The Reading Viaduct was built in the 1890s to carry commuters to the center of Philadelphia. Today it’s a wild urban garden filled grasses, perennials, and even the odd magnolia tree. Like the once-wild High Line there are many signs of visitors: trespassers who have left behind old shoes, cigarette butts, and flourishes of graffiti.
My friend Rick Darke, who has been writing about and photographing the High Line since 2002, introduced me to Paul VanMeter of ViaductGreene and John Struble of the Reading Viaduct Project, two community leaders who are working to bring the path that the old railroad took through Philadelphia back to life as an urban greenway. This is a particularly interesting project because the three mile extent of the former railroad includes both an elevated viaduct and an underground section. The mile-long elevated section consists of two branches that would connect very different 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.
Also like the High Line, the Reading Viaduct offers a window into the Industrial Revolution and the days when cities were places where things were made and then shipped all over the country and the world. You can still see the faded lettering on the sides of former industrial buildings that once served as automobile, bicycle, shoe, glass and balloon factories. But most stunning of all are the architectural forms that straddle the viaduct: vertical steel structures known as catenaries that arch across the tracks and once carried electrical current from the high wires and transferred it down to the locomotives.
The preservation folks are making great progress as they work with community groups, developers, the city of Philadelphia and other stakeholders. This is one of the most exciting and promising projects in the country. You can see a great many photographs on the VIADUCTGreene website. You’ll also find a very interesting and useful list of “Relevant Reading” that includes books about Landscape (gardens & architecture, wildness in the city, “the new romantic landscape); Urbanism (the evolution of urban parks and public spaces); Railroading (how railroads shaped our modern urban infrastructure); and Broader Culture (additional reading that includes books about the arts, technology, architecture and design). It’s a must-read list for anyone interested in the powerful new trends in urban design and planning that are sweeping the country.
UPDATE [1-10-12]To see a full “walking tour” of the VIADUCTGreene project check out the article “Philadelphia’s Secret Garden” on JJ Tiziou’s blog. He’s got great photos of the tunnel system that runs from the Philadelphia Art Museum and would, under the VIADUCTGreene plan, connect Fairmount park with Center City. There’s great magic and mystery here.