Philadelphia’s many vacant buildings and stuctures make it an urban explorer’s paradise. From the Divine Lorraine, to vacant churches and rowhouses, the opportunies range from the monumental to the mundane. Of course, the questionable safety and legality of such excursions is always an issue for those wishing to partake, but it nonetheless is a way in which to uniquely experience the city. A more cultured explorer might even take the opportunity reflect on why they have such chances: the over 500,000 people who left the city of Philadelphia between 1960 and 2010; the decline of manufacturing, particularly on the small-scale in the “Workshop of the World”; changes in transportation; among other reasons.
One such spot that has drawn explorers since its closure to train use in the 1980s is the Reading Viaduct. Once the path for trains on the Reading Railroad to enter Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal, since its closure it has been an elevated trough for nature to reclaim above the city’s streets. From below, its appearance is not unlike that of the similarly dilapidated, but in use, 25th Street Viaduct that runs through South Philadelphia. Overgrown in many spots, it is still used by freight trains headed for the rail yards in South Philadelphia, near the Navy Yard and stadiums.
However, the Reading Viaduct provides the explorer that knows how to get past the gates an open-air semi-private way in which to see the city from a completely different perspective. Although the company that owns the viaduct has recently removed the tracks and ties from the viaduct, the truly unique perspective when exploring is the opportunity to see accretions of human history combined with the ability of nature to claim a space for its own, because this was never a natural spot in the first place. Elevated above ground, it initially takes plants that can adjust to the harsh environment and need little soil. But, over time organic matter increases, changing and evolving the types of flora that can grow above the streets of Philadelphia.
So, what will happen when the Reading Viaduct becomes a public park, as advocates hope, and as will at least be happening in the very near future for the SEPTA owned spur of the viaduct that runs from 13th and Noble Streets to approximately Callowhill Street between 12th and 11th? In New York City, where the elevated High Line park has become extremely popular, we see what can be. Although designs left certain pieces of infrastructure in place as reminders of the past, it is a decidedly manicured version of the past, which is something one might expect from a public park. Although birch trees growing between steel tracks make an attractive juxtaposition, it is indeed a deliberate one. And the High Line is heavily used, which is a fantastic testament to its unique character, but also takes away from the experience of exploration that the still-abandoned viaduct provides.
If the park’s designers take advantage of what’s already there on the Reading Viaduct, an interesting story can be told that encompasses both our human past using the viaduct for transportation, and the present ecological value that has been created by the overgrowth, which has accumulated over the years of neglect. Incorporating and interpreting the present types of plant life that are present on the viaduct with the design makes for an intriguing story about both Philadelphia’s industrial and transportation past, as well as the way in which nature can rapidly claim the built environment as its own.