by Cheryl Ward
I’ve lived many places, most dictated by my father’s job, but Metro Philadelphia is my chosen home. I arrived in 1972 to attend college in the city’s center—a flat, linear, and pedestrian-friendly environment. Its dull topography rendered the area visually impoverished, especially when compared to the Appalachian ridges where I spent my childhood. There, roads traced the land’s changing elevations with upward, downward, and curving movements that offered intermittent views of distant mountains.
William Penn founded Philadelphia on a 1,200-acre plot between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, north of their confluence. His design considered the plagues and fires Penn had witnessed in 1660s London. The city’s population had been too crowded for healthy conditions, its streets too narrow for easy evacuation—so Penn envisioned a gridded “greene countrie towne” of four quadrants with five public squares and wide roadways. His layout included two intersecting avenues, present-day Broad and Market Streets. Numbered roads ran north and south, while tree-named roads ran east and west.
I first lived within Penn’s geometric certainty at the Philadelphia College of Art (PCA) Student Residence at the corner of 15th and Spruce. For studio classes I walked one block east, then south, and through the school’s Greek Revival façade. There, familiar words like ‘line,’ ‘weight,’ and ‘value’ took on new meaning. In high school math class, a line had defined the shortest distance between two points, but as an artist’s tool it gained transformational powers. One line, bisecting a page asymmetrically, could create the illusion of space by defining an edge, assigning near and far. Gesture could suggest direction and movement, a line’s contours, a form.
Freshman drawing class began with newsprint on easels, ebony graphite pencils in hand. A nude woman on a cloth-draped platform leaned against a tall metal stool, her left foot resting on its bottom rung.
The model shifted her weight slightly, settling arm-on-stool, with a downward gaze. The room was silent except for the rustling of drawing pads turning a new page. The class worked on another sketch for another two minutes.
Five sketches in ten minutes—these freehand drawings, to us, were proof of spontaneity’s imprecision. We retrieved our better paper and settled into the model’s longer poses, which offered more control as we explored form and perspective. I measured my composition with an upright thumb, translating spatial relationships to the page; others sketched a structural framework on which to plot the scene more accurately.
There’s a general abstractness to my memories from this time, as if inhabiting the three-dimensional city was as calm and orderly as tracing its mapped streets with my finger. I navigated beyond the campus, relying on the order of the tree-named streets which I’d memorized. As the years passed, this mastery of my environment convinced me I knew where I was going, and by implication, that my concepts about the future were well-founded. My conclusions, however, were as illusory as the drawings that occupied my thoughts, although I wouldn’t know this until later.
Figures 3 and 4
Philadelphia’s gridded design has unintended consequences in the three-dimensional world: the city’s straight streets function like wind tunnels, sometimes rendering air flow at intersections unpredictable. When wind blew southward along 15th, it encountered my fifteen-story dorm, causing the air to change direction—downward, toward street level—to interact with Spruce Street’s east/west crosswinds. Their intersecting currents, at times, formed a vortex, much like a miniature tornado; plastic bags, trash, and dirt could be seen swirling within its movement. I fought my way through each whirlwind, then exited, disgruntled and disheveled.
I’ve written this with a sense of narrative distance, like watching myself from afar, but this experience is something my body retains, something I can relive through muscle memory:
I’m walking eastward on Spruce toward 15th, my torso angled slightly forward into the wind. I breach the waiting maelstrom where intent and control are easily overcome, and my face takes the brunt of its whipping force. It lashes my forehead and cheeks in hard, sharp gusts. Strands of my long hair are sucked up and around, and I imagine myself as Caravaggio’s “Head of Medusa.” I narrow my eyes, hoping to shield my contact lenses from the wind and blowing dirt, but I feel a particle of grit, then an oversized pain in my right eye. I stop instantly, tilting forward to stay balanced against the wind while my hand manipulates my eyelid to stimulate tears. I stagger forward and through, right-hand-over-right-eye, convinced, at least for a moment, of the world’s physical presence and power.
To an artist, paper is a surface, the two-dimensional plane illusion counts on. In this context it’s easy to take paper for granted and forget each sheet is an object; that its mass pushes air aside to form a breeze that skims one’s skin, or vibrates a delicate rustle.
Drawing class—the white-egg-on-white-cloth exercise—our professor challenges us to find the light that resides within the paper itself. The set-up is lit by a clip-on utility lamp and the room’s humming fluorescents. Flat and bland is what I see until I move my pencil with varying pressure, urging a range of tones toward the egg’s form. The oval outline emerges through the contrast of adjacent grays, but coaxing light takes patience, so I refine further, until areas of untouched paper find their place within the shell’s highlights. The paper illuminates the drawing, as well as my notion of how to see.
