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.

2 thoughts on “Heart of the Eraserhood”

  1. I was born (1959) and grew up in South Philadelphia; therefore, I am well acquainted with the post industrial landscape that inspired the backdrop to Mr. Lynch’s Erasorhead.
    My childhood neighborhood was nothing like that of the films main character. Although I lived in a brick row home, we had huge sycamore trees on the streets and residents had small gardens in front of and behind their properties. Despite this, To the East along the Delaware river waterfront were huge brick structures that had been distilleries, factories, power plants and warehouses, which by around 1980, were mostly abandoned and awaiting the wrecking ball. To the West were the oil refineries all along the Schuylkill River waterfront.
    And on the other side of the river were junk yard after junk yard. To the South of me was the Philadelphia Navy Yard. That too was akin to the Erasorhead landscape. So now I get to the Callowhill section of the city where David lived and was so richly inspired. This was completely new to him as I read he grew up in a rural setting. In the 1960’s while I was still a child, so many areas of Philadelphia were like Erasorhood. There were pockets of industrial decay throughout the city. By 1977, when I took my first job right out of high School, I worked at 23rd and South Streets in a small factory that made metal stampings. I had aspired to be a Tool & Die maker (now a dead trade). In the tool room where I spent most of my day repairing dies, the front wall was glass block (very 1940’s, 1950’s). During that time most of South Street was run down with storefront after empty storefront: once a thriving commercial district. South Street on the East side of Broad street down around the section knowns as Queen Village was not too much different; however, by this time was quickly becoming gentrified. Today, most of South street from river to river is gentrified with stores, eateries, condos, and entertainment venues. By the winter of 1977, I had already left my first job for a better opportunity to learn my trade. This brought me to the Northern Liberties section of the city. Now we’re really getting into Erasorhood country. The building I worked in was circa 1800’s and even had a central elevator lobby that the shop I worked in did not use. They had their own entrance. The office that you entered when you walked in is reminiscent of the pencil factory office where the boy brings Henry’s decapitated head. The bathroom in that shop was dark, filthy and had a window that reminds me of the one behind the deformed man working the levers; except, there were no missing panes of glass. Across the street along Germantown Avenue sat the abandoned Stetson Hat factory which was in the process of being demolished. All of these areas I have described thus far have since become gentrified areas. The first time I saw Erasorhead, it immediately struck a chord in me.
    For one thing, I had suffered from depression since childhood; except, I didn’t know that that this was what I had. By the time I saw Erasorhead, I had already been visiting doctors in an effort to treat my chronic melancholia. Although, I still have bouts of depression in my early 60’s, the environment that I worked in exacerbated my despair. When I look at Henry’s downtrodden state in the film, I see the state of my soul back when I was “stuck” in that environment. I felt hopeless and feared that I would spend the rest of my life working in a grey decaying landscape where crime ruled. Those areas were chock full of crime and you always had to watch your back. Today, I live in New Jersey and work at home in a beautiful 1950’s era suburban neighborhood but a part of Erasorhood still live within some back corner of my mind. I applaud David Lynch for making this piece of art. I truley appreciate where his inspiration came from because I worked in Erasorhood.

    1. Thank you!! This is one of the best comments I have ever received here!

      I was born the same year as you, so we share some images of the city. I, like Mr. Lynch, was raised in a rural area, though (in Chester County). My father worked as an electrical engineer for Publicker Industries, so I have some connection with the “distilleries, factories, power plants and warehouses” which were all owned by Publicker. Sometimes, when he had to go into work on Saturday, he would take me along. I found the place absolutely terrifying!! Not only was it loud and smelly (you’ve smelled it — when you crossed the Walt Whitman bridge in the seventies, right by the Old Hickory sign) but we used to park in a yard where there were still train tracks. I wasn’t old enough to understand that a train just wasn’t going to randomly come down those tracks while the car was sitting on them!!!

      I remember Dad driving north up Delaware Ave pointing out all the storage and aging facilities Publicker operated nearby. The very same buildings you are talking about!! These memories are one of the key reasons Lynch’s vision of Philadelphia is so familiar — and so very precious — to me.

      Thank you!

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