I first met Paul VanMeter on a rainy day in Philadelphia in 2011. Rick Darke, our great mutual friend, had organized a visit to the Reading Viaduct with the gardening staff of Friends of the High Line. With unabating enthusiasm Paul led us through the streets of Philadelphia, stopping every few blocks to whip out his iPad to show a photograph of the very same spot where we stood, a century ago. Swiping the glass screen he conjured image after image: the giant Baldwin Locomotive Works, old bicycle and balloon factories, and a sprawling machine works that once made the stuff that fired Paul’s railroad dreams: steam hammers, hydraulic parts, boiler makers’ tools.
Paul’s enthusiasm was infectious and he saw beauty everywhere, from the grand, classical architecture that lines Philadelphia’s museum district to the graffiti-covered railroad tunnels that run below it, almost completely out of sight. One day I met him for lunch at the Barnes Collection, and before we left the handsome new building, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, he enthusiastically brought me to a particular spot, a floor-to-ceiling window where you could look out across a lush garden and see the skeleton of an old, rusting granary. He delighted in the juxtaposition of art and industry, horticulture and machinery, and here was a spot that fired his imagination mightily.
Paul was a landscaper, and therefore a planner, and he took profound pleasure in the crafted spaces and gardens he built. But he also loved the inchoate randomness of nature as it meets the city. On his website, in a piece called “The Natures of Nature,” he celebrated “places of abandon defined by the occurrence and development of wild spontaneous vegetation, starting with colonization of walls and cracks in paving leading to bold and impressive post-industrial urban meadows and woodlands.”
More revealing is the fact that the only words Paul chose for the “About” page on his blog is this quotation from Frederick Law Olmsted:
“I don’t object to cutting away of certain bramble patches if brambles are to take their place–or anything that will appear spontaneous & not need watering or care. More moving or dug ground I object to. Less wildness and disorder I object to.”
Paul’s great dream was ViaductGREENE, a three mile urban greenway to be built on infrastructure once used by the Reading Railroad and including almost two miles of long-abandoned tunnels and a glorious elevated section that would cut through several different Philadelphia neighborhoods: Chinatown towards the southern end, and an area settled by artists working in loft spaces just a bit farther north. Like the High Line, the viaduct offers stunning views of the Philadelphia skyline as well as intimate glimpses of everyday life in the streets below. Paul was indefatigable in advocating for this new park, which brought together the many forces that animated him: railroads, industrial history, gardens, art, culture, urban spaces, community. When this park opens, Paul’s spirit will inhabit ever corner of it.
As Rick Darke observed in his obituary, Paul had a “near-encyclopedic knowledge of trains, railroads, and their influence in shaping landscapes and communities.” He was also a magnificent storyteller who always looked for the narrative in the landscape. Once we were walking together along the High Line and I told Paul I was preparing a lecture for a group of high school students about the lighterage system, the complex network of barges — known as “lighters” — that floated goods across the Hudson River and delivered them to one of many terminal warehouses that lined the west side of Manhattan. I was having trouble wrapping my head around how the system worked, and how to describe it in a way that the students could relate to.
Paul pointed to the Starrett-Lehigh building and said “Tell them this: imagine you lived on the east coast at the turn of the last century and you needed a typewriter. You would pick up your Sears Roebuck catalog — the Amazon.com of the day — and place your order. Soon, your typewriter would be loaded onto a boxcar and carried by one of dozens of railroads — the FedEx of the day — until it reached the railroad’s terminal on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. Chances are that boxcar — no doubt filled to the brim with hundreds of other items — would be floated across the Hudson on a barge pulled by a tugboat, then cross what is today the West Side Highway on a special set of tracks and disappear into the Starrett-Lehigh building. Once there it would be unloaded and re-shipped on another train to a depot near your home.” Paul made history come to life, and it especially delighted him to observe that a section of those tracks has been preserved, and today bisect the bike path of the Hudson River Greenway. “Tell the kids they can go see it for themselves.”
For Paul, this was the magic of “great, vital Places — capitalization intended.” By bringing cultural history into modern life they enrich us, spark our creativity, enhance our communities. This is why, in a 2012 piece about ViaductGREENE, I referred to Paul as “Professor of Place.”
The last time I saw Paul we were at another Friends of the High Line gathering: co-founder Robert Hammond’s farewell dance party in December. At the end of the evening Paul walked Rick, Ashby Leavell, another great friend, and me uptown, even though his car — which he had driven in from Reading, PA for Robert’s event — was parked a mile south. On top of everything he was a gentlemen; he walked me to the door of my apartment building, then turned around and retraced his steps before making the long drive home.
I am heartbroken he is gone, but outside my window is the place that connects us, one that inspired Paul’s most vivid railroad dreams.
[click any image to enlarge it.]
N.B. Throughout its long saga to create a world-class “park in the sky,” Friends of the High Line paid tribute to a man named Peter Obletz. He too died young, at age 50, long before the High Line opened. The author of the Times’ obituary, James Barron, called Obletz “the train buff’s train buff,” a phrase that could just as easily be applied to Paul VanMeter who, with his parents’ blessing, skipped his senior year of high school to travel across the country as a crewmember with the Bicentennial American Freedom Train. Obsessed with trains since he was a boy, in 1984 Peter Obletz paid Conrail ten dollars for the development rights to the abandoned High Line and dreamed of running historic parlor cars up and down the two-mile stretch for the benefit of tourists. For several years Obletz lived virtually underneath High Line in a 1940s-era Achison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Pullman dormitory — fitted out with bunks for sleeping — that he attached to an old dining car that had leather seats, stainless-steel walls, and Formica tables. Here, in the shadow the railroad he so loved — the same spot where today a whole new city is being constructed at the Hudson Rail Yards — Obletz entertained dinner guests on New York Central Railroad china and flatware. On the park’s official website Obletz is honored as “the High Line’s original friend,” and his name was engraved on a tablet in the 14th Street Passage.
When Philadelphia’s ViaducatGREENE — now known as the Rail Park – opens, my hope is that Paul VanMeter will get the recognition he deserves for a vision he so passionately, so brilliantly, and so generously put forward for a city he loved with all his heart.
But for now, let’s just think of Paul whenever we hear the mournful toot of the Amtrak. I went out for a walk on Saturday and the Ethan Allen Express, en route from Albany to Manhattan, obliged, just as it passed below my feet under the Rip Van Winkle Bridge near Hudson, New York.
This train’s got the disappearing railroad blues.