There Goes the Eraserhood: Why Local Artists Are Hoping to Preserve the Callowhill District's Gritty Past

Forty-some years ago, the Callowhill district inspired filmmaking legend-to-be David Lynch with its decaying industrial landscape.

By Michael Alan Goldberg
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 8 | Posted Jul. 11, 2012

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And just 50 yards to the east lies the viaduct, source of so much consternation in the neighborhood over the past several years. Some residents want to transform these abandoned elevated-rail lines into a linear park to help green the area and create a prime city destination that could finally attract lots more commercial and residential development to the area (in the process, skyrocketing longtime residents’ property values). Others, most notably the area’s Asian community, want to tear it down to make way for low-income housing for immigrants. With viaduct demolition costs estimated around $50 million, it doesn’t appear to be coming down anytime soon. And with developers still not convinced of the value of putting a park—with its own huge price tag—in this gritty industrial area, the project remains in limbo. Still, city planners are currently working on designs to turn the “SEPTA Spur”—just a tiny section of the viaduct—into a park at an estimated cost of $6 to $7 million, a project backers hope will get under way in 2013.

If it happens, and it’s still a huge “if,” the entrance to the park would be at Broad and Noble—precisely the same location that was Bruhin’s simultaneously scary and alluring portal to the Eraserhood nearly 30 years ago. “I think it’s an awesome idea,” Bruhin says of the proposed park. “I just hope they don’t scrub away everything that makes [the viaduct] cool in the first place.”

While there aren’t really knock-down, drag-out enemies in the struggle to define what the neighborhood will be—mainly just passionate competing visions—even PhilaMOCA calling the show Eraserhood Forever is a provocative act.

After all, notes Gary Reuben, a Philly developer and architect who owns the Wolf Building, where Bruhin works, there are plenty of people instrumental to the future of the neighborhood who despise the “Eraserhood” moniker and the perception it fosters that this is a sketchy, grimy, barren place to visit or inhabit. “A lot of developers don’t like that because they’re afraid of the connotations,” Reuben says. “Some of the cultural institutions don’t like it. The neighborhood association isn’t fond of that characterization.”

Instead, he says, they prefer to call it simply Callowhill (the quaintly traditional; Hannah Callowhill was William Penn’s second wife) or the Loft District (the trendy and desirable)—names more enticing to a certain segment of the population that may not see the romance or beauty in industrial decay.

Not that Bresler has any illusions that one small art show from a bunch of David Lynch fanatics is going to stand in the way of powerful developers determined to reshape the neighborhood however they like. “I’m of the mindset that The Man always wins in the end,” Bresler laughs wryly. “Look at Northern Liberties now—they turned it into Disneyworld for yuppies. Nothing was gonna stop them.”

Maybe Bresler and others of a like mind are guilty of over-romanticizing the past, of gripping too tightly to the fading physical remnants of an era that doesn’t exist anymore, of placing themselves in the shoes of an artist they admire as they wander around the same streets he was inspired by 50 years ago and ignoring the present realities. It’s understandable, though—feeling surrounded by an increasingly cookie-cutter environment, where one neighborhood becomes virtually indistinguishable from the next, perhaps you hold onto the few places that feel unique and special, that run counter to the prevailing mainstream aesthetic. Maybe it’s the same motivation that drives someone toward Eraserhead instead of the latest Will Ferrell flick at the multiplex.

And certainly, as Rowe points out, the past matters. The buildings and infrastructure of the Eraserhood, Callowhill, the Loft District, whatever you want to call it, are tangible reminders of Philadelphia’s working-class soul, symbols of both the glory of our industrial age and the day-to-day struggles—and sometimes miserable lives—of the people who propelled it. For some people, keeping that around—not only the grandest architecture in the neighborhood, but the smaller, all-but-forgotten structures that equally contribute to that soul and aesthetic character—is as important to our heritage and identity as preserving the buildings around Independence Mall.

But that has to be balanced with the pragmatic needs and desires of a neighborhood’s residents. “Look, I like the Eraserhood name and the gritty character that implies, and I believe in maintaining the authenticity of the neighborhood,” says Reuben. “But the people in the community want to see things happen. We need more entertainment, more conveniences, more restaurants and cafes. We want to preserve things but give this place life, too.”

