Forty-some years ago, the Callowhill district inspired filmmaking legend-to-be David Lynch with its decaying industrial landscape.
“He was very terrified of it,” says Peggy Reavey, Lynch’s first wife; she befriended Lynch shortly after he came to town, and they married a couple years later. “He was a kid from the West, and the atmosphere just was not familiar to him.” But she noticed the dramatic impact it was having on his artwork. “He had been painting much brighter, very beautiful bright oranges, and then he got into the darker stuff,” says Reavey, a painter herself and Chestnut Hill native who currently lives in L.A. “He was probably working with fear inside of him.”
A few years later, Lynch had transitioned to film and was living with Reavey and their infant daughter Jennifer in a house at 19th and Poplar. Their house got broken into, their windows were shot out, and a young man was murdered—shot in the back of the head—just outside their door. Paralyzed with fear, Lynch mostly hid inside the house while Reavey, pushing a baby carriage, ran errands around town.
In 1970, Lynch was accepted into the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, the family left Philadelphia for good, and Lynch drew from all of that dread and darkness what would eventually become Eraserhead.
PhilaMOCA director Eric Bresler, the 33-year-old who dreamed up the Eraserhood Forever exhibit, is obsessed with Lynch, Eraserhead and the neighborhood that helped spawn it. A decade ago, he lived in a warehouse at Ridge and Noble streets and, like Bruhin, he has explored almost every inch of the place.
“It’s just the strangest, coolest, most amazing place in the city,” says Bresler, noting the faded manufacturing slogans and ads—“The Bicycle With the National Reputation,” “Supplies for Architects, Draughtsman & Engineers”—high up on factory walls; the way the viaduct, with its ivy and gentle grasses spilling over the sides, curves above the streets; and how barren the place could be on a random afternoon, making you feel like you’re the king of some ghost city.
He remembers other comparatively bustling mornings. “You had people walking around going to or from work, just going about their lives all normal in this really weird, kinda out-of-time place,” he says, alluding to the very Lynchian notion of the surreal or absurd existing side-by-side with the mundane. Rather than abhor the neighborhood, Bresler’s certain—from the way it’s rendered in Eraserhead—that Lynch was enthralled by it. “[Eraserhead] conjures up a feeling, it gives you a real sense of place,” he says. “He definitely didn’t think it was boring.”
But while Bresler loves those faded, post-industrial aesthetics, he acknowledges that others view the Callowhill area as a blighted dump full of vacant eyesores and trash, a place to get mugged, or worse. There are parallels, he says, between those who don’t get the Eraserhood and those who don’t get Eraserhead. “This neighborhood and its history is somewhat ‘ugly.’ It’s industrial, it’s working-class. It’s the opposite of Rittenhouse [Square]. It’s out of the mainstream thinking of what is good or desirable. It’s off-putting to some people—kind of like David Lynch’s films.”
And Bresler doesn’t want to see the place change much more than it already has: “I just hate sterileness, and whenever neighborhoods are transformed, or knocked down and rebuilt, they end up sterile in one way or another. The city loses its character. We’ve seen it happen in Northern Liberties and Fishtown. I don’t want that to happen here.”
It’s a muggy Saturday afternoon in June, and Bruhin is taking me on an informal walking tour of the neighborhood, pointing out some of his favorite spots, as well as a couple areas of dispute.
Into the heart of the neighborhood he goes. Past empty Reading Railroad dining car #1186, retired in 1966 and dropped at the corner of Broad and Noble, where it was a diner called the Steak and Bagel Train. Past the electric buzz of PECO’s Callowhill Substation. Past a three-story, ultra-modern condo building with criss-crossing orange girders—“a monstrosity,” Bruhin sneers—built last year on an empty lot near Prohibition Taproom. Past lofts where you can spy exposed ducts and fancy artwork on the walls, a Chinese sign manufacturing shop, the hulking old Esslinger’s Brewery building, a taxi repair garage and a homeless shelter where men mill around inside its fenced-in courtyard, while a few others are passed out on the nearby sidewalks.
He stops for a moment at 13th and Wood, where Lynch used to live. The director’s old apartment is long gone—the corner’s a parking lot for U-Haul trucks now.
