the other” than men.

Also, I used to give talks in other parts of the state with late Emerge USA/PA Foundation chair Mazhar Rishi, a role model to many of us, and I promised him to continue his work.

How about the political process?

Often in the past, politicians were usually just looking for photo ops before an election. We are pushing them to get beyond that. We want to integrate Muslims into the electoral process. The Emerge USA Foundation is non-partisan; one thing we do is register voters.

We organized a forum with local candidates on October 13 in West Goshen, with excellent attendance and discussion. We invited candidates from both parties; ultimately 6 Democrats and one Republican participated.

On Friday, imams at the several mosques in our area urged Muslims to perform their civic duty to vote. This year I expect the highest ever Muslim vote.

Emerge USA also has a PAC, which endorses candidates, but I am not involved with that.

What other projects does Emerge USA carry out?

We were involved with the Philly Eid project, which earlier this year succeeded in getting our holy days Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha added to the official school calendar in Philadelphia.

Historically, have Muslims in this country participated readily in voting, running for office, and other forms of civic engagement?

In 2000 Muslim votes gave George Bush the victory in Florida; in 2016 they gave Bernie Sanders the victory over Hillary Clinton in Michigan.

The Muslim ethos is to use every moment in life to do things for others; participating in political life is important to us.

Last year we ran an Emerging Leaders Program for several college graduates, encouraging them to grow as leaders, including in political life.

Can the current unsettling national rhetoric have a positive side?

Martin Luther King Jr. put a lid on xenophobic and racist rhetoric, but now it has emerged into public view again. However, people don’t fear the consequences as much now; it needs to be talked about to be vanquished.

In 2001 Muslims had to register with the INS when leaving or entering the country; that is out now. When our young people don’t find support in their schools, they can go online. Adults have seen discrimination and are better equipped to deal with it.

Islam is about the people around us, helping them feel comfortable and welcome. We do a lot of interfaith activity, support others, and receive support.

See also:

Dean Obeidallah, “Hillary Clinton’s Khizr Khan Campaign Ad Finally Gives American Muslims the Humanity They Deserve,” Huffington Post, 10/24/16

Wajahat Ali, “The Khizr Khan Voters,” New York Times, 11/1/16, including a reference to Emerge USA

Ivey DeJesus, “Muslim PAC gets the vote out for Hillary Clinton in battleground Pennsylvania, PennLive, 11/4/16

Posted in Civil rights, Religion | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Observing the strike at West Chester University

This morning I went over to West Chester University to check out the second day of the strike there. No one enjoys or wants a strike. I know higher education from both sides, at four different institutions, as a faculty member and administrator for about equal lengths of time till I retired. I spoke with several faculty members (which include librarians) in the picket lines that ring the main campus.

The mood was quite upbeat. The strikers felt they were making their point and appreciated the strong support in evidence from students, who were circulating to offer coffee or water to the picketers or joining them with signs. Students were also lightening the atmosphere by performing music at the corner of High St. and University Ave. “Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions,” one sign there proclaimed.

Here are some perceptions I heard of the issues at stake.

1) Support for higher education. There was concern that the state’s contribution to the State System of Higher Education has been slipping. One can blame not only administrative priorities but also the often tortuous budget process in Harrisburg (talk to your state senator or representative about that).

2) Top leadership. I heard from several that the Chancellor is not interested enough in faculty welfare or student outcomes. “I think it’s really unconscionable that this Chancellor has not advocated for students,” one professor told me. The Chancellor apparently claims that faculty work only 17 hours a week, counting only in-class and office time and ignoring preparation time, reading homework and exams, email and phone contact with students outside of office hours, and so on. I can tell you, being either a faculty member of an administrator is much more than a 40 hour a week job.

3) Adjuncts. These are teachers who have no long-term contract and are pretty much at the call of the administration semester by semester. They are union members (or otherwise pay the “fair share” from their paychecks), just like the permanent faculty, but don’t enjoy the same rate of pay or benefits. The State system’s proposal to have adjuncts teach a 5th class has now come off the negotiating table. No one, in my experience, can teach that many classes and maintain the standards that students deserve. “Permanent” faculty now teach 4 + 4 (i.e., 8 classes a year), which is already quite high where research and governance participation are expected. Assigning more classes to adjuncts would further reduce the ratio of permanent faculty.

4) Pay and health insurance. These did not seem to be at the top of the faculty list, even though pay may rise just enough to offset unwelcome increases in health costs to faculty. I heard opposition to planned cuts for faculty development, though, and also criticism of the System’s attempt to divide faculty by giving different health plans to future and current faculty after they retire. As I witnessed long ago during a faculty strike at Boston University, “divide and conquer” is a usual management technique.

5) Class size.
I heard concern that the number of students per class will continue to rise until it pushes the fire code limit, which in many classrooms is 40 (except that the new Business School can go higher). Obviously, the more students, the less interaction time per student in class and the more pressure on faculty not to assign time-intensive work like term papers and essay-type exams.
6) Distance education. The System is said to be pushing distance education (i.e., not in class but via a screen) as “more efficient.” From what I saw, faculty aren’t against some uses of distance ed but feel that if substituted for a real classroom experience, it’s one more threat to academic quality. One professor feared that students might be forced to take distance education courses, whether they wanted or not.

