Tag Archives: space

This Space Between

In the city, there are still unclaimed places, sites that are betwixt and between, undesirable leftovers that serve no purpose and have no value – or so it seems. Sometimes these sites are adjacent to developed plots and contain the dumpings from the development, as the remainders and reminders – blank spaces that punctuate the thing that was erected.

In other areas, places exist that were once fully functional but because of changing needs and technologies, and lost means, they have fallen into “ruin,” and are left to rot. We have seen many of these, resulting in a once-valuable and useful property devolving into decrepitude; a deteriorating house or commercial building. And we have found wonder in the reassertion of nature on a manmade site such as the below- and above-ground railways that were once more function than form, but, in their present unused state, are excellent placeful places, more nature than nurture.

The spaces surrounding waterways in urban environments have always been problematic, historically developed and laid waste to, currently a discarded legacy of dead rivers and eroded and depleted river banks. Revival is occurring, but some of these spaces, created without forethought, are downright weird, like old sewer lines. There is an unusual juxtaposition of river and expressway in many places in this country, including here along the western bank of the Schuylkill.

Here, we are walking along such a forgotten space, the useless void between the river and the road. Being here, in this place, feels as though there was an attempt to obliterate the river as a transportation hub in favor of the car; however, the road follows the river’s navigation and clings to its contours along a steep cliffside, generally about thirty feet above water level. The width of this swath of land between the water’s edge and the road varies, sometimes leaving only a narrow strip of sandy lifeless soil barely wide enough for a path. Then the road recedes from the river, enlarging its visible bank by fifty feet or more. This view from below, in the bottomlands, reveals that the construction and road-laying required removal of huge rock outcroppings, many scattered down the grade and lodged there until the next upheaval. Some of the larger ones are intact, others were blasted and have perfect holes drilled into them – occuli into human hubris.

It is other-worldly here, in this space between. We are in a culvert really, but it is a culvert that becomes a river on one side. And a mighty one, at that. The water is high and swift, carrying uprooted trees. Along the bank there is a large hull of a metal boat, umber with rust, a few similar-looking car bodies, and eerie, tattered, shreds of plastic hanging like sphagnum moss from the leafless branches. The irony is that, in a city, usually, there are such rivers and, yet, it is strangely unusual to be this intimate with one; often there is no access – possibly, because this is what you would find. But the weirdness of this leftover space is not the river, it is the expressway above, loud and insistent. I feel like perspiring and panicked Jiff, in Bowfinger, facing into speeding traffic and its horrific sound. I am not in it, I am below it, but that is harrowing, too. Plus, there is trash everywhere, apparently flung from speeding vehicles toward the river. Hey, let’s continue to lay waste to our natural environment in every way we can for as long as we inhabit the place. WTF.

Someone has forged this path so we are not the first humans to be here. We are the only ones today, though. Another kind of eerie. There are numerous creeks that feed into the river, running underneath the elevated highway – large drainage pipes, many broken or disconnected but flowing steadily – and we must navigate across these inlets on rocks or fallen trees, to continue forward. We come upon a low point, almost a beach, where the river has burst through its bank and has created a second, smaller river branch, encroaching on the limited supply of land mass in this contained but wild and wounded nether-land. At this point, we are unsure if it is passable, but we find that there is a narrow stone path right up against the towering retaining wall of the expressway, now higher than thirty feet.

Because, at this point, the road rises up for train tracks that tunnel under the road bed and cross to the river-side. This pairing of water’s edge and railroad is a more familiar landscape than the one we have experienced for the last two miles; it is a welcome relief to the containment. Talk about rocks and hard places.

This forgotten ground between rushing water and rushing traffic feels secret and scary. We are sandwiched between nature and engineering, in a place that to most people has no place, or is no place. It is a throw-away zone. Literally. This strange space between waterway and hugely high structural wall is an orphan space that is ignored, misplaced and abused, both by nature and humans. Its soil appears dead. Since no animals could access it, except birds (should they tolerate the relentless traffic noise), it feels as lifeless as a lunar surface. Except for the river, full of energy and movement, frightening in its power up close and personal. In these urban places, we don’t get this close ordinarily, rivers being something you usually look down on from a bridge; we don’t meet them on their own terms like this. This amazing space, unwanted, unvalued and forsaken, is a marvel because of its anonymity, and also because it is unlike any place I have ever been. It is alien because it is such a hybrid, some kind of Frankenstein creation. But there are, in addition to the rock formations, also trees and ground covers, mosses and lichen. Despite the bad treatment and imprisonment, there is in this place a unique quality of survival and placeness, a haunting kind of placeness.

