The Uncanny Valley

Notes on art, culture and preservation

Archive for March 2013

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.