I recently moved. To Philadelphia, not to Italy. (That’s a different blog post for a different time.)
For the past two weeks, I’ve been running around trying to get all of my paperwork sorted to become a PA resident. It’s required for getting a parking permit and about as complicated as my application to become an Italian citizen. The joys of bureaucracy.
Philadelphia is a small, big city. It’s a major point on the East Coast of the US and a lot of people live here. At the same time, it’s the kind of place you run into someone you haven’t seen in five years while walking across town.
In one of my many jaunts between the new apartment and the DMV, I walked past an abandoned state building. It caught me by surprise because I absolutely cannot remember the last time I’ve seen an abandoned building in the middle of a city. The windows had been taken out, there was graffiti on the walls, and weeds were taking over in their own rebellious coup.
About a decade or so ago, I remember the landscape of most cities being completely different. In New York and in Paris specifically, I can still pinpoint the places with empty lots, old buildings, and lots of street art. They were like little pockets of rebellion against the high rises and businesses encroaching on the history of certain neighborhoods.
In visiting Berlin a few months ago, the same landscape popped up. I’ve said before, Berlin in many ways reminds me of an earlier New York. It’s as if the Wall were a time capsule and now Berlin is catching up with the rest of the world, and all of our problems. People are still fighting to maintain squats and housing available at low or no cost to various types of communities.
The speed of gentrification and the commercialization of New York seems to have increased a thousand-fold over the past few years. Within the borough of Manhattan itself, I can’t think of a single abandoned building. Any spare space is quickly snatched up and put to work.
We all know this, of course, but it’s not something you always see so obviously. Yes, you notice stores closing, neighborhoods changing, fancy construction crews, possibly thousands upon thousands of frozen yogurt shops and yoga studios, but it’s always difficult to pinpoint an absence, a lack of something. In this case, a literal lack – a building that has lost its purpose.
Cities like Philadelphia, like Berlin, are rare and special. It’s a different kind of place where buildings are allowed to exist, past their life cycles, like a memorial to their previous purpose.
They remind us, too, to allow space in our own lives. To release habits that no longer serve us, desires that no longer fit, goals that are no longer useful. By getting rid of what no longer works, you can make space for what’s new, without obliterating the wisdom of your past.