Friday, November 5, 2010

Why we don't need to save (all of) the Reading Viaduct

In a perfect city, the Pennsylvania Convention Center was built with respect for its neighborhood and lined with accommodating retail spaces catering to conventioneers.

Market East station moved passengers through its subway below high rise offices and apartments, and an integrated transit hub rose at 10th and Filbert as SEPTA's proud headquarters.

The Gallery Mall was surrounded by display windows and entrances below twin towers marking the gateway to Center City's north end entertainment district, the vibrant and lively Chinatown.

The Vine Expressway moved commuters and crosstown traffic under grand Vine Avenue, lined with tall oak trees and elite residences hosted by gleaming modern architecture and restored, historic landmarks.

Vine Street, before the construction of the Vine Street Expressway, could have capped the interstate and served as a grand, crosstown avenue.

At 11th Street, in the crosstown light rail that ran down the middle of Vine Avenue, you might be lucky enough to see the Culture Shuttle, a high speed train carrying tourists from Reading Terminal Station, through the Convention Center's rooftop garden, across Vine Avenue.

The bullet train would then weave its way through the Loft District, home to art galleries, film houses, and the city's non-profit art community.

The Culture Shuttle continued under Broad Street, and Pennsylvania Avenue after making stops at Philadelphia's nationally renowned art institutions, before carrying its guests to important Fairmount Park Stations and ultimately the Philadelphia Zoo and its historic Parkside Neighborhood to spend the twilight strolling through the manicured gardens of the newly restored Centennial Exposition Park.

Well, Philadelphians may know better than anyone that we don't live in Perfect.

The Pennsylvania Convention Center grazes on energy like a herd of pregnant cattle while turning its ass to its neighbors to the north.

Market East moves passengers out its station below undeveloped surface parking lots while Greyhound has usurped nearly a block of our blighted Chinatown to maneuver its buses.

The Gallery Mall is an isolated fortress with minimal respect to its pedestrians.

The Vine Street Expressway wedged a canyon between Vine Street, demolishing a number of architecturally significant structures important to the area's urban feel, resulting in a sea of parking lots that eat away at the remaining neighborhood.

The Vine Street Expressway Canyon, which divides the Loft District from Center City.

The Reading Viaduct is chopped off at Vine Street, leaving a few blocks of stone arches and a rusted, unused eyesore to weave its way through a decaying Loft District many residents jokingly call Eraserhood, paying homage to the David Lynch movie Eraserhead, which was inspired by the filth, violence, and decay he found while living amongst its squalor. According to David Lynch, Philadelphia was "the sickest, most corrupt, decaying city filled with fear I ever set foot in in my life."

A still from Eraserhead, inspired by David Lynch's home at 13th and Wood in the early 1970's.

The popular proposition is to convert the remains of the viaduct into an elevated park, like New York's High Line, and allow it to serve local residents. But I wonder, in our perfect city, would this really be the best option?

The Convention Center, the Gallery, and the Vine Street Expressway already cut through Center City isolating the Loft District from its urban brethren. Even as a park, the oppressive stone walls and metal ceilings of this minimally historic structure are, and would continue to serve, as just another visual barrier breaking up the urbanity of this area.

Reading Viaduct Today

Maybe we should let history be history. Developers routinely avoid this area specifically because of this white elephant. Perhaps portions of the stone supports and arches could be preserved for posterity, leaving behind the poetic ruins of an era of industry.

But converted into a park, much of the metal portion would be unimaginably expensive to maintain, not to mention it is just plain ugly. It is surrounded by surface parking and weed filled vacant lots. Until this area becomes so valuable that developers need to start designing buildings to fit the curvature of the viaduct, these undeveloped eyesores will be the view from any park atop the viaduct.

Reading Viaduct Today

The stone structure between Vine and Callowhill could serve some purpose, maybe even as an elevated park serving a newly renovated apartment building at 12th and Wood. The stone arches add a unique, and noninvasive element to the street scape.

But the metal bulk of the remaining viaduct is an invitation to blight. Its existence serving any purpose other than transportation is only arguably historic. Built around the same time, the Market Street Elevated is being renovated. Its steel constructed viaduct is being replaced with concrete. Removing most of the Reading Viaduct is no more an affront to its historic presence.

Not everything needs to be saved and reused. I'm ready to let this go. I'm curious to see a new vision for this area.

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