A return to Philadelphia is one of those bitter sweet type of things.
The sweetness comes from the people there and the community in which I thrived for so long in. Without them I would not have developed into who I am or had the confidence to reach for the stars. There are memories of the madness I played with in a house all on my lonesome that I could barely afford the rent for and all the various manifestations previous to that and all of those that have spiraled out from there within. And there’s still the same people there, I could leave for ten years and still come back to them, just chugging along and building new ideas and installations and always partying in a belligerent fashion, which is kind of endearing and even especially intoxicating when personally in the same sort of mental state, myself. They tell me of their successes and their continually growing creative careers and the new spaces they have occupied and the recycling of old failed institutions into more progressive active ones.
And now there seems to be even more of a populace, which keeps growing everywhere you look, beyond that old, small tight-knit community which held hands when they played out in the dark. And there are all these new faces (I guesstimate probably from Brooklyn) walking around, jogging around, gallivanting around, in places where only two years ago I wouldn’t have seen anyone. And they seem unaware of the history of the city streets they tread upon and the violence that one used to encounter there or how this city is still a tough place for a lot of long time residents. And yet they’re attracted to the even more seemingly endless supplies of beer gardens and gastropubs that who knows who can really afford to drink at, at least not on a typical Philly wage, and who knows who can really afford to pop up, but I suspect again Brooklyn, because well, Stephen Starr had to eventually max out in Fishtown, sometime, right? And the refuse is still building up with plastic bags blowing in the wind and catching in the potholes of an infrastructure that I’ve seen the city dig and fill and redig and fill in and repeat for at least half a decade in the exact same places because seemingly they can’t find a utility company that’ll get it right the first time.
But there right there is the bitterness and this comes back in a landslide, though I’m newly capable of letting it go, since I no longer live in it on a day to day. It’s the same story I’ve seen everywhere I’ve traveled to in the country, but here it’s so much more personal. A city begins to resurge with a creative population, and that attracts developers who only want to make money by shipping in the young business class who a majority of doesn’t have any interest in going out and seeing the culture offered by their new city residence, and this cycle spreads outward like a disease quickly eradicating first the people who grew up in these neighborhoods, then the artists that were good for some real estate company’s next press release. And all the time the rent keeps going up while the wages stay the same and it starts to seem almost impossible that anyone can afford the time or heart to keep on going.
I start to remember how for years I started to feel chased out of my own city, always being pushed a block at a time north until finally even that started filling up and the anarchy of the emptiness here that attracted me here in the first place was all completely being swallowed up. And the first thing to be said in a conversation by every one of my friends that I run into now is how quickly all the abandoned lots are filling up with new construction plots and even the mega lots, which no one thought would ever sell, are being sucked up by these unknown developers and their makeshift cookie-cutter town homes. The tears come out in all our eyes over the trees, the urban wilderness, the community gardens that have all been sacrificed to “progress”, and we count on our fingertips all the places where we played pop-up outdoor psych rock shows that are now a 4-5 story condo.
It’s not the actual development, I think, that burns people out so much. It’s the seeming mismanagement of the whole thing. There is no community involvement in the process. Yes, the neighborhood associations have the power to veto a new project, but the developers can use any number of loopholes to bypass that process, as long as they have some local council in their pocket. And the votes are always about approving some project, but not about telling the developer to keep some trees or front yards or some type of greenery when they’re building atop their mudpits and not to make them so tall or so ugly and skinny. And to make them blend in, not stick out. To make them use the same materials that makes Fishtown look like it has some history.
How many people have time to attend their neighborhood meetings anyway. And when are they allowed to voice a simple “Hey, maybe this is happening too quick for a typical human’s consciousness and maybe we should cut new construction down to maybe one home a month, as opposed to the hundred or so that keep popping up every other day”.
I think the main thing that effects people is the quickly shrinking amount of green space, which was always limited in Philly’s urban sprawl anyway, but in most places got squatted on and turned into a surreal artist’s wonderland to prevent illegal dumping and provide other good intentions. To add injury to insult all the jack hammers, drills, and mechanized sounds of things being built or demolished start at 7am and reverberate all through each city block so that one has to go all the way to Graffiti Pier to get away from hearing it.
And we all have our memories of what is now dead. The Frankford Ave. Arts Corridor is now about twenty boutiques and a few vape shops that who knows how they manage to stay open or who’s their target audience. Girard Ave. is an attempt at the next Old City with all demographics South Jersey filling it’s streets with their entitlement. Northern Liberties at this point is unrecognizable. And in all these place there’s a cloud of despair and hopelessness that hangs heavy over the social climate there. It’s the threat of too much change in a weekday, and the threat that next week it’ll be too expensive to still even live there.
But then the sweetness comes back. It’s Saturday night and a new warehouse gallery celebrates its second exhibition. Familiar faces come and take glimpses of the post-modern ceramics placed around the white rectangle. Some friends are stronger than myself and more willing to adapt to the constant flux of a city in its post-Renaissance days. They have played musical chairs long enough to resettle in places better than their last. Some are even buying property and digging in, making sure they can continue to have some sort of autonomy.
The room is full to the brim and everyone’s a little worried that something will break, and though no one in attendance has any money to throw any which way other than to refill their Natty Bo can, the artist and the curators receive the attention and good vibed support that an underground art community always should be able to offer. There’s the typical Philly modesty or lack of imagination, but with 100 people stuffed into a tiny salon, and maybe another 100 more passing through, it’s very easy to make comparisons between the scene of this community and any historical community of any favorite art celebrity, whether from NYC or Los Angeles or even Paris. It takes you back to times when things were less dictated by money and more inspired by passion and artistic eccentricity.
And that’s where Philly is at today. The Renaissance there that started several years ago is digging in deep, and even with all of the unsettling of the constant developments reseting the neighborhoods and their urban landscapes, the artists don’t seem to be getting wiped out any time soon, only regrouping and popping up in new places or old places with new agendas. It’s only a matter of time before they become conscious of their own capabilities, and begin to mobilize and redirect the flow of all that residential developing back to a more creative anarchy.
And who knows, maybe all that new money in the hood will soon learn to do more than Netflix And Chill and start to look around them too, and begin to buy in to something like a city’s cultural history.