On the Streets of Philadelphia

Destruction is in the eye of the beholder

Photograph by Jane Fentress

9:17 PM, Saturday night, Center City, Philadelphia: a soft digital glow emanated from the newly open-air lobby of the Chase Bank at 17th and Walnut. Cartoon people calmly squiggled across the wall-mounted flat-screen TV, depositing cartoon checks on their cartoon phones and taking their cartoon dogs to the cartoon park. The sequence finished and then began again, opening with an inviting title card: “See what’s happening around town.” But what was happening around town was less hunky-dory. As a premonition, the Busy World of Chase Bank faded to white and revealed the screen’s fresh inscription: a lopsided and backward hammer and sickle, red spray paint still dripping.

Torched police cruisers smoldered on the north side of City Hall. Glass, clothes hangers, and tissue from sneaker boxes carpeted the sidewalks of what passes for Philadelphia’s high-end retail neighborhoods. An afternoon of fervent protests demanding justice for the murder of George Floyd had gradually transitioned into an evening of light demolition and spontaneous wealth redistribution. Hundreds of police officers swarmed the streets, their earlier semblance of restraint abandoned in favor of aggressive block-by-block sweeps and curfew-violation arrests, mounting into the hundreds by the end of the night. A few doors west of the Chase Bank, a Doc Martens store was burning beyond rescue, taking its neighboring Vans outlet along with it. By this time Sunday evening, cops would be hurling tear gas at people in a dramatically poorer and predominantly Black part of the city, just fifteen blocks and almost exactly thirty-five years from where they’d done the same thing, followed up with helicopter-dropped fire-bombs.

The Chase, for what it’s worth, was up to building code: its tempered safety-glass windows had shattered into hundreds of thousands of tiny pieces, with no dangerous large shards left lying on the ground or dangling in the frame. Not so for the smashed ground-floor windows of the nearby Anthropologie, which occupies the historic shell of a gilded age mansion; the jagged edges of its grandfathered annealed-glass windowpanes threatened grievous bodily harm. It is unclear what excuse the Firstrust Bank down the block might have for its similarly deadly wreckage. As it turned out, my regular Bank of America ATM booth employed the safest option of all, its windows and doors fashioned from tempered glass backed by laminate film. I cracked off a chunk of what was left in the frame with the ease of breaking freshly set peanut brittle. Each, though, was outperformed by the Apple store at 16th and Walnut, whose gleaming all-glass storefront boldly withstood a determined series of barrages. After a while, one individual, who’d observed the failed attempts to penetrate the facade, walked up to the front door and busted the lock with one great whack—a brick or a shoe had done the job, no one could say for sure. It seems Apple had forgotten a common-sense design rule: don’t blow your wad on architectural detailing without properly budgeting for fixtures.

These broken storefronts and burning flagships—the proud architecture of capitalism, designed to display and sell, display and sell, in a never-ending cycle of consumption—were flooding national television when I arrived home at 11 PM, as were similar images from other cities across the country. “Carnage,” CNN’s Brian Todd said, reporting from downtown Philadelphia. Not referring to Floyd, nor to injured protestors, nor the millions of lives claimed by our country’s murderous racism, nor even to a few hurt police, but rather the dismembered remains of H&M, Wells Fargo, and Foot Locker. It is perhaps possible that Todd’s comment was the most subtle reference to Marx’s famous capital-as-vampire metaphor ever made on network television.

Todd’s CNN colleague Kyung Lah, reporting from Los Angeles just after 1 AM Eastern Time as she watched an Adidas store burn, lamented that “I don’t even know how I could save this business,” clearly wishing that she could. Like a mantra, Lah repeated that she was standing on Melrose Avenue, one of the most famous shopping destinations in the United States, and wondered aloud what the sartorialists of LA would do in the wake of this disaster. “This is where you come to buy funky shoes and a fashion-forward outfit,” she said. “This is not the neighborhood where you expected this to happen.”

