On the northern edge of Philadelphia’s Chinatown, nestled between buildings that once formed the backbone of America’s industrial revolution, sits an oasis that is at once a monument to the factory age and a testament to a city’s ability to coax new life from neglected ruins.
Phase One of the Philadelphia Rail Park, an ambitious project to turn a dilapidated former rail thoroughfare into public green space, debuted in June after a gestation period of more than a decade. The opening of this elevated quarter-mile section — part of the Reading Viaduct ramping up from the sprawling Baldwin Locomotive Works that once dominated the neighborhood — has offered a glimpse of what’s to come for the full stretch of unused infrastructure.
Once completed, the full elevated sections of the project will stretch north to Fairmount Avenue. To the west, a below-street-level section called the Cut will run west to the museums of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. An underground section appropriately called the Tunnel will then turn north along the Schuylkill River and terminate at Girard Avenue.
When completed, the full Rail Park will have remade three miles of abandoned tracks, thoroughfares and tunnels that once allowed for the importation of raw materials like coal and steel and the export of goods produced in the city’s factories. Even though Philadelphians famously bristle at comparisons with New York City, Philly’s Rail Park will come in at twice the size of the Big Apple’s elevated park, the High Line.
The weeds and whatever else happened to take root have given way to an inviting open space. At its primary access point on Noble Street about a block off bustling Broad Street, visitors are greeted with a stamped iron map showing the old rail lines’ routes and locations of factories and other buildings that surrounded them throughout the city. This extra step helps put the project into context as not just a public park but an artifact of another age, when Philadelphia was known as the “workshop of the world.”
Studio Bryan Hanes — incidentally located just around the corner on 12th Street — led the park’s design and its planners went out of their way to ensure that the park featured accessibility and historical touchstones while keeping the “green” in green space.
Though the park is accessible by stairs from Callowhill Street between 12th and 13th streets, the main entrance at 13th and Noble streets is a gentle incline by original design — steepness would have impeded the progress of rail cars emerging from the Baldwin Works. Other than on the multilevel raised platforms — which can be repurposed as performance spaces — there are no steps to be found in the park itself.
Sheet metal and girders are incorporated throughout as both structural elements and reminders of the park’s previous incarnation. And while not lush by traditional park standards, trees and flower-filled planters are plentiful enough to soften the hardscape and effectively bring nature back into this pervasively industrial part of town. Wooden boardwalk trim along the viaduct’s edge also serves to break up the concrete.
But ask any visitor about the centerpiece of the park’s first phase and the answer would probably be either the giant bench swings suspended from huge steel beams or the Shepard Fairey mural “The Stamp of Incarceration: James Anderson” that they face. Fairey, who made the iconic 2008 “Hope” poster of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, has created this and a second mural in its series to highlight success stories of those who once were imprisoned.
The swings add a touch of whimsy to the park and provide a great spot to take in not just the mural but also the peaks of some of the most iconic buildings in the Philadelphia skyline. And in a bit of synchronicity, the mural landed in this spot somewhat by accident, said Michael Garden, vice chair of the board of directors at Friends of the Rail Park.
“That mural was originally slated for a Center City location, and at the 11th hour the developer decided not to have the mural on his building,” he said. Then came a phone call from Jane Golden, the director of Mural Arts Philadelphia. “She called me up and said, ‘Hey, I have this wonderful opportunity. Can we find a building for it?’ And within four hours we had a commitment from that building owner to put it up, and we’re really grateful for it.”
Fairey’s work provides a visual focal point from Phase One of the park and serves as the backdrop to another delightful consequence of the Rail Park’s arrival — the Boxcar Beer Garden, located just below the Rail Park in what was a parking lot. Run by Avram Hornik, who has become the impresario of pop-up beer gardens in the City of Brotherly Love, Boxcar provided the perfect complement to the park over the summer, said Rose Brownell, marketing manager for Hornik’s company, FCM Hospitality .
Hornik “gets excited by anything that advances Philly’s park scene,” Brownell said. “So, when we saw this empty lot next to the Rail Park, we saw it as a great opportunity to get involved.”
With a layer of mulch over the asphalt and the addition of festive lights, picnic tables, Adirondack chairs and canopies, this “semi-permanent pop-up” made a perfect warm-weather spot to grab a hot dog, pulled pork sandwich or smoked portobello banh mi from the on-site food cart to go along with a selection of draft beers. “It was a nice, calm relaxing place to kick up your feet and feel a part of the city,” Brownell said.
Busy Broad Street can give the feeling that there’s a lack of amenities in the Callowhill neighborhood, but it’s the side streets around the Rail Park that really deliver. Bordered by Chinatown to the south and once the home of automobile manufacturers and the Philadelphia Inquirer (whose old building was literally an ivory tower), this part of the city was already a bit of a hidden gem among Philadelphians who craved loft living and possessed a pioneer spirit. The same could be said about the dining and cultural scene.
Cafe Lift, visible from the 13th Street Bridge just at the Rail Park’s entrance, has been in the neighborhood since 2003. It’s a local favorite for dishes like its cannoli French toast — challah bread dredged in cinnamon vanilla custard, then baked and finished with bananas, chocolate chips, pistachios and ricotta cannoli filling. Through its parent company, 13th Street Kitchens, it was an early supporter of the Rail Park project both for the benefits to the community and its bottom line.
“I think it’s a great space for the neighborhood,” said Jen Bragan, director of marketing for 13th Street Kitchens. She noted that a proposed stairway from the 13th Street Bridge will make Cafe Lift, as well as its up-the-block sister restaurants Prohibition Taproom and Bufad, even more accessible for park visitors. Now, they must circumnavigate the 1200 block to arrive at the cafe’s doorstep from the Rail Park.
And so far, those ripple effects are only growing, Garden said. “More than half of the restaurants that are there today are there because of the Rail Park,” he said. “There are, off the top of my head, three brewpubs that have opened in the last year or two and the Rail Park was a big part of their decision to locate in that neighborhood.”
The renovations for Phase One of the Rail Park now terminate abruptly just past the swings, with the untamed and overgrown portions of the viaduct plainly in view. But with this initial success, visitors can be sure more delights from this urban green space are on track.
Pruden is the editor of Delaware Today magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @scottbpruden
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