I lived in four sections of central Philadelphia over the years, unaware of the streams that once flowed there. Open creeks once made their way through the natural terrain, guided by gravity toward one of two rivers defining the city’s eastern and western limits. As the city grew, these waterways were redirected and built upon, their history secreted within the city’s system of tunnels and sewers.
A surveyor’s map overlays these long-ago creeks with the planned block system I know so well. The plotted lines with their contrasting qualities—streets, drawn with intent and a straight edge; streambeds, etched organically by moving water and topographical changes in elevation.
It’s a lovely image to the artistic eye: how the man-made tries, but seemingly fails to constrain the waterway. Instead, the streams flow onward, one block to the next in this vision of the future, this record of loss.
Chaos at the generally placid crossroads of 15th and Spruce could have sparked concern about the future, but I didn’t think metaphorically back then. Mr. D.’s senior seminar might have been another warning, but the guy was a joke—he hadn’t painted in years.
He said, “When I pick up my brush, all of art history marches before my eyes; I lay my brush down, knowing I have nothing to add.”
“What a coward. What does he have to offer me?” I wondered.
Then one day, Mr. D. ends class with a startling statement, “Look to your left, your right. In ten years only half of you will still be painting.”
We looked at each other, thinking, not me.
Maps describe Penn’s design and the city’s evolution. Major avenues, like Broad Street, mark time visually through the changing facades that line it. Some buildings are replaced to suit a new concept of the future; others are rehabbed and repurposed.
My personal iterations are intertwined with those of the city’s architecture—like the Atlantic Richfield Building located at Broad and Spruce Streets, one block east of the dorm and one block north of PCA’s main entrance. Built in 1922 as headquarters for the Atlantic Richfield Oil Company, I knew it as the home of the “ARCO Go Patrol,” a traffic-news reporting service, operating conspicuously behind the building’s street-level windows. I snickered at the staff seemingly dressed in service station uniforms.
My life first intersected with the Atlantic Richfield Building in 1975, my senior year, when PCA moved the painting program to its fourth floor. The college shifted additional departments in the following semesters, and when I returned to teach in 1980, my classes met there too.
Success, as I envisioned it in art school, was a list of goals accomplished over the years: attend graduate school, teach on the college level, become a tenured professor, rent a loft, have gallery representation and one-woman shows, receive positive reviews, win grants, and, of course, paint for more than ten years.
I’m a failure when judged by this criteria and aware of only a few classmates who might be counted successful. While a functioning artist (with two part-time teaching jobs), I never imagined seeking the certainty of a forty-hour work week, but after holding a yard sale to pay my dental bill, I did. Eventually, I found a full-time marketing position at a small architectural firm, where the writing and design duties fit my background. That was around the time an artist friend (who’s now a realtor) told me I’d sold out.
The Atlantic Richfield Building and I lost touch in 1985 when I abandoned teaching, but reconnected in 2000—it, no longer an art school; me, no longer an artist—our interactions were strictly business. I’d joined the marketing department of an engineering firm headquartered there, the now renamed Atlantic Building. I worked as a proposal writer, crafting technical descriptions in layman’s language, a type of storytelling.
Broad Street had become a cultural district, the “Avenue of the Arts,” as part of the city’s downtown revitalization efforts. By this time, my alma mater (reorganized and rechristened University of the Arts) maintained visual and performing arts facilities up and down Broad, though no longer in the Atlantic property. The Academy of Music and the Merriam Theater were still in operation, and the new Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts had completed its planning and design phases. The Kimmel’s construction, which began in 1998, required the demolition of one block of Spruce Street, from Broad to 15th, including row houses, a small park, and my former dormitory.
My Atlantic Building employer occupied the 14th and 15th floors, with window views in all four directions. Our offices were situated high enough above Spruce Street to watch the Kimmel Center take shape.
The erection of its vaulted glass and steel roof, a physical statement of the architect’s ambition, thrilled me with its lovely evolution from open space to light and form. But, the corner of the building’s foundation, where my former dorm once stood, seemed to be the grave of my artistic ambitions. The dormitory’s absence reminded me of who I’d been, or thought I was, or imagined I was meant to be, but hadn’t become, and never would. That time had passed.
The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts opened December 16, 2001. Four days later, my partner and I moved from our Manayunk row home to the 1820s farmhouse we’d purchased west of the city. Sixteen years later, nearly to the day, Glen and I, now married, would attend our first concert at the Kimmel Center: Handel’s “Messiah.”
I hadn’t worked in the city for ten years, and on the night of the performance, as we approached Philadelphia from the expressway, I realized I could no longer name the buildings forming its skyline—so many had been added.
There’d been no elegant outline when I arrived in 1972 and for many years after. Developers had long observed a “gentleman’s agreement” that no new construction could exceed the height of William Penn’s hat, referring to the founder’s statue atop City Hall, a height of 548 feet. However, Rouse & Associates sought approval for a 945-foot building, One Liberty Place. The public resisted the planned high-rise when announced in 1984. The symbolic diminishment of William Penn was one concern; another was the certainty more skyscrapers would follow, irreparably harming Center City’s charm.
