Ways & Means is a weekly column by Mark Alan Hughes on economics, politics and sustainability in Philadelphia.
Last week’s Forefront story on bus rapid transit in Mexico City connects nicely with the ongoing discussion in Philadelphia about how to repurpose one of our more magnificent legacy assets: the Reading Viaduct.
Like many Philadelphians, I have a special attachment to the Viaduct. I’ve done my share of trespassing on the stone and steel structure and have experienced that strange noisy isolation of wandering a semi-ruin in the midst of a vibrant urban core. (Many of you missed Philadelphia in the ’70s, when the ruined-to-vibrant ratio was decidedly higher. But a glimpse is always available by watching Rocky and its permanently overcast skies.)
But the Viaduct was also the subject of one of my design studios during my sabbatical as an architecture student a few years ago. I got to spend a semester with my fellow students confronting the possibilities of the thing. And like so many other studios and charrettes, passionate advocates and responsible leaders, I find that the key to unlocking its substantial value is to reactivate its genius as a piece of connective infrastructure.
The Reading Railroad built the great stone trench from Broad Street west and then north to Girard Avenue in the 1890s. The so-called City Branch was constructed to relieve the enormous traffic congestion caused by grade-level crossings along West Callowhill Street, a major industrial corridor in the 19th century. The Baldwin Locomotive Works, for example, sprawled west of Broad Street for blocks between Spring Garden and Callowhill Streets and was one of the largest manufacturing sites in the world.
The City Branch trench allowed Reading trains to proceed unimpeded by the traffic generated by the factories and mills above at the street level. A beautiful stone-and-then-steel Viaduct rises from the trench east of Broad Street and joins with the northern branch of the old Reading lines in an elegant Y-joint, which once carried all of the Railroad’s passenger traffic southward into the Reading Terminal Station.
This sublime asset remains in place just north of Center City, an inspiration to all who stumble upon it. As reported in PlanPhilly, SEPTA considers it to be in pretty good shape, too. But what should it become?
The challenge with the Viaduct/City Branch, it seems to me, is to see beyond its majestic and romantic qualities (the stones are out of this world) and think about what it connects to at the end of its three segments. Those three would-be destinations are: 31st Street and Girard Avenue, near the top of Brewerytown and on the doorstep of Strawberry Mansion; 9th Street and Fairmount Avenue, near the top of West and East Poplar and on the doorstep of Yorktown and Ludlow; and 11th Street and the Vine Street Expressway, on the north side of my generation’s own trench, which blocks the doorstep to Center City and is unlikely to inspire future advocates quite like the City Branch does today.
The Viaduct/City Branch represents a huge gift from the past that allows us to take just the right next step in the ongoing recovery of Philadelphia from a half-century of decline. That recovery has marched steadily from Center City along the subway and elevated lines to the river wards, University City, South Philly and, more slowly, north on Broad Street toward Temple University.
But Strawberry Mansion, especially, has not yet benefited from these steady improvements. This despite the fact that the housing stock and proximity to Fairmount Park makes it so attractive, as generations of Jewish and African-American households once enjoyed, before decades of disinvestment.
With a restored connection to Market East across the expressway, the Viaduct/City Branch infrastructure would allow us to create transit and bike connections to the next big neighborhoods outside of Center City and accelerate their prosperity. If it also creates an easy way to get from the Convention Center to the Parkway museums, then all the better.
The legacy asset of the Viaduct is almost the exact thing we need at this point in our recovery. Rediscovering these assets and unlocking their value for today is the creative agenda for Philadelphians of this generation and a playground for design thinking.
Mark Alan Hughes teaches at PennDesign and was Philadelphia’s founding director of sustainability.