Philadelphia is better than I thought

It’s mid-April in New Jersey and spring is still having um, performance problems. The temperatures have been rising, but only one weekends and then they go back down again during the week. Better than the opposite! Last Saturday we went to Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia art museum – Spanish courtyard

I’d always disliked Philadelphia. I love the museums, mind you! The art museum is so much more than the “rocky steps”. It is arranged in the wonderful progression from West to East, meandering through Italian Renaissance, Turkish, Indian,  Chinese and finally ending with a Japanese tea garden. The Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where the museums are, is well-planned (I hear he envisioned as a new Champs Elysees) but large and spread out. In winter this means a lot of walking and no restaurants nearby.

But this was a warm day, and I finally got it. This city was made for strolling on a warm day! The Parkway is meant for  aimless wandering, like a flaneur out of Proust strolling down the Champs. There isn’t much commerce on the Parkway, but there are lovely parks and fountains and outdoor sculpture. We strolled and strolled and found at least 3 fountains. We got to the City Hall and I was truly impressed. Philadelphia city hall is an old grand building, with this wonderful fountain outside, with jets of water and sidewalks so you could walk in between the jets. It was fun just to walk around the fountain and my daughter and I took our time.

Same scene, as I painted it

 

 

Then you can walk under an arch into a courtyard in the center of city hall. There are arches facing the four directions and you are in a beautiful leafy courtyard. This was a place that made me immediately think of Europe. Fountains and plazas may seem old and useless, but they are so important. It’s the difference between being happy to be in a city and just feeling like you are there to take care of things. Between the parks along the Parkway, the flowers, the fountains, and finally ending up in this courtyard, I was in a truly relaxed and happy mood. I love New York. BUT. But unless I am in Central Park, I feel kind of rushed. Philadelphia is a city that allows me to just “be”. I decided this last Saturday.

A Tall Building in a Small Town

I recently took this picture on a drive from Milford, PA to Edison, NJ along Rte 206.

This is one of the things that fascinates me so much about American cities, those little towns that only have one or two small buildings, or even a little tiny downtown.

A one-building town provokes all sorts of questions –

When was it built? What made them create a high rise? What made them stop? Why did they not become NYC?  Did the economy turn bad? Or was one high-rise all they ever wanted, just to add some apartments for the people who wanted to feel like they were making progress?

There is something lonely and beautiful about the “single high-rise”, or the “little downtown” of some American towns. We all know that. So did Edward Hopper

Early Sunday Morning, Eward Hopper, 1930, Whitney Museum of Art, NY

Hopper’s empty downtown was created by the Depression, in 1930. Today we have downtowns from that era which have just never been gentrified. They might contain an outdated pharmacy, a bail bonds, a 99 cent store. Here on the East Coast the forgotten downtowns turn into ghetto or they turn Hispanic. I don’t know what they become in other places, like the midwest or the south.

There are also downtowns which were  abandoned a second time – gentrified in the 1990’s and made into “designer Main St.” with coffee shops and sports stores and trendy stores, only to be abandoned again because now people want to buy cheaper clothing at TJ Maxx and the pull to Target and Walmart is just too strong.

I won’t say I like downtowns best when they are in decay. I don’t really like them best when they are totally gentrified either. But it’s the empty old downtowns are the ones that I enjoy photographing and looking at the most, and decay just seems to be their destiny.

What I Learned from a Structural Engineer

Well, now that I’m a recent single mom, I’m trying to find a house to sink my money into, lest I be tempted to spend it. I almost bought a cute little house in Highland Park. However, $600 and two inspections later, I decided not to.

Here are the things that my general inspector found. These are relatively easy-to-spot things and might help someone:

1. termite tubes

2 no drain pipes or rain gutters

3. grading sloping toward house which means that water collected and poured into basement during rain

4 wide horizontal cracks on inner foundation

5 missing major large beam that should run length of house

6 asbestos insulation all over the basement

7 an old fuse box (should have breaker panels, 100-150 amp)

8 if there is water damage on ceiling, is it wet?

9 look under kitchen sink to see if the pipe is rusting/dripping

Believe it or not, all of these things were the matter with my house, and STILL I wanted it. Silly me! Then the structural engineer looked at it and told me that it had “major structural issues” and was in a fact, a “money pit”. So I immediately called off the deal.

What I love in a house:

several stories, large trees, porches, old charming details, metal siding because you don’t have to maintain it.

