Of Magazines And Rails
Philadelphia is not the oldest regional magazine. As a chamber of commerce product, it goes back to the 1940s. Palm Beach Life, which still publishes occasionally, goes back decades farther. But it was always a social magazine, focusing on the lifestyle of the wealthy, much as do our magazines. Philadelphia Magazine was a different sort of animal, taking on the important issues of a city with a good many issues. It published the first article challenging the Warren Commission’s finding that a lone nut killed President John F. Kennedy. That was a 1966 article based on an interview with Arlen Specter, then an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, later and until recently the U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania.
That interview, in which Specter fumbled all over the place trying to explain the unexplainable, the “magic bullet theory,” was the beginning of research, much of which later appeared in Gold Coast, and continuing to this day, which points to a government conspiracy to murder a president. Philadelphia Magazine also exposed a crooked Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who used his position to shake down businesses, including what at the time was the largest bank in Philadelphia. Such stories appeared month after month in the 1960s, creating national attention and in the process inspiring people in other cities to launch magazines. The Washingtonian was an early one, as was New York. Then came Boston (owned by the same company as Philadelphia) and the enormously successful Texas Monthly, whose founding publisher sold advertising in Philadelphia and was inspired to take the city magazine statewide in his native Texas. And soon any place where people could read had a local magazine, all doing stuff Philadelphia invented. Top Docs, Best and Worst, etc. But very few magazines did the nervy pieces that distinguished Philadelphia Magazine.
Even as newspapers struggle to survive, local magazines continue to appear, and many thrive. Thus the book. It is part of the history of the written word. This involves contributions from a dozen writers and others who were part of the birth of a new media. Such books need photos and art, and that is the reason for this trip, finding old magazines which are increasingly rare, and raiding the files of those who were here at the time. Many are not. Three people who would have been part of this book a few years ago are gone. Others are ill, or have no memory of the events in which they took part.
Which brings us to transportation. Getting around this city, and I have been all over the last few days, is amazingly easy. From where I am staying in Chestnut Hill, on the edge of the city’s northwest border, I can take two trains into center city. One station is a block away, the other four blocks. Once the tracks belonged to the Reading and Pennsylvania railroads. Today both are part of a transportation authority. Either ride is about 30 minutes to downtown. But more important, these lines connect at underground stations to tracks which serve the airport and other routes in every other direction. Today I will travel into the city and out to the famed Main Line, a boomerang route which barely takes an hour, and that’s allowing 10 minutes in case a train is late.
Thursday I will visit another source, and contributor to the book, who lives in a totally opposite direction, almost in Trenton, New Jersey. In this case others are traveling, so we go by car, but I could get there by train, again connecting in center city. This is possible because so many commuter lines have served Philadelphia for more than a century, on tracks that are either elevated or depressed and have very few grade crossings of the kind that slow traffic in South Florida. Depending on the timing, I may get a train from Trenton which goes back through Philadelphia and directly to the airport, a distance of about 40 miles, without changing trains at all.
Other northern cities have good commuter rail, but even New York, Boston and Chicago with extensive networks in all directions, do not have Philadelphia’s convenience. Forty years ago the city had two terminals just a few blocks apart, much as Boston and New York have today. Tracks leading to both terminals were once in the air, creating ugly Chinese walls. But the city undertook ambitious projects to connect the two stations underground. This involved burrowing under the City Hall, with the statue of William Penn atop. It was a huge construction job, but the result is that 10 commuter lines connect, simply by walking across a platform in underground stations protected from hard weather. They also connect to Amtrak for longer travel, and with a walk of a few yards to the city’s two subways.
One cannot use this old, and yet remarkably modern commuter rail system, and not compare it to our neck of the sand, where a single commuter line can’t even find the right track. It could be switched to a much more useful track with a fraction of the cost of what Philadelphia did years ago. When will it ever happen?