Bruhin looks up at the Terminal Commerce and Lasher buildings, taking in their sublime art-deco details. “They’re like castles,” he marvels. “They were put here specifically to communicate to the world the strength and nobility of the organizations that created them.” Today, both of these castles are robo-buildings: Packed with servers and telecommunications equipment (and very few actual human beings), they’re massive “mission critical” data hubs not only for Philadelphia but much of the Northeastern U.S.—a sterling example of adaptive reuse, Bruhin believes. “I’m glad they found another use for [these buildings],” he says, “and they didn’t change the facade or tear them down.”
Near the corner of Wood and North Broad comes Bruhin’s first grimace, as he wistfully watches a yellow Caterpillar excavator whack at the skeleton of the former Overland Motor Company Building, bricks tumbling to a dusty heap on the ground. The building’s coming down to make way for the new $17.5 million Pennsylvania Ballet headquarters; the Ballet purchased five structures on the lot, is repurposing three and demolishing two.
According to the Philadelphia historic preservation firm Powers & Company, which led the effort to get the neighborhood designated as the Callowhill Industrial Historic District, Overland was “the most notable example of the Colonial Revival [architecture] style” in the area. “I’m appalled that they’re going to tear down [Overland],” Powers & Co. president Robert Powers fumed to PlanPhilly, an online news operation that covers urban development, last December.
But developer John Gattuso of Liberty Property Trust and chair of the Ballet’s building committee, who facilitated the acquisition of the property, insists Overland couldn’t be repurposed into an adequate rehearsal space and that the building had fallen into unfixable disrepair, including a collapsed roof. “If we could have saved it, we would have,” says Gattuso, “but [demolition] was the decision that was made.” Gattuso adds that the location was too desirable to give up.
That doesn’t sit well with Julia Rowe, a 30-year-old West Philly photographer and another Eraserhood obsessive who’s contributed to Bruhin’s blog. She’s worried that Overland is just the first domino to fall. With the building’s demise, she says, “it becomes easier for other developers to say, ‘Well, so-and-so tore that building down to do that, so why can’t we do this?’ Pretty soon, all these amazing buildings are gone forever ... We’re losing our connection to the past—who we are and where we came from. I don’t think most people care about that anymore.”
Gattuso sympathizes, to a point. “I think buildings are not held to be sacred enough, but that’s not to say buildings shouldn’t be removed from time to time. Some people think [Philadelphia] should be a dead museum where nothing changes, but this is all part of being a living, breathing, vibrant city. The Ballet is going to be a dynamic addition to the neighborhood. I think the people who have concerns about this will eventually understand that.”
Turning away from Overland’s destruction, Bruhin heads back to 13th Street and points, one by one, to a handful of buildings and structures that are like stars in a constellation of incipient change.
To the north, there’s the Church of the Assumption on Spring Garden Street, its majestic twin green-copper spires reaching high into the air. Its owner, the Philly nonprofit HIV/AIDS support services agency Siloam, wants to tear the landmark Gothic Revival cathedral down, claiming it doesn’t have the funds for necessary repairs. But the Callowhill Neighborhood Association, arguing that the church is an architectural linchpin in defining the tenor of the area, has been fighting the proposed demolition in court for two years. All sides are waiting on a Court of Common Pleas judge to rule whether the building can come down.
To the south, at the towering former Goldtex shoe factory at 12th and Vine streets, developers the Post Brothers are converting the building into 160-some high-rise apartments. For years, it sat abandoned and decimated at the edge of the neighborhood, all graffiti, broken windows and weatherbeaten exterior, highly visible from Center City. To some, an intriguing representation of manmade and natural urban decay; to others, the very definition of an eyesore, a building that may as well have been a big flashing neon sign that read “Bad Neighborhood. You Don’t Want to Come Here.” As part of the rehab, the Post Brothers are putting a modern “skin” on the building; it won’t look much like a former factory when they’re done. Bruhin has mixed feelings. “I wish they would preserve the industrial character of the building, but that’s their choice,” he says. “At least they’re not tearing it down.”
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?