I am lurking around my own artwork: a public art installation, consisting of twelve stoops built from masonry material from recently demolished buildings from all cardinal directions in Philadelphia. Marble, brownstone, brick—salvaged and recomposed into the small stairway thresholds ubiquitous in East Coast housing architecture—steps, or, “the stoop.”
The materials for these stoops were saved with the help of demolition contractors, whose job it is to tear down buildings in this city every day, at the orders of the city itself. When the contractor gave me a list of buildings about to be torn down so that I could scope them out, I drove around, pulled up slowly to their addresses, stared at their glaring orange demo permits, imagined the lives that unfolded in these spaces. I then pictured their imminent demise—as their “demolition by neglect,” in the words of preservationist Maya Thomas, made way for their actual demolition. Dates were set already, like the putting down of an animal.
The stoop materials were donated to my project partially out of the benevolence of the contractor I met, but also to lighten his load. Taking the rocks off his hands lessened the amount of debris he would have to send to a landfill. This was imminently reusable material, and in some cases rare and carefully hewn (stone from exhausted quarries, hand-formed bricks). But this material was still easier and cheaper to just dispose of rather than save or reuse, and there are certainly no legal incentives to sort or recycle it (what is known as and enforced in some cities as “deconstruction,”but not in this World Heritage City).
For the purpose of my project, the stoops were reconstructed with the hands, knowledge, tools, and materials of a bricklayers union in northeast Philadelphia. This labor was also volunteered to raise awareness about the devaluation of the masonry industry, as historic trades and material legacies get replaced by cheaper deskilled fabrication, quick-up plastic sheetings, disposable construction. As one bricklayer rebuilt a stoop for the piece, he remarked that his union had probably built this stoop in its initial iteration, and here they were, at it again, a lineage of tradespeople engaged in its reincarnation.
I feel the cold surface of the marble against my back and am reminded of my teenage years, the stoop-sitting, shit-talking, and furtive cigarette smoking we engaged in after school until it was time to scatter and return to our own homes.
These stoops no longer have homes. Their site is their current and temporary home, installed for a number of months as part of the Monument Lab project, along a block-long stretch of hardscaping in a poshly manicured public park—Washington Square—in Philadelphia’s affluent Society Hill. The park is used by populations as diverse as the nearby residents, Old City American History tourists, charter school teens, skateboarders, those without housing, workers on their lunch break.
The park’s history is just as motleyed. One of five public squares originally planned by William Penn in 1682, the park has acted as pasture for grazing animals, a public burial ground for Spanish Flu victims, a potter’s field and ritual site for African slaves and free blacks (such that it became known as “Congo Square”), and from the 1800s onward, a site of various “improvements”—to traffic, landscaping, and finally, urban renewal, leading to its current pristine form today.
Not art. Destruction!
The project is funded and supported by Philadelphia Mural Arts and a number of other donors and organizations, and is situated on National Park Service land. As such, certain conceptual concessions were made, certain tweaks to make the installation more “palatable” to a wider public and the powers that be. Nothing drastic, in the grand scheme of how red tape shapes what goes into our commons, but…something.
The response to the project is positive and upbeat: lots of discussion of Philadelphia architectural history, the ubiquity of the “stoop story” (everyone’s got one), and the enlivening of public space. Press photos of dogs and babies on the stoops, Starbucks sippers.
It’s only in face-to-face conversations that I’ve had, and to a lesser extent in the wider publicity, that discussion of the more pressing implications of the work arise. The unacknowledged history of the park as a burial site for black folk (as Philadelphia poet Lamont Steptoe writes in his book of poems about the park, Congo Square, “This is a garden of ghosts”). The demolition problem in this World Heritage City that incentivizes reckless development, the tearing down of affordable housing, and the laying waste to precious materials and resources. The destruction and obliteration and violence of gentrification, the global properties market, lax or nonexistent preservation, waste, and affordable housing measures.
[i’m imagining these “darkness/destruction” punctuations as section breaks where the tense/mood changes, and i think another is needed here, though not as before, since you’re just getting into this woman’s interjections. Maybe a picture would be good here if you’re amenable to their inclusion]
The most meaningful response to the piece, for me, took place during one of my lurkings: an encounter with an older, Eastern European woman, one of the few to offer a negative critique of the work. The voice that bellowed,
Not art. Destruction!
as she made her way down the pass, intermittently stopping to wave her cane and tap on the stoops.
I first took her for a vernacular revolutionary type who might perhaps go on to tell me about how God punishes gays or some such. But she was, in fact, pontificating specifically to and about the stoops. Most averted their eyes as she passed. I greeted her. Her demeanor shifted into storytelling mode as she began her critique.
I am told this is art, she said. But it’s not. It’s not beautiful. It is dark. It is death. These are stairs with no houses. There is no inspiration here, only destruction. These are not sculptures; they are tombs.
We went on to discuss her life in the Balkans, her history, her immigration story. I told her of my own childhood, filled with neighborhoods wrecked not by war but by financialization and development. We spoke of the history of the park, the spirits that live here and how they go unacknowledged. I did out myself as an artist involved with the work, but I also told her that I agreed with her observations, that these were the strongest observations made about the work yet. She left with a quizzical expression.
It is death.
I would see her, weeks later, milling about the work, explaining it to people, this time with an assured lilt in her voice and her cane rooted firmly on the ground.
I spoke with her again, and she said that she and her friends had taken to drinking their coffee on the stoops. She noticed the squirrels liked them. That she does not find them beautiful, but she does find them, as she put it, “real life.” But that she still hoped—unlike the many neighbors who were petitioning for them to stay permanently—they’d be gone by winter, because, with her sciatica, the stone would be too cold on her backside.
They are tombs.
The stoops would come down, after an unsuccessful petition for them to stay, vetoed by the National Park Service. They would be adopted by the Philadelphia History Museum for permanent display, only for this museum to shut down, months later, due to lack of funding and corrupt leadership. I would work with a lawyer to reclaim the work, which now sits in a salvage yard, next to old bathtubs and sinks, a true garden of ghosts, a museum of material departed until whatever comes next.
Making art in Philadelphia: a sacred task of putting out portals in which neglected ghosts may do their bidding.
This Stillness is not Still
by Lamont Steptoe, from Meditations in Congo Square, 2008
This silence is no silence! Rather it is a cacophony of whispers A speech of moans A weather of weeping A deep pool of history This stillness is not still! This is a museum of shadows A school room of the vanished A warehouse of the shattered mirrors of dreams This is a garden of ghosts A dancehall and juke joint of sorrow This is the Ellis Island of the departed A hall of names written in invisible ink This is the Times Square of the dead The foyer of Heaven and Hell This is the crossroads of wind and lightning The University of astonishment and departure