Thursday, December 23, 2010

Nightmares at 13th and Wood

Those who know me know of my fascination with the Philadelphia before my time. I don't mean Ben Franklin's quaint, Colonial Philadelphia, or the Industrial Revolution's Workshop of the World.

I mean the bleak and dreary Philadelphia that can be caught in the background of
Rocky. It's the weird Philadelphia that hatched after suburban flight and before the urban renaissance. This is the Philadelphia I remember visiting as a child.

In a way, the city almost felt more alive. The streets were bustling with people, but not with boutique shoppers and dog walkers. They were bustling with harried employees in a thriving business district, and strange apocalyptic characters prophesying the end of the world.

I'm sure it felt this way because my experience with Philadelphia in the 80's was as a daytime tourist. And I'm sure my farm raised upbringing made every city feel like Manhattan.

Still, there was something unique about Philadelphia. There was a darker side of the city. The city I'd love to relive for just one night.

In 1970, writer and director David Lynch lived on the southeast corner of 13th and Wood, in what is often now pegged as The Loft District, while attending the Academy of the Arts.

13th and Wood, the site of David Lynch's home in 1970 during his time at the Academy of the Arts in Philadelphia.

The site is now a parking lot for the adjacent U-Haul facility, but twenty years ago it was the fantastic nightmare of the writer and director of Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive, and Blue Velvet, and served as the inspiration for his first film, Eraserhead.

His former presence in what Lynch has described as "a very sick, twisted, violent, fear-ridden, decadent, decaying place" has led a number of residents to brand the neighborhood, The Eraserhood.

The Roman Catholic High School's annex was designed as the City Morgue by Philip Johnson in the 1920s. In the 1970's the morgue operated diagonally across from Lynch's home at 13th and Wood.

Although that name is as marketable to a realtor as The Gayborhood, it's also as uniquely Philadelphian. While Lynch, originally from Montana, has mostly negative things to say about Philadelphia and his former neighborhood, anyone who is familiar with his work knows that he finds beauty in the most disturbing images.

"It's decaying but it's fantastically beautiful, filled with violence, hate and filth," he has said of Philadelphia. He found an opening to another world in our city's decay, "it was fear...so magical, like a magnet, that your imagination was always sparking."


With the closure of the Reading Viaduct and the construction of the Vine Street Expressway, I'm sure the corner of 13th and Wood would now be a disappointment to a director known for his dark, sepia toned images of tortured souls and broken windows.

The Eraserhood is now gritty in a 21st Century way. Its soot stained masonry and small alleys are quickly becoming its charm, and it abandonment has become its parking. We may never see that world again, and perhaps that is a good thing.

While the unusual pocket between Broad and the Reading Viaduct, and Vine and Spring Garden may never again be part of Lynch's "sickest, most corrupt, decaying city filled with fear," its legacy will always find its place in his bizarre, dark, and beautiful films.

1 comment:

  1. By the way the Philip Johnson cited in the morgue pic cutline is not the starchitect Philip Johnson, but rather the local one.

    http://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/ar_display.cfm/25016

    "For many years Philip H. Johnson served as the architect for the Philadelphia City Department of Public Health and in that position designed a number of hospitals and city health institutions. His controversial appointment to this position was effected by the influence of his brother-in-law, Israel W. Durham, one-time political boss of the 7th Ward in Philadelphia, according to obituaries published at the time of Johnson's death."

    Philip H. Johnson also designed the former Convention Hall at the Civic Center.

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