Goodbye, Phila. #2 – The Dark Side
The Philadelphia landmark and tourist spot that captures my imagination the most is actually not full of historical memories of great things. It’s the place where Philadelphia tried to suppress its darker side.
Eastern State Penitentiary is located in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, which means it’s a little off the beaten path from the rest of Philadelphia’s normal attractions. We often park right next to it to get to our favorite restaurant just around the corner. And it fascinates me, the stone walls and the turrets rising high into the sky.
It isn’t the interesting historical figures that were kept within these walls (like Al Capone and Willie Sutton) that grab my attention – it’s the collective memory of hundreds and hundreds of hurting people kept in the tight four walls of a stone cell, alone. When I’m strolling past on my way to a delicious bowl of French onion soup, I can’t help but wonder what went on behind those walls. While “normal” folks were playing, working, walking past on these sidewalks during the day, and living it up at the bars and grills across the street during the evening, other people were locked into isolation behind these walls.
I can’t bear to go in, but I can’t help walking slowly past. My curiosity over the people confined inside – what they did, why they did, where they grew up, what they dreamt of, if they knew anything else, how it felt to have mental illness creeping over you from years of isolation – it’s both fascinating and disturbing.
And the cheery guide sitting beside the stone gates, amid the ruin of forty years of neglect, ready to usher people in to see the cells where people were so frantic to get out that they spent years digging tunnels with spoons – it just seems wrong. The day I went to shoot the exterior of the building captured all of this perfectly – the bright sun, the wild roses, the smiling faces – all in contrast to a dank, dark, broken and rusty interior that I caught glimpses of as I walked along.
There’s something so safe about the idea of a prison located away from daily life, like Alcatraz. I can’t help but stand on the sidewalk next to that stone wall and think that fifty years ago, it was only twenty feet away that hundreds of souls were locked behind bars. It’s chilling, really.
I promise that my next post won’t be so dark. But if I’m really going to show you the places in Philadelphia that will stick with me, I had to share the Penitentiary with you.