What I do not love:

anonymous ranch style houses, lots with no trees, wood panelling.

row houses

Yesterday I took a train ride to Philadelphia, alone. This was something I’d been wanting to do for a long time, to see the Mutter Museum, a famous collection of freaks and medical oddities located at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Since the kids were at my husband’s house for the weekend, the time was at hand. So next thing I knew, I was on a perfect train ride, gloomy day, large Dunkin’ Donuts coffee in hand, The Cure on the mp3 player, staring wistfully out the window and taking videos of nondescript trees flicking poetically by, and random photos of the most abandoned, decayed industrial tri-state landscapes I could see. I swear that “17 Seconds” was made for looking out the window of a train on gloomy days.

I have a larger than usual appetite for strange and unknown landscapes. I love weird dramatic places, gloomy oceans or deserts. I loved the Navajo reservation in Arizona, Utah, with it’s thunderstorms, dark purple skies and jagged cliffs. Times Square is nice, but it’s been in too many postcards. Please don’t drag me to a tropical island with the requisite palm tree and azure sea. Yawn.

IMG_1392Lately, I have been obsessed with abandoned and dilapidated buildings and industrial surroundings. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first saw the scenery of Northern Philadelphia. Wow. It is made of miles and miles of strange narrow little row houses. Each “house” is just an individually colored slice of a large building covering many blocks. Each unit is very narrow, giving the entire building an organic formless look where a variety of designs and colors extend out over a common facade. I wonder if these houses were all built at the same time or over longer periods?

A native Californian, the first time I saw row houses was in San Francisco, the stereotypical rows that you see in every postcard. I thought they were cute and fell in love with the city that seemed so different from the sprawl I was used to. Row houses always reminded me of the early 20th century, something out of Steinbeck or Edward Hopper, the early urbanization of America, street cars and produce stands and porches, etc. Everybody is living close together and everything is just right out there on the street. You aren’t hidden in a row house, as you are in an anonymous high-rise apartment or a spread out suburb.

I guess it’s not so surprising that my life has ended up in a row house. I travelled the upwardlyhouses_adjusted mobile path from cheap college apartment (but oh, what a college place – a beautiful brick courtyard walk-up in Hyde Park, Chicago), to a concrete 1970’s “ejerlejlighed ” (condo) in Denmark, to large suburban house with my husband and family in New Jersey – 4 floors, 2.5 baths, a huge backyard, patio, swing set, but alas no porch and never a neighbor to be seen. All was calm and stillness in the suburbs. When I separated from my husband and that big place I moved into a row house.

So here I am, in my first floor apartment in my little row house. It’s a luxury row – detached. Each little pitched roof house has a three foot sidewalk going to the backyard. I’ve got a porch where I sometimes sit drinking tea or drawing pictures of the row houses across the street. There are neighbors all around and they all sit on their porches too. The kids say hi when they ride by on their scooters. You can hear music. Tonight I saw a young couple kissing on the porch across the street. The families are mostly from Oaxaca. There are also college students. Nobody is rich, but I guess people in row houses rarely are. But this row house in perfect for me right now. It’s going to be hard to leave.

Hollywood and Western

Staying at a hotel on Hollywood Blvd. the past two nights. Ten years ago I never would have dreamed of that. But now everything here is cleaned out, bright and shiny for young decent people with decent intentions. It is sanitized. So a hotel on Hollywood Blvd. caters to young tourists now instead of prostitutes and weirdos.

I’ve been driving along Memory Blvd. for the past 3 days. Hollywood Blvd., accompanied by a soundtrack of my years in Hollywood – 1988-92 approximately: X, Jeffrey Lee Peirce, more X, and New Order (this is the soundtrack of what I was listening to then). I’ve been trying to recreate my own personal L.A. and I must say it’s hard, in a city that continually erases and redraws itself. However, unlike Tokyo, the L.A. architecture is mostly left alone

Friday night we went to the Dresden, a beautiful old restaurant from the 1960s, from the rat pack and Vegas era. The Dresden is not much to look at from the outside, competing with bright trendy Thai restaurants and sushi and cuban, etc. But inside the Dresden you find a sea of creamy white naugahyde booths and huge custom made white chairs, skinny wood beams spiraling up to the ceiling like strange modern DNA chains and modern glittering chandeliers. It is not 90’s wannabe James Bond 60’s modern. It is the real thing, and it must be seen to be believed.

