One of the most telling views of the Callowhill neighborhood looks south on 12th Street near Spring Garden. A hip clothing store to the left, Chinese food joint to the right, and in the distance both a smoke stack and a rehabbed factory that was turned into luxury loft apartments.
The population and number of households here has increased steadily since 2010, and the introduction of a number of large-scale apartment projects is bringing more people to this tiny neighborhood than ever before. Callowhill (AKA Eraserhood AKA North Chinatown AKA Loft District) sits roughly to the east of Broad Street, to the west of 8th Street and in between Vine Street and Spring Garden, and is an eclectic mix of the neighborhoods that sit around it.
This place feels different than other neighborhoods in the city. There are few row homes here — a staple of Philly ‘hoods — and the neighborhood is marked by abandoned factories and rails, giving it a darker, post-industrial feel. It is also where artists have come to call home, and a place where David Lynch found inspiration for his eerie 1970’s cult classic “Eraserhead.”
As developers move in, neighborhood enthusiasts want their streets to hold onto that post-industrial past — even as it moves forward into apartments, lofts and work spaces.
“If we’re going to respect history, which we do throughout this town, we have to respect all history,” said Bob Bruhin, creator of Eraserhood.com. “Of course the (American) Revolution was an amazing time in human history, but the industrial revolution was still an incredibly transformative time.”
Inside the neighborhood
While studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the 1960’s, filmmaker David Lynch lived at 13th and Wood streets. This is the place where he got his inspiration for the 1977 movie “Eraserhead,” a dark, surrealist horror film about a man who lives alone in an apartment in a post-industrial area. Lynch, who created such influential works as “Twin Peaks,” had said before that Philadelphia — this area specifically — scared the hell out of him.
The cult classic is what’s led to a more recent development: the name “Eraserhood.” The National Park Service declared the area the Callowhill Industrial Historic District in 2010, realtors trying to get luxury-seeking residents into the neighborhood call it the Loft District. Others call it Chinatown North or West Poplar. It’s tough to say what will stick when it comes to what’s in a name, but Callowhill still seems the most promising.
“When I call it Eraserhood, I’m talking about an intersection between a real place and an imaginary place,” Bruhin said. “There’s a whole twist of thought that comes from comparing what David Lynch did with it, with reality. Certainly the Eraserhood is darker and scarier than Callowhill actually is.”
Despite his fascination with the neighborhood, Bruhin was terrified too when he first visited it in the 1980’s with a friend who worked there at the time. Bruhin never lived in the neighborhood; but secured a job in the Wolf Building in the mid-aughts and was even more fascinated with what it was, leading him to start the blog Eraserhood.com.
“In the 80’s, it was still pretty raw and loud and frightening,” he said. “But it’s changed a whole lot since then. All those buildings are now filled with residents or tech jobs on top of the new development.”
The most recent Census data from 2013 doesn’t account for hundreds of new apartments finished last year, but it still shows steady increases in population, number of households and young people who are moving to this neighborhood seemingly in droves. The following chart shows how, generally, both the population and the number of households have increased since 2010.
The age of the population is changing as well, and will likely continue to shift as the neighborhood introduces more apartments and lofts in its changing, old factories. Here’s a look at the 18 to 44 population, and how it changed from 2010 to 2013:
Development and change
Neighborhood leaders seem to think that despite a controversy surrounding who would and wouldn’t be working on the building, the developers who created the Goldtex apartment building near 12th and Wood streets did it right. Yes, the developers created a whole lot of hoopla so they could save money by not hiring an entirely union work force which delayed the project by years. But they apologized for that; union leaders did, too.
What’s interesting about the development of the about 160 luxury apartments, finished in April of last year and renting now, is how even the construction of opulent lofts (with a rooftop lounge, to boot) is the still-present industrial feel. Instead of changing the entire facade of the structure, developers essentially put a skin around it. Maybe one day if concrete structures come back in style, they can simply rip the skin off.
Graffiti that was there remains exposed in some places and is framed in the lobby of the building, paying homage to the street artists that made a hyperlocal name for themselves in the neighborhood.
But of course, one of the largest projects that’s set to change the neighborhood for good is the redevelopment of the Reading Viaduct. What was once an abandoned, raised train track area will soon be a Rail Park in the sky. The tracks that stretch from Callowhill to Broad sit a story above the ground and will be rehabbed with vegetation and recreational features to make the forgotten tracks a new family destination.
Whether it’s Goldtex, the Viaduct, the Wolf Building or the other handful of development projects popping up in Callowhill, residents and community leaders are working — as many other neighborhoods in Philadelphia are — to strike the right balance of old and new.
“Infrastructure is the key word,” Bruhin said. “It’s really amazing what they have left. And it’s mostly unspoiled.”