For more than a decade, there have been many efforts to turn the abandoned viaduct and three miles of tracks — cutting through 10 neighborhoods — into a public park.
At the Reading Viaduct, it’s hard to imagine that this shaded and quiet section of Philadelphia was once a part of a bustling thoroughfare to transport goods and people into Center City.
When the viaduct was built more than 125 years ago, Philadelphia was known as the workshop of the world — a mishmash of small industries and small businesses— from hat makers to textiles manufacturers to meat markets. At the time, Philadelphia’s City Hall was under construction and considered one of the tallest buildings in the world.
Today, along the abandoned elevated tracks that once delivered passengers and freight to Center City, there are still remnants that reveal the city’s industrial past. Paint from old ads for “Alco Clothes” and “The Bicycle with the National Reputation” fade into the brick of former manufacturing facilities.
James Wolfinger, a professor of history at DePaul University, said before the viaduct was built it was a very different Center City, where locomotives barreled through congested streets at grade level, leaving cinders and smoke in their wake. The main purpose for building the viaduct, he said, was for safety reasons and to avoid costly lawsuits.
“You have to think of it from the perspective of the Reading or the Pennsylvania Railroad,” said Wolfinger. “If you put in a viaduct then you’re not going to have locomotives get in as many accidents. You’re not going to have as many lawsuits from people saying, ‘ hey, this cinder came out and lit my coach on fire.’ You’re not going to have people suing because their children were run over by a locomotive going down the street.”
Wolfinger, author of “Running the Rails: Capital and Labor in the Philadelphia Transit Industry” said it was easier for the railroads to build the viaduct at that time because density was concentrated in Center City. It was relatively easy to build it in surrounding neighborhoods. But even though the viaduct proved to be safer for people living in the area, the elevated line created other barriers, cutting off different parts of the city from surrounding neighborhoods.
Re-imagining the viaduct
For more than a decade, there have been many efforts pulling for the abandoned viaduct and three miles of tracks — cutting through 10 neighborhoods — to be transformed into what’s being called the Rail Park.
Often referred to as Philadelphia’s version of the High Line in Manhattan, Michael Garden, vice president of Friends of the Rail Park, a nonprofit group that has been fundraising for the project, said the Promenade plantée in Paris is a more apt comparison. The Rail Park would be longer and wider than the High Line and include sections that are elevated and some that are below street level.
“There’s a bit of a mentality that it’s a great idea, but that it will never happen,” said Garden. “But, that’s shifting.”
Garden said recently he’s seen a wave of support behind the park with partners like the Asian Arts Initiative, Thomas Jefferson University, City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.
This summer, PHS transformed a parking lot underneath the trestle into a pop-up garden to draw attention to the idea of the Rail Park and to attract more visitors to the area.
Last year, Philadelphia’s Center City District applied for a $3.5 million Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant to begin phase one of the project, a quarter mile section of the viaduct from Broad Street to Callowhill Street.
But out of nearly 400 economic development projects that applied for the state grant, only two — one in Johnstown and one in Harrisburg have been awarded so far.
Garden said support from the state is critical to break ground for phase one of the project. “If we can get that built and people can see what a wonderful use of space it is, it will inspire interest and political support to build the entire three mile Rail Park.”
A spokesperson from Governor Tom Wolf’s office said other projects are still under review and that he expects to make more announcements soon.
In the meantime, Garden said Friends of the Rail Park is working on raising money for a stewardship fund that would provide maintenance, beautification, and programming for when the park becomes a reality.