At the end I spoke with Ed Lordan, spokesperson for the WCU APSCUF union. He sees the strike as going well, with solid faculty involvement and lots of student support. After 15 fruitless months of negotiation and without a contract, he said, this strike has to solve the pending issues; this effort is not short-term, but will benefit students 10 and 20 years from now.

More info:

APSCUF – lots more problems the faculty union sees in the State system’s position

State System of Higher Education – their view of the negotiations and strike

WCU web site strike info


Posted in Education, Labor | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Gerrymandering is the real election fraud

Today I needed to remember where congressional district 7 is. Over there to the east of West Chester, right? Right. I looked it up. But it’s also south, west and north of West Chester.


On this map of the local districts, the green in the upper right quadrant is part of the 6th district. The blue that meanders around its edges is part of the 7th district. The green projection from Oxford to Coatesville belongs to the 16th district.

And so it goes on all sides: The 6th district sticks its neck out north to Kutztown and west to Lebanon. The left lobe of district 7 reaches almost to Reading and the right lobe beyond King of Prussia; those two parts are linked by a slender corridor between Coatesville and Downington. The 16th district extends from our area all the way to the Susquehanna River and north to Reading.

What mental wing housed the person who designed these districts? Sad to say, it’s the Pennsylvania General Assembly, that is, our elected officials in Harrisburg.

Their madness has inspired some people’s creative side. In a contest called by Chesco state senator Andy Dinniman (D-19), the winning title for CD 7 was “Bullwinkle J. Moose,” after a children’s cartoon character of that name.


The madness of gerrymandering, however, is all in the self-interest of the perpetrators. After the Tea Party propelled the Republican party to a big majority in both the State Senate and House on 2010, their party forced these districts through Harrisburg, violating all norms of community and all convenience of legislators, candidates, and voters. Their point was to push as many Democrats as possible into a few districts and give the Republicans winning margins in the rest. It worked brilliantly: the state has a lot more registered Democrats, but a lot more Republicans elected to Harrisburg and Washington.

This is not just politics as usual. It has risen to the level of anti-American election rigging, to use a term popularized this year on both the left and the right. Non-existent “voter impersonation fraud” is used as an excuse to disenfranchise millions of Americans (miraculously, that effort was beaten back in our own state, but will corrupt outcomes in many others) and meanwhile, gerrymandering makes a mockery of what should be an honest, open effort to determine the will of the people. You know, “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” as the first Republican president phrased it long ago.

The people in Harrisburg who put through this ignoble scheme should be ashamed of themselves. I hope they will soon have a lot of free time in which to repent.

What’s to be done? The two major parties need to come to approximate parity in Harrisburg before the next redrawing of boundaries, after the census of 2020. It would be helpful if a few Libertarians and Greens joined the mix and induced the others to see the folly of trying to undo democratic representation for the sake of party interests and personal careers. Then, “our” state government could change redistricting to a non-partisan process that would draw all districts as compactly (and non-creatively) as possible and split up the fewest municipalities possible.

Too much to dream for? Not for me.

The public interest group Common Cause has been trying to reform Pennsylvania redistricting since 1980. In 2015 a few legislators formed a working group to work on reform. I wish them luck. For the sake of public confidence in our government, we must end, as soon as possible, the massive election fraud of gerrymandering.

PS 10/21/16: for more PA background, see the comment and reply below. For the history of gerrymandering, see Elizabeth Kolbert, “Drawing the Line: How redistricting turned America from blue to red,” The New Yorker, 6/27/16. Kolbert’s examples circle around Pennsylvania, most notably (referring to after the 2010 census):

The new Republican majority “packed” blue-leaning voters into a handful of districts around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Then it “cracked” the rest into districts that tilted red.

The original gerrymander—named for Massachusetts’ ninth governor, Elbridge Gerry—was a sinuous blob that wound around Boston. (“The Gerry-Mander: A new species of Monster” read the headline over a cartoon of the district that ran in the March 26, 1812, edition of the Boston Gazette.) Among the misshapen districts to emerge from Pennsylvania’s 2011 redistricting plan is one Daley describes as looking “like a horned antelope barrelling down a hill on a sled.” Another has been compared to Donald Duck kicking Goofy in the groin. So skillfully were the lines drawn that in 2012—when President Obama carried Pennsylvania by three hundred thousand votes and the state’s Democratic congressional candidates collectively outpolled their G.O.P. rivals by nearly a hundred thousand votes—Republicans still won thirteen of Pennsylvania’s eighteen seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Arguably the most distorted map in the country” is how one researcher described the Pennsylvania districts. “In Pennsylvania, the Gerrymander of the Decade?” the Web site Real Clear Politics asked….

Posted in Voting | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments