Reading the Viaduct
December 4, 2012 | by Jessica Vivian Chiu
Starting out for the southern end of the Reading Viaduct means walking alongside a live railroad track, vigilant for the sound of a CSX freight train approaching from behind. Your destination is the mouth of an abandoned tunnel, which will pull you into stretches of almost total darkness thirty feet below ground. You aren’t headed for the tunnel because you love tunnels, but to glimpse the diversity of landscapes that makes up Philadelphia’s Reading Viaduct before it becomes the city’s answer to New York City’s Highline. You are there for the tunnel as much as for what’s on the other side: the promise of meadowland and prairie hiding in plain sight.
The Reading Viaduct may one day become a linear park transecting downtown Philadelphia. Should that happen, the Viaduct would be like no other park in the world. The three-mile stretch runs thirty feet underground at one end and emerges as an elevated line thirty feet above street level on the other. Since the 1980s, it has been abandoned. Sections of the Viaduct may undergo development as early as next year.
The writer Guy Davenport once wrote “imagination is like the drunk man who lost his watch, and must get drunk again to find it.” He was writing about the recurrence of myths in literature and he meant that some cultural ideas are perennial. Our relationship to nature, for example, has been a source of ethical preoccupation since the time of Cicero. Gardens express how we view our relationship with nature. Of late, landscape designers like those of the New Perennials and New American Garden have mainstreamed taste for color fields made from herbaceous perennials, tall grasses. Their work is undergirded by principles like sustainability and economy. Despite criticism to opposite effect, some have shown light scorn for the false contest that is native versus non-native. The Highline, the single most touristed place in New York City, may be the most famous wild garden in the world.
In Philadelphia, land of the tri-cornered hat, the Reading Viaduct could change perceptions about the city’s history and thus the city’s identity. Philadelphia was once a hub of global industry, nicknamed the workshop of the world, and the Viaduct was central to that boom era. These are points well made by a nonprofit established to make the park a reality, the Viaduct Greene. The group also gives tours of the line. Before the politics of place-making transforms it, I joined them for a walking tour.
We start at Pennsylvania Avenue Tunnel. Inside, the ground is deeply rutted; dirt littered with a detritus of rocks, dead leaves. On a sunny day, the other end of the tunnel is a spot of light three thousand feet away. Light filters down through air vents, sometimes carrying a breezy confetti of leaves. Before the light can penetrate more than a few feet, it is stamped out by darkness. The myth of a subterranean homeless encampment living here turns out to be just that, myth. Nothing seems to live in the tunnel. No sound of mice scratch in the darkness, no sprig of green survives. We pass under formidable brick arches that hold back the weight of Pennsylvania Avenue. In 1923, the New York Times reported that a car, zooming down the Avenue, suddenly vanished. Police on the scene rushed over to discover that the car had dropped through a vent, plummeting into the tunnel where it collided with a milk train. No hint of that fiery drama remains. The space is intact. It’s not hard to imagine the tunnel as civic space, newly tiled, lit, and outfitted with wine bars (one of the proposals for development). Still, I am partial to light and living things. We exit and head for the Cut.
The Cut, also called the Meadow, is a terrain of wild growth, sunk thirty feet down and sandwiched between Callowhill and Noble Streets. Overhead, visitors to the nearby Barnes collection, shoppers at Whole Foods, and students of Philadelphia Community College stream by, oblivious to our presence. In the heyday of the rail line, the space would have been enlivened by industry. Here, Baldwin Locomotive Works led the world in making trains, megastore N. Snellenburg & Co. turned out goods, grain silos occasionally burst into flames, and William Sellers invented the U.S. standard for threaded screws. Today, a field of bushy-tipped phragmites, the common reed of New Jersey’s Meadowlands, lean in the wind, eight feet high. A narrow footpath to the side of the reeds passes low foliage; shaggy snakeroot studded with tiny white blooms. Indian hemp, a plant that is almost succulent in its symmetry and the stiffness of its narrow leaves, reddens underfoot. Atop the walls that hem you in, stretches of RR fencing are wrapped in the red cording of bittersweet vines. The meadow soon gives way to an arbor of trees: young sycamores grow by black cherry, the scantily leafed arms of empress trees reach past the street, skywards. Botanist lore has it that Asian manufacturers used the fuzzy seeds of the empress tree for packing material during the 19th century and spilled cargo may be one reason the trees grow by defunct rail lines.
