In February, 2008, in a Possible City column on PhillySkyline.com, I reported on emerging–and contested–visions for Kensington and Norris Square. The title of the column, “It Really Could Be Something,” was a quote from Dan Rhodes, the former owner of the Buck Hosiery mill that burned down Monday morning, killing two firefighters. Rhodes, who had great, but unrealistic plans for the building before he sold it to current owners Yechiel and Michael Lichtenstein, was referring to the sense of possibility inherent in the post-industrial landscape of East Kensington.
We’re standing in the building’s suggestive cobblestone courtyard, between the soaring mill and the machine house. It’s gray, chilly, and Rhodes is telling me why he loves Philadelphia. “You can’t find this anywhere else,” he says, and “you can get anywhere on the El you want.”
Now, just four years later, we might change the name of that story to “It Really Can’t Be Much,” for so much of what Rhodes–and I–found special is gone (or soon to be gone), including five buildings that instilled so much potential in the landscape: Buck Hosiery, the two monumental banks at Front and Norris, the former Washington Mills, destroyed by fire in 2010, and St. Boniface church.
Monday’s fire wasn’t surprising. In fact, we had just asked Ryan Briggs to report on the building because we knew it to be in danger (click HERE for Ryan’s excellent story), a result of criminally negligent owners, a soft market, and uneven and unenforceable regulation.
But there is more to it, and some of it has to do with the way we mingle our despair with violence, an old Philadelphia trait. Fire and demolition are born of the self-hate and carelessness, which hangs heavy in the Kensington air. Witness the Norris Square Civic Association president Pat DeCarlo’s sang froid in the face of St. Boniface’s deterioration. “Too bad they built it out of brownstone,” she told me in that 2008 story. “It just doesn’t last. Pieces are flaking off, there’s nothing we can do.” It’s the voice of the bloodless killer–and St. Boniface, the beloved church of so many who grew up in the neighborhood, bit the dust last month.
I suppose there was nothing she could do about the two monumental banks at Front and Norris, either. “They [Norris Square Civic Association] own it and they let it die and nothing happens,” said architect and developer Kevin McDonald, in the 2008 article.
And yet it would be disingenuous to place the blame for the neighborhood’s decomposition on DeCarlo–or even people like the Lichtensteins, for they’ve been allowed to let it happen. The bigger issue is what losing these five buildings in four years represents: an enduring colossal failure on the part of policymakers and preservation advocates to protect either neighborhood or industrial architecture. Had we anything close to a rigorous system of incentives for neighborhood preservation, had we more than a handful of weakly regulated historic districts, had we a willingness to see preservation not as an end in itself but as a tool for building interesting and dynamic city neighborhoods, had we learned to treat this enormous inheritance–you can’t find it anywhere else–as something to cherish, love, use, adapt, and build on, we would not have allowed Michael Lichtenstein to leave his building so vulnerable.
I still remember the first time I came off the El at York-Dauphin out into a skyscape of smokestacks above the brick and terracotta fortresses, a place that still reeked of power and possibility. The scale of these buildings, of each of those now or soon to be lost, was immense enough to remind us that this was more than just another city neighborhood down on its heels. It was a place to stir the imagination.
Now, unfortunately, the imagination–and the possibility–is shrinking as the despair only continues to grow.