as the walls came down
Visiting Thomas Edison High School during its demolition was a heart-wrenching experience. Even though the possibility of saving it became more and more remote as the years went by, particularly after the fire that destroyed much of the roof in the front section of the building, I guess I always sort of held out hope that someone might see what a phenomenal facade the building had and at least save that. Unfortunately, Philly needs more dollar stores apparently. Of course nobody would be held accountable for the condition the school had sunk to when it was open, or the neglect that destroyed it after it was closed. Workers scurried around the site with wheelbarrows full of textbooks still in serviceable condition even after all of these years, dumping them in a two story high pile in the central courtyard. Piles of hardwood flooring, wainscoting, cabinetry, and all manner of other things were stacked in a heap that roughly measured a half-block in any direction, and narrow paths were made through it all. Salvage companies such as Philadelphia Salvage were thankfully there to try to reclaim as much material as possible, but most of it was destined for a landfill. Responsibly sifting through the material to see what could be reused was not the priority, tearing the site as fast as possible down was.
I couldn't help but feel like an ant crawling around on the bones of a mastodon; I felt tiny compared to the Northeast High School's storied history and prestigious beginnings, and trying to fathom how many people had been a part of the place, for better or worse, was staggering. In the end whatever it had been amounted to little more than a trash heap to the people tearing it apart. There was no reflection or ceremony about it. Just a bunch of guys whacking it apart with hammers and power tools.
Writing as an act is typically about creating a narrative and coherence even where there appears to be none. You try to make sense of things for yourself and for the reader because that is what you're expected to do. You're making a case: this is what you should walk away from my work thinking or feeling. This is what the significance of this was. This is what should have been done, or why what was done was the right thing.
I don't have any of that. I was very glad for the opportunity to see the site one last time before it went, but there didn't seem to be any great lesson to be drawn from it all. It seemed more than anything to be a final crowning moment of stupidity and failure in such a long string of stupidity and failure that tracing its origin wasn't even possible any more. Not that anyone was bothering to do so. In the end, where a great beacon of the commitment to public education had once stood, there would be another parking lot and another cheap, trashy store selling goods made in sweat shops some foreign country without labor laws. Where Northeast had been founded as a trade school to teach people skills to use in the once-thriving industrial landscape of Philadelphia, we would be destroying it to be replaced by a place that would contribute to the decline of American industry in a place where joblessness and poverty were the norm, where the only work is tearing apart the things that had made the area grand at one time Maybe you can figure out some nugget of wisdom there or wring a few drops of meaning from it, and if so you're better at this than I am.
It just made me sad. Sad and tired. I lost one of my memory cards somewhere in the rubble, the one with photographs of all the workers as they tore down the upper floors. I went back the next day but it was essentially trying to locate something the size of a half dollar in ground zero of an atomic blast. I like to think that's where all the answers are, that it remains there buried like a time capsule somewhere in the landfill the rest of the school found its way into, and that maybe someone in the future will be able to make better sense of it than me.
Photographs and text by Matthew Christopher. For more photographs click on the thumbnails below.