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The Place of Space

Anyone who has ever taken an art class quickly learns that whites are as important as blacks, negative space is as important as positive (sometimes more so), empty shapes are as important as solids – spatial perception requires both. It is that ability of the brain to determine the shape of objects and their position in space based on the way that light falls on an object and reflects off its surfaces, and the resulting shadows it casts.

In vast landscapes where there are few objects to see, there is an inability to judge distance and space. Probably the opposite of that, having too many objects crammed together without any space between – as in a dense city environment – causes just as much deadening of perception.

When we first searched for our future home, there were two neighborhoods that held interest for us. The one we chose was, in the 19th century, a textile-mill town built on and up steep hills of a gorge created by an active, picturesque and formerly industrial river. The other neighborhood possibility was a low-lying flood plane adjacent to a larger and commercially-trafficked river. Aside from the natural topographical differences, the other more meaningful attribute at that time was housing stock. Both neighborhoods were probably of a similar vintage with working-class rowhouses as their currency for shelter, but what we noticed right away was that in the hilltown, there was a good balance of houses to green areas – whether it was small caged yards, grassy strips along curb-lines or quite a few wooded lots, mostly on the unbuildable steepest slopes but also some just interspersed, breaking up the monotony of house mass. This, as opposed to the flatter neighborhood that had almost an equal number of empty, demolition-scarred lots in proportion to the number of houses. There were vast tracts of land separating one or two lonely looking houses, and you knew that they had not been built that way. Plus, whatever green space existed was empty, weed-covered lots that sometimes extended for entire blocks. If not for the disrepair and the age of the buildings, there was something suburban about the large swaths of emptiness: kind of like Detroit has become as a result of all its missing housing and destroyed neighborhoods.

We determined that too much desolate, open space, in city terms, does not make for a livable or desirable environment (and, too, in suburbia but that is a different issue).

Fast forward twenty-five years. Development has become rampant in both neighborhoods. The flatter one, having a huge amount of developable space, has been able to absorb, so far, any project that shows up. There will be limits, however.

That brings us to the hilltown, which was pretty much well-developed by the mid-20th century. In fact, then, you could not give away the houses here, the area was so undervalued. Sometime in the late 20th century, the fates reversed and properties’ values increased tenfold. Then, every scrap of land, no matter how small, started to have potential for income-production. As the buildable scraps of land became new housing, no matter how compressed into a site they were, the scramble for fast turn-around in a ballooning market overtook common sense or sanity. It was a new kind of gold rush in them thar hills. And despite the downturn of the real-estate market in the past handful of years, the erection (and we don’t use that term lightly) continues. It has reached a point now that is absurd – absurd because much of the old housing stock is empty and languishing, waiting to be bought, and, most absurd is that the very thing that attracted us to this area, the balance of hard surface to green, is disappearing rapidly, reversing the livability factor and making every block a continuous, relentless hard-surfaced canyon.

Too much positive space, almost zero negative space – the only negative space left being streets for cars. In the greed and pillaging of the land, the very qualities of living on it have been diminished. It is one of those theorems of inverse proportion in which the popularity of a place can become its own destruction. Humans are weird that way.

Our arslocii theory has been that placeness occurs when the object and the site enhance one another, creating a greater whole. Without negative space balancing the built environment, there is solidity without respite, no relief, no shadows, no place you would want to be. Just as the vast tracts of empty land are discomforting, so are the overbuilt canyon walls. In some ways, the city is becoming not unlike expressways with their sound barrier walls – chutes that we are pushed through like cattle – having no connection to any of the surrounding landscape, not knowing where we are and having no distinct landmarks. Creating a nowhere.


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