Scenes from Germantown’s storied history line the walls of Wister Station, located on a hill overlooking Belfield Avenue. The colorful mural renders images of Cunningham Piano, the Freedom Square slavery protest by white settlers in 1688 and the now-defunct 23 trolley, which once ran up and down Germantown Avenue.
But these iconic images, completed just six months ago as part of a SEPTA improvement project, are already flanked by graffiti.
“People have no respect for this place,” complained Shirley Jones, who manages property near the train station, one of four Germantown stops on SEPTA’s Chestnut Hill East regional-rail line. “All SEPTA is trying to do is make it better for us, but these kids keep messing everything up.”
Jones relies on Wister Station to travel between her home elsewhere in the city and the property she manages directly behind the station’s platform. She said she has often witnessed teenagers using the station’s entrance tunnel to smoke marijuana among other activities.
“They use the tunnel as their toilet, making it all nasty,” she said. “Wister is much better than it used to be, but if people keep disrespecting it, it will only get worse.”
More than just kids are to blame
According to neighborhood leaders, youth aren’t the only ones to blame for the station’s continued problems.
“It’s back there by itself, so dumping continues to be a problem,” said Debora Roberts, operations director of Wister Neighborhood Council, a community group that has lobbied for the station’s renovation for decades.
Roberts attributes the dumping to the station’s isolation; it has no dedicated parking lot and is surrounded by narrow, one-way access roads that offer little maneuverability. The cars that do make their way toward the station usually only stay long enough to unload garbage into the wooded areas nearby.
“Initially, people were expressing their concern over the lighting,” Roberts said. “That’s been taken care of, but there is still more to be done.”
SEPTA spent the better part of 2010 – and nearly $900,000 in stimulus money – to renovate Wister and Germantown stations, which were considered the most dilapidated stops along the line.
In Wister’s case, that money went toward new signage, railings, additional lighting and the cleanup of areas around the station’s platform, long filled with neighborhood trash. The most recent addition was the mural, which was completed in July through collaboration with City Year of Greater Philadelphia, which puts young college graduates to work as mentors in inner-city neighborhoods.
“We always acknowledge need when it presents itself and do our best to address it when we’re able,” said Bob Lund, SEPTA’s senior director of capital construction. “We have to put our limited resources where they’ll make the greatest impact to our system.”
Wister wasn’t a top priority
Because of its relatively low use, Wister isn’t high on SEPTA’s priority list. About 377 people board the train at Wister every week, and 431 are dropped off there, according to Kristin Geiger of SEPTA. Of the 150 regional-rail stations, Wister ranks 142nd in usage. While SEPTA would like to make further capital improvements to Wister, officials said the agency needs additional funding to do so.
In 2008, the Federal Highway Authority denied Pennsylvania’s proposal to toll portions of Interstate 80, a major artery that runs through the northern part of state. According to Lund, that affected SEPTA’s budget allocations, forcing some proposed projects to be tabled.
“When the budget got hit that hard, we had to focus on paying debts and other, more pressing expenses,” Lund said. “All told, we deferred some 20 capital projects all throughout the system.”
La Salle University’s interest
Around this time, nearby La Salle University explored the possibility of partnering with SEPTA to overhaul Wister Station, much like Temple University did with its station on regional rail’s Airport line in 1993. The university hosted a meeting on its campus in 2009 at which SEPTA officials discussed La Salle’s potential role with community members.
Edward A. Turzanski, La Salle’s assistant vice president for government and community relations, said that the school’s administration offered to reroute its shuttle service to the station in an attempt to increase ridership, as well as place Wister Station under the patrol of its security force. This offer was based on the condition that SEPTA dedicate its own resources to improving conditions at Wister.
“At that time, there was no way I’d send a student through that steel cage to get on a train,” Turzanski said. “We weren’t going to slap our name on a station and do nothing to improve it.”
Ultimately, the ideas discussed at the meeting never materialized.
“The bottom line is that SEPTA ran out of cash,” Turzanski said. “Most of these plans were just aspirational.”
Little known and underutilized
While La Salle has a growing number of commuter students, including those who might use a renovated Wister Station, few seem to be aware of the rail stop, which is located just blocks from campus. (In a recent spot check, only two of 10 regular commuters had heard of the station.)
“No one has ever mentioned Wister Station to me before,” said Steve Patton, a La Salle senior who commutes daily from Manayunk. “As far as I knew, Fern Rock was the closest rail stop to La Salle, and that’s too far out of my way to be an option.”
Currently, Patton relies on three separate SEPTA buses (the 27, 65 and 26) in the hour it takes him to get to school. He said he would use the regional rail system if La Salle provided transportation to and from Wister Station.
“This is ridiculous,” he said. “If SEPTA has the facility there and La Salle is willing to partner with them, what’s the problem? I guarantee you students would use the station if they could ride the shuttle to it.”
While more student commuters could help break the cycle that keeps Wister Station in its current state, Jones finds herself wishing people took some responsibility for its upkeep.
“I hate that people around here don’t have the sense to keep the station clean,” Jones said. “It’s come a long way from how it was three years ago, but there’s still no way I’d send my kid down there by himself.”
Kevin Smith and Vinny Vella are La Salle University students who write for GermantownBeat, a local student-produced news site. NewsWorks features articles from GermantownBeat on its Northwest Philadelphia community sites and contributes multimedia journalism training to the program.