Sunday, January 20, 2008

Grommet in North Philly

If you want an architect to sign up for your social cause, show him how it messes up a nice building.

On March 14th 2006, I had only been in Philadelphia for a month. I was working as a project architect for Wallace Roberts and Todd and we were working on housing projects for the local housing authority, Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA). Well I was in for a surprise. A couple of architects and I were visiting a site for a project we were doing for the PHA in North Philly.

I had never seen anything like North Philly in San Francisco and was stunned and confused by it.

Things that I don’t notice now, having been here a year, were jumping out at me then. Camera in hand like a tourist, I was taking pictures of everything in this poor neighborhood. Everything burned into my mind intensely. I had never seen such a place. I could not believe that such beautiful houses were being let to rot away. In SF these buildings would have been prizes, gems, objects of reverence. Here in Philadelphia they were just the accessories to an indelibly hard neighborhood. I just could not get it. So, camera in hand, I shot away.

I was wondering at the time, where is the outrage that this is happening to people and these houses? Why is no one sweeping in and taking care of these buildings? Where is the help for North Philadelphia? Surely there would be change in the year if good people knew. Do the people on the Main Line (a fine neighborhood outside of Philly) just not care?

Now I know. It’s easy to accept things. But you don’t accept what is happening in North Philadelphia consciously. It just creeps away as you get on with other things. Nowadays, I remember my concern when the newspapers put it in front of me while I ride the R7 Train. This person shot. That person shot. And I can see it outside the train window. I see the neighborhoods tumbling in on themselves. You can see it is hard. But now it just seems like a large something that is here like a lot else: the train, and the weather and the flat rolling hills.

As I have been thinking about this, I realize that there is another side to my story – and that is Oakland California. San Francisco is not a place of magically concerned people who wouldn’t let this happen to the people around them. The grittiness of 14th street in Oakland is invisible from San Francisco. San Francisco can’t see West Oakland. San Francisco can not see Richmond CA. It does not get off at the 11th street exit and take a look around. It is on its way to Marin - or the Cheesery.

What’s my deal anyways? I was in and out of those neighborhoods enough to know the deal. Heck, I bought my second 280z in a neighborhood in Union City California that was just the kind of neighborhood I am talking about. As a matter of fact, I remember right after I bought it, an awfully nice man from the CHP pulling me over before I could hit 55 on I-880. Why? Because there was a warrant for the arrest of the previous owner and – well – they profile Z’s....

And I did get off at the 11th Street exit in Richmond CA all the time. The foundry that cast much of my furniture is there. So why my shock about N. Philly?

In San Francisco you can get along very well with out seeing poor people stuck in the arcs of their lives because The Bay holds everything at a distance. It also helps that in the Bay Area, poverty happens in ranch houses – not in tall brick Victorians.

Ranch houses don’t look so shocking to an architect as they implode.

Here is one of my concept sketches. I was trying to get away from language of the Victorians and Colonials that so dominate the neighborhood. I was trying to bring forward the Scandinavian substrate that is under it all here (since the 1600's) rather than rely on the default philly colonio-victoriana. I was also thinking of something new without connotation that could be adopted by the people living there - something that would help rebrand existence. Something not branded as poverty.

Are architects shallow for not reacting to poverty until the buildings look like crap? No. Look at it this way, we are the people who think that buildings can save the world. So when we see them falling apart - we see the inverse. We see that the world is falling apart. And we react. We work for the PHA and try to put it back together. Of course things get by us. I missed the grinding poverty in Richmond's ranch houses.

And most architects know that better buildings aren't enough. But it is the part we can help with. A part, hopefully, of a big fix (TBD).

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