The Uncanny Valley

Notes on art, culture and preservation

Archive for the ‘Urban’ Category

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

Art Notes: Dilworth Plaza rising, First Friday expanding

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Today is First Friday (already!), but here’s something new to try rolling off the tongue: First Weekend. Turns out that the Old City galleries have been such a success despite the economic downturn (cynical translation: are so desperate for sales precisely because of the economic downturn) that they will offer educational programs and restaurant partnerships for Sunday brunches along with their usual extended Friday night viewing hours. Will sidewalk artists expand their encampments accordingly? All legends start somewhere.

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rendering of Pulse (image: Knight Arts)

Speaking of encampments: you know how the City started wrecking the old Dilworth Plaza outside of City Hall as an excuse to evict the Occupiers? Here’s some evidence that it was more than just a really good excuse: structural steel improvements to the concourse connecting the Market-Frankford station to the plaza have been successfully completed. Next step, now that your commute will become a little less hellish: the plaza makeover will become visible at the surface level by the summertime. Part of the makeover will be visibly enhanced by the installation of Pulse, a sculpture by Janet Echelman, made possible by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. We’re not sure if the sculpture consists of the reflecting pool or the curvy flares that slice through it, but whatever it is, it looks cool — and Philadelphia’s homeless (and Occupiers…but I repeat myself…kidding!) will probably be deterred from camping out around it when the plaza reopens in 2014.

Otherwise, it’s one of those can’t-go-wrong weekends. Groundhog Day? Super Bowl party? Puppy Bowl party??? Get with it, man. Opportunity knocks.

Written by cwmote

February 1, 2013 at 1:36 pm

More infill coming to South Street, this time (we hope) minus the heated neighborhood drama

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With the recently publicized neighbor/developer feud escalating over the vacant lot at 1701 South Street — now visually enhanced by fresh graffiti at the site (above) — you’re likely to think one of two things: “Dear Lord, developers are trampling over residents and ruining their home values,” or “For Pete’s sake, at this rate South Street will never get filled in.” If it’s the latter that’s gnawing your brain, think positive about all the other projects that are slated to break ground. South Star Lofts, at the site of the former community garden on Broad Street, is expected to commence any week now, while 1612-16 South should get started in March, according to Ori Feibush of OCF Realty.

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Will 1701’s graffiti wall eventually match this?

And now yet another empty parcel is about to enter the fray. The owners of 1110-1112 South St., currently a gravel parking lot, will present their plans to the Zoning Board of Adjustment to build eight residential units on the site. Presumably, these will be condominiums that resemble the units on the north side of the block, only a fair bit taller — 41 feet, in fact. The site is currently zoned for first-floor commercial, but the zoning notice makes no mention of mixed residential/retail use. The notice also refers to a rear yard space, without addressing on-site parking.

We’re not sure how the neighbors behind the site have responded to the proposed height and density — hopefully, someone at Hawthorne Empowerment Coalition can fill us in. We’ll know for certain come Wednesday, February 20, when the ZBA hearing is set to be held.

Written by cwmote

January 31, 2013 at 10:10 pm

Architect’s Dictionary: what’s a quoin?

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This architectural feature is easy to overlook, but quite a charming element of certain buildings once you learn how to spot it. A quoin (pronounced like “coin”) refers to the use of masonry to reinforce the corner of a structure, usually with an alternating pattern of long and short bricks. Specifically, quoins are those corner bricks that add fortification to facades made from weaker materials, as with First Baptist Church (pictured above), although they can be defined broadly as any such brick pattern that contrasts visually with the building’s facade.

Here’s but a sampling from the Uncanny Valley photo archives of quoins in Philadelphia:

A little quoin-age in Washington Square West

A little quoin-age in Washington Square West

The extraordinary John Charles Memorial Church (now Refuge Temple of Jesus Christ) in Grays Ferry

The extraordinary John Charles Memorial Church (now Refuge Temple of Jesus Christ) in Grays Ferry

row houses in Point Breeze

row houses in Point Breeze

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Building 1, Naval Shipyard. Yes, that’s what it’s called — they never “quoined” a better name for it. (Pun not unintended. See what I did there?)

Spot any more fancy quoins? Please share!

Demolition is painless…when it comes to the Pain Center

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DSC01679Demolition signs and fencing are up around the former rehabilitative medicine office at the corner of 12th and Lombard Streets, so this may be your last chance to witness the Pain Center’s slanted roofs, slotted windows and fuzzy brutalism in action. We imagine few Washington Square West residents (or even modernism enthusiasts) will regret watching this 1969 monolith go. Even those who do miss it can only fault the building’s former occupants for endangering their practice by committing insurance fraud. We just wonder how the townhouses that replace it will fit in at a former commercial corner. The six new homes, proposed by Virgil Procaccio, will be four stories and 45 feet tall with three bedrooms, roof decks and rear parking for two cars each.

Not exactly dense by Center City standards, but we imagine they won’t be too out of place considering the homes next door…

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three-story townhomes on Lombard, east of the Pain Center

Written by cwmote

January 31, 2013 at 6:09 pm

Is American sprawl helping the terrorists win?

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Before the 20th century, obviously

On the surface, it’s an absurd correlation. And yet, as Patrick Doherty writes (and Emily Badger further analyzes), the history of real estate development over the 20th century was closely linked to pressing concerns of national defense.

The federal government paved highways across the United States in part for security purposes. Besides keeping nuclear facilities accessible while out of harm’s way, they ushered in an era of suburban housing and consumption that de-centered the nation’s urban economy and yielded the financial muscle required to hold its own against Soviet Russia.

That was then. The key to addressing today’s foreign policy threats? Walkable communities. Badger writes:

Doherty’s basic idea is that pent-up demand for such communities could help power a new American economic engine in the same way that suburban housing (and all of the consumption that came with it) made America economically and globally powerful in the Cold War era.

This idea may change how you look at the mixed-use condo on your street corner (it’s helping to make America strong again!). But it also changes how you may think about the history of suburban development.

And this is where the correlation between sustainability and defense becomes obvious. Greater walkability means less need for oil, which means, one hopes, fewer international conflicts springing from demand for the earth’s resources.

Interesting read throughout. Try suggesting that as an argument for more density and fewer parking spots in the city…just anticipate some icy stares from neighbors at the next zoning meeting.

“Walkable Urbanism as Foreign Policy” [The Atlantic Cities]

“A New U.S. Grand Strategy” [Foreign Policy]

Written by cwmote

January 31, 2013 at 2:55 pm