Fun with Highways: Philadelphia

Philadelphia has played an important role for us at CatSynth this year, musically, personally, and now politically. All eyes have been on this city the last few days, and this morning they delivered the crucial votes to call the presidential election.

Downtown Philadelphia lies between two rivers, the larger Delaware and the smaller Schuykill. It is further boxed in by three major freeways, I-95, I-76, and I-676 / US 30. Just south if I-676 (which enters the city from the east on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge from New Jersey) are the famous historic sites including Independence Hall, where both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution where written.

Independence Hall Clocktower in Philadelphia.jpg

But modern city is much more than these historic sites, revered as they are. It is one of the largest cities in the country and has its own unique culture. Great seafood, Italian food, and of course cheesesteaks. Also some important centers for modern art and architecture. There is the neo-classical Philadelphia Museum of Art (made famous by Rocky) but also the modernist Institute of Contemporary Art and the University of Pennsylvania.

Institute of Contemporary Art — Visit Philadelphia

In addition to the facade of the museum, I like the modernist buildings nearby which are presumably part of the university. (Hey, didn’t someone supposedly graduate from Penn/ Wharton?).

And nestled among the tall buildings of downtown Philly is the Love sculpture by Robert Indiana. Originally part of the 1976 bicentennial celebrations in “the city of brotherly love”, it is now a permanent fixture in the city.

File:Philadelphia, The City of the Brotherly Love - USA - panoramio.jpg -  Wikimedia Commons

Philadelphia is one of the larger and denser cities in the country, more akin to New York than to Los Angeles.

One of the more famous skyscrapers is the PSFS building. Now a hotel, it was once a the headquarters of the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society. It is an official landmark.

Of course, we would be remiss if we did not talk about the city’s music. In particular, I have a soft spot for Philly soul of the 1970s, as exemplified by the band MSFB.

They were the house band of Philadelphia Sigma Sound Studios, the seminal house for the city’s particular sound, heavy on strings and detailed production. In addition to MSFB, they spawned many important acts like the O’Jays, the Spinners, the Delfonics and Stylistics, many of whom worked with the great producer Philadelphia producer Thom Bell. The sound and musicians of the city also attracted so called “blue-eyed soul”, such as David Bowie’s Young Americans album, and Elton John’s hit Philadelphia Freedom which was recorded with MFSB. The latter truly seems like song for this moment of celebration.

Many great jazz and funk musicians also came out of Philadelphia and call the city their home. Among them is the drummer G Calvin Weston who worked with Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, James Blood Ulmer, the Lounge Lizards and more. And he is working with me on my latest musical project as well. You can hear about his history and many other musicians from Philadelphia in our extended interview with him from this summer.

He has been adding the “icing on the cake” to several tracks on my new album scheduled to release in early January, hopefully in time for change of power in our country. But for the moment, I would just like to say how proud I am of the city of Philadelphia and to call them my friends.

Fun with Highways: Pittsburgh

With Pittsburgh in the news, perhaps for all the wrong reasons, we thought we would have a little fun exploring what the city has to offer.

The city is located at the convergence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, which merge to form the mighty Ohio River. This was a fact we learned young with the frequent appearances of Three Rivers Stadium on TV and the subsequent challenges to name the three rivers. For whatever reason, Allegheny was the hardest to remember.

The downtown is wedged between the two upper rivers and enveloped by a network of highways including I-279, I-376, I-579 and PA 28. In this early-morning photo, we are looking across the Monongahela River, with I-376 along the shore and the skyscrapers of downtown behind it. As a city of rivers, it also becomes a city of bridges.

[By Dllu (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons[]

The Pittsburgh of 2017 (even the Pittsburgh of 1997) is far distant from its industrial past as a center of steel, coal and many other manufactured materials. This history does live on in many circa-1900 houses and buildings, and the ubiquitous presence of Andrew Carnegie. Perhaps the most significant of his legacies to the city is Carnegie Mellon University. It has one of the top Computer Science departments, and one of the first Robotics departments. But the university is also a leader in combining science and art. They recently became the one of the first universities to offer an integrated practice in robots and performing arts; and I have collaborated with professors and students in computer music, including Roger Dannenburg, whose work on managing time in computer-music systems influenced my own research on the topic. CMU is located far to the east of downtown.

Among the sons of Pittsburgh is Andy Warhol, love him or hate him, he was a major influence on American art in the late 20th century. The Andy Warhol Museum sits on the north shore of the Allegheny, not far from I-279 and PA 28.

[By Jared and Corin [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons[]

There is even an Andy Warhol Bridge!

Like my home cities of San Francisco and New York, many of the city streets in hilly Pittsburg are actually staircases, which sound like a lot of fun to explore. One can take official walking tours, or simply wander (as I often prefer myself).

[By PJ Rey (Pittsburgh Stairs) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

We would be remiss if we did not also give a shout-out to our friends at Pittsburgh Modular Synthesizers. We have several of their modules, which feature a classic mid-century design aesthetic. (They also include space-themed cards and tchotchkes in each box.) You can read our many posts featuring Pittsburgh Modular synths, sometimes with cats.

