What do you get when you combine edgy scientific ingenuity and the beautiful sensibility of art, or maybe cross Marie Curie with Pee-wee Herman?
I don't know exactly, but it might look like some entries in Saturday afternoon's sixth-annual Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby, folded into the seventh-annual Trenton Avenue Arts Fetival. The event has a lot in common with the Mummers — it pulses up from the community, it's in the street, it's in your face, it has color and music and laughs.
More than two dozen entries vied for seven prizes: Peoples Choice, Judges Choice, Best Art, Best Engineering, Best Costume, Best Breakdown, Best 1-2 Person entry.
A celebration of "art and human-powered transit," they say, the rules (such as they are) require that each mobile "sculpture" must have wheels (how many and what size is up to you) and it must be powered by human muscles on pedals. Actually, there are a lot more arcane rules — just like in the Mummers Parade, but the judges can ignore them, unlike the Mummers Parade.
Many participants were bicycle enthusiasts, under-40 artists, funsters and hipsters, new people moving in to occupy Kensington, just as they have done in adjoining, burgeoning Fishtown.
This is another example of the miracle of renewal that some, not all, cities are able to achieve. Just as newspapers carried stories about a tiny, but real, population gain among white people in Philadelphia, here's proof in rebounding Kensington, a once-proud working-class neighborhood that suffered through some decades of hard times. Some 10,000 Philadelphians are estimated to have attended, many with kids, or dogs or tattoos, sometimes all three.
For some reason I was asked to be a judge, one of nine. Bikeheads will be astonished that I was invited and more flabbergasted that I agreed.
The derby — part contest, part parade, but all fun — clanked and bounced over a 2-plus-mile figure 8 course through tight streets and wide boulevards so the neighbors could gawk. Also (I suspect) it was a road test to see if some of the zany contraptions were roadworthy.
Here's a taste: A sofa on wheels, three ladies in tight red dresses and beehive hairdos looking like the Vanilla Supremes, a "beer truck" converted to pedal power, a caterpillar operated by five cyclists, a Russian tank, a double-decker bike.
To facilitate my judging, one of the organizers, Henry Pyatt, assigned Jamie Reese to be my assistant, minder, guide and instrument of truth. Pyatt assigned another judge, Amanda Johnson, to drive me around the course in a yellow pedicab. Johnson swore she volunteered and is an experienced cyclist, but she had no experience dragging Dumbo around in a cart. Let's just say things didn't go precisely as planned and after several near-death experiences it became less embarrassing to walk.
Serious about my duties, I asked the Vanilla Supremes — their entry was titled, "You're Such a Drag" — if they were actually men. Claire Folkman, Steph Davis and Dana Pavlichko all claimed the Y chromosome, but declined my request to check it out. Some days nothing goes right.
The judges — six from the community, three "celebrity" — took their assignment seriously, but in a comical way. I will admit we drank beer as we deliberated. Sober as a judge? Not for us.
The discussion went on longer than the Council of Trent and winners were determined after argument, debate, screaming, pleading and horse-trading. Winners received homemade trophies and bragging rights.
One the judges didn't pick was the peoples choice, won by Frank's Kitchens' massive Widowmaker. An entry called Flock won for best art; Team Sully's artistic skull won for best 1 or 2-person team; best breakdown went to the militaristic Fab Brigaders; best costume was captured by the beehived "You're Such a Drag;" best engineering went to the dog-housey OMG! GMO v 2.0.
The judges' choice was Neighborhood Bike Works, kids on bikes from West Philly, while Kensington Khemists got a special dishonorable mention for the most flagrant disregard of rules.
I'm told the twosome lives in Kensington. I don't think they were the least embarrassed.