Milton Glaser

This past fall I had the chance to work with writer Leah Hood on an unusual project for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society.

"Departure and Discovery: New Directions at the Apex of Creativity" explores the concept of "late style"—that is, what do artists create when they have nothing left to prove? 

Hood interviewed a score of prominent creators—writers, dancers, designers, producers, scientists, actors, and yes, musicians—for a blog that accompanied a trio of curated concerts, all supported by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

Milton Glaser has the rare distinction of being a famous graphic designer. I ❤ NY is his. The iconic 60s poster of Bob Dylan with a Medusa-like fury of colored hair is his. So is the Brooklyn Brewery identity. And the ill-fated Trump Vodka. He cofounded New York Magazine. 

If you use Canva, a Glaser quote pops up occasionally as the app is loading: “There are three responses to a piece of design—yes, no, and WOW! Wow is the one to aim for.”

Leah and I were wowed by Milton Glaser. Not just his insight and body of work, but his humble and considerate attitude as we plied him with both camera and questions. Read the essay here.

Sandy Salzman, urban pioneer

Sandy became administrative assistant at New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC) in 1995 and was promoted to director in 1998.

As director of the Fishtown Civic Association from 1980 to 1988, Sandy had presided over the country's first smoke detector give-away program.

Under her leadership, NKCDC set a national best practice for neighborhood revitalization through vacant land management. Over two decades, through community participation and a partnership with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the NKCDC reclaimed more than 90% of the 1,100 vacant parcels in Fishtown and East Kensington. 

Today, those neighborhoods are among the fastest-growing in Philadelphia. "The community would never have been able to have economic development had we not first done land use management, because it stabilized the neighborhood," Sandy says.

During her 22 years at NKCDC, Sandy accepted the Best Practices award from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Organization of Excellence award from NeighborWorks America.

In October 2016 she retired, changed her cell phone number and attended a big party at Philadelphia Brewing Company. Thank you, Sandy, for your decades of hard work!

Can art aid mental health?

Porch Light is an unusual partnership between Philadelphia's Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS) and Mural Arts Philadelphia, a nationally recognized arts organization. This spring, Porch Light opened a new community space in Kensington, Philadelphia—a neighborhood that was once the "workshop of the world" but is now the largest street market for illegal drugs on the East Coast. 

“We’re trying everything,” DBHIDS Deputy Commissioner Roland Lamb told the Philadelphia Inquirer in March. “Treatment programs are not going to be enough. Police are not going to be enough. But if we invest in the community, that will be a real opportunity to make a change.”

The community has been working hard to make change happen. Local nonprofits, including NKCDC and Impact Services Corporation (two active community development corporations) and Prevention Point (a full-service needle exchange and harm reduction center) are helping to coordinate programming for the space, and a neighborhood advisory committee has selected teaching artists to lead workshops there. In addition, a team of muralists is working with community members to create a piece of public art that will be installed in the neighborhood.

"When violence and crime happens, when people are dying from an overdose in large numbers, I think it diminishes our humanity. We lose part of our heart and soul as a city," Mural Arts Executive Director Jane Golden told Plan Philly. "Art can be part of building people's strength."

To learn more, visit facebook.com/kensingtonstorefront.

From blighted to blooming

Soon after I returned from Indonesia last year, I took a job with New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC). One of NKCDC's biggest projects this year is Orinoka Civic House, a $17.8 million overhaul of the abandoned Orinoka Mills factory in Kensington.

“The Orinoka Mills building was the biggest, baddest, ugliest thing going," NKCDC's former executive director, Sandy Salzman, told  Generocity in 2016. "We worked really, really hard with lots and lots of people from the Redevelopment Authority and the Office of Housing and Community Development and Councilman [Mark] Squilla and Councilwoman [Maria Quiñones] Sánchez, the Commerce Department—all these city agencies, to try to get this building. … And then of course, we had to raise the money to renovate it.”

Residents are currently moving into 51 affordable one and two bedroom apartments. The building will also contain community space, a small storefront, and NKCDC's new offices. PlanPhilly organized this tour of the space in April 2017.

Taipei rain

Through a tiny window travelers get a tiny glimpse of a place halfway between here and there. I was in Taiwan nine months ago, and this is what I know.

‘Road trip to Indonesia’ is not a thing

Torajan farm

A morning walk to our host’s family home was the perfect way to end our time in Toraja, Sulawesi. Aside from serving the best sambal (chili paste) of the trip, his mother loaded us up with pounds of fresh coffee beans for us to roast at home. We drank lots of delicious roasted coffee there, too, in the Torajan style where you put the fine grounds straight in the hot water—with plenty of sugar, of course—and then wait for everything to settle before you drink.

Makale market, Toraja

The Toraja Region of Sulawesi may be known for its customs around death, but its towns are brimming with life. These photos were taken at the traditional market in Makale during a three-week tour of Indonesia last summer.

Torajan burials

As part of Paulus Paramma’s three-day orientation to traditional Torajan life and customs, we visited two ancient burial sites, Ke'te' Kesu and the Londa Graveyard. Each included tongkonan—the Torajan ceremonial houses—and sheer cliffs peppered with caves that contained coffins and effigies of the deceased, in various states of decay. Where there were no caves to hold bodies, coffins were cantilevered over the cliff face on wooden frames. Where the frames gave way, bones and broken coffins were recovered and stacked along the base of the cliff.

Ke'te' Kesu has been in use by the same family for 10 generations. It contained a variety of cliffside graves as well as contemporary mausolea.

