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Dreaming in Philadelphia

Over the past few days I’ve been taking booksellers in town for Book Expo America on walking tours of the High Line. As part of my preamble, I always find myself talking about High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky, the 2011 book by Friends of the High Line co-founders Joshua David and Robert Hammond. I re-read this book every year because it puts me in a good mood and makes me feel optimistic about cities. The High Line faced such formidable resistance on so many fronts that it truly is a miracle that the thing exists at all. But in fact it now is inspiring other communities all over the world to believe in the possibility of creating innovative, people-friendly green spaces from post-industrial sites.

Which brings us back, once again, to the great Paul VanMeter, a driving force behind The Rail Park in Philadelphia. That project began with a dream to create a three mile urban greenway, part of which will be part elevated, like the High Line, and part of which will be submerged, in tunnels created more than 100 years ago by the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad. Paul died in February, but the project lives on. This week PBS Digital Studios released a short film about Paul and the Rail Park as part of its Unusual Spaces series. It’s an inspiring reminder that these unique, miraculous, places begin with someone’s passionate dream, and then take a decade or more to realize. The High Line is testament that it can be done, and the short film below bears witness to the dream unfolding. Give it a watch and you’ll see what I mean. To read more about Paul, click here.



Professor of Place

Philadelphia Skyline from the Reading Viaduct

Paul VanMeter, co-founder of VIADUCTgreene in Philadelphia, has written, with Leah Murphy, a fascinating article on “Placemaking” in the online journal Philadelphia Social Innovations.  It begins: “Great, vital Places — capitalization intended — are imperative for cultivating creative and cultural life,” and goes on to explore what gives a building — or a former battlefield, a street, a park — its own particular, unique sense of place. They describe the responsibility that the transformers of place — citizen groups, urban planners — have to the community, arguing that “It’s up to the imaginations of placemakers to recognize the need for reprogramming our City’s treasures, retrofitting them to accommodate contemporary uses that will serve both to reinvent places and preserve their histories.” For them,  a successful Place — one that merits a capital “P” — “has a distinctive identity and an integral connection to its physical, sociocultural and historical context.” The old and the new exist together, and enrich us all the more for their dual power.

Lately on this blog I’ve been writing about “Urban Greenway” projects around country that are transforming century-old corridors of industrial infrastructure into unique public arenas. Bridges and trestles once designed to carry trolleys, automobiles, freight, passenger, and mail trains, have been re-imagined, then recreated, into open spaces that serve a new community purpose.  All of these places can be appreciated in two ways at once: as a metaphoric platform for teaching a community something of its history, and as a literal one for promenading — quite pleasantly, as it turns out — through our complex, modern cities. Of all the works-in-progress that I’m aware of, the one in Philadelphia is the most exciting, and a prime reason is that the people behind it — at VIADUCTgreene and the Reading Viaduct Project — have a deep understanding of this particular Place. That understanding informs everything they do.

Paul VanMeter

Over the past year I’ve made two visits to the old Reading Railroad’s elevated viaduct, both times led by Paul and his infectious enthusiasm for the Place (capitalization intended…). Paul never conducts a tour without an iPad, because just as important as the sights one can see now — former warehouses and industrial buildings, the Philly skyline (including William Penn himself, looking down on the city from a pedestal) — is the history of the railroad and the neighborhoods it once traversed. On the iPad are photos of sites we pass on our tour, from the historic Reading Terminal Market and the old Baldwin Locomotive Works to neighborhood streets in the Callowhill district 100 years ago. “See over there,” he points, “and now here,” swiping the iPad so it shows a black & white photo of a familiar but long-ago scene. We begin to understand the layers of place that surround us. Once the VIADUCTgreene project is a reality its three miles of underground tunnels and elevated park will enable visitors to traverse some 55 busy city blocks without crossing a single street. The city of Philadelphia will have a new stage for natives and tourists alike to stand upon and absorb its great history. [continue reading…]


Introducing Urban Greenways

All over the country – and indeed the world – the impact of the High Line is being felt.  Every week, it seems, brings a new story of someone who’s dreaming of a park made from  an old railway, and in many places those dreams are becoming reality.

This Fall I made two trips to Philadelphia to walk the Reading Viaduct, a former elevated railroad that offers stunning views of the Philadelphia skyline as well as intimate glimpses of everyday life in the streets below. Just like the High Line.

My friend Rick Darke, who has been writing about and photographing the High Line since 2002,  introduced me to Paul Van Meter of VIADUCTGreene and John Struble of the Reading Viaduct Project, two community leaders who are working to bring this old elevated railroad back to life as an urban greenway.  This is a particularly interesting project because the 4.5 mile extent of the former railroad includes both an elevated viaduct and an underground section. The mile-long elevated part 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.

As in New York, the Philadelphia 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. Go here to read more about the Reading Viaduct and see photographs.

Walking the elevated part of Philadelphia’s abandoned railway made me finally understand what so many early visitors to the High Line saw and fell in love with when today’s “park in the sky” was a wild urban garden. That in turn made me fascinated to learn about the many other efforts that are taking place around the country and the world. In cities across America community leaders and urban planners are looking to the High Line for inspiration. One can sense an exciting new trend in urban reclamation, like a heartbeat pulsing from one end of the country to the other.

Thus a new feature on LivinTheHighLine, “Urban Greenways,” which identifies these efforts and provides photos where available.  As time goes by I’ll update the list, add cities and provide progress reports, and I’ll be adding international projects as well.

Railroads came to Manhattan in the 1830s; the first was the Harlem, which opened in February 1832. In those days rail cars were pulled by horses and could attain a speed of 7 miles per hour. It was two years before a steam locomotive would hit the streets of New York, and it exploded just eight months later. But the railroad race was on, and it’s one of the great stories of this country. Seeing urban greenways developing from our abandoned railroads is exciting both for the joys that a beautiful park can offer, but also for the “teachable moment” they can provide.

When New York’s elevated park opened in 2009 it did so with an uncommon dedication to educating young and old alike, providing programs devoted to art, entertainment, cultural history, and even astronomy. Just a year later, the Times observed that “The High Line has become, like bagels and CompStat, another kind of New York export.”  Friends of the High Line created a model that is now inspiring other groups around the country to reach well beyond the noble goal of creating a beautiful public space.  Many of the projects covered in Urban Greenways, like the Harsimus Stem Embankment, plan to include outdoor classrooms for kids and other features that would provide historical context.

This was an important year for the High Line:  it doubled the walkable space of its gardens and announced major progress on the development of the final section, which majestically wraps around the West Side Rail Yards between 30th – 34th Streets. (Joshua David and Robert Hammond also published a book that tells the whole story of how the park came to be…) As the year winds down, it’s clear that there is much to look forward to, both here and all over this great country of ours.

Happy holidays, everyone. And as you think about those last-minute charitable donations, remember that all of these places are steered and guided by non-profits, and depend to a large extent on donations from the public. Each of the Urban Greenways listed here includes links to the websites of the organization behind it, where you’ll quickly find a way to donate.  Here is the link to Friends of the High Line.

 Visit Urban Greenways: Other Projects Around the World.


[Note: if this subject interests you, you’ll find a very interesting list of “Relevant Reading” on the VIADUCTGreene website that includes books about Landscape, Urbanism and Railroading. It’s a must-read list for anyone interested in the powerful new trends in urban design and planning that are sweeping the country. There’s also an excellent new documentary, “Urbanized,” by Gary Hustwit, which you can now watch online if it’s not available in a theater nearby.]