// To Infