Dreamtime In The Possible City

 

Lush skies over Philly, Portland skies reflected over Mexico City | Photo: Bradley Maule

Lush skies over Philly, Portland skies reflected over Mexico City | Photo: Bradley Maule

When Brad Maule told me I should join him for Center City Sips at the 51st story terrace of the Bell Atlantic Tower at 18th and Arch yesterday evening, I didn’t know I would also find myself staring out at Mexico City climbing into the Cordillera (with July’s chill coming) or at the edge of the lapping sea. But these are the gifts of the possible city.

The sky was cloudy last evening–long dark clouds that Brad said reminded him of Portland stretched out across the northwestern spring sky–but also clear. You could see out to Limerick; the Delaware from that perch looked nothing like the linear waterfront portrayed on maps, but like a snaking crevice in the earth itself, black and bloated from the wet summer and snarled in green. Nothing–and everything–looked significant. The city’s prosaic violence seemed distant, if not impossible.

The Comcast Center, to the immediate south and east makes a comfortable feeling wall, if such heights and a little wind produce anxiety. But better yet, the sheer glass north wall of Comcast mirrors North Philly, the seams of the glass panels producing little volcanic rises in the background–a picture of sunny Los Angeles, or indeed Mexico City creeping out white and green against the blue sky.

Beyond the Toll Bros fiefdom, the Delaware River meanders toward the Atlantic, under the Commodore Barry and Delaware Memorial Bridges, visible on the horizon | Photo: Bradley Maule

The river to the ocean goes: beyond Toll Bros’ fiefdom, the Delaware River meanders toward the Atlantic, under the Commodore Barry and Delaware Memorial Bridges, visible on the horizon | Photo: Bradley Maule

It wasn’t easy to let go of the view, but I wanted to the see the Oval. After all, a beach awaited. Or did it? Perhaps I misunderstood the media description of the pop-up park at Eakins Oval, but I didn’t notice a beach. I saw children very happily playing in two giant sandboxes; I saw the macadam painted a sand color; I saw playful decorations, toys, and a smattering of people sitting at the tables eating or reading.

Last week, I had encouraged my daughter Lena to go with her friends to check out the Oval’s beach. The heat–can you recall?–was unbearable. She had one thing in mind. “Is there an ocean?”

“An imagined ocean,” I said.

That wouldn’t be good enough for the eighth grade set, I knew. But then last night after passing through the Oval, I crossed to the Art Museum and climbed the steps. The fountain was on, but not filled with water. Instead, as the water pulsated it lapped up midway across the dun-colored floor, receded, lapped up, receded, a girl silhouetted by the setting sun dancing in waves at the edge of the tiny sea.

* * *

Postscript: Inside the Art Museum, while viewing First Look: Collecting for Philadelphia (up until September 8) I was reminded of the power of the possible city–a place aware of its own particular role in the world and yet open to cultural influence from afar. The exhibit of a few dozen of the 8,500 works the Museum has recently acquired is moving for its range and emotional tenor. A few of the works by Charles Willson Peale and his sons Rembrandt and Rubens were achingly familiar. I’ve been studying them for the past few years in the research for a novel Lion and Leopard coming out in October. Here are Charles and Rembrandt, jointly the antagonists of my book, in their most human and empathetic guise. And Rubens, who as a young man never became an artist like his brothers, with an almost modern still life done in the 1850s dedicated to his demanding father, who had died a quarter century before. I sense vindication in the dedication.

But the most moving aspect of the exhibit lies in the way it was curated by Alice O. Beamesderfer and Naina Saligram. In this heterogeneous display, connections are made among works, continents, and cultures–and above all, across time. (Note the Mummers costume from England, 1829.) Here the works connect in a most Barnesian way through the infinite emotional spectrum of subject, style, form, material, and tone instead of according to the Museum’s usual silos of place and time.

About the author

Nathaniel Popkin is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and author of three books of non-fiction, including the forthcoming Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City (Temple Press) and a novel, Lion and Leopard (The Head and the Hand Press). He is the senior writer of the film documentary "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment."



Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

Recent Posts
Digging Up Vine Street In Search Of Old Skid Row

Digging Up Vine Street In Search Of Old Skid Row

April 26, 2017  |  Vantage

Public health scholar Steve Metraux exhumes the heart of Philadelphia's Skid Row, buried under the Vine Street Expressway by the hands of urban renewal. > more

Khmer Monastery In Kingsessing Enlightens The Schuylkill

Khmer Monastery In Kingsessing Enlightens The Schuylkill

April 24, 2017  |  Vantage

Dan Papa celebrates the Cambodian New Year with a look at the Wat Khmer Palelai Buddhist temple under construction in Southwest Philly > more

How Franklin’s Grave Became A Monument And Philadelphians Were Persuaded To Like It

How Franklin’s Grave Became A Monument And Philadelphians Were Persuaded To Like It

April 19, 2017  |  Vantage

Nearly 70 years after Benjamin Franklin’s death, public outcry demanding honor for the Founding Father transformed a battered, overgrown gravesite into a popular tourist destination. But the real story isn't at all what we've been told. Join Mark Dixon as he uncovers truth and public deception behind the hole in the wall at Benjamin Franklin's grave > more

A Powerhouse Of Footwork And Fitness On Delaware Ave

A Powerhouse Of Footwork And Fitness On Delaware Ave

April 18, 2017  |  The Shadow Knows

On the outskirts of Fishtown, a dance club and rock climbing gym keep spirits high inside an old 19th century trolley car power station > more

Engineering & Architecture Ride The Rails At Athenaeum

Engineering & Architecture Ride The Rails At Athenaeum

April 15, 2017  |  Vantage

An exhibition at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia illuminates the history of railroad architecture through drawings, photographs, and more. Michael Bixler has the review > more

Ghost Station At Art Museum Rises From The Dead

Ghost Station At Art Museum Rises From The Dead

April 13, 2017  |  Harry K's Encyclopedia

Harry K. walks us through the origins of the mothballed "Art Museum Station," now being renovated at the PMA, and one man's visionary plan for mass transit in Philly that never came to be > more