Saturday, July 8, 2017

21st Century Abandonment: The Viaduct's Forgotten Beer Garden

In 2011, the Philadelphia Horticultural Society launched its first Pop Up Garden at 20th and Market. Since then, the successful event has grown to include various locations throughout the city, this summer with one on South Street and another in University City. The popularity of PHS's beer gardens has spurred other organizations to follow suit, most notably the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation's Spruce Street Harbor Park, and its Winter and Summer Fests.

As destination attractions, these events bring communities throughout the city together and help fund organizations that largely rely on grants or donations. For years the DRWC has struggled with ways to attract people to the river, tourists and locals alike. The success of its own pop up parks has provided the answer, and they've taken it one step further at Pier 9, slated to become a combination of working art spaces, retail, and refreshment stands as Cherry Street Pier. Designed by Groundswell, the firm behind Spruce Street Harbor Park, Cherry Street Pier will be chock full of their signature shipping containers.

Whereas these pop up gardens have bolstered communities and non-profit organizations, they've also managed to generate redevelopment interest in the city's post-industrial infrastructure. Long the domain of urban explorers and graffiti artists, Cherry Street Pier's conversion of Pier 9 will allow the less adventurous an opportunity to cozy up to Philadelphia's awe inspiring industrial abandonment. Like Pier 9, PHS's Pop Up Garden below the abandoned Reading Viaduct last year was heavily used to market the relic's upcoming conversion into an elevated park. 

But with regard to PHS's Pop Up Viaduct Garden, there's just one problem: It's not reopening and it's still there.

You forgot some stuff.

To say the locals packing these beer gardens have short attention spans would be an understatement, and it's why the rotating model works so well. New Philadelphians in particular, have an almost tainted view of anything that existed before they moved here. They want things that are new, even when they're surrounded by the abandoned, but are especially enamored with trends. And right now, nothing's trendier than recycled shipping containers and drinking craft beer outside. 

But the rusting shipping containers below the Reading Viaduct point to the unfortunate side effect of this disposable mentality. Only abandoned a year, the orange shipping containers, empty bars, and rusted "VIADUCT" sign already blend seamless into the backdrop of the hulking viaduct. Now overgrown with weeds, one can assume this is why the garden was left behind. 

Rather than remove the garden, I can only guess that the PHS assumed no one would notice several tons of scrap metal in a neighborhood synonymous with post-industrial fallout. Or perhaps with the viaduct's park conversion underway, they left the garden behind as part of an anticipated construction zone. In other words, they figured no one would care about a little more garbage until the park is complete. Nonetheless, to leave two unused shipping containers behind to rot is counter to the principle of adaptive reuse. In some ways, it showcases hypocrisy in the idea: it's not adaptive use, just trendy tokenism. 

In all likelihood, the PHS just didn't think about it. But if they intend to be involved with the Reading Viaduct Park in any way, they need to be more cognizant of its Callowhill neighbors amongst whom they'll be conducting business. 

People live here, and while they live with plenty of blight and abandonment, they aren't simply waiting around for the Viaduct Park to solve it all. They live here today, and in today's Callowhill, the PHS has only added to the muck and grime. And being only a year old, from an organization whose sole mission it is to beautify Philadelphia's public spaces, the abandoned Viaduct Garden is an ironic kick to the gut for Callowhill from an organization that should know better. 

I'm not going to harp too much on it, because the PHS is (on most days) an upstanding beacon of philanthropy, and the neglected garden at 10th and Hamilton could be chalked up to an oversight. But as a new resident in Callowhill, one who honestly doesn't mind its ancient grit and grime, I will say this: Come get your shit.

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