Celebrating the ‘Eraserhood’ that gave rise to David Lynch cult classic

This weekend an art gallery in Philadelphia celebrates the dirt and grit of its post-industrial neighborhood as envisioned by filmmaker David Lynch.

In 1977, Lynch released the cult film “Eraserhead,” a black-and-white, surreal, art-house film about fear, entrapment, and paranoia set in a nightmarish, post-industrial urban landscape.

Lynch lived in Philadelphia — at 13th and Wood streets behind what is now the Convention Center — while studying painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the late 1960s. He has said that “Eraserhead” was based largely on his feelings about living in Philadelphia at that time.

Now PhilaMOCA (the Mausoleum of Contemporary Art), 12th and Spring Garden, has organized a group show called “Eraserhood Forever,” tweaking the name of the movie into a celebration of the neighborhood.

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“The goal was to create an event centered around the memory of Lynch’s presence here in the Callowhill neighborhood, or whatever you would like to call it,” said curator Eric Bressler.

The neighborhood goes by many names: North Chinatown, as the Chinatown Community Development Corporation calls it; developers converting warehouses into luxury lofts have dubbed it the Loft District; and the National Park Service calls it the Callowhill Industrial Historic District.

“That shows the number of agendas involved in the neighborhood,” said Bressler. “As these local arts buildings open up more, and there [are] plans for a possible casino in the area, it’s big businesses that will take hold and really mold the area. And I hope our building will still be here as a reminder of the past.”

The show includes photography, paintings, works on paper, needlepoint, and the bust of an elephant, all evoking David Lynch’s dark, droning vision.

One of the contributors to the show is Bob Bruhin, a software developer and amateur photographer who runs the photoblog, Eraserhood.com. He is fascinated by the rough beauty of the neighborhood’s resilient, often obsolete architecture.

“Raw, slightly lost, crumbling but still strong. Like an old castle in Europe,” said Bruhin, standing on a portion of the elevated tracks of the long out of use Reading viaduct. From this vantage, he can see the towering funnels of the rusted Willow Steam Plant, and gesture behind himself to the grand Art Deco cupola of the Lasher Building.

Film’s feeling rooted in grimy industrial Philly

Lynch shot “Eraserhead” in Los Angeles, but Bruhin can clearly see in it direct references to iconic Philadelphia industrial architecture.

“I fell in love with his movies first, and then came back and revisited the neighborhood and discovered that all of the emotions tied together,” said Bruhin. “The combination of fear and awe and, ‘Holy crap, where did this come from!? Who built this and why?’ It keeps pulling me back.”

PhilaMOCA commissioned a mural of Henry Spencer, the doomed protagonist of “Eraserhead,” painted above the gallery. Curator Bressler says Lynch, or at least the people who run his Twitter account, know about the show, but he does not expect the nonlinear, experimental filmmaker to attend, or even acknowledge it.

Lynch has said the times he spent in Philadelphia were some of the most frightful, anxious of his life.

“That was an infamous time for Philadelphia as a rough city. An urban nightmare,” said Bruhin, who came to Philadelphia in the 1980s. “A lot of that clearly has changed over the years.”

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