After 20 years of nonstop change, it’s not surprising that Philadelphia has begun to produce a literature of transformation and loss.
Three recent books speak directly to this topic — Justin Coffin’s Fishtown Forget Me Not, Thomas Devaney’s Getting to Philadelphia, and Nathaniel Popkin’s Everything is Borrowed…
In Popkin’s Everything is Borrowed, the desire to chronicle the past becomes a disabling obsession for the novel’s main character, Nicholas Moscowitz. That’s a real problem since he’s an architect and has been commissioned to design a project in Queen Village.
Yet he can hardly look at the site without seeing the people and buildings that once populated it. The book features several real-life sites, including a former synagogue on Sixth Street where the Star of David was chiseled off during an apartment conversion. As Moscowitz conflates the city’s past with moments from his own past, he is forced to come to terms with what it means to impose your own mark on a place. Popkin’s latest novel, The Year of the Return, is set in 1976, the year of the Bicentennial, and also uses Philadelphia as a backdrop for reconciling the past and present.
In a new column, Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron comments on often-ignored aspects of the city's long construction boom. Journalists write about the grand (and not so grand) new buildings, but they have neither the space nor the time to keep track of what's been lost. "As you walk down the street," Saffron notes, "the absence of a familiar signpost will hit you out of the blue. When did that little repair shop close? What happened to all the Toynbee tiles that used to be embedded in Center City streets? Where did the guy who was always smoking on his front stoop go?" And she goes on to say that the job of tracking such subtractions has fallen to writers and poets. One of them is our author Nathaniel Popkin: