Kaitlin Pomerantz and the Missing Houses
By Matthew Herzog
Kaitlin Pomerantz’s installation in Washington Square uses the reliquized stoops of demolished houses to comment on economics, history, and community. It’s as if, in successfully inspiring sitters, Pomerantz reminds us of what we have in the context of what’s past.
Her stoops lead to an architectural ghost of which our minds design, inviting guests to return home in a form only as limited or nostalgic as their memories. Emotions rest as crafted as the fantasies, while questions like, who rests below me and what was once behind me, float a deep reality about Philadelphia’s gentrification and the Park’s history as a Potter's field for the deceased bodies of the lower economic and persons of color.
Of course it’s worth noting, sitters risk experiencing these thoughts while watching another person pet their pomeranian, google the perfect boat shoe for their next secret Trump Supporters Meeting, or finally convening with that Tinder date who just feels right, ya know? This is Washington Square after all; the contemporary intersection of flaneur, boxwoods, death and denial.
All possible experiences aside, the question arose: Why did Pomerantz create this installation? What visions does she witness filling the space surrounding her stoops?
When talking with her - shortly before the stoop-lined walkway was open to the public - Pomerantz exhibited a clear contemplation of the work.
KP: ‘I would talk to the demolition guys [who set aside the stoop materials for Pomerantz during their demoliton jobs] and try to get them to give me the address of the upcoming demolitions and then I would drive to the addresses and photograph the buildings.’ Pomerantz said before motioning toward a stoop furthest from us; the same stoop from the unintentionally demolished Rocket Cat Cafe. (Coincidentally, the first cafe Co-Founder of VG, Abby King and I had been to together after meeting 7 years ago.)
KP: ‘So some of them I know exactly where they came from.’ She followed, later highlighting her contrition that she couldn’t find the origin of them all.
KP: ‘This work is nostalgic. I don’t deny that. I am both astounded by and afraid of changing landscape and what that means psychologically. I grew up in Lower Manhattan in a neighborhood that was all small businesses and middle income or mixed income housing and that neighborhood doesn’t really exist anymore. It changed into luxury housing, and banks and CVS’. Watching that transformation was really disturbing. And when I moved to Philadelphia I kind of thought I moved to this place, that it was impermeable to that wave of development. And it’s clearly not because it’s happening at a rapid speed.’
Pomerantz appears to navigate this sensation by devoting herself to the communal aspects of her installation. She worked with a local masonry union, Bricklayers and Allied Craftsworkers Union 1 and the masonry apprentices of Williamson College of the Trades when installing, relying upon their craft and becoming inspired by their precision. While talking, she even rattled off a few methods of laying brick they had taught her, including Sailor and Soldier.
KP: ‘That was the best part of the process. ...and a lot of them were saying when you’re working on a job site nobody really asks you questions because your behind a fence and you’re a worker. But out here, a bunch of the guys were showing off skills and materials and kind of feeling like they could be more interactive because of the context.’
Pomerantz’s form of making is reminiscent of a T.S. Elliot quote from The Sacred Wood. ‘The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done.’ In a way, Pomerantz took her sense of loss and translated it into a form of work, surrendering to the communal in order to understand.
KP: ‘People have muscle memory for dealing with material. Already, I’ve had people gravitate toward this area, this installation. I’ve had one guy come up and say, ‘It feels like home.’ And another woman came up, and she said, ‘I’m from South Philly and you have my seal of approval.’ It’s an archetypal, I think, form, something like a stoop that you’re so familiar with, engaging with.’
In this Pomerantz navigates nostalgia and material meaning. Dive into what is often the emptiness of nostalgia and you may find it’s dense with substance. Much like the park itself. Between the emptiness of the ladies who lunch, there is lingering significance.
KP: ‘At first I was a little bit mystified because I’d just frankly haven't spent that much time here and it’s a very wealthy, kind of… I don’t know, austere compared to like Clark Park or even Rittenhouse… Digging into the park’s history, no pun intended, and finding out about it having been this potter’s field or public burial ground that was mostly bodies of african americans, people without money, people without church, I think that started to really set off a lot of ideas about a connection between the way we value or don’t value human lives and how that’s reflected in space, architecture…’
In similar suspicion of a subconscious reflection of human indecency that may appear in our architecture, Pomerantz was uneasy about what might be reflected in the type of engagement the piece may inspire. We can rant about gentrification and demolition but we’ll always run the risk of sounding like an asshole. We can hope for a healthy level of nostalgia but we might look like all those shitty artists talking about memory in their first year of grad school.
KP: ‘I’ve always had a concern with social practice or public engagement. That it’s like, who is engaging who. And I like that [with] this, a lot of the engagement that happens or will happen may never be documented... It’s like people will do what they’re going to do and talk about what they’re going to talk about. And maybe it’s important and maybe it’s eating ice cream but it’s in a different way…’
In a curious turn, Pomerantz’s piece evades the risk of social practice by slipping power into the hands of those that interact with them. Relics become a home unique to each passing person; something defendable because it is their version of familiar. No longer a statement read off a billboard but a message they feel stemming from the deep.
Will you be one of those person’s wandering Washington Square, taking a seat and having a conversation about something that doesn’t matter? I asked her.
KP: ‘Yea, I’m a lurker.’ She replied with a smile before looking off into the park.