As news networks attempted to narrate the evening’s events, they visualized the seeming evaporation of the social contract between citizens, private property, and the state by broadcasting the destruction of chain retail in well-to-do urban centers—a built environment that enforces these uneven contracts at every turn. Everybody knows that the stuff sold at these brick-and-mortars is poorly made by overseas laborers in awful conditions; funneled to US stores staffed by underpaid, precarious, and perennially mistreated workers; and then sold to miserable and desperate shoppers at either unbelievable markups or wear-once-throw-away prices. In a sane world, these are exactly the kinds of neighborhoods where we’d expect anger, frustration, and sadness at the endless parade of injustices against poor Black and brown people—who bear the brunt of capitalism in this country—to say that enough is enough.

Should the protestors have broken into independent businesses with the same abandon as UNTUCKits and Louis Vuittons? On Sunday, I read that Chicago’s Central Camera, an impossibly narrow, dusty, and overstuffed 121-year-old wonderland of photographic goods in the heart of the Loop, had gone up in flames the night before. My dad shopped at Central as an MFA student in the ’70s; I frequented it throughout college as I learned photography from a beloved professor. Every trip up to Central was nostalgic and joyful. There was nothing they didn’t have and no advice they couldn’t give on the spot, saving me hours of fiddling in the darkroom. Late Saturday night, CBS Chicago interviewed Don Flesch, the third-generation owner, as he stood on Wabash Avenue and watched firefighters douse the blaze. Are you angry, frustrated, the reporter asked? “No, I’m angered about what started it,” Flesh said, “that poor guy getting hurt and dying.” Could he be serious? “We’re gonna rebuild it and make it just as good or better,” he confirmed. “I’m not depressed at all.”

Destruction is in the eye of the beholder. My favorite architectural work in Philadelphia is the west entrance to the 15th Street SEPTA station, a pair of bowed glass pavilions that swing up out of the ground like a pair of delicate dragonfly wings. These glass canopies, only ever intended to be passed under, bore loads on Saturday for which they’d never been designed: inspired protestors, standing high above the crowds to demand that the world change and to photograph riot police being pelted with individually wrapped baked goods appropriated from a nearby Starbucks. In Rittenhouse Square, one of the richest urban neighborhoods in the United States, a new sculpture installation graced the enclave’s classically designed park: a dozen gleaming white mannequins from nearby retail establishments. Two mannequins—equitably, one of them plus-size—stood sentinel at the park’s northeast entrance in partially disrobed Grecian chic. A tag on the stone column next to their perfectly smooth breasts read <3 RIP NIP. More pairs were lined up along the park’s main axis, very evenly, until the gauntlet culminated at the central fountain, where two entirely nude mannequins propped up a Black Lives Matter sign. Some head-and-torso busts had been thoughtfully placed in pedesteled urns around the fountain’s rim.

Although the social contracts binding citizens to respect property and obey the state were indeed like so much broken glass on the sidewalk, the interactions between nonuniformed citizens burned with solidarity. Strangers rolled down their car windows to offer bottles of water to protesters. Teenagers walked through the streets distributing granola bars; spontaneous requests for cash, directions, and information did not go unanswered. “Why the fuck did you take an umbrella in a riot?” someone behind me laughed, laboring to speak as they ran from advancing police with their companion. The response: “It’s gonna rain!” When I turned to watch the pair pass, I saw that the companion had liberated an umbrella for their friend as well.  “Unexpectedly Human,” the slogan of the horrible TD Bank campaign currently plastered all over the city, seemed momentarily less dystopian, as it might now apply not to the banks—vandalized without exception—but instead to these moments of unsolicited care.

Late in the evening, near the south edge of City Hall, I stopped to look inside the Starbucks kiosk in Dilworth Park, which earlier that afternoon had belched tall columns of smoke and flames. For the first ten minutes of the fire, the whole area smelled like coffee. Now everything was still. Even though the blaze had been out for hours, the building’s sprinklers continued to quietly perform their duty. It was their last chance to ever do so. Moonlight glinted on the flooded floor and traced a gentle stream of water as it flowed out the burned entryway, down a small waterfall of landscaping rocks, and into a patch of verdant grass.

 

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