On Saturday we got back on Memory Blvd. (aka Hollywood Blvd) and went to Denny’s at Hollywood and Van Ness. Back in the Guns N Roses era we called this “rock n roll Denny’s”. Anything east of Highland Blvd was prefixed with “rock n roll” hence “rock n roll Ralph’s”, etc. Does anyone remember this? The waitress didn’t. The old sunken cocktail lounge has been made into a bright room full of booths. That was the only Denny’s I knew of where you could get a martini with that Grand Slam, but no longer.

heather at rock n roll dennys

Then on to Melrose. Nothing much left there from the days it was filled with rockabilly, glam and punk kids. Cowboys and Poodles, Flip of Hollywood, Vinyl Fetish, Aron’s Records, even Lip Service is gone. But one place still stands – AAArdvarks Odd Ark. It was good to be in this jam-packed vintage clothing store, and they still had some 1950’s dresses even if most cost upwards of $40. I guess AAArdvark’s is moving soon. Melrose will officially become just a collection of small unrelated designer clothing stores, instead of the nexus of a shared subculture.

Next we went to Amoeba Records at Cahuenga and Sunset Blvd. Supposedly Amoeba is responsible for the closing of most L.A. record stores, such as Aron’s (where I used to work) or the Virgin Megastore, and even Tower on Sunset. Man what a place is Amoeba! It is a like a huge arena of new and used CD’s and vinyl in every genre, rock, lounge, rap, soul, ska, reggae, classical, and on and on. There is a huge separate room for jazz, the techno section spans about 5 racks. There is a separate rap wing. There is a small bin just for old Northern Soul 45’s. There are cases with funny rock collectibles and all over posters line the walls. Frank Gehry? Rock Museum? Seattle? I would prefer a walk through Amoeba instead of any officially sanctioned rock museum.

Then we went for a few boring hours to the Autry Center in Griffith Park. I like “Back in the Saddle” and other songs of the singing cowboy fine, but the stately new building and wordy exhibitions were a bit boring. Sorry.

We drove a bit around Silverlake. Fun to listen to Jeffrey Lee Peirce sing Hey Juana as we drove down Glendale Blvd. In fact the soundtrack seemed perfectly coordinated to our driving as “The Fertility Goddess” was playing as we drove into a pagoda-like strip mall of Thai Restaurants in Thai Town for dinner. RCA (red corner asia) has yummy thai food!

We finished the day by seeing “Sweeney Todd” at the Vista in Silverlake. The Vista is a beautiful old unchanged movie palace with red velvet curtains and Egyptian Goddesses adorning the wall sconces. Sweeney Todd was all right. Starring Johnny Depp it is the story of a razor wielding London hairdresser who collaborates with a neighboring pie maker to obtain meat for the pies and revenge for the loss of his wife and child. It is loosely based on a true story from medieval Paris. The plot was ok but I was a bit bored with the surreal darkness of Tim Burton’s sets. Too apocalyptic, too Goth, too Matrix, as everything is these days.

So we had some fun. I think I’ve seen enough of Hollywood now and I’m ready to go on. My youth is gone and no one remembers it but me and this blog.

Cimetière du Père-Lachaise

This is one of my favorite places in Earth, or at least in the 20e arrondissement of Paris. I know Pere LeChaise is reviewed everywhere. I just wanted to have it on my site because thinking about the place makes me happy. I love cemeteries, not because I am goth, but because they are such beautiful places to stroll and full of memories and reminders of our mortality. That said, this place has everyone. We all know that Jim Morrison is buried here. But so are Chopin, Moliere, Oscar Wilde, Delacroix, Colette. Heloise and Abelard, ill-fated ecclesiastical lovers of the 12th century are also here at long last. The cemetery is huge and full of little streets, like a city of the dead. There are amazing statues, carvings, and memento mori everywhere you look, all intricately carved and sculpted in true Catholic fashion. You need several days to see the whole thing, and after you do, you’ll never want to go to Disneyland again. Salut.

Tenement Reality and Tenement Chic

I have seen two tenements in the past two weeks, which is more than I usually see. There was a huge difference between the two, which, as usual, I will try to interpret from my typical bourgeois Marxist perspective. First, last week, we took a trip to the Tenement Museum in New York. This is the site of a formerly low-income apartment building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where, for $15, you could take a 45 minute tour. Once inside, if you are lucky enough to have come without children (the Tenement Museum is extremely delicate and stroller-unfriendly. The walls may not be touched, for example), you find yourself in a decrepit, rotting building with layers of peeling paint and wallpaper, and the former inhabitants’ belongings, which resemble bad shabby-chic antiques. You stand in 3 rooms and hear about the poor worker-immigrant families who lived there.

