By Michael Greenle
In his novel The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen noted the "industrial decay of Philadelphia, the rotting enchantments of the Workshop of the World, the survival of mega ruins in micro times." Nine years later, the description remains poignantly accurate, and it likely will be for years to come. We simply have more ruins than resources, and the often enchanting presence of the past gives Philadelphia its authenticity and sense of place.
I was reminded of this by the recent news that two of our notable buildings, the Cramp's Shipyard machine shop and the historic Church of the Assumption, were lurching toward demolition. The threatened irreversible destruction of these buildings shows that Philadelphia continues to lose ground in protecting its most valuable asset: the fabric of the city.
Although the two buildings have taken different paths to this point, both are victims of the city's shifting demographics. Philadelphia's industrial decline is well-documented, as is the retreat of its archdiocese. This has left countless factory buildings and places of worship orphaned - empty buildings that continue to contribute to the public realm long after their private functions have ceased. Located on the frayed edges of the reviving neighborhoods of Fishtown and Callowhill, respectively, the machine shop and the church share soaring interiors and sturdy yet graceful facades, announcing ambitions lost in the intervening years.
The Cramp's Shipyard building, the last remnant of an iconic Philadelphia company that fueled the nation's maritime might through World War II, is one of the last links to the industrial age on the city's waterfront. Its fate was sealed years ago as a plan to reconfigure the Girard Avenue interchange of I-95 worked its way through a decade of approvals. Since going through an empty building was the easiest route to neighborhood approval, the Cramp's building was treated as a political E-ZPass lane.
The Church of the Assumption, though seemingly protected by a historic designation, fell victim to a broken system that allowed a nonprofit group to purchase it, gut its interior, and petition for hardship based on its inability to sell the property. Barring intervention by a developer or officials, it will likely become a parking lot. Especially given its location in a reviving neighborhood - and within blocks of the newly expanded Convention Center as well as architectural gems such as the Spring Garden produce market (reused as the Spaghetti Warehouse) and the groundbreaking Guild House - its loss stings.
Philadelphia's mix of architectural styles from varying eras, created by serial demolition and rebuilding, is a testament to the necessity of creative destruction to keep a city vibrant. But the rush to unburden ourselves of outmoded buildings often overlooks the permanence of such decisions and the fact that the buildings represent our competitive advantage. The value these buildings bring, their visual heft and significance, can't be easily replaced - certainly not with surface parking or a suburban-style highway interchange. They give Philadelphia a sense of itself, and the void they leave will diminish the value of the city as a whole.
While we can't compete with most cities on taxes, construction costs, or climate, we have the comforting, pedestrian-friendly scale of our streets, distinctive neighborhoods, and an intact fabric of buildings that define Philadelphia as a real city. With each significant building lost, we slide closer to becoming just another American city - an Atlanta, Houston, or Columbus.
Outmoded buildings are difficult to reuse. But rather than abandoning them, we should ask that our public institutions be more patient in protecting them, identifying developers, and extending their lives for future generations. This means supporting the Callowhill Neighborhood Association's appeal of the Assumption decision, working with groups such as the Preservation Alliance and the Project for Sacred Spaces to nominate and reuse outmoded but significant buildings, and asking city officials to fully fund Historical Commission staff to handle building and district nominations. We should encourage public officials to preserve the city's fabric as not just a legacy of the city's past, but a keystone of its future.