Monthly Archives: August 2009

A Cidade Maravilhosa

I will be in Brazil for the next 10 days: here and here. Vacation, but perhaps with a few stories to follow.

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Paging Dr. Foot

“N-n-n-n-numbers!” shouted Buck James over the microphone. James, the nickname of 52-year-old Bill Claiborne, a longtime Philadelphia basketball luminary, calls the games of the Rankin-Anderson summer basketball league, and on this night a few weeks ago he had decided to call three-pointers “numbers.” The explanation, even then, half escaped me.

I met Buck James in the course of chronicling summer basketball in Philadelphia for a recent New York Times article. James was not the focus of my article – that would be the league’s commissioner, Dave Scheiner, aka Dr. Foot, a retired podiatrist. I was blown away by how much basketball means to people there. James was one of many people who regaled me with stories of old, but not forgotten, leagues, playgrounds and players. The game has a long and rich history in Philadelphia, and the newest addition to that history is the Rankin-Anderson league. Scheiner and James, as proprietors of the old guard of Philadelphia basketball, carry that tradition into this league, rendering it a colorful mix of new and old.

The league is the most popular draw in a city where basketball, especially summer basketball, is a religion. The summer tradition began in Philadelphia – the Charles Baker League, founded in 1960, was the first Pro-Am league of its kind in the country. I can confidently say that Philly remains unique in its grand obsession with basketball. Like any religion, it has its prophets, fables, and religious scenes. Those scenes are playground courts like B and Wyoming, 16th and Susquehanna, 25th and Diamond. One of the city game’s prophets is Dr. Foot.

My article on Dr. Foot and his role in Philadelphia basketball (with several assists from Buck James, a great storyteller) ran on Friday. The Times had a neat bumper for the story in the upper-right corner of B1 (the Business & Sports section that day): “Paging Dr. Foot.”

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The Snuggies

Sailors Snug Harbor in Staten Island is one of the best escapes in New York City. Over the July 4th weekend, I went there with my brother and a friend on a breathtakingly beautiful day. The Staten Island ferry shuttled us from lower Manhattan, and from there it was a short bus ride to this national historic landmark (the first such ones in New York).

Snug Harbor was once a retirement community for “aged, decrepit and worn-out” seamen, as several structures indicate. The retirees came to be called the Snuggies. It was founded by the 1801 bequest of New York City tycoon Captain Robert Richard Randall, who left his country estate and expensive Manhattan property for the purpose of building an institution to care for worn-out seamen. When it was finally opened in 1833 on the north shore of Staten Island, it was the first home for retired merchant seamen in the United States. The home began with a single building – Building C – which is now the center of a row of five Greek Revival buildings that are arguably the finest examples of such architecture in the country.

Building C: the first building at Snug Harbor

Building C: the first building at Snug Harbor

Another Greek Revival building in the row of five

Another Greek Revival building in the row of five

Such buildings as a playhouse, music hall, church, and chapel were added throughout the 19th century. At its peak, about 1,000 retired sailors lived at Snug Harbor in the late 19th century. It was one of the biggest charities in the city. These must have been fine times. By the mid-1950s, less than 200 residents remained, and, in the 1960s, the last of the Snuggies were relocated to Sea Level, North Carolina.

The New Yorker‘s Paul Goldberger, then of the New York Times, wrote in 1987, “Snug Harbor has something of the feel of a campus, something of the feel of a small-town square. Indeed, these rows of classical temples, set side-by-side with tiny connecting structures recessed behind the grand facades, are initially perplexing because they fit into no pattern we recognize – they are lined up as if on a street, yet they are set in the landscape of a park. They seem at once to embrace the 19th-century tradition of picturesque design and, by virtue of their rigid linear order, to reject it.”

Behind the original Greek Revival buildings is a labyrinthe of passageways to other buildings

Behind the Greek Revival buildings is a labyrinthe of passageways to other buildings

Today, the 83 slightly rolling acres are perfectly manicured and peaceful. The bustle of New York feels like a world away. And obviously that was the point. The day I was there few people were on the grounds. Besides the historical buildings, there are now botanical gardens, museums, art centers. These are not free, but I was content to wander around. A place like this – where I needn’t spend a dime to get there – kindly reminded me of some of the places New York still offers, if only one looks closely.

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