The Uncanny Valley

Notes on art, culture and preservation

The Real Row Houses of Philadelphia

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Photographer Ben Marcin’s “Last House Standing” is a collection of images of single-standing row homes on mostly deserted blocks in Philadelphia (and her cousins in misery, Camden and Baltimore). In a way, it’s a catalogue of neglect and abandonment; though it manages to portray its lonely subjects with dignity, it also plays into a popular mindset that associates small and detached housing with antiquity and blight.

Like Marcin, I’ve always been fascinated by row homes, whether ruinous or genteel (though unlike Marcin, my tool for documenting them has been a more modest point-n-shoot). Part of the fascination has to do with the architecture, but I’m sure part also comes from not having lived in these homes growing up, longing for a denser urban experience.

These are the real row homes of Philadelphia: North, South, West, Northeast, river wards, Center City — homes that defined a city, at the turn of the last century, unique among her east coast peers in offering immigrants and working classes the chance to own their own homes, from basement to roof, from front stoop to back porch.

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My only artistic purpose here, if one can call it that, is to revel in the beautiful, the healthy, the accidentally whimsical, the tragic, the hideous and the hanging-on among the city’s many blocks. The row house as a building concept may have fallen out of favor, and much of the housing stock has been lost through the years, but much of what’s still standing here is going to be around for a long time.

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Written by cwmote

April 30, 2014 at 6:57 pm

An outdoor art gallery on Buenos Aires’ shuttered storefronts

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This is Avenida Patricios, a commercial avenue that serves as the border between two Buenos Aires neighborhoods, Barracas and La Boca. Both barrios have heapings of charm and grit, the kinds of traits associated with the city’s poorer southern half, although La Boca has the bigger reputation for seediness and crime.

The division between the two barrios was once as much visual as psychological; in La Boca, a port neighborhood historically vulnerable to flooding, the walkways in front of buildings rise and fall between three and six feet above the street level. A few years ago, the city government re-leveled the sidewalks of Patricios to make the avenue friendlier for pedestrians. Even with increased foot traffic, the street is still a hit-or-miss experience for retail, and a number of storefronts remain shuttered. Instead of amateur graffiti, however, these shutters bear dignified imitations of paintings that characterize the neighborhood.

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Some popular images of the neighborhood, including the touristy Caminito (center)

I thought of Avenida Patricios recently when reading about a similar proposal for Germantown, Philadelphia’s historical onion of a neighborhood that has its own share of grit. The idea of painting the commercial shutters on Germantown Avenue to fight blight is a smart one, and while it won’t be the cure-all to stimulate retail, it certainly can instill a stronger perception of safety and vigilance in pedestrians who remain intimidated by it. And the idea of small-scale high-art isn’t a bad example to follow.

Here are a few more shots from Buenos Aires. Note that these were just the stores that were shuttered during the day; many more art pieces join them when the active businesses close at night.

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And it’s not limited to the roll-down shutters: this business has touches of Van Gogh and Dalí between the windows, 24 hours a day:

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What always captivated me about public art in Buenos Aires was its lack of pretense, its do-it-yourself quality that seemed to stay within the material limits of its surrounding grittiness instead of covering it in a sheen of newness. There were exceptions, of course, but in La Boca and Barracas, that from-the-ground-up impression was the rule. I do wonder how Philadelphia’s murals strike visitors, whether that same impression prevails — and it will be interesting to see what results comes of this similar proposal for Germantown.

Written by cwmote

March 28, 2013 at 2:15 pm

Coltrane’s sounds of spring

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It happens that it was springtime when I discovered John Coltrane — really discovered the power of his music — more than a few years ago. Although spring has been reluctant to show its face so far, this is what I hear when I think of this time of year. For me, “Central Park West” is a slowed-down, more pensive version of “Giant Steps,” as the artist takes the time to let his chord explorations develop — to blossom into beautiful music. In other words, perfectly seasonal.

