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Philadelphia

USA | Saturday, 20 June 2009 | Views [455]

In the 1950s Philadelphia was one of the largest cities in the USA, and in the previous century had even briefly eclipsed New York as the largest in the country.

Then began a slow, catastrophic decline that saw its population contract by 40% from 2.5 million to today’s one and a half. Loss of heavy industry, white flight, and the burgeoning south and west all contributed to the decline.

Of course there is in the centre of town no evidence of this exodus. The downtown is active, a charming mix of 19th century Neoclassical and cut glass Modernism. There are people and shops, neatly planted gardens and an enormous, richly endowed art museum.

The loss becomes clearer as you radiate out, heading north in or case past J____’s home on 27th St. The transition from downtown to gentrified to under repair to poorly to bowed walls and crumbling brick happens block by block. The restoration is happening along the same lines as the contraction – slowly, incrementally, street by street and house by house. This one rings each day with air compressors and circular saws.

Only five km north, with the high-rise core of the city clearly visible in the early evening light, are clusters of abandoned factories. Windows gape, saw tooth roofs slowly collapse, tin and tar and cement sheet press down on the levels below.

We enter one and wander around its ruined workspaces and loading docks. On the second floor the wood paneled offices and two empty safes, doors swung open, too heavy now to loot or remove.

Through the window and across the street is another factory. Abandoned now though once a storage facility for household goods, before those households themselves were lost. On the roof is a strange structure, delicate like a  summer pavilion, that once supported a wooden water tank. I joke to J____ that this was where, in another country and time, Shah Jahan and his beautiful wife Jahanara  stood to watch the elephants parade below them.

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