It is sad to hear the squalid stories, but mostly it is interesting, and dare I say, cozy. Cozy? Yes. The Tenement Museum is a place where you can have a cozy intellectual and historical experience of poverty. You are in standing in the site of human misery, but are 100 years removed from it. There is no danger of being thrown into a vat of hot oil, or riding a dangerous elevator, or freezing or anything. In fact, apartments in the identical “tenement” next door are going for $4 million dollars, and there are “gourmet yarn” and handmade craft shops down the street, for upscale garment workers, presumably. It is so cozy, in fact, that they are planning a pub for the basement of the Tenement Museum, where rich New Yorkers can go and drink microbrew and soak up the tenement atmosphere at their leisure.

I saw the other “tenement” tonight when I went to look at a used futon couch that I am considering buying. This tenement was a modern-day version, the “Blueberry Court” apartments in Edison, NJ. Blueberry Court apartments are one of the most lackluster residences I have ever seen. It is joined to other complexes of crowded, ugly apartments with perversely inappropriate names like “Edison Manor”, etc. Here the streets were badly lit. There were no green spaces, just large parking lots. Many apartments were crammed together and materials looked cheap – wood panels and composite siding. I saw mainly Indian families walking in groups, some with strollers and little children, dodging the heavy traffic despite the dark sidewalks.

Large old cities like New York, London share a similar design concept which was looked down upon at one time, but which is now extremely valuable and desirable – urban density. Someone designed these cities with some thought. Though I’ve seen Jakob Riis photos of flimsey wooden shacks, most builders managed to scrape enough together to build many apartment buildings of brick or stone. But even putting aside the cost of building materials (which were probably skimped on back then too), the older tenement neighborhoods featured something that seems to have been lost – planning and public transportation. Someone thought out the need for walking streets and planned for parks and green spaces. The greatest luxury of older urban areas was of course public transportation, the subways and buses which linked neighborhoods and cities and seems to have become permanently unaffordable for today’s American cities. Shame.

On the other hand, places like “Blueberry Court” or “Edison Manor” can be described as “sprawl”. Streets are windy and impossible to find one’s way around. Buildings are flimsy and look as if they were the result of contractor graft. Huge parking lots stretch endlessly. The car is the only way to get around, because nobody wants to walk through an endless parking lot. Sprawl is the symbol of the energy-greedy, myopic world we live in – no planning, no green space, no foot traffic, no human contact.

We hate sprawl. But they hated tenements and cites 100 years ago, and now we think it’s great. So, in 100 years, our sprawl ought to look pretty good. The scary thing to ask is, compared to what?

Tony Smith’s turnpike

Now that I live in New Jersey (exit 9), I am reminded of some art essays I read in college. In 1966, modernist sculptor Tony Smith described a ride on the then-unfinished turnpike for an ArtForum interview in 1966:

“I view art as something vast. I think highway systems fall down because they are not art. Art today is the art of postage stamps. […] I think of art in a public context and not in terms of mobility of works of art. Art is just there[…].
When I was teaching at Cooper Union in the first year or two of the fifties, someone told me how I could get on the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike. I took three students and drove from somewhere in the Meadows to New Brunswick. It was a dark night and there were no lights or shoulder markers, linke railings, or anything at all except the dark pavement moving through the towers, fumes and colored lights. This drive was a revealing experience. The road and the landscape was artificial, and yet it couldn’t be called a work of art. On the other hand, it did something for me that art had never done. At first I didn’t know what it was, but it’s effect was to liberate me from many of the views I had had about art. It seemed that there had been a reality there which had not had any expression in art.

The experience on the road was something mapped out but not socially recognized. I thought to myself, it ought to be clear that’s the end of art. Most painting looks pretty pictorial after that. There is no way you can frame it, you just have to experience it. Later I discovered some abandoned airstrips in Europe – abandoned works, Surrealist landscapes, something that had nothing to do with any function, created worlds without tradition. Artificial landscape without cultural precedent began to dawn on me. There is a drill ground in Nuremberg, large enough to accomodate two million men. The entire field is enclosed with high embankements and towers. The concrete approach is three sixteen-inch steps, one above the other, stretching for a mile or so[…]