Torajan houses

In addition to elaborate funeral customs, Torajans are known for maintaining a caste-based society, where “blue-blood” members of the community demonstrate their status (and support the local economy) by building distinctive horn-shaped ceremonial houses called tongkonan. Traditional tongkonan are constructed without metal hardware, and are used to display the horns and jawbones of animals slaughtered in family ceremonies—also a sign of status. At least two water buffalo must be killed to consecrate a tongkonan itself.

Torajan funeral

Toraja is both a distinctive ethnic group and a mountainous region of South Sulawesi, Indonesia. To a large extent, Torajans are known for death. Funerals are an important focus of community life, lasting for several days. Depending on a family's social status and the stature of the deceased, they require the slaughter of dozens of pigs and water buffalo, and the construction of a small village of temporary bamboo structures to host hundreds of guests.

Because funerals are astronomically expensive—a prize water buffalo can cost $60,000 US—funerals are delayed for months or even years until the family can afford them. In the meantime, the deceased is embalmed, referred to as "sick," and included in daily household activities in a kind of extended wake that boggles the North American mind.

Paulus Paramma, a Torajan friend of my cousin, Greg, invited us to his family home near Makale, the capital of Tana Toraja Regency. While there we had the opportunity to attend the third of a four-day funeral for the sister of a family friend.

What we did not see were 12 rounds of water buffalo fighting on the first day, the slaughter of buffalo on any given morning, dancing in the evening, or the burial on the final day. What we did witness was preparing and butchering pigs, distributing meat to neighbors and guests and cooking and eating delicious buffalo and pork, all with the backdrop of a stunningly rugged mountain farm.

One of Greg's colleagues at the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies at Gadjah Mada University delivered this TED Talk about Torajan funerals in 2013.

Passing through Makassar

It turns out that three weeks of feverish photography can produce a lot of blog posts! I’m hitting highlights of last summer’s trip through Java, Kalimantan and Sulawesi islands in Indonesia.

Makassar is a bustling port city on the southern end of Sulawesi. We spent a quick day there with my cousin’s friend Lydia, talking about her native Toraja, visiting the faded Fort Rotterdam and looking at goldfish in plastic bags.

Bule and me

Pokemon did not seem to be an all-consuming pastime in Indonesia when I visited. But collecting selfies with bule (BOO-lay—foreigners; literally "albinos") certainly is. Being politely asked to pose for pictures with Indonesians at popular landmarks was a refreshing counterbalance to the base voyeurism and trophy collection I do as a tourist with a camera. 

Riverfront property


Pangkalan Bun is the closest town to Tanjung Puting National Park with an airport. Its riverfront is full of life. Den, our klotok guide through the national park, took us on a river walk that ended with a long motorboat ride downstream at sunset.

Meeting orangutan

Tanjung Puting National Park, on the southern coast of Central Kalimantan, is famous for orangutans, who only live on Kalimantan and Sumatra. Dr. Birute Galdikas began studying the primates in 1971, becoming the third of paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey's “angels” (along with chimpanzee scientist Jane Goodall and mountain gorilla researcher Dian Fossey).

Today one can take a slow houseboat called a klotok about 25 miles up the Kumai and Sekonyer rivers to Camp Leakey, the research and education facility founded by Galdikas and her former husband, Rod Brindamour.

Although some 60 klotoks are in operation, the trip feels amazingly remote and wild. In addition to orangutans, in two days and nights on the boat we saw mouse deer, wild boars, gibbons, hornbills, long-tailed macaques, silver and maroon leaf monkeys, proboscis monkeys, carnivorous pitcher plants, tarantulas, a freshwater crocodile, a dung beetle and an owl.

Night

Night feels like a magical time in small Indonesian towns. Evening comes early—sunset is around 6:00 p.m.—and streetlights are sparse. In Salatiga's central square, young people and tourists can pay to take a spin on pedal carts tricked out with sound systems and colored LEDs.

Upcycling, Indonesian style

Sapu (sapuupcycle.com) bills itself as a creative art community working at the foot of the Mt. Merbabu volcano in central Java. Designers, artists and craftspeople from Indonesia and Australia collaborate to produce a array of bags, wallets and jewelry out of recycled rubber and canvas. Michelle, Greg and I looked at their goods at ViaVia—a funky fair trade shop, restaurant and guesthouse in Yogyakarta—and then visited their small cluster of open-air workrooms in Salatiga.

Amazing products. We bought most of our gifts here.

Independence Day

Recapping an action-packed August trip through central Indonesia...

Indonesia's Independence Day is August 17, but flags and bunting begin appearing a week before, and parades and celebrations continued until the end of the month.

In her engaging and witty "Indonesia Etc." Elizabeth Pisani reports:

When the country's founding fathers declared independence from Dutch colonists in 1945, the declaration read, in its entirety: “We, the people of Indonesia, hereby declare the independence of Indonesia. Matters relating to the transfer of power etc. will be executed carefully and as soon as possible.”

Indonesia has been working on that “etc.” ever since.

Wayang (Indonesian shadow puppets)

Continuing to recap a fantastic three weeks touring Indonesia with Greg Vanderbilt, a lecturer at the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta.

Wayang is an Indonesian shadow puppet performance. Traditionally the show is accompanied by a gamelan orchestra with the dalang (puppet master) providing dialogue and narration for the figures he raises against the screen.

Many performances start in the evening and go all night, accompanied by food and other festivities. The most familiar stories are taken from the Hindu Ramayana and Mahabharata, but in this case, we watched wayang wahyu, Christian wayang, in celebration of the anniversary of a Catholic seminary in Yogyakarta.

Interestingly, all the seats were placed facing the “back” of the screen because it’s so popular to watch the dalang at work. This was perfect for me—I spent the first act wandering back and forth between the “right” side (where a few traditionalists were standing) and the “backstage” side (where everyone else was).