Reuben’s provided a good example of that balance with the century-old Wolf Building, which he’s repurposed into a place that houses design firms, artist studios, social services and environment-centric agencies, private residences and Underground Arts—a sprawling basement performance space—all while lovingly maintaining the original aesthetics of the exterior and hanging onto the old brickwork, vintage plumbing fixtures and freight elevators inside.

And just up the block, Josette Bonafino— along with husband Ian Cross—owns the recently reopened and popular Trestle Inn, where they’ve maintained the appealingly seedy interior but made the menu and drinks more sophisticated and cultivated a wide cross-section of patrons, many of whom never thought of coming to the neighborhood. She understands the complexities of reconciling the past with the future, of merging the shabby and the bright.

“Decay is not horrible from an intellectual, aesthetic point of view,” says Bonafino. “It can be beautiful. But I don’t know that there’s something intrinsically good, if it’s psychologically healthy, for someone to live next to that. There’s an intellectual component, and then there’s reality. It’s a big struggle. Those things can co-exist, but you need to take human realities into consideration.”

“You can throw some light into the dark places,” Bruhin agrees. “You can make it all work.”

And Bresler gets all that. But, he smiles stubbornly, “There’s no stopping progress, but we’ll gladly hang on to the past. All you can do is promote the Eraserhood name and just remind people what it used to be. Even if [PhilaMOCA is] the last place standing, we’re gonna play our small part with our Eraserhead mural on the side of the building and be that reminder.”

PhilaMOCA will hold an opening reception for Eraserhood Forever on Fri., July 13, at 6pm; Performances begin at 8:30pm. $10. 531 N. 12th St.

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Comments 1 - 8 of 8
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1. Ryan said... on Jul 11, 2012 at 11:09AM

“Oh God, shut up. I lived there for 4 years. Just left a couple weeks ago and I already miss it but the only "gritty" stuff about the Callowhill is the Shelter on Pearl. I never had problems with those guys and the dealers are always polite but that neighborhood is 100% fake grit, it's just unkept. And keeping a part of Center City unkept isn't realistic. They're free to move to Tioga or Frankford if they want grit. It's been Callowhill for 200 years. Callowhill is the name of Billy Penn's son's wife, Mary Callowhill.”

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2. Joe said... on Jul 11, 2012 at 11:53AM

“Further proof that Philly makes you awesome.”

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3. Gabby said... on Jul 12, 2012 at 07:41AM

“This upsets me beyond words.”

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4. TMM said... on Jul 12, 2012 at 10:04AM

“@Ryan - 4 years? You have NO idea what the area was like. Did you ever go into the pool room in the old Trestle, or into Doc Johnson's or the Carlisle Hotel in its heyday?”

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5. Timm said... on Jul 12, 2012 at 02:45PM

“I’ve lived in the Eraserhood for 12 yrs. and am fully aware of the changes that took place before I got here, and I could not be happier to see the changes that occurred since I moved in. I love how my neighborhood has gone from very seedy to a little less seedy; it’s great to see people out at night that are not prostitutes or drug dealers. If removing falling-down buildings makes my neighborhood more welcoming I fully support it. I appreciate Mr. Bruhin’s efforts, but it states that he only works in the Wolf building, not where he lives; please let those that live here be the ones to decide its future; the same for Ms. Rowe who, the article states, lives in West Philly. If Mr. Bruhin is afraid of the neighborhood he works in during daylight hours losing its grit and character I will gladly let him walk my dog after the sun goes down and all the workers have gone home and then ask him his opinion on the grit and character he so badly wants to keep.”

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6. Anonymous said... on Jul 13, 2012 at 11:43PM

“The neighborhood's image will be marketed and sold to peole who hope to purchase their authenticity.

If you put out a sign board advertising brunch specials, you're not a hole in the wall.

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7. Anonymous said... on Jul 21, 2012 at 12:55PM

“@ Timm - So just because someone lives in a another neighborhood they can't appreciate another part of the city? I happen to live where I do because it was the most affordable place I could find. It wasn't ideal at the time but I had been homeless leading up to that point so I took what I could get. I still appreciate and admire different parts of the city, the Eraserhood included, at all hours of the day. If you're looking for a dog walker, I'm always looking for some extra work and reasons to be out and about in the city.

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8. concrete cutting machine manufacturers said... on Jan 24, 2013 at 05:16AM

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