The origin of downtown

Center City PhiladelphiaMarch 8, 2013 – Driving home from work one night I was treated to the oldie but goodie “Downtown” on the radio. Not the Lady Antebellum song they play today, but the Petula Clark classic from the 1960s that pays homage to the part of a city that never sleeps.

As my head bobbled from side to side and I sang along, I began thinking about the concept of downtown, where the word originated and why they refer to the city that way. Shameful I don’t know, especially when I have an entire category dedicated to “Downtown” on this blog.

In Philadelphia, where I live we have a few names for the downtown district. We call it center city or the “city” for short. We also refer to it as downtown, of course, or simply the mondo cool version, “town”, such as “I am happening because I hang out in town.”

Referring to this area of Philadelphia as center city makes sense because it is located in the center, surrounded by many colorful neighborhoods. But downtown is another story. It works for me because I live north of “town” and have to travel down to get there; but for someone who lives south of center city, they travel up to get to downtown Philly. Where is the sense in that?

Perhaps whoever came up with the word wasn’t thinking direction, but rather rhyming because that can be fun; Nutter Butter, Lean Cuisine, Reese’s Pieces, or Ronald McDonald, anyone? It makes it easy to remember.

A little research put an end to the mystery, and I learned that it did indeed originate from a direction. Downtown is a term that refers to a city’s “core”. The term was coined in New York City, where it was used in the 1830s to refer to the original town at the southern tip of Manhattan. As the city grew, and the only direction it could move was north, so that area became known as uptown and the original area became downtown.

I’m a little disappointed the reason is more adventurous than that. Still, the word downtown caught on big time since it is used by dwellers in many major cities throughout the United States and Canada, and the very city Clark sings about, London. To think she followed up that hit with the odd little ditty, “Don’t Sleep in the Subway”, which makes be believe she really had her finger on the pulse of the big city. Wise advice, for sure.

So remember, “When you’re alone and life is making you lonely, you can always go downtown…”

The perfect commute

introMarch 6, 2013 – Can I tell you how much I hate traffic, especially when there is road construction involved? Sitting in it day after day zaps you of all of your energy and makes you grumpy.

If only when I stepped on the elevator after a long day at work, the doors would open on the ground floor not to the parking garage, but to my living room.

Now, that would be the perfect commute.

Should China’s Execution Parade make supporters re-examine the death penalty?

RIPDeathPenaltyMarch 4, 2013 – Just as I thought reality TV couldn’t get any lower, I learned that China recently aired a two-hour broadcast that showed four foreign death-row prisoners being led to their execution. Their actual death by lethal injection was not shown, but the “execution parade” depicted just about everything else in the two hours leading up to their demise.

The Chinese government has used this public parade policy for years to shame criminals. This latest stunt is surprising because in 2010 the government responded to public protests about this practice, and prohibited police from publicly shaming criminals. It was a definite step in the right direction for humanity, but it appears that ban has been lifted.

The parade of shame is used as a deterrent, showing people exactly what their punishment would be if they commit a crime. The Chinese population is divided on how they feel about the most recent broadcast. About half believe it was macabre voyeurism and others say it was judicial resolve for a heinous crime committed.

The four men executed were Burmese drug traffickers who allegedly murdered a crew of Chinese sailors to steal the drugs on board their ship. Quite heinous, I agree. But in a country that blocks much of what appears on the Internet – supposedly to protect its people – showing the last minutes of life of these four prisoners is inhumane and even crude. No matter how awful their crimes were, they are still human beings.

While I don’t believe anything like this would ever get the OK in the United States – although probably not from the lack of trying – we cannot sit back and feel proud of ourselves for our reserve. The fact that we still execute prisoners in this country, something that most progressive countries have labeled barbaric and outdated and have since abandoned, keeps the United States in the company of third world countries whose other practices we condemn.

In the United States, the rates of executions have slowed dramatically, which indicates hope that it will be overturned once again.  Polls show most Americans still favor capital punishment, but the numbers grow less every year. In China, nearly 8,000 prisoners are executed each year, according to Human Rights groups. That’s nearly half of those on death row worldwide, according to statistics from a few years ago.

Other statistics show that those who oppose the death penalty do not believe in softer penalties for criminals convicted of murder in the United States. Rather, many of us believe murderers who receive life in prison should spend the rest of their life in prison. Life should mean life, and not just 20 years as it does in many states.

