Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Skeletons and Ghosts

Philadelphia used to be THE industrial city in America, with one of the most extensive street car networks of its time.

Today, I drive my van through the streets across the remains of the trolley lines. The tracks poke through the blacktop here and there, and sometimes belgian block erupts as if out of nowhere and continues on for a half mile at a stretch. Right now, SEPTA is illegally burying the rails along Germantown Avenue, rails they are supposedly bound to reopen, a promise made in the 1980s. So much for promises. Six trolley lines remain in Philadelphia, four of which are the remains of the original West Philadelphia suburban lines, one of which serves Overbrook, and the mostly-for-show restored Girard Avenue light rail.

Everywhere you look in Philadelphia, the ruins of the industrial age stand crumbling around you, or in some cases are being torn down, and in ever-more-common cases are being reused as lofts and condo space. We people are closer to ants or paper wasps or those giant african termites than we like to think.

I love waiting for the 13 trolley on a foggy night. The triple headlights beam ghostlike through the mist, and the wheels rumble and creak on the old rails sagging through Clark Park. I step aboard, pay my fare; we coast along the what's left of the city's steel-and-copper nervous system, threading around, and then under, the dusty old bones of 19th century Philadelphia.

I was driving back from Northeast Philly late last Wednesday afternoon after dropping my bass amplifier off for a repair. Route 1, the Roosevelt Boulevard, the main route through Northeast, is a dangerous, obsolete stretch of road, notorious for accidents. When I got the chance to pull onto Rising Sun, I hung that sharp left and continued straight south into the slums.

Rising Sun Avenue was one of the main streetcar routes to Northeast Philly, back when
Northeast Philly was still largely farmland and the postwar housing boom was just taking root. Most of the rails have been paved over, though you can still feel
them under the blacktop, which buckles over the buried steel.

Winding through the muck and condemned houses, I stopped at the corner of Rising Sun and 6th Street, and there looming above me was a huge abandoned factory. On one side was a huge sign that read "S.L Allen", while the facing panel read "Flexible Flyer." It was the factory where the sled was originally produced! The factory sits where the old Pennsylvania and Reading Railroads met in N. Philly, the North Penn junction, itself obsolete and rotting.

Philadelphia is filled with skeletons and ghosts like this. They appear out of nowhere, taking up space but not of this place.


Post a Comment

<< Home