Two decades into Philadelphia’s construction boom, the physical additions to the city are impossible to miss: the blocks of crisp new rowhouses and metal-clad apartment buildings, the catwalk of preening glass towers along the Schuylkill and Comcast’s switchblade spire, the beer gardens and BYOBs, and the pileups of Wawas, Targets, and Dunkin’s at major intersections. It’s the subtractions that are much harder to quantify.
All that construction has energized Philadelphia in a way that no one in this once-decrepit Rust Belt town could have imagined 20 years ago. While growth has been the city’s salvation, it also has wreaked havoc on its past, scrambling places, habits, demographics, and unleashing the forces of gentrification. As you walk down the street, the absence of a familiar signpost will hit you out of the blue. When did that little repair shop close? What happened to all the Toynbee tiles that used to be embedded in Center City streets? Where did the guy who was always smoking on his front stoop go?
Gene Roberts, a former Inquirer editor, used to say that such questions were the foundation for stories that “oozed” instead of broke, and he encouraged reporters to go after them. But chronicling such subtle changes is often better done by writers and poets, who have the leisure to process their meaning. After 20 years of nonstop change, it’s not surprising that Philadelphia has begun to produce a literature of transformation and loss.
Three recent books speak directly to this topic — Justin Coffin’s Fishtown Forget Me Not, Thomas Devaney’s Getting to Philadelphia, and Nathaniel Popkin’s Everything is Borrowed — but there are easily a handful more that explore how memories of place (both in Philadelphia and its suburbs) shape our daily reality long after the actual thing is long gone. (Full disclosure: Philadelphia is a small town, so I’ve encountered many of the authors socially.)
Perhaps because Fishtown has become the emblem of Philadelphia’s warp-speed changes, Coffin’s Forget Me Not feels intensely poignant right now. The slender volume, which he self-published and is available online, isn’t poetry, but it’s not quite prose either. Bursts of text accompany and amplify 35 photographs of discarded Arctic Splash containers.
The iced tea — what “Tang is to orange juice,” he observes — was the soft drink of choice when Coffin moved to Fishtown in 1995. It was distributed at rec centers, picked up at the corner store, and drunk in one swift guzzle. Kids would toss the empty cartons after sucking them dry, creating a litter trail that fascinated Coffin, who tracked the remains with his camera.
”They looked like birdhouses with peaked roofs, tiny elf homes for tiny flightless bird-creatures,” he writes. “This was back at the beginning of the real estate boom that itself was starting to scatter new houses across Fishtown.” At some point, Coffin realizes, “the garbage harvests began to dwindle.” The book is filled with conversational fragments spoken by native Fishtowners, voices that are growing fainter by the day.
Voices of working-class Philadelphia overflow in Getting to Philadelphia, the latest collection from Devaney, an award-winning poet. Devaney, who grew up in the Holme Circle section of Northeast Philadelphia, longed to get out of Philadelphia and escape his working-class origins. This volume is partly about coming home and realizing that those things he once rejected are disappearing. Many of the poems are based on the photographs by Will Brown and Zoe Strauss, although only two of their images are included in the book.
Fortunately, Devaney’s words are evocative enough. The title poem, which tells of a difficult trip home from New York for Thanksgiving, slyly notes the presence of a SEPTA ad proclaiming, “We’re getting there.” He frequently picks up the Philadelphia patois, as he does in this passage from “The Blue Stoop,” a poem that evokes the intimacy and insularity of a Philadelphia neighborhood:
“They say, Don’t forget where you’re from,
but I don’t have to, I never left.”
And in this one, called “Oregon Ave”:
“Seriously, when you have a good spot, why move the car.”
You know this an authentic-Philadelphia book because the subject of parking comes up repeatedly.
In Popkin’s Everything is Borrowed, the desire to chronicle the past becomes a disabling obsession for the novel’s main character, Nicholas Moscowitz. That’s a real problem since he’s an architect and has been commissioned to design a project in Queen Village.
Yet he can hardly look at the site without seeing the people and buildings that once populated it. The book features several real-life sites, including a former synagogue on Sixth Street where the Star of David was chiseled off during an apartment conversion. As Moscowitz conflates the city’s past with moments from his own past, he is forced to come to terms with what it means to impose your own mark on a place. Popkin’s latest novel, The Year of the Return, is set in 1976, the year of the Bicentennial, and also uses Philadelphia as a backdrop for reconciling the past and present.
Unlike those authors, Janny Scott refuses to indulge in nostalgia for the past in The Beneficiary, a memoir of growing up amid immense wealth on the 900-acre Ardrossan estate in Villanova in a house that virtually defines the Main Line. Scott’s socialite grandmother was the model for the Katharine Hepburn character in The Philadelphia Story, and her father, Robert Montgomery Scott ran the Art Museum for many years.
Scott recounts how her father, dubbed “The Duke of Villanova,” struggled to live up to the expectations of the WASP aristocracy, while secretly hating its rituals and constraints, and turning to alcohol for escape. He frequently led his pack of hounds on hunting expeditions, forcing his reluctant family to join in the bloodletting. Those “tussocky fields” are now being subdivided for ordinary, if expensive, suburban housing, but Scott has no regrets. For her, the changes represent liberation.
Lorene Cary’s memoir, Ladysitting, confronts family legacy from a very different perspective. The book details Cary’s conflicting feelings about caring for her headstrong, centenarian grandmother in her final years, but she also uses the book to explore her place in the solar system of an extended black family centered in Philadelphia and discuss the racism that shaped its members’ personalities and fates.
Two more books for those who can’t stop thinking about how Philadelphia’s past is prologue to today’s boom: In The Battles of Germantown, historian David W. Young searches for ways to make the neighborhood’s trove of Colonial-era buildings meaningful to Germantown’s underserved African American community.
And then there’s Ann Patchett’s novel, The Dutch House, which has gotten a lot of attention locally because it features a well-known Elkins Park house. The story examines the relationship between a brother and sister who lost their childhood home after their family’s fortunes declined. The house becomes their touchstone even if it can never be theirs again. Unlike the other authors, Patchett never lived in region, but she clearly understands that the power of place defines who we are.