For those who cry that it costs too much to keep someone in prison for life, the numbers tell a different story. According to figures from 2007, in California, for example, the death penalty system costs taxpayers $114 million per year beyond the costs of keeping convicts locked up for life. In Kansas, the costs of capital cases are 70% more expensive than non-capital cases, including the costs of incarceration. In Indiana, the total costs of the death penalty exceed the complete cost of life in prison by almost 38%. In North Carolina, the death penalty costs $2.16 million per execution more than life in prison. In Florida, it costs $51 million per year above what it would cost to punish all convicts with life. And in Texas, a death penalty case costs an average of $2.3 million, three times the cost of life in prison.

A free and democratic federal or state government should not have the right to kill someone. Killing is  wrong, and sentencing those who do to imprisonment is enough. Doesn’t it seems odd that we argue the right to bear arms, yet we let the government decide who shall live or die? The 2nd Amendment sates that “a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” This includes protecting ourselves against the very government who has the power to execute us.

Also, it is the 8th Amendment that protects citizens against cruel and unusual punishment. Killing is always cruel and unusual, so why is the practice of the death penalty still in existence? Those who break this law should be punished for their crimes, including government officials who sentence people to death.

In a perfect world we would not have to worry about whether or not we should execute our citizens. We don’t live in a perfect world, but we can make it a little better if we remember that we are all human beings and act accordingly.

Charlie’s wager

mailMarch 1, 2013 – The number of people claiming to be atheist seems to increase every day. I’m not sure if they are multiplying as swiftly as it appears, or if atheists are simply more outspoken about their beliefs, which makes me more aware of it.

Whatever the reason, atheism is the trend, and I can’t help but wonder if people have climbed aboard the bandwagon because the God vs. science argument is the main weapon used to make people of faith look stupid. I believe in God and scientific theories, and there are prominent scientists out there who embrace both, as well. It can be done.

My son is one of the “scientific” thinkers. For several years, he’s claimed to be an atheist, but I’m still not sure if I believe him. Maybe I don’t want to because I was raised to believe in God, and I never questioned it. He was raised in the same manner, yet he questions everything about it. And he’s always been that way. Since he could talk, he’s challenged things and questioned everything. That’s why it wouldn’t surprise me if he said he was agnostic, but claiming to be an atheist seems extreme.

Like the French mathematician Pascal, who argued that if you erroneously believe in God, you lose nothing, whereas if you correctly believe in God, you gain everything and vice versa, I thought he could accept this philosophy, but he does not. Yet he is a good person who leads a moral life.

We discuss this topic often, although he’s a much better debater than me, so I usually give up the argument first. I’ve come to understand that he’s the type of person that needs to see proof, or at least have a clear understanding that something is real or possible before he commits. That is where faith comes into play, I explain, and he just shakes his head. I once explained that since he couldn’t prove there wasn’t a God, his theory is based on faith, too. That kept him quiet for a little while.

A few nights ago, we got into a discussion about heaven and hell. We both agreed we don’t believe in hell, him because of his atheistic beliefs, and me because I tend to lean toward the theory of reincarnation. It is the only way that life seems balanced. How else can you explain why someone is born into a tragic situation, while another is leads a completely happy life? Not to dwell on the “karma is a bitch” rule, but the more we live, the more we experience, and the more we learn. It makes sense that God would use this practice as a learning tool for us.

When it comes to heaven, it is a little fuzzier. My son doesn’t believe in the afterlife for obvious reasons, but I do. I’m just not sure what it is. I simply accept it as one of the mysteries of faith. Do I see my friends and family members who have passed on up in the clouds having one big party? Not really. I believe it is peaceful, tranquil and beautiful. But I don’t how to visualize it.

My son proceeded to tell me he’d rather go to hell anyway. Even though I don’t believe in the fire and brimstone theory, this completely shocked me. Why, I asked. He explained that some of the fun things in life that might get you sent to hell obviously wouldn’t be permitted in heaven anyway, so why wouldn’t he want to experience them on earth. Forget Pascal. That’s Charlie’s wager.

Of course, he’s not talking about committing a horrible crime, murdering anyone, hurting them in any way or coveting thy neighbor’s goods. He’s simply referring to other things that may be considered fun that certain religions frown upon. A few of the seven deadly sins come to mind, although that title always seemed overly dramatic.

I understand where he’s coming from, but I still have faith. I respect his opinion, even though I don’t agree with it, and I admire his passion and his sense of humor. I wonder if he would say the same about me. I’ll have to ask him sometime.