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Book Review: North Philadelphia


Book Review North Philadelphia By Daniel Traub Reviewed by Adam Bell Philadelphia is an underrated city. Eclipsed by its neighbors to the north and south, New York and Washington, D.C, Philadelphia is often unjustly dismissed. Having grown up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, I’ve always loved the city and regard its diverse conglomerate of neighborhoods with great affection.


North Philadelphia. By Daniel Traub.
Kehrer Verlag, 2014.
North Philadelphia
Reviewed by Adam Bell

North Philadelphia
By Daniel Traub
Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg, 2014. 124 pp., 50 color illustrations, 11¾x9½".


Philadelphia is an underrated city. Eclipsed by its neighbors to the north and south, New York and Washington, D.C, Philadelphia is often unjustly dismissed. Having grown up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, I’ve always loved the city and regard its diverse conglomerate of neighborhoods with great affection. For as long as I lived in the area, from the late 70s to late 90s, North Philadelphia was best known for its crime and poverty, a stereotype that held some truth, but also masked its complex social, cultural, and economic diversity and history. Like many US cities, Philadelphia is deeply segregated, and economic decline, which began in the 50s and picked up greatly in the 70s and 80s, hit the largely African-American and Hispanic community of North Philadelphia especially hard. Like any large urban area, North Philadelphia defies pat stereotypes and demands closer scrutiny. Weaving together multiple subjects — rehabilitated and abandoned lots, portraits, Chinese restaurants, stately churches, and neglected buildings — Daniel Traub’s North Philadelphia is not only a portrait of this often misunderstood neighborhood, but it is also a deeply personal exploration of a community Traub has long known and loved.

North Philadelphia. By Daniel Traub. Kehrer Verlag, 2014.

At the heart of Traub’s work is his mother, Lily Yeh, a Chinese-American artist who founded The Village of Arts and Humanities in the late 80s in Philadelphia. Although an arts organization with a broad scope, one of their main projects involved revitalizing a small section of North Philadelphia through the building of community centers and the restoration of abandoned lots. In addition to turning them into parks and gardens, elaborate murals were painted on the walls of the adjoining buildings. Working in North Philadelphia alongside his mother, Traub developed a close relationship with the community and numerous individuals, including one of the organization’s key figures, James “Big Man” Maxon. Returning years later, the work is not only an attempt to revisit the community and see how it has changed, but also to the revisit the project and its legacy, along with that of his mother.


North Philadelphia. By Daniel Traub. Kehrer Verlag, 2014.
North Philadelphia. By Daniel Traub. Kehrer Verlag, 2014.

An estimated 40,000 empty lots dot the city of Philadelphia. Often overrun with weeds and trash, they punctuate the urban landscape like wounds. Yet, when reclaimed, they are beacons of hope. The small gardens and large-scale murals initiated by Yeh and her organization have filled in these holes and breathed life into the otherwise bleak cityscapes. Although the lots were the initial focus of the project, it quickly expanded outwards as Traub included portraits, cityscapes, and architectural shots of churches and abandoned homes. Having worked for many years in China, and curious about his own Asian heritage, Traub was also drawn to the Chinese restaurants that populated the various neighborhoods. Shot at night and illuminated by their own fluorescent and neon lights, the restaurants appear like isolated pockets within the largely African-American and Hispanic neighborhood. Despite the inclusion of numerous portraits, Traub’s North Philadelphia feels largely barren and abandoned, as though even the residents have given up. While the portraits don’t entirely reflect this, there is a sense of cautious regard for Traub, an outsider who’s returned to document the neighborhood.

North Philadelphia. By Daniel Traub. Kehrer Verlag, 2014.

Traub does not mask the difficulties of the area, but the work is not without hope or dignity. Rather than presenting an overtly political view or a gritty documentary portrait, the work stands at a remove and allows us to study the landscape and community. Although formally beautiful and elegantly conceived, I found myself wanting more than the large format images could provide. I wanted to hear the voices of the people in the portraits, either through text, interviews or additional documents. I also wanted to learn more about Traub and his mother’s work, perhaps through archival photographs or other additional material. This would have changed the book and is perhaps more than one book can achieve, but the subject seems to demand it. Although missing visually, Traub’s personal relationship to the work is offered in the brief, but wonderful essay that concludes the book. Striking in its honesty and self-awareness, Traub’s writing offers insight into his long-standing relationship with North Philadelphia and enriches our understanding of the work.

North Philadelphia. By Daniel Traub. Kehrer Verlag, 2014.

Deeply personal, North Philadelphia is as much about Traub’s mother, what she did and what remains of her efforts, as it is about North Philadelphia. Although Yeh is absent from the images, her presence and the influence of her organization can be seen as a persistent force pushing against the challenges faced by the community. Traub’s work offers moments of hope and possibility, but also acknowledges the often-dire circumstances of the region. As a country, we’re uncomfortable talking about the persistence of racial and economic injustice in the United States. It is easier to blame the victims and their perceived personal failings than question the systemic injustices that perpetuate inequality. Traub’s work asks us to look and look hard, not only at what has happened to this misunderstood community, but also to what is possible. Through his mother, Traub saw the possibility of transformation and renewal. As Traub states in his essay, it is perhaps na├»ve to believe systemic injustices can be mitigated through art, but hope always needs to start somewhere. Sometimes it starts with painting a mural, cleaning a lot, or simply looking more closely at the spaces around us.—ADAM BELL

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ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He received his MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and his work has been exhibited and published internationally. He is the co-editor and co-author, with Charles H. Traub and Steve Heller, of The Education of a Photographer (Allworth Press, 2006). His writing has appeared in Foam Magazine, Afterimage, Lay Flat and Ahorn Magazine. He is currently on staff and faculty at the School of Visual Arts' MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department. His website and blog are adambbell.com and adambellphoto.blogspot.com.

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