What once served the factories that made Philadelphia the “Workshop of the World,” the rail corridor between 30th Street Station and North Philadelphia station now cuts through many low-income neighborhoods and abandoned industrial landscapes. The rail corridor serves SEPTA regional rail commuters and Amtrak Northeast Corridor passengers moving between Boston and Washington. For many travelers, this landscape is their introduction to Philadelphia.
“It’s ghostly. It has a quality of being otherworldly. It makes you feel about neglect, and blight, and loneliness and solitude, and things that aren’t positive,” said Jane Golden, director of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. “But it’s also big and daunting and overwhelming. Where do you begin?” To draw attention to the corridor, Golden asked German artist Katharina Grosse to paint seven locations along the 5-mile stretch of tracks.
Grosse, an internationally sought-after installation artist, created “psychylustro,” the project that’s a literal landscape painting. She uses high-pressure sprayers to apply large swaths of brightly colored paint across everything in their path — buildings, fences, trees, grass, soil, even trash. The Day-Glo colors are indiscriminate, absorbing every surface into a single painting. “Color can be anywhere. It is atopic. It has not a ground it can stay on and not trespass,” said Grosse. “In that way, I can break up hierarchies. I can break up relations between things. A big object and small object become one, because the color unifies them.” Grosse, who grew up in an industrial part of Germany, treated the abandoned buildings, railway retaining walls, and natural landscape as pure surface. Graffiti on a stone wall, broken factory windows, and a rotting wooden trellis are flattened into a single field of color. Most of the paintings can only be seen from the train seat, to challenge the perspective of passengers, but some are visible to neighbors.
An enormous, empty tire factory rises directly across the tracks from the Green Acres community garden in the Glenwood neighborhood. Over 30 years old and more than three acres large, it is one of the oldest and largest community gardens in Philadelphia.
One of the gardeners, Vie Ricketts-Dhomas, likes to take a break from sowing her native Jamaican callaloo and gungo peas by waving at the trains as they pass by. She looks warily at the giant sprays of white and orange paint covering half of the five-story warehouse across the tracks. “I would like to know what their intentions are. I don’t know what this is,” said Ricketts-Dhomas, who says she never got a coherent answer about the point of this project. “Where is it going? Putting that orange and white splash on the wall. Is there something else to come? “Psychylustro” is made from environmentally friendly paints that will slowly wash off of the buildings and landscape. The installation is expected to stick around about six months.
The music featured in the 10-minute audio documentary about the North Philadelphia rail corridor (playable at the top of this page) was excerpted from “The Toynbee Suite” by Lushlife. The entire song can be downloaded for free at http://weathervanemusic.org/shakingthrough/episodes/lushlife