With these characteristics of a truly modern city, it’s not surprising the the mayor, Bill Peduto pushed back on the use of Pittsburgh as a prop for President’s disastrous decision. As he states in this quote [1]:

“Couldn’t have picked a worst city,” he said flatly. “I was in Paris with 500 mayors around the world. It wasn’t only heavy on fossil fuels but it went through a depression where our unemployment was greater than the Great Depression.’ It was only when we started to look to the future we started to have an economy going up. Today, we’re back on a global stage, not through our old economy, through robotics and artificial intelligence and if it weren’t for that position Pittsburgh would never have been able to get back up.”

We at CatSynth hope to visit the city sometime soon.

See more of Pittsburgh and many other fine cities in our Highway☆ app, available on the Apple App Store.

Fun with Highways: Doylestown

Today we resume are series from towns and cities that feature prominently in our Facebook page insights. One that had been appearing for a while was “Doylestown”, which we assume to be Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

Doylestown is central Bucks County, north of Philadelphia. The area served by by “Doylestown Bypass” PA 611 and US 202, which runs through the center of town. It does appear that there is a freeway for US 202 as well, south of the town that currently ends at an interchange with 611. One can see half of the interchange and the roadway beyond are dirt, which I thought was interesting.

It turns out this is part of a large project to build a US 202 Parkway. It is scheduled to open in mid-2012. Follow the link to find out more about the project.

The downtown is northeast of the highways. Like many downtown areas, it has had its past ups and downs with changing economic times and competition from large shopping centers, but is now doing well as a regional cultural center and attraction, with small downtown shops and institutions like the Mercer Museum, a large concrete structure built by Henry Chapman Mercer. The museum houses Mercer’s collections of early American artifacts and collection known as “Tools of the Nation Maker”.

In addition to Mercer, Doylestown is the hometown of several other well known individuals. I had no idea of Oscar Hammerstein (of Rogers and Hammerstein fame) was from here until I did the cursory online info gathering for this article. Writers James A. Michener and Pearl S. Buck are also natives of the town.

Primary Highways: Pennsylvania

Well, after several weeks off, we resume our “primary highways” series with a trip to Pennsylvania. And once again, we find ourselves on I-80.

We begin with this interesting photograph from the completion of I-80 at the Milesburg Interchange, from the site The east and west destinations are reminders why we keep coming back to this particular highway throughout the series.

I-80 traverses a path through the center of the state, though hills and valleys, mostly avoiding larger towns and cities. It is also famously windy and difficult to drive, particularly the eastern half. Indeed it has been cited as one of the “worst roads” multiple times by truck drivers and others. Nonetheless, it is quite scenic, and it does pass by a few notable places. Just south of that cool sign in Milesburg is State College, not surprisingly the home of Penn State University. This school is huge. There is Punxsutawney, the town made famous by the classic film Groundhog Day. Yes, they do have a groundhog there. On the eastern edge of the state, I-80 passes through the mountainous region around the Delaware Water Gap, a frequent “first stop” on trips heading west from New York.

In the northeast, I-80 also passes through the area that includes industrial towns such as Scranton and Allentown, which have been much talked about in the recent campaign. Hillary has some heritage here (and support). It is also where the media is looking for “drama” after Barack Obama's recent comments – I do sympathize with him, but I am holding back from jumping into that milieu. Let's get back to the road…

…much of the action is actually to the south, on Pennsylvania's other major east-west highway: I-76, the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It connects the major cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, the capital, Harrisburg, and New Jersey. I have never been to Harrisburg or Pittsburgh – though I can name all three rivers, which I leave as an exercise to the reader.

According to the site Philadelphia Highways (part of, “Interstate 76 happens to come through the city just a few miles from where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776.” Seems like too much of a coincidence, but it is actually the most appropriate number on the interstate grid. And for actual proximity, I-676 and I-95 are even closer to Independence Hall:

[Click to enlarge]

Philadelphia has an interesting dual identity. One is its central role in the history and “mythology” of the United States. (One of the “myths” is that is was the first capital. That was actually New York!) The other is simply being the sixth largest city in the U.S., with life and culture of its own outside the historical sites. It also has a reputation as one of the more dangerous cities. Nonetheless, I have visited several times with no negative experiences. I do feel bad for cities that have a lot to offer, but get tagged with that label. New York certainly went through that as well. We will see how things go for the “City of Brotherly Love” – I would certainly welcome comments from anyone who has lived there…

And we can't close this article without mentioning I-99. I-99 is infamous among some highway enthusiasts for being numbered so inconsistently with the rest of the grid, and for being a construct of pure political vanity. Again, from

In 1996, Representative Bud Shuster who acquired funds for the upgrading of US 220, had this highway designated an Interstate in Section 322 of the National Highway System Designation Act of 1995…Bud had his highway designated I-99 and had the designation written into law. It was bad enough it runs past his son's car dealership, and violate Interstate highway numbering system too! It should have been numbered I-576, 776, or 976. I like the last…a fitting number for someone that had been under investigation for illegal highway funding acts.

The currently completed section if I-99 takes us back to State College, where we began.