Forty-some years ago, the Callowhill district inspired filmmaking legend-to-be David Lynch with its decaying industrial landscape.
The first time Bob Bruhin laid eyes on the Eraserhood, he felt like he was looking at something out of a film noir. Or maybe a creepy horror flick.
It was the early 1980s, and Bruhin, then in his early 20s, had come to Philadelphia on a gray winter’s day to visit his best friend from college, who’d gotten a job at the Inquirer. Bruhin, who at that point had spent his entire life in rural Chester County, only experiencing Philly through its most touristy areas, sat in the passenger seat as his friend turned onto the cobblestones of Noble Street, across from the Inquirer Building on North Broad, and stopped the car.
Bruhin looked down the narrow, dusky street. It seemed like a valley cutting through menacing concrete mountains looming on either side: to the right, the Terminal Commerce Building, a 14-story, block-wide leviathan that once housed the Reading Railroad headquarters. Opposite it, the Lasher Building, a seven-story art-deco masterpiece, complete with a curious lantern spire on top, that was the one-time home of the prominent Lasher Printing Company.
Further down, Bruhin could dimly make out the shapes of more factories and warehouses, and off in the distance, the three smokestacks of the defunct, slowly rotting Willow Steam Plant rose into the night sky like the evil cousin of the stately white Inquirer Building, creating a forlorn backdrop. Not a soul stirred, though Bruhin wondered what might be hiding in the shadows. The wind rustled some bare branches up ahead. He felt the scene pulling him in like someone terrified of heights feels helplessly drawn toward a lofty railing’s edge.
“I was shocked and frightened and secretly in love with it at the same time,” Bruhin recalls. “I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible, and part of me also wanted to go back and find out more about it.”
It took him a while. In 2006, Bruhin, 52, a software developer, got a job at a company based in the Wolf Building—a former envelope and stationery factory at 12th and Callowhill, right in the heart of the neighborhood that had so affected him 25 years earlier. He began exploring, researching and photographing the area in earnest, reveling in the atmosphere of this strange patchwork of brick-facade factories, run-down garages, modest row homes, weed-choked vacant lots, smoke-blackened stone walls, cobblestone alleys, ominous tunnels and time-worn steel trestles holding up bygone elevated rail lines—all concentrated together in just a few decidedly industrial, highly evocative city blocks.
Roughly bordered east-to-west by Eighth and Broad streets and north-to-south by Spring Garden and Vine streets, the area bears many names: Callowhill, the Loft District, Chinatown North, West Poplar. In 2010, it was officially designated the Callowhill Industrial Historic District by the U.S. National Park Service. But to a subset of Philly’s artsy, imaginative types, to those attracted to the grittier side of urban living, it’s long been the Eraserhood—a nod to Eraserhead, the surreal, nightmarish 1977 head-scramble of a film by David Lynch, the acclaimed director of the some of the most influential films and television of the past 30 years: The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks. Lynch lived in the neighborhood for a time in the mid-’60s, and the area, which scared the bejeezus out of him, sparked the first flames of his singular, bizarre creative vision.
The Callowhill neighborhood’s a kind of geographical anomaly—not quite Center City, not quite North Philly. Once a thriving center of Philadelphia industry, with grand architecture that rose from the ground a century ago, by the early ’70s that had all changed: The venerable buildings sat virtually frozen in time, all but ignored and left to molder—at least until the late ’90s when a few pioneering developers saw enough promise in the area, which is barely a 10-minute walk from City Hall, to convert a handful of old factories into trendy lofts.
But as Bruhin found out during his forays, despite that slow march toward gentrification, the neighborhood was still in the grips of some of the weirdness and that unsettling, wrong-side-of-the-tracks vibe he’d felt during his first visit. Bruhin wasn’t aware of the Eraserhood moniker until he came across it a few years ago on the city blog Philebrity, which didn’t coin the name but likely helped popularize it. He launched his own blog, Eraserhood, to document his discoveries, share his compelling images and celebrate the neighborhood.
