Two old bank buildings stand vacant at the intersection of Front and Norris streets in north Philadelphia. Directly beneath the elevated segment of the Market-frankford line, the bank buildings haven’t seen any foot traffic since at least the late eighties. Hidden City Philadelphia, an online publication focusing on historic preservation and the latent industrial landscapes of Philly, put out two articles profiling each of these old bank buildings. According the maps in the philageohistory archive, the Industrial Trust, Title & Savings Co. and the Ninth National Bank were both established in the mid 19th century, nestled in the heart of Philadelphia’s booming industrial neighborhood. Located directly adjacent to Philadelphia’s rail depot and the myriad manufacturing plants, both banks were socially and physically at the heart of the growing manufacturing and textile industry.
1895 Philadelphia Atlas. Ninth National Bank on southwest corner of Front and Norris, directly adjacent to rail depot and various manufacturing plants. Map pulled from philageohistory.
The banks were indeed a repository of global wealth. As this article suggests, the banks were used to house surplus capital in times of down “cycle” investment opportunity drops. A buffer to capitalist crises, the banks apparently housed the homeless industrial capital thrown out into the (figurative) streets by the cyclical dearth of productive capital circuits. The banks were indeed the architectural form of the superfluity of static wealth. Their gothic and imposing facades carved into thick, immutable stone flaunted the power and hubris the U.S.’s globally dominant capital, in the same way that the architecture of our current repositories of capital demand immediate respect and authority by dwarfing, excluding and monitoring passersby. The bank building’s cathedral-like appearance was an architectural politic of commanding the same respect and authority of the 19th century church. To say the least, the banks today perhaps chart a much different economic landscape than they did in the late 1800’s. Their imposing architecture, now an abandoned living ruin in Philadelphia’s Norris Square neighborhood is often read as a melancholic testament to the disappearance of north American industrial capital.
Inside Ninth National Bank. Photo: Hidden City.
But how do we live with ruins? Since the late eighties these buildings have been owned by Norris Square Civic Association, an organization dedicated to providing affordable housing and access to safe open spaces (among other neighborhood initiatives) in Philadelphia’s largest Puerto Rican neighborhood, second only in the U.S. to New York. After a series setbacks over the decades in NSCA’s attempts to develop the buildings, the banks are still empty exoskeletons of Philly’s protean capital markets. The two articles by Hidden City Philadelphia (here and here) lament the passing of the banks, making strong note of NSCA’s inability to manage the properties and Philadelphia's communal loss of historic architecture. Though, there is something more to demolition and redevelopment than lamenting the passing of our latent material histories.
Philadelphia, as everywhere, is an inherited landscape. We make new cities in the spaces of old and always encounter the path-dependencies built into our everyday infrastructure (that rail station is here, not there; that vacant building is blocking my view; our families don’t fit into the homes here; etc.). But the city is malleable and can always be re-made. Walking under the ubiquitous scaffolding in North American cities is a constant reminder of the social and infrastructural transformations always taking place in the city. A fetishism for ruins, for tracing and preserving our industrial nostalgia, inhibits accounting for our protean selves in urban landscapes. However, ruins don’t need to be static and can provide old homes for new social lives.
Historic preservation is never detached from politics in the post-industrial city. Preservation cements urban memories (celebrating the once great Philadelphia industry) or can act as activist method (you can’t tear down our church). The struggle over redeveloping the bank buildings is wrapped up in the slow, arduous process of making local claims on neighborhood land-use and development. NSCA recently sold the buildings to Women’s Community Revitalization Project (WCRP), in a campaign to turn many of the vacant buildings and lots in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood into locally controlled community land trusts. The bank buildings are a fledgling experiment in establishing the community’s right to build neighborhood controlled affordable housing, a sometimes glacial process in the wake of federal funding cuts, high unemployment, and the regular demands of everyday life in North American inner-city neighborhoods. Rehabbing the bank buildings is not a financial reality at the tail end of so many years of abandonment, and demolition is the only reasonable option for a neighborhood-based organization battling the aggressive movement of residential displacement and housing unaffordability.
Preserving Philadelphia’s architectural legacy of global industrial capital is not divorced from the everyday demands of life in the Norris Square neighborhood today. That these banks stand abandoned, devoid of their counterparts in blue-collar employment, is indicative of this city’s post-industrial life. Approaching redevelopment with lament, nostalgia and preservation cements Philadelphia’s identity in the dominance of its industrial past, an unfortunate anachronism in a disoriented post-industrial city. Finance in Philadelphia no longer wields the power it once did, and these abandoned buildings certainly attest to that. Industrial capital took flight from this neighborhood, and residents there today are still working to cope with the empty spaces it left behind.
Far from reminiscences of our now defunct financial cathedrals, the community land trust is working to re-make the city from the imaginaries of the people that industrial capital largely forgot. The industrial baron's of Philadelphia's past had little accountability towards the city's future, particularly towards the working class neighborhoods now hollowed out by legions of crumbling buildings, vacant lots, and their own abandoned cathedrals. What to do with these vacant landscapes, then? What do we fill them in with? Re-making the urban landscape requires so much more than just filling it in with stuff, and certainly demands a new accountability towards the city's neighborhoods. Existing infrastructures of urban politics, though, are particularly devoid of any accountable, yet flexible, decision making institutions.
Faslanyc recently posted a reflection on what the open-source software movement has meant for thinking architecture differently. Taking “The Cathedral and the Bizarre” as their point of departure, they suggest an open-sourced approach to architecture, refocusing the project of architecture toward experimentation and away from sophisticated conceptual design. If the past five years is any evidence, banks have failed spectacularly in designing useful landscapes of housing infrastructure and it feels more than time to attempt new provisional forms of financial and housing experimentation. Indeed, architects have begun looking in this exact direction, demanding more locally malleable infrastructures in the wake of financial collapse. A hopeful politics of experimentation in the form of a small community land trust in north Philadelphia is exactly the bustling bizarre that the monastic practices of planning and architecture lack. So, then, what to do with our crumbling cathedrals?