The Pretense Of Ornament

 

Joseph Mitchell, 1992 | Photo: Time/Life, Getty Images

Joseph Mitchell, 1992 | Photo: Time/Life, Getty Images

On the 32 bus this Wednesday, my son Isaak, who is 10 and learning to navigate his way around the city, told me what he’d like to do sometime “is take a bus line all the way to the end and then take it all the way to the other end just to see parts of the city I don’t know.” Having nourished myself on the city all these years, I was pleased, of course, to hear this come out his mouth without any prompt.

After dropping him off at his friend’s grandmother’s, where he was to spend the day since school was closed, and hopping on the next 32 going in the return direction, I began to read the New Yorker I had grabbed on the way out the door. Immediately, I opened to “Street Life,” the first entry in the 1960s memoir written by the magazine’s legendary wanderer Joseph Mitchell and never published. There it was: “Another thing I like to do is to get on a subway train picked at random and stay on it for a while and go upstairs to the street and get on the first bus that shows up going in any direction and sit on the cross seat in back beside a window and ride along and look out the window at the people and at the flowing backdrop of buildings. There is no better vantage point from which to look at the common, ordinary city–not the lofty, noble silvery vertical city, but the vast, spread-out, sooty-gray and sooty-brown and sooty-red and sooty-pink horizontal city, the snarled-up and smoldering city, the old, polluted, betrayed, and sure-to-be-torn-down-any-time-now city.”

North Philadelphia ornamentation | Photo: Brad Maule

North Philadelphia ornamentation | Photo: Brad Maule

Mitchell rode on, for hours, switching buses as the urge came, “a dozen of fifteen or twenty different buses during the day,” his eyes and breath drawn to the ornamentation of the buildings out the window. “The eye that searches for it is almost always able to find it…the stone eagles and the stone owls and the stone lions’ heads and the stone bulls’ heads and the stone rams’ heads and stone urns and the stone tassels and the stone laurel wreaths and the stone scallop shells and the cast-iron rosettes and the cast-iron medallions…”

What was it about these gestures–“silly looking things”–that spoke to Mitchell so powerfully? In one sense, he explains, their ubiquity, “the overwhelming ubiquity of it, the almost comical ubiquity of it.” Any builder or property owner worth two cents would ornament his building to declare his dignity, as if he were a king, and the building his castle. And isn’t that the melancholy of the city, the mass of people all together each insisting on his or her individual power and prestige, the “sphinxes and Atlases and Dianas and Medusas serving as keystones in arches over the doorways and windows of tenement houses.”

In the other sense, says Mitchell, the ornaments are no less than sacred objects, survivors of shifts in taste, triumphant in the face of endless shifts in economics and culture.

Photo: Peter Woodall

Photo: Peter Woodall

All the more triumphant here, in this city, perhaps, where so much of the city one might once have wandered so freely and for endless reward, has been lost (Philadelphia had its Joseph Mitchells–Cornelius Weygandt and Christopher Morley among them–but none with Mitchell’s embrace of the “smoldering” city nor his command of language). When we sought to illustrate today’s first feature story, “There Was No End To The Music,” on the influence of Philly’s jazz scene on the development of John Coltrane, with photos of the night clubs and lounges where Coltrane came of age, we found almost none. We settled on a crop of the shot below of the Web Bar on Columbia (now Cecil B. Moore) Avenue taken by Peter Woodall in 2006. What’s remarkable–if your eye knows where to search–is the heavy, suggestive Germanic bracketing on the cornice and the thick medieval lintels over the windows of what had been many years before the Keystone Hall. These gestures that come to us as if from some other realm had the momentary capacity to carry away a rider heading east on Cecil B. Moore on the 3 bus–or more certainly, the streetcar–to some imaginary Munchen strasse. A moment like this, says Mitchell, had the power “to lift my spirits for hours.”

Web Bar, 1600 block Columbia (Cecil B. Moore) Ave | Photo: Peter Woodall

Web Bar, 1600 block Columbia (Cecil B. Moore) Ave. | Photo: Peter Woodall

Like almost every other building related to the Philadelphia jazz scene of the 1940s-1960s, however, the Web Bar’s building today is gone. Gone completely and gone forever, the city robbed of its great capacity for pretend and wonder.

About the author

Nathaniel Popkin is co-founder of the Hidden City Daily and author of three books of non-fiction, including Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City (with Peter Woodall and Joseph E.B. Elliott) and two novels, Everything is Borrowed and Lion and Leopard. He is co-editor of Who Will Speak for America, an anthology forthcoming in June 2018, and the senior writer of the film documentary "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment."



3 Comments


  1. Thanks for sharing Mitchell’s “Street Life” quotes. I often think of spending the day flâneuring around our city. My default plan for a lazy Sunday is always to hop the El from Berks (near where I live) up to Frankford Transportation Center and take a random bus from there. I’ve done this maybe 2-3 times in so many years…never as often as I would like. It’s a shame so much of Philly’s ornamentation has been lost, for sure – but I still appreciate seeing the “the vast, spread-out, sooty-gray” city.

  2. As much as I’ve enjoyed documenting the city’s ‘Vanishing Treasures’ for the past twenty years, there’s always the sadness in knowing that because of a multitude of reasons, many of these details won’t survive a lifetime. Fortunate, though, to know I’ve captured them photographically, at least. Now, time for a bus ride.

  3. Joseph Mitchell is an amazing chronicler of the city he lived in. “Up in the Old Hotel” was mind-opening when I read it as a teen. It made me look at my city, this city, in a whole new way. While it is true that Philly still stays to its Quaker roots and weeds out most of its excesses, we always still manage to preserve some truly weird and wonderful things, if you know where to look for them.

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