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August 19, 2016

Diner en Blanc diner says event is a wasted opportunity

Opinion Diner En Blanc
08192016_Diner_En_Blanc_2016_Carlin Photo courtesy/Bernie Carlin

Diner En Blanc was held on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in August 2016.

For better or for worse, I’ve been a participant of Diner en Blanc for the past two years. My special lady friend’s mother enjoys it, therefore my special lady friend enjoys it, so I must enjoy it. Such is the law; I didn’t write it.

Before I ever attended, I found the amount of hatred the general public held for this gala to be entertaining, but didn’t think much about it. As an outsider, it struck me as just another us vs. them debate, in a city that is literally defined by us vs. them debates. Like all such debates, I figured there was some merit to the criticism, but felt pretty sure that it couldn’t be as bad as it was made out to be.

Now that I have two of these events under my belt, I can confidently say that it is.

I’m not an elitist, but I’m also not not an elitist, either. Like a lot of people in Philly, I enjoy a nice dinner out. I like a good “Chairman’s Select” buy at the Wine and Spirits store. I’ve occasionally been spotted at an Eagles game in seats that cost more than I care to admit. I have a “cheeseguy.” But I’ve always thought of these things as small tokens of a life, hopefully, well led. In that vein, Diner en Blanc should be just another of life’s small joys, and let no man begrudge it, right?

It’s not.

Photo courtesy/Peggy Moser

Bernie Carlin, pictured at Thursday's event, says Philly's annual pop-up dinner party should figure out a way to help others.

It’s indulgence defined, and the true cost isn’t simply $93 per couple (plus the requisite two bottles of Cab Franc per person). It’s the wasted opportunity that comes and goes when 5,000 Philadelphians who have the time and money to do better with both, get together and waste it on taking drunk selfies on a Thursday.

In a city where schoolteachers have to buy paper and pencils for their students out of their own pockets, to teach a class where kids have to share textbooks, we celebrated. We corralled hungry, homeless people away from Eakins Oval (and a fountain they rely on) so we could set up our tables and chairs to feast, content to ignore the mental illness and drug addictions that plague them for another night. We toasted friends and strangers alike, while Temple University treated a shooting victim.

I read somewhere that the purpose of Diner en Blanc is to raise awareness for world peace. But at no point in the night did I hear anyone discuss anything remotely associated with geopolitical politics. In fact, I didn’t hear anyone talk about much at all. That should change.

With as close to no additional effort as is conceivable, the organizers of this event could dedicate it to a cause; something, anything, that could turn it into a driving force for good. Homelessness, hunger, education, violent crime, you name it. We aren’t exactly at a loss for causes in this city. They aren’t bad people. They aren’t intentionally ignoring the fact that the city that enables their event is full of people that couldn’t possibly afford to go and are only hindered by it. But they’re doing it all the same. And they can do better.

I’m not a bleeding heart. I’m not overly charitable, and I’m not a budding philanthropist. That’s why it’s alarming that someone like me should see this event for what it is – a wasted opportunity to do something better for people in need.

I’ll end this with an anecdote. My group boarded one of five buses at 30th Street Station to be shuttled .7 miles across the Spring Garden Street bridge to the Art Museum steps. A bus that holds 100 people is roughly $300 an hour, and Diner en Blanc was about four hours long. Those five buses potentially cost the organizers about $6,000.

A Raspberri Pi, a fully functioning computer that can be plugged into a household TV, is $35.

For that six grand, 171 kids could have had a computer in their homes, and learned how to program to boot. A child who’s learned Linux is not an unemployed adult.

I think we could have walked.

An estimated 5,000 people got together, and spent almost a quarter of a million dollars to do it. And no one - not one of us, not one citizen in the city that hosted it, is any better for it.

Let's do this differently next year. Please. I’d like to be hungover because I helped someone, not (just) because I’m an entitled prick.

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Bernie Carlin lives in Center City Philadelphia. He's taking a wait-and-see approach on attending next year's event.