Heart of the Eraserhood

by Bob Bruhin

“I just have to think of Philadelphia, now, and I get ideas, I hear the wind, and I’m off into the darkness somewhere.”

– David Lynch, from a 1987 interview with Jeffrey Ferry, collected in David Lynch Interviews, edited by Richard A. Barney

David Lynch came to Philadelphia in 1966, to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. For a year he lived at 13th and Wood Streets, “right kitty-corner from the morgue,” and next door to Pop’s Diner. In myriad interviews Lynch credits his time in Philadelphia with the beginning of his first original ideas. His short residence on 13th Street gave rise to Eraserhead, the movie he calls his, “Philadelphia Story.”

Watching Eraserhead, especially if you have stood at this intersection, this is only a slight stretch to imagine. The buildings on the southeast corner, both where Lynch Lived and the one that held Pop’s Diner, have been razed. (Houses that clearly date to the same era still stand nearby at 13th and Pearl. There’s even a diner of appropriate vintage at 12th and Wood and another at 13th and Vine.) Other than on the actual corner, the architecture of the intersection has changed very little. The northwest corner still holds the building that was the morgue, now owned by Roman Catholic High School. Northeast, the grim facade of the currently closed Heid building frowns down on the site. To the southeast, the back of the Packard Motor Company building houses a truck rental facility.

To really understand the experiences that awoke Lynch’s artistic sensibility, one needs to imagine this corner as it was in 1966, though. Not only were many of the nearby structures still occupied by active manufacturing at the time, complete with the accompanying sounds, but there were three active rail lines, including the Broad Street Subway and two branches of the Reading Viaduct within a one block radius. These sounds are very clearly transmitted to the soundtrack of Eraserhead.

Lynch has stressed how empty and silent the neighborhood became after 5pm in that era. He also claimed, “I only lived at night,” during that era. One is led to imagine him sleeping during the day and working and studying after dark. Clearly, if this vision is at all realistic, the sounds of this neighborhood came to inhabit his dreams… and eventually his work.

Clearly, then, this intersection is the cultural heart of what we now call The Eraserhood. It turns out to also be the heart of Philadelphia’s newest historic district, the Callowhill Industrial Historic District. Standing on the southeast corner and looking north, the bulk of the Heid, the owners of which initiated the investigation leading to the registration of the Callowhill District, building fills one’s view. Peering down the east sidewalk, however, one can also see the red brick facade of the Goodman Brothers Building. Further down, just past the Noble Street crossing of the Reading Viaduct, the Rebman Brothers Building is visible.

Turning to look east down Wood Street, the stone causeway of the main branch of the Reading Viaduct can be seen clearly a block and a half away. While the southeast corner remains empty today, the previously mentioned Packard Motor Company building still occupies the southwest corner, and the entire block to the southwest, in fact. To the northwest, behind the former morgue, one can just see a bit of the Willys-Overland Motor Company building. Above the morgue, the bulk of the massive Terminal Commerce Building, former headquarters of the Reading Railroad, dominates the skyline.

In all, seven of the contributing buildings are clearly visible from this corner. Currently, much of the grit and grime from this area’s industrial past is still present. Slowly this is destined to change, though. This change will only further make this district an asset to our city. Documentation of the state of this district before the coming transition is critical, as well.

One more word about Lynch, before we’re done this week: Many times Lynch has referred to Philadelphia as “a very sick, twisted, violent, fear-ridden, decadent, decaying place.” While many Philadelphians might come to resent this, even offered with the appropriate historical perspectives, I’d like to go on record as encouraging Lynch to continue saying these things. There are just so very many young, artistic individuals who packed their bags and moved here after watching his films and reading his interviews – to the point where The Eraserhood is now literally burgeoning with artists new arts organizations. I think we’re the better for this. The very act of telling the world how brutal life is here, is instrumental in changing the reality.

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