“Our evolutionary human survival traits may fuel our creations, but the gaps between the death and rebirth of our ideas are filled by the greater existence of the land, and yet even the fate of the land is not fixed …”
A series by Nic Esposito – “Notes From the Urban Homestead” for Paradigm Magazine
Nic Esposito is a writer, urban farmer and founder of The Head & The Hand Press.
Thomas Buck Hosiery Pre-Fire Photograph by Florence Nussbaum
Thomas Buck Hosiery Post-Fire Photograph by Peter Woodall of Hidden City Philadelphia
It was either the dog growling into the curtains or the voices beyond the window that woke me. I can’t say for sure, but without a thought to time or circumstance I found myself crawling on my elbows, over my sleeping wife and onto the floor where I lied down next to the dog and pushed the curtains aside. Below my window neighbors were roaming the streets erratically shooting streams of light from their torches like they were searching for a missing child. Yet, their pace was more like a mob who had already found the child and who were now hunting the abductor.
They moved like a swarm of fireflies flashing through the night until one by one the flickers faded out leaving nothing but darkness. I lost sight of them for a moment, but as I shifted my body from one side of the window to the other I saw them again, clear as if the daylight had broken and the sun was glowing with a pulsating orange. Either they had found the child and they were preparing the abductor for the stake, or something else was happening. It was the something else that made me run out of the house in my wool bathrobe.
For a neighborhood where there is always a steady buzz of foot traffic and trains, and shadows never seem to cease, there was still something surreal about the people standing out in the street collectively fixated on what they were seeing. An entire factory was engulfed in flames, shooting out waves of oxygen as the fire fed on the brittle skeleton of carbon that still supported the brick and wooden walls. I wouldn’t call it beautiful, although fire can have that enchanting affect, but the hum of the burning fuel was quiet and slow, as if it would last forever.
I couldn’t grasp the impermanence of the situation until the man next to me said, “There you go; lived here all my life, seventh one I’ve seen go.” He paused for a second when the flames shot out of a fifth story window and everyone gasped, the flames reflecting in all of their eyes. He went on, “You’re watching everything that was ever made in this neighborhood burn to the ground.”
I didn’t have even a moment to process his simple profundity, for not two seconds after he said that the front wall fell sending a cloud of embers into the wind that fell like rain drops onto the plastic gutters of houses in the path and exploding into flames. As much as my heart pounded at the randomness of the destruction, my mind remained calm as the wind gusted to the east away from my house. The same wind I curse everyday as I ride against it into Center City was now on my side. I’ve had enough frustrating days of bike riding where the wind attacks me from every direction to know not to trust it, so I kept watching until the last wall fell leaving nothing but the building’s fire stairwell standing like a monument on the city skyline.
Two firemen died that night in duty. Another one spent three hours underneath a pile of bricks being swallowed deeper into the dirt that was choking on the innards of the factory. I found out about the deaths when the morning came and the embers stopped raining. I went back to the site to see a fireman sitting on the back of his truck looking like he was sleeping with his eyes open. A light breeze blew by, much different from the night before. The power of that wind was what fed the fire too fast for the firefighters to react to the eastern wall that collapsed on top of them as they tried to save the surrounding neighborhood.
It was the wind that saved us. For if just one little spark would have landed on the layers of dried hay that we use to mulch our vegetable beds, the firefighters would have had to contend with another vacant lot ablaze. It’s a shame that I would call the quarter of a city block we converted from a garbage dump and a prostitute’s chamber into fully functioning farmland, a vacant lot. But even though realtors sell the garden views and rustic rural landscapes that can be seen from the surrounding windows, those same agents would tell anyone with the right amount of money that the listing is just another vacant lot, like what we thought the factory was.
Although it still proudly displayed the words Thomas Buck Hosiery from a time when generations of textile workers once inhabited my house, the factory was now like a feral cat: alone in the streets, not belonging to anyone. So the outrage was warranted when it turned out that the factory did have an owner- a father and his sons who banished the factory from their family as if it were some bastard child after it was found out that it was going to be a failure that would never be worth its market share. I never thought about my wife and I being the foster parents of our farm, but I guess it is true what they say, “It takes a village to raise a vacant lot.”
Our land, the factory land, any land, it can be given a job, or a family, or a place in society, but it’s still a being with an innate natural state. On the sidewalks of even the most neglected property the weeds will grow like the unrelenting acts of kindness of a drug addict who holds the subway door open for the mother and her children who can’t afford to miss that train. There’s always beauty that will push through the dirt if just given the chance.
Flowers, fruit, food, there’s no greater gift that a piece of land can give if given the chance, and it should always be given that chance no matter what path that land is predetermined to take. In the wild this fate is much more defined and it’s the greatest relation of human romanticism to keep our hands off, to simply let it be. But in society, the land can’t just be considered another productive member of society without being nurtured too. When you plant a garden, you’re doing what the trees and the birds and the bugs have been doing since the beginning of time: you’re bringing the land life so that it may continue to breathe. And that breath is what lets everything else grow. There is no greater devotion a person can show to a place than to plant a garden.
But as that Fishtown philosopher explained that night, everything we do is impermanent. Our evolutionary human survival traits may fuel our creations, but the gaps between the death and rebirth of our ideas are filled by the greater existence of the land, and yet even the fate of the land is not fixed. When it’s been abused enough it will devour its tormentor in a mouthful of flames, along with the innocent victims at the mercy of which way the wind decides to blow. We were lucky that night. Maybe the next night we won’t be. I’d like to think the land will take us into consideration the next time it opens its jaws. But as the saying goes, “Oppression will make even the wisest man mad.”