Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Seeing the sights

This computer I borrowed from my employer is so jammed up with spyware, adware, evilware, bacteriaware, and parasiteware that I expect everyone from the CIA to Merck is logging my keystrokes, but what the heck, I got nothin' to hide.

I went to college in the Philadelphia suburbs so back in the day I drove from Connecticut to Philadelphia a few times a year. Doing it again a bit later -- well, okay, it's been more than 20 years -- not much has changed. The Bronx from the Cross Bronx Expressway looks exactly the same - the el is exactly as rusty as it was in 1980, it seems as though the same tenement buildings are still abandoned and the ones that aren't are still the same boxes whose only architectural feature is graffiti.

North Jersey seen from the turnpike is the most aesthetically repulsive region in the United States, in sight, sound and smell. It's our national sacrifice area, I suppose -- if we simply must have petrochemicals and dispose of our garbage, we need it. Philly has tried hard since I took it to the streets here as an oranizer. There are quite a few new hypermodern office towers, they've spruced up the Reading Terminal and they've even tried to give the subways a facelift. During the Lebanese civil war, the warlord Walid Jumblatt visited Philadelphia (for some reason) and he refused to go down into the subway. "Oh no," said this man who have braved a dozen assassination attempts, "I would never go down there." Well, they have new cars now that don't catch fire all the time, so that's progress.

Still, Philly seems worn out, like it's been fighting the inevitability of decline with a facelift and a tummy tuck, but it's only a holding action against time and gravity. We'll see. Maybe the city will ultimately manage to adjust to a smaller population and a peripheral place among the nation's big cities, but right now there are still a lot of vacant lots and empty storefronts. The new convention center and all the other amenities they've installed to try to bring the city center back are islands among porn shops, blocks of decrepit lofts and low rent offices, and just plain nothing but a bunch of junk.

It's just about the exact opposite of Atlanta, where the countryside is being devoured by metastasizing malls, condo developments, office towers, restaurant chains -- absolutely nothing is old. I'm not sure why so much of the nation's life force seems to be heading south, but at least here in the east, that's what's happening.

I got here too late for Sen. Kerry's keynote address, just wandered around the exhibition hall. The biggest, most spectacular display, believe it or not, belongs ot Lockheed-Martin. After a long, honorable corporate history of blowing people up, they have gotten into the consulting business and they do a lot of public health related work for the feds. Really. Coming in second, not surprisingly, is Pfizer. Merck is laying low -- only their vaccine division has a booth. But mostly it's the schools of public health, federal agencies, some non-profits, and small businesses. This isn't your usual convention. It's extraordinarily ethnically diverse -- it really does look like America, only more so. The people do a lot of different kinds of jobs and make very different incomes. But we have a common purpose. That's good to know.

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