He’s not the only one entranced by it. On Friday, Bruhin joins 26 other visual artists—photographers, painters, illustrators, sculptors and more—for the launch of Eraserhood Forever, an 11-day Lynch-themed art exhibit at the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art, housed inside the former Finney & Son tombstone and mausoleum showroom at 12th and Spring Garden.
PhilaMOCA’s already affixed a 14-foot mural of Henry Spencer, Eraserhead’s towering-haired, perpetually bewildered protagonist, to its roof—the creation of local artist Evan Cairo. The opening bash will include sets from rockabilly trio Full Blown Cherry and ethereal one-woman synth outfit Void Vision (both local acts are reminiscent of music typically heard in Lynch’s films); a burlesque performance from Francine “The Lucid Dream,” the founder of New York City’s popular “Pink Room: David Lynch Burlesque” show; a reading from Philly comic writer/performer Juliet Hope Wayne; and more.
The exhibit’s not only a celebration of an iconic film and its director, but a declaration of love and allegiance to a neighborhood full of character and history—a place some believe embodies the so-very-Lynchian notion of beauty in decay—that some say is on the verge of, well, being erased.
“There’s still that little edge of mystery and intrigue,” says Bruhin, even as, from his daily vantage point on the third floor of the Wolf Building, he sees the quickening pace of development on the Eraserhood landscape, as well as a host of residents, property owners and business owners embracing change and working hard to make it happen. “How much longer it’s going to be that way, I don’t know.”
Dedicated to preserving this small, unique slice of the city’s industrial past—which continues to fascinate them the way it once did Lynch—in the face of an evolving neighborhood’s demands for the present and the future, Bruhin and others like him hope that, as redevelopment in the neighborhood continues, everybody will at least pause for a moment and think about what might be lost as well as what’s being gained, and what’s worth holding onto when the talk is of letting go.
Ironically enough, Eraserhead—in its impressionistic depiction of the Callowhill neighborhood as bleak, sickly and forbidding—seems to make a case for bulldozing the whole damn place, not preserving it.
In the still-discomfiting black-and-white film, Henry Spencer wanders through a dystopian industrial wasteland, lives in a hellhole of an apartment, becomes father to a grotesque mutant “baby” that won’t stop wailing, encounters a deformed dancing woman who lives in a radiator, and gets decapitated, his head rushed to a factory where his brain is used to make pencil erasers. Put another way: The shit’s fucked up.
While Eraserhead defies easy interpretation, critics and film buffs have long considered Henry a stand-in for Lynch, and the movie a manifestation of the director’s fear of fatherhood and his terror at living in a huge, anxiety-inducing, sporadically violent city for the first time in his life. In interviews, Lynch has often referred to Eraserhead—filmed entirely in Los Angeles over a six-year period after he left Philly—as his own “Philadelphia Story.”
“Philadelphia is the sickest, most corrupt, decaying city filled with fear I ever set foot in in my life,” he famously told Inquirer film critic Carrie Rickey in 1986. “I saw horrible things, horrible, horrible things while I lived there. It was truly inspiring.”
Upon arriving in the city at the end of 1965, at the age of 19, to study painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts on North Broad, Lynch moved into a friend’s apartment at 13th and Wood streets, across from the city morgue. The air was still thick with the smoke and clang of industry, from the paper manufacturers and printing plants that had taken over the old factories to the iron works, machinery companies and coal and lumber yards scattered throughout the neighborhood. Freight trains rumbled regularly along the Reading Railroad lines, and in the evening, when all the workers left, it became filled only with eerie silence and long, sinister shadows. Lynch’s surroundings were a far cry from the idyllic Idaho and Washington towns of his youth.
David Lynch was “very terrified” of Philadelphia during most of the time he lived here (from 1965 until 1970), even as he was getting his lauded career off the ground. So why did he come to Philly in the first place, enduring all the terror borne of the cityphobia that then afflicted him, when he’d spent most of his life to that point in small, easygoing towns in Idaho, Washington and Virginia?