Want to start an argument? Ask a Philadelphian (any Philadelphian, a new one, a longtime one – it makes no difference) how many neighborhoods there are in the city. It’s one of those questions that stirs primal juices. Want to turn the heat up on that argument? Ask folks to pin down the borders between one neighborhood and another – especially if it means something to them.
It’s a centuries-long game of push and pull that culminates in a heady sense-of-place-ness that grows over time and defies resolution. It’s part of a powerful, human/hierarchical/historical process that’s gone on since the first and goes on to this day. And let’s hope it’s not resolved any time soon. The day Philadelphians happily join hands over neighborhood-identity issues is the day you can take me out of the city, never to return.
The names and numbers of neighborhoods vary dramatically depending on whom you ask. The last edition of The Bulletin Almanac published in 1976 listed 42 neighborhoods. More recently, when Metropolis reported the “Percent of Individuals Living in Poverty,” Tom Ferrick used the acceptable breakdown of 56 city neighborhoods. But the Philadelphia Office of Housing and Community Development has listed 97; this archive (PhillyHistory.org) uses a robust 155 names and the Philadelphia Neighborhoods page at Wikipedia has crept up to 182. When The Philadelphia Almanac and Citizen’s Manual published its final edition in 1995, a dogged editorial team reported 395 neighborhood names, both current and defunct. And since then, the Philadelphia Department of Records built on that to arrive at a compilation that tops off at 449.
We should welcome Philadelphia’s web of place-ness and the ever-present arguments it spawns as evidence of life. And in those arguments we’ll find stories of places that left behind boring names (the citizens of Flat Rock rejected Bridgewater and Udoravia before adopting the more colorful Manayunk). We’ll find names that simply disappeared, as did Rose of Bath, aka Bathtown, swallowed up by Northern Liberties. And then there were those places simply lost in the mists of time: Goat Hill, Good Intent, Goosetown and Grubtown. But the one thing we know for sure is that each and every one of these places had its following and had its day.
Which is why, when it comes to Philadelphia neighborhood names, we should welcome the idea that after the city’s 20th century decline, less can be more. And our honest embrace of that lesser, as is, Philadelphia is a rare and admirable thing. Which is why we should welcome the idea that the heavily-patinated, “nightmarish post-industrial landscape” along the streets defined by this map to the north of Center City, should be known as “The Eraserhood.”
Having hit bottom, the Divine Lorraine Hotel is well-positioned as the iconic northwestern outpost of the rising sense-of-place-ness that celebrates Philadelphia’s misfortune and moodiness. The entire neighborhood was a ready-made noir set for the short, loving video by Shawn Kilroy. And PhillyHistory offers up about 1200 photographs and about 90 maps of the place, many close to the time when David Lynch lived across from the City Morgue at 13th and Wood Streets and studied painting at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He stored up experiences and impressions in Philadelphia that fueled his film Eraserhead.
Lynch found Philadelphia “horrible, but in a very interesting way. There were places there that had been allowed to decay, where there was so much fear and crime that just for a moment there was an opening to another world. It was fear, but it was so strong, and so magical, like a magnet, that your imagination was always sparking in Philadelphia…I just have to think of Philadelphia now, and I get ideas, I hear the wind, and I’m off into the darkness somewhere.” The Eraserhood name is a deft act of preservation – preservation of the spirit that made Philadelphia what it is, for better and for worse. Either way, both ways, it’s our Philadelphia – but we’re richer for coming to terms with the bitter (and compelling) truth, just as it is being erased from memory.