Also good to remember that Coltrane broke even more ground with the soprano sax than with the tenor, way before it was corrupted into thank-you-for-calling-customer-service-please-hold music…

Written by cwmote

March 27, 2013 at 2:08 pm

Giant steps for the John Coltrane House

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In some ways, John Coltrane’s house is like any other in Strawberry Mansion. The three-story, Dutch-gabled row home where he lived from 1952 to 1958 was seen as desirable by North Philadelphia’s ascendent black middle class, literally across the street from verdant Fairmount Park and tied in closely to the city’s burgeoning jazz scene.

After decades of decline, there are signs of renewed investment in Strawberry Mansion, a neighborhood still beset by poverty and crime. Many classic houses are crumbling; vacant lots abound. Still, the former Coltrane residence at 1511 North 33rd Street, while vulnerable to the risks of age and abandonment, endures as a symbol of the city of Philadelphia’s rich music culture. The house—a National Historic Landmark—is the focus of preservation efforts to commemorate the jazz icon’s legacy and serve as an asset to the community.

The full story — recounting Coltrane’s spiritual awakening and examining the challenges posed by house museums — is now up at Hidden City and is also being published this week by All About Jazz. Exciting times ahead.

Don’t miss “The Changing Face of Preservation,” a special collaboration between Grid and Hidden City

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Homes in Overbrook Farms. Photo: Peter Woodall

Homes in Overbrook Farms. Photo: Peter Woodall

It’s not too late to grab a free copy of Grid magazine‘s March issue on historic preservation. This collaboration with Hidden City Daily takes a hard look at the challenges, and many benefits, of saving Philadelphia’s treasures. Adaptive reuse, DIY repair, and historic designation are all effective means of preservation practice — although not all are without their controversies, as the movement to create a historic district for the Overbrook Farms neighborhood shows. (Also up at Hidden City: my follow-up on how the Overbrook Farms nomination is threatening to derail the entire historic designation process.) Thanks to Grid‘s excellent reporting, it’s easy to see how preservation isn’t just about saving pretty buildings, but about building a sustainable city as well.

Have a look at the digital version of this issue here.

Written by cwmote

February 23, 2013 at 4:29 pm

Celebrate Honest Abe’s B-day with a free tour of the Union League

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Photo: RegBarc

Photo: RegBarc

One of Broad Street’s most recognizable bastions of gentlemanliness and old-fashioned elitism, the Union League of Philadelphia will open its doors to the public for a limited time on Saturday. The annual open house commemorates the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, to whose cause the founders pledged their loyalty in 1862 as the Civil War intensified. Visitors are entitled to free guided tours of the establishment, which includes the Second Empire house impressively designed (and fabulously quoined) by John Fraser, as well as the Horace Trumbauer addition fronting 15th Street (where you actually have to walk to get inside). While the Union League is open on a limited basis to non-members year-round, this is the one time that guests won’t feel out of place because of their affinity for Stoli in their martinis or their opposition to repealing the estate tax. Etiquette, you know.

Union League of Philadelphia, Broad and Sansom Streets (enter on 15th Street), free entry Saturday, February 9 from 11am to 2pm. No reservations required.

Written by cwmote

February 8, 2013 at 11:09 am

More Art Notes: Phila. Museum introducing Pay-what-you-wish Wednesday Nights with free movies, yoga

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A scene from Art After 5. Now try to visualize all these people on mats lost in meditation…

A propos of First Weekends and extra art hours comes this announcement from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. After souring many of its patrons when it cut back its pay-what-you-like Sundays to just the first Sunday of the month, the Museum is introducing a new name-your-price admission feature for Wednesday nights during extended hours from 5:00 to 8:45pm. Beginning February 13, you’ll come across art talks, live music, free film screenings, and a casual atmosphere of culture and chance encounters that makes you recall how fun real dating was before OkCupid. Think of it as a less snazzy cousin to the hugely successful Art After 5 Fridays, only with patrons taking yoga classes(!) by the grand steps instead of sipping overpriced Steven Starr cocktails.

It’s hard to complain about more museum hours, and it looks like the events calendar will offer something for everyone. And seriously, lovelorn singles, some of the date scenarios practically write themselves: see if you can go wrong with a little Cezanne and a screening of Amélie on February 27.

Written by cwmote

February 4, 2013 at 8:32 pm

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