I recall conjecture about the proposed behemoth’s shadow and lamented its projected path in relation to the sun’s movement through the day, throughout the year. I grieved the future’s loss of daylight, increasingly aware a capricious “something” was remaking the life I knew.
I turned thirty in 1984—a bit of a reckoning, as I faced my sense of personal irrelevance. I’d already resettled in hilly East Falls, the first of several westward moves, within and beyond the city. This section of Philadelphia was better suited to a withered self-image. Located along the Schuylkill River, it offered life with a residential scale, access to nature, and a short train ride downtown.
I worked in my studio, gardened, joined an aerobics class, received an emerging artist grant. The Wissahickon Creek—one of the original streams untouched by urban growth—flowed nearby, and I rode my three-speed bike along its path.
Glen and I inched our way through Center City and parked at the garage facing the Atlantic Building. The elevator delivered us to street level with a ding and a rush of déjà vu, as if another day at the office lay ahead.
We stood catty-corner from the Kimmel Center, waiting for the traffic light to turn green, enough time to absorb the structure’s presence. But something was missing: the 309 South Broad building that once stood directly across from the Kimmel.
The third floor of this 1920s-era brick structure housed the studio where Gamble and Huff recorded a style of rhythm & blues/soul known as the “Sound of Philadelphia.” The building had been torched in 2010 by a man whose blood-alcohol level measured four-times the legal limit (he retained no memories of his actions). The 309 and several adjacent structures were demolished in 2015, making way for a forty-seven story luxury high-rise called Arthaus.
Glen never knew me as an artist, endowing the smallest details of that history with relevance, “Junior year, my painting studio was on 309’s second floor.”
Though there was more to tell, about the music and musicians, I fell silent. I’d glimpsed the Kimmel Center’s interior as we approached its Broad Street entrance. Our concert would take place in one of two performance venues enclosed by the glass and steel roof I’d witnessed under construction. The vast lobby space between these halls functioned as a pleasantly irregular public plaza.
We stepped through the doors. How suddenly then becomes now.
It was a matter of experience, pure experience: my body moved within the architect’s design; my eyes grazed upon its details; then the sounds: echoing murmurs, clacking heels, vibrating strings, soaring sopranos, the robust applause of elated listeners.
I commented later, as we exited the center’s side doors, “This is where the 7-Eleven once stood.” I spoke in a tone of faux nostalgia. I’d grown philosophical over the years, no longer resenting the past’s seeming erasure. Time moved on, as had I, as would the Atlantic Building when it reopened in 2018 as a luxury apartment tower, The Atlantic.
Except for Penn’s gridded city concept, many ideas about “how best to live” have proven flimsy guides in real life. I’ve learned that artistic success isn’t an accumulation of merit badges—which suggests that artistic failure is something else, too.
Experiences of loss and renewal have reframed life within the concept of a cycle—one like the seasons, like the city, too—their repetitive natures a comforting sort of constancy within change.
I’ve found a lovely form of surrender within this notion. Not a giving up, but a coming to terms that depends, in part, on a growing awareness. My rational mind revisits the pages of my past, coming to see each memory as a translucent skin of an earlier time—one among many. I lift the whole of me up to the light, noting how each layer’s portrayal blends with those before and after it. I study this collage and its shifting perspectives between cause and effect, the innate and the acquired, the unlucky and the self-inflicted. This push and pull, the realignments. I glimpse myself more fully through time’s bittersweet lens.
Figure 1. A Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia in the Province of Pennsylvania in America, by Thomas Holme; the Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Figure 2. University of the Arts Digital Archive
Library Company of Philadelphia
PhillyHistory.org, a project of the Philadelphia Department of Records
Figure 3. Photo courtesy of PhillyHistory.org, a project of the Philadelphia Department of Records City of Philadelphia, Department of Records
Figure 4. Author
Figure 5. Author
Figure 6. Philadelphia Department of Streets, Survey and Designs Bureau
Figure 7. Author
Figure 8. Photo courtesy of PhillyHistory.org, a project of the Philadelphia Department of Records
Figure 9. Author
Figure 10. Beyond My Ken, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikipedia Commons https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0
Figure 11. University of the Arts Digital Archive
Figure 12. Photo courtesy of PhillyHistory.org, a project of the Philadelphia Dept. of Records
Figure 13. Michael Graham from Portland USA , CC BY 2.0 via Wikipedia Commons
Figure 14. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Carol Highsmith
Figure 15. Scan by NYPL, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons Google Maps
Cheryl Ward is a visual artist and nonfiction writer. She’s currently at work on an essay collection.
SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 9 · January 2023
Header image from Cheryl Ward.