Tag Archives: neighborhood

Home Place

Arslocii writes a lot about place, especially other places, sometimes far-reaching places. But there is another place, the most significant one really, and that is the place we call home. Home can be as difficult to find as those other special places are, or it can be easy. It is not easy for us. Maybe that is why we seek placeness in all locales, although we know the difference between placeness of the soul and placeness of the heart. Our quest for a sense of place may be a direct result of feeling like misfits most of the time. Our strongest sense of place is inside us – we are trying to find it externally as well. Our guess is that many people derive a sense of place from external factors: being in a family, being a part of a community, living in a neighborhood, structuring their lives around what is meaningful to them – their world reflecting back at them what their place in it is. Building from the outside in, like a house.

What about those of us who build from the inside out? Maybe we are not the norm but there is no manual for life that says it can’t work that way. There is more struggle with this approach, more effort required but, perhaps we hope, more reward. We begin with a strong sense of who we are and try to maneuver our way through an unyielding maze of conformity. Or maybe we build that internal sense through trying to negotiate the maze – it’s a chicken/egg thing. The attempt is to find one’s own way, creatively, uniquely.

We have found house, but have we found home? We love our abode. We should, we made it, in a sense. Starting with the original 1873 manse built by a stone mason/builder for himself to live in, a place that from certain accounts had indoor plumbing and an orchard on its grounds. Fast forward nearly a hundred years, and watch while the late 19th century and most of the 20th reveal the up- and down-side of the economy reflected in this one building: As house became a local bottler’s retail outlet (with the plant built behind – goodbye orchard), then an empty prohibition casualty, later a series of taverns, take-outs, a boarding house and finally, (drum roll) offices for a plumbing and heating contractor (with warehouse behind). And, as is often the case, as the usefulness of a structure wanes, so does the viability of the surrounding neighborhood. When we rolled in it was no longer recognizable as a house, let alone a home. And, too, the neighborhood had been on a downward spiral along with it.

Following our twenty-plus years of sweat production and hard decisions, we have, like a tugboat, escorted this large ship into the 21st century as a house once more. And we think it is wonderful. Most likely unrecognizable to the guy who constructed and designed it, we like to think he would be pleased that it has returned to its original purpose. We honor his memory and his ability to build the most solid house we have ever known by making his work whole again and living in it. Happily living in it.

As we have actively improved our house, we have watched as the immediate area – the community – has changed from a mostly working-but-not getting ahead-class to a mostly non-working-and-selling-drugs-but-not-getting-ahead-class to, now, an influx of student-renters who are being funded by their suburban middle class parents to make them into useful citizens somehow in between their prolonged periods of inebriation. Sometimes I believe we are living in 1970s Russia. Speaking of which, there are coincidentally, Russians buying up empty lots in the area and building mega-houses for the new crop of young professionals pouring out of all these colleges, once they have sobered up and become “citizens.” Or maybe not.

But such an in-flux, together with a vying-for-space mishmash of people does not build stability. In a sense, you could call us pioneers, since we were among the artist wave of early adopters of funky old buildings that nobody else saw value in, other than the generations that were stuck in history-repeating cycles. We had community at the start since we all were outsiders and we could pick each other out of the line-up of houses based on the non-traditional touches we applied to our residences. We all knew each other, some of us visited each others studios and some of us became friends and socialized. There was a smattering of us, not too concentrated, maybe one house per block which made it fun to seek out our other partners-in-crime. So our inner selves got to be expressed, in a small but significant way, in our external interactions. For a while.

Only, just like our house and its changes, many of the artists grew up or grew apart or outgrew the neighborhood and moved on. We might be the last ones standing. And as twenty-plus years went skating by, here we are, still in place but not experiencing a sense of place any longer. In our house, yes, but not so much here in the neighborhood. Although the neighborhood is still changing and trying to figure out what it is now – it is currently a cluster of mini-neighborhoods: the old, the brand new, the temporary, those not-too-thrilled about change, those desperately clinging to what they have known in the face of a disappearing way of life, those looking to a brighter horizon or a beginning.

