“Living in the History,” the Structure and Surface group looks ahead

The infrastructure of Philadelphia’s past still exists in its present, Temple historian Ken Finkel noted.

The arterial roadways that connected the factories of the past – Moyamensing, Ridge, Passyunk and Germantown avenues. The old buildings, being repurposed as lofts and multi-use developments.

After each night of the Structure and Surface team’s introductory meetings, Finkel joined his colleague, University of Pennsylvania historian Walter Licht, and led open discussions for the group to unpack everything it had just taken in, beginning with some statistics:

In the dawn of industrialization, Philadelphia’s population more than tripled between 1790 and 1890.

A newspaper ad trumpeting city’s manufacturing prowess, from 1890, boasted that Philadelphia produces 40 million yards of carpet each year, and 4.3 million hats. The ad goes on to note that that many hats, lined up in a row, would stretch from Pennsylvania to Colorado.

The population peaked in 1950, and then declined in the latter half of the 20th century, as industry declined. In 2011, it went up, for the first time in 50 years.

Martin Heilman of Wayne Mills talked about growth in his neck of the woods – through the internet, he told the group, handcrafters are finding them. Of the 112 new customers Wayne acquired in 2012, 94 found it online.

“In the old days, you had to find those niche customers,” Heilman mused. “Now they find you.”

Licht paused to ponder those old days – a business built from the community for the community. A niche market created through small verbal networks. A network, a form of textile itself, the fabric of a community.

Vernard Trent of Bentley Robes talked of a different kind of relationship between a business and community – a disconnect. His wife’s business is located in their Germantown neighborhood. They drive by Wayne Mills all the time, and yet never knew it was operational.

“Once I was on my way home, and I saw lights on inside,” Trent said to Heilman. “I pulled over and rolled down my window, hollering at the building. I wanted to know what was happening inside.”

Their new discovery of the local textile community is thrilling, Trent continued. His wife often has to drive to New York City to buy materials and work with vendors. She doesn’t care for the haul, and Trent insists she shouldn’t have to make it. “She always told me, ‘You find somebody with competitive prices and I’ll buy from them,’” he said. “She’s excited about this.”

Another rediscovery is happening, as Licht sees it – one of workmanship and quality. He returned to his example of the Disston Saw, a rugged and durable carpentry product manufactured in Philadelphia that enjoyed commercial success until the less expensive but inferior quality Craftsman came on the scene.

“There was this shift in preference from quality to an object you use for a while and then throw out,” Licht said. “It’s planned obsolescence, not a piece of art. Maybe the future of Philadelphia textiles is appealing to a generation that doesn’t want this crap, that’s looking for something finer?”

Finkel tasked the group with its mission – pondering the question, “Where can we find intersections between creativity and the past of the city?”

He pointed to Claes Oldenburg’s clothespin sculpture Clothespin sculpture. One of the working ideas of this famous sculpture at Philadelphia’s city hall was instead a giant screw – honoring the city’s manufacturing legacy, perhaps speaking at a subtextual level as well. Which would have been the better choice?

Oldenburg’s most recent sculpture is the paintbrush installed last year at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Viewed from a certain angle, FInkel asked, doesn’t it appear to be sticking its tongue out at institutional art?

“How do we produce works that ask questions, are provocative, and honor the city’s history?” Finkel asked.

Licht referred to it as “living in the history.” Rebuilding, going back into history, forging ahead into the future. All of Structure and Surface’s participants, Licht noted, are new to working with Mural Arts. He suggested they look not only at the history of the manufacturing companies, but of the people who work there, the circumstances surrounding them.

“There is an amazing amount of knowledge in this room,” Licht said. “I urge you to dig deep.”

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