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Posts tagged ‘Architecture’

A Street’s Face Changes

Fire at Forward & Shady 5-14-15

Fire at Forward & Shady 5-14-15

Last night’s news shocked me: an iconic building in my Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill burnt and was demolished overnight. With this loss, the landscape of my childhood and adult world changed forever.

Now, changes to my new neighborhood threaten my mental map. Every time I walk in Washington Heights I take in the sights. Already in the 4 years I have been here the cityscape on the short blocks between 181st and 187th Streets on Broadway has changed: the Crystal Party Supplies store is gone, with its remarkable rainbow-colored awning; the Rammco gas station is now an Exxon; and Hobby Land next to that is closed. Two seemingly successful restaurants near the corner of 184th Street closed: Altus, and El Condé Steak House, although recently remodeled. The movie theater I never went to on 181st Street is long gone.

In my old neighborhood, I walk down the streets and remember what stores used to be there: a butcher, a bakery, a typewriter repair shop. When strolling the side streets, I recall landmarks by my childhood pals: Beverly’s family lived on such-and-such street; Frani’s old house’s trim is now painted blue; my friends have lived in Gail’s house longer than Gail’s family lived there. I note what landscaping has changed and which stores are new. Empty storefronts niggle me like loose teeth.

However, I lived in Pittsburgh most of 40 years and changes went more slowly than what I now perceive as a racing trend. So, too, do the empty storefronts and the changing landscapes in my new neighborhood tug at my sensibilities. If so much change has occurred over only four years, instead of the forty years in Squirrel Hill, what anchors will current residents have for their memories?

In Pittsburgh it’s common to give directions in terms of where something “use ta be.” “Ya know where that Gulf Station use ta be near where the Isaly’s was?” Or, “Go three red lights dahn past where the Foodland use ta be.”  But if you haven’t seen the Gulf Station, Isaly’s deli, or the Foodland supermarkets as landmarks, how do you mentally map your space? Already I can’t remind myself that Social Security’s in the block just past the Party Store… because it’s gone.

It’s hard to feel settled, even after 4 years, when there’s not much distinguishing to anchor my mental map. I want a mental map as robust as that I have of Squirrel Hill and am finding flimsy material instead. But still, I persevere.


Snow on the Fence

Fence Decorated with Snow

Fence Decorated with Snow

Snow adorns the fence and it is transformed into otherworldly lace.  Flake clusters sit on the bottoms of the iron diamonds, amassing loftiness. Were I to return in five minutes, the fence would be different, some blocks filled in, others oddly bare. The pattern relies on whimsy; the air will sculpt and push and cajole the icy diamonds so they land capriciously. Random beauty like this makes me smile and revel in the rarity as flakes pelt my face. I love this!

Fire Escapes as Art

Fire Escapes in Front

A shy fire escape in an air shaft, front of the building.

Artists love to exploit fire escapes. Their rhythmic linearity exercises the pencil and the shadows they cast grant opportunity for various kinds of shading techniques. They’ve been captured in dark, brooding graphite and charcoal. Ironwork spiders its way across building facades in cityscapes rendered in rich oils and pastels. Steel stairs march, ascending and descending with military precision, in photographic studies. I’ve also seen masterful watercolor studies where one might expect free-flowing splotches of color typical for that medium, but instead the paint flows, gracing the piece with an unexpected lightness.

NYC: Ornate Fire Escape” by Professor Bop, used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A gregarious fire escape that doesn’t match the architecture. “NYC: Ornate Fire Escape” by Professor Bop, used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The fire escape receives little attention until needed. We acknowledge its existence, but subconsciously, our brains edit it out when thinking about a building’s looks. They are afterthoughts, infrastructure, not noticed until they malfunction or allow burglars access to the building. Unobtrusive ones occupy negative space, and do not adorn the building proudly; gregarious ones stride across buildings they protect scoffing at the architecture.

Let us not overlook the fire escape as a stage. Who can forget the young love of Tony and Maria singing “Tonight” on the fire escape in West Side Story? And in real life in more recent times, the Highline Park Renegade Café was performed from the 4th floor fire escape of a West 20th Street loft.1 If you google “fire escape art images” you’ll find plenty to entertain you and get your creative juices going.

The noble fire escape. Let us never use it… for escaping fires.


1. ‘West Side Story’ Amid the Laundry, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/25/garden/25seen.html?_r=0, accessed February 6, 2015.



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