David Lynch in Philly, a City He Feared

<i>Eraserhead</i> can be viewed, in part, as a horrified reaction to a city in the throes of urban crisis. The contrast between Lynch's childhood suburb and declining industrial Philadelphia could hardly have been starker.

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Sep 22 2014, 2:02pm

David Lynch speaking at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. All photos by the author

Two weeks ago, holding forth before an adoring audience, the silver-haired David Lynch looked right at home in the austere immensity of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’s (PAFA) Samuel Hamilton building. He regaled his fans with a tale of a tremendous slab of roast beef he had “let out into the back yard.” The meat became rancid, swelled, and a wild animal eventually carried off a large chunk, revealing “many, many, many maggots.” The audience laughed uproariously, and Lynch beamed at the memory.

The public talk was one of four held in mid September to celebrate the opening of PAFA’s exhibition of Lynch’s paintings—his first solo show in the city since he was a student at the institution in the 1960s (he dropped out after three semesters and moved to Los Angeles in 1970). The crowd loved Lynch’s “aw, shucks” demeanor, which was punctuated by periodic bursts of his smoker’s cough. One audience member asked about the director’s favorite animal (“I had a dog named Sparky, a Jack Russell terrier; he was the love of my life”) while another, exhibiting an unbridled enthusiasm for Eraserhead, wanted Lynch to explicate the inspirations of that eldritch work. “The city of Philadelphia,” Lynch tersely replied.    

It can hardly be called a loving tribute. Eraserhead can be viewed, in part, as a horrified reaction to a city in the throes of urban crisis. Lynch grew up, as he once put it, in the postwar idyll: “tree-lined streets, the milkman, building backyard forts, droning airplanes, blue skies, picket fences, green grass.” The contrast between his childhood and declining industrial Philadelphia—with its shrinking manufacturing sector, racial strife, deteriorating infrastructure, and narrow rowhouse-lined streets—could hardly have been starker.

Eraserhead is the clearest articulation of that fear of the city, a grotesque image of lives distorted by a towering industrial hellscape that utterly subsumes its inhabitants. Even the conversations are drowned out by fiercely hissing steam and the infernal rumbling of some unseen, monstrous engine. 

The Heid Building, in Philadelphia's Callowhill Industrial Historic District

Lynch first lived on 13th and Wood in Callowhill, across from the old city morgue, only four blocks from PAFA. Today the area is still composed of old industrial buildings, the occasional line of well-kept rowhouses, and a few small eateries catering to local workers, many of them now closed. (“Super Lunch!” a weathered sign above a vacant building declares.) During the pre–Clean Air Act era, the remaining factories spewed smoke over the city, much to the director’s delight. “All the buildings were black, soot-covered, very pure, very filthy… it had a beautiful mood,” he recollected during a press conference with local reporters.

Philly’s deteriorating socioeconomic conditions also made their impression on the director. During his time here capital flight and the final stages of the Great Migration collided in fiercely racialized competition for diminishing jobs and city services. Lynch moved to the city in the wake of the scarring 1964 riots in North Philly and during the rise of the brutal policeman turned mayor Frank Rizzo, whose grotesque braggadocio can be neatly summed up in a mid-election statement to reporters: “I’m going to make Attila the Hun look like a faggot.”

But Lynch was an art student and did not attempt to analyze or articulate the historic forces engulfing Philly. They certainly made an impression, however. “The fear, insanity, corruption, filth, despair, violence in the air was so beautiful to me,” Lynch told reporters. “It gave me a lot of ideas… and a certain way of seeing things.”

Lynch’s work, both painting and film, is haunted by the threat of frenzied brutality, most memorably embodied in Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth. This too seems to have been influenced by his time in Philadelphia, where he lived in fear of the violence he witnessed (a young man was gunned down yards from his doorstep) and experienced (the house where he lived with his wife was broken into three times). In 1965 the city was experiencing the same swelling crime wave that engulfed the rest of America, coupled with the animosity that often attends demographic shifts in US cities. Violence historically breaks out when neighborhood racial boundaries begin to change, with the white population often getting an assist from the police, and the increasing African American population was still moving into historically white neighborhoods. The director recalled walking around his neighborhood carrying a long piece of wood studded with nails for protection. A police car approached, and the officer, inspecting the makeshift weapon, simply told Lynch, “Good for you, bud,” before driving away. 

Such scenes were a world away from the swirl of the reception for the PAFA exhibit. Federal Donuts provided platters of David Lynch–themed doughnuts. (“Blue Velvet” and “Cherry Pie” were colored with an especially ill-making ardor.) The faint tang of tobacco hung around many of the doughnut-engorged guests, as though most of the attendees had taken up the vice again in honor of Lynch, an inveterate user (“Do I have time to grab a smoke?” he asked before the press conference). The line for Lynch’s first film—Six Men Getting Sick Six Times (available on YouTube)—snaked out the door. “This is the most people I’ve seen here since the Andrew Wyeth retrospective in the 1960s,” grinned one of Lynch’s contemporaries. Lynch himself didn’t appear at the reception.        

The scene seemed to bear out Lynch’s claim that Philadelphia is “very much brighter than when I was here… more of a normal city.” Perhaps he described the contemporary city this way because he is now rich and famous and, when he visits the city, is housed far away from Callowhill’s 13th and Wood. Since Lynch’s tenure the neighborhood has been aspirationally dubbed “the Loft District” by (presumably) developers. It is speckled with fancy condos, but the overwhelming mood is still of neglect and postindustrial decay.

On the day after the opening, a man slept curled on a steam grate at Lynch’s old intersection. Litter was strewn liberally across the scene and rusted air-conditioners hung precipitously from the windows of the Hein Building (former site of an envelope manufacturer). Discarded clothing dotted the pavement, a lone sneaker here, a soaked pair of Eagles sweatpants there. The only sound was a lone buzz saw that periodically roared to life somewhere in the vicinity.  

Callowhill and many of Lynch’s other old haunts are close enough to downtown that they may, eventually, be incorporated into the halo of relative recovery that surrounds the urban core. But the latest Census data shows that Philadelphia’s poverty rate is a staggering 26.3 percent. The city is weighted with a hideously unfunded public school system, a middling economy, and a tax base that cannot provide the services its citizens need. Eraserhead captures the nightmarish aspects of 1960s Philadelphia. But the horrors that inspired Lynch are still here, if a little less evident from a downtown hotel.  

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