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