The Cut runs unencumbered for about seven city blocks before ending suddenly at a fence. Once, the line dove beneath the Inquirer Building to deliver ink and newsprint to the paper. (The owner of the Inquirer Building has yet to decide whether to embrace plans for a linear park.) The railroad would have emerged on the other side of the building, street level, at Broad and Callowhill. Taking up position on Broad Street is to look over an urban wasteland of tire dealers, parking garages, anonymous municipal-looking buildings, and a smattering of art deco wonders (one so large it’s rumored to have its own zip code). Not for long. Broad Street is slated for major redevelopment come 2013. Among other changes, it will be home to the city ballet. The street also happens to hold the start of the elevated portion of the Viaduct, the section most readily seen as kin to Manhattan’s Highline.
The pleasure of standing on the elevated Viaduct comes partially from the simple fact of elevation. The view closes the gap between the north and south ends of the city. The sky is closer. It takes more work to recognize that the Viaduct passes over a neighborhood in its own right. The elevated line runs over Callowhill neighborhood, an area that inspired David Lynch’s Eraserhead and thus dubbed Eraserhood by some locals. To the unfamiliar eye, it is a post-apocalyptic maze of warehouses and artist space. Anchoring the neighborhood is a block-long electricity sub-station, delivering power to Center City. Some streets are still paved in cobblestone. Despite new attention to the area, many don’t know what to call it or if it is a neighborhood at all. Yet, it was neighborhood residents, the Reading Viaduct Project, who first advocated for the Viaduct to become a park nearly a decade ago. There is no other tract of green space in sight.
The Viaduct carries an inexplicable stretch of what looks like airborne prairie. Blonde and spiny Prairie Threeawn and the blushing tips of little blue stem grass give the landscape the pale, golden, look of Colorado in winter. A knee-high field of foxtail captures and concentrates sunlight in the translucent fuzz of tips. Tight, white, buds of snakeroot appear among woody bramble, an echo of the Cut we’ve just left. We are held up by steel and dirt fill, walk over ballast rock. Botanists tell me that the landscape on the elevated line is incredible because of the shifting mosaic of soil underfoot. A lawn of Prairie Threeawn stops short and a red cedar appears without good explanation. Vegetation could have come from anywhere, dropped by bird, carried by wind, upturned from whatever lies hidden in the soil bed.
We pass under hulking iron catenary bridges that once delivered electricity to trains. Waist-high girder bridges leftover from the rail line are bedded in rocks and trampled poa grass. We pass a building emblazoned with the words “Bicycle with the National Reputation,” leftover from Haverford Cycle Co., which once advertised in Boy’s Life. An old rail station caves in on itself, what used to be the railroad’s YMCA now shelters artists. Empress trees appear; as do catalpa trees, hanging with long, skinny, seeds called “Johnny Smokers.” Mauve-colored stems of pokeweed droop with berries. (Some history buffs believe that ink made from crushed berries was used to draft the Constitution.) Sumac drip flame colored leaves. Most of these plants, I am told, are usual suspects for first growth in industrial spaces. If left long enough, a forest could emerge, populated by stands of beech, oak, maples or poplars.
Near the end of Borges’ story “The Aleph,” in which a microcosm of the universe is found in a basement, our narrator is moved to lament that nothing in the world can surprise him again. The Aleph, that brilliant, iridescent, sphere gives view on “all space, actual and undiminished.” The Viaduct does not hold views of every intimate and far-reaching aspect of the universe. But Aleph-like, it reveals a new sense of history and our place in time. The Viaduct is a product of the past and thus contextualizes the present. Walking its length, swaths of the city that seemed incidental resolve into cognizable places. Wildness, it turns out, is circumstantial not untouched. Despite his disapproval of the human footprint, Thoreau’s faith in the prevailing order of nature seems somehow revived in our appetite for post-industrial green space. A garden, and thus a park, is a matter of intention. Whether the Viaduct will be developed, and how, is so far undecided. For now, the Viaduct offers the inevitability of meadow and grassland coursing through the city center. At its northernmost edge, someone has strung up a tire swing from a catenary bridge and the skyline is visible just beyond the trees.
Many thanks to Sarah McEneaney, Todd Greenberg, David Hewitt, and Paul vanMeter for their assistance in writing this essay.
Jessica Vivian Chiu lives in Philadelphia, PA.