West Philadelphia Photographs
I do a lot of my writing at The Green Line Cafe, which sits on the northeast corner of Clark Park in West Philadelphia. Riding my bike from Rittenhouse Square to 43rd and Baltimore is a great way to clear my head on a Saturday morning, even if I’ve had a few close shaves with the trolley tracks and obnoxious drivers on the Walnut Street bridge.
The Green Line has curved glass windows that give a panoramic view of Clark Park, with its statues of Charles Dickens and Little Nell. On Saturdays, the park hosts a farmers market, and the cafe has an overflow of customers, ranging from Amish farmers to hipsters to Penn graduate students.
During my bike rides around town, I am an inveterate photographer, snapping pictures of the homes and churches of West Philadelphia. To the consternation of some of my friends, I am hooked on the Hipstamatic iPhone app, which allows random, vintage effects. It is similar to Instagram, only there is much more of an element of surprise. For me, it is that element of surprise that really captivates me, and spurs me on to take more pictures. You can take pictures in various black-and-white settings (including one that leaves residual hints of red or blue), or ones bordered to look like they came out of a 1960s album, complete with fabric borders. In a setting with a “Lucas lens” and “Blanko” film, Philadelphia’s red brick really jumps out in stark relief, showing stains and streaks that otherwise would be overlooked.
Some might call it falsifying history. I simply think it’s fun.
I have a regular camera that takes great pictures, and I can modify effects in iPhoto. Maybe it’s the inner “urban geek” in me, which is always looking for surprises, that has me hooked on this thing for serendipitous urban historical photography.
One of my friends, who is an avid user of Instagram, thinks Philadelphia is a great city to photograph because it is a very “moody” city. It broods, seethes, and simmers, and waxes nostalgic. I agree with him. Aside from New Orleans, I haven’t been to an American city where the past is so much a part of every day consciousness and the visual fabric as it is here.
Two years ago I wrote a PhillyHistory.org featuring the MacMurtrie family’s life during the first decades of the twentieth century, when the Spruce Hill neighborhood of West Philadelphia was a prosperous, upper-middle class streetcar suburb. I’ve included a link to it here:
Much of the housing stock was constructed between 1875 and 1910, and consisted of substantial rowhouses and twins. Who lived here? Doctors, lawyers, prosperous small business owners, and other white collar workers. Many rode the trolleys into Center City for work. Children either attended West Philadelphia High School, local parochial schools, or commuted to various private schools like St. Joseph’s Preparatory or Friends Select.
Spruce Hill underwent severe decay in the 1960s and 70s. Much of this was the fault of government-mandated “red-lining,” which encouraged white families to leave urban areas and forced poor African-Americans into tightly-restricted ghettos with little access to credit or education. Many of the houses fell into disrepair. In recent years, the area has been gradually restored to some of its former beauty, but it the housing stock is still rough-around-the-edges compared to, say, manicured Chestnut Hill, which seems to have frozen in time in 1929. Porches sag, woodwork is painted in quirky colors. Some houses are single family, while other have been cut up into apartments, with second front doors wedged in awkwardly where windows used to be. Ethnic restaurants now line Baltimore Avenue, catering to the area’s increasingly international population.
I’ve included some photographs of Spruce Hill below. All pictures copyright Steven B. Ujifusa.