Where are we in all of this? A little lost. In a place but not of it. We are, surprising to us, looking for a kind of place to call home. A place that speaks to us on a number of levels, or maybe different levels from what we desired oh so many years ago. We are seeking arslocii as a place to live. It takes both the house and the site to create the synthesis. Maybe we will find it again. In the meantime, we have one of the two.

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Filed under Art & Architecture, Musings, Philly-centric

That Ugly Piece of Land

For all the years we’ve lived in our house, the lot diagonally across from us has been an eyesore. Originally a small farm, at one time another structure had stood on that largish, now-urban piece of land; today, only a house, one of the oldest in the neighborhood at nearly 150 years, and a similar-age former stable (now, since moderate gentrification, an artist’s studio) remain, acting as two sides of a frame around the plot, the other two being sidewalk and intersecting streets. The land – maybe 70‘x 66’ – is, essentially, the house’s ample side yard.

For a while, when an elderly woman lived in the house, there was at least an attempt at keeping up the yard. Grass grew patchily on most of it, and the woman had a neighborhood man (in some way related to her) cut it, as well as occasionally trim the scruffy bushes that grew wildly in and around the once-beautiful, classic cast-iron posts and rails that bordered the property. But there was also an improvised barbecue pit – literally a pit, dug deeply into the ground. And a ramshackle, lean-to of a shed housed an old yellow dog named, ironically, Champ (the first in a series of poor dogs over the years, one of whom had the good sense, fueled no doubt by desperation, to slip his chain, dig under the gate and race into the night, never to be found).

“The Idiots” moved in after the old woman got sick and died. “The Idiots,” as we came to call them, were composed of the old woman’s sister, the sister’s grown children and an assortment of kids whose parental lineage would give pause to scientists doing genome mapping. This crew hissed and ranted in frustration and bigotry, making no friends except for the paranoid zombies they sold drugs to. And, under their stewardship, the yard went to hell: it became a dust bowl, as most of its grass died or was worn away, and what remained grew as crazily as its untending and untended humans; the graceful fence was torn down and pillaged, replaced with chain link; trash, broken toys and detritus of all sorts were strewn all throughout the yard; and cars, dragged in, unworking, were left there, the silent victims of the elements and the house’s perhaps mentally disturbed and certainly surly teen boy, who would attack them with baseball bat or an axe, smashing them into ruin when he wasn’t otherwise occupied in hacking at the bare earth with whatever destructive implement he could find.

The people were horrible; the yard was terrible.

And yet …

After police raids, foreclosure pressure, housing-inspector revulsion and several ownership changes, what sits there now is an earthmover that has scraped the land raw into a simulacrum of the lunar surface and scooped out a network of trenches in preparation for the construction of three new houses – a foolish project of truly pedestrian design, built unnecessarily in an economic climate that predestines its doom.

As I try to picture that trio of sticks and stucco creating a wall of residential impermeability, I find myself experiencing something akin to nostalgia for that ugly, gap-toothed yard. It had some, if not much or lovely, greenery. It had a rolling contour and non-uniformity. It provided, if not the open space beloved by environmentalists, then a sense of welcome, air- and light-filled elbow room. It said: Not every square foot of a residential community needs to or ought to be covered with the fruits of a design-built imperative, not every square inch needs to host development. What will be lost is standing on a sidewalk with ground-level all around you; where there was a breeze there will be a curb cut, a garage door, a three-story cliff face and the hum of air-conditioning units. What that homely piece of land said was: Even an unkempt, ignored, even abused space has something of communal value to offer, if only to be a landmark and a bit of shared history.

Once the houses are built, no longer will I be able to glance out my window and see the lumpy and irregular wall of the former stable, the elegant hawthorne and redbud trees in its backyard, the houses and chimneys beyond – the art of years-long, organic, unplanned growth of a human-scale settlement.

Often, one will not realize that a place has placeness until it is a casualty of “replaceness.” One can frequently not see the art until it is succeeded by the artless. Already, with its terrain stripped and full of ditches, that old, ugly, rotten piece of land, with its genuine “beauty” and rarity, has become something I miss, even as the genuinely crass pushes it out of everything but memory where, oddly, it will only grow in my affection, and be a place I recall not just with fondness, but with the weight of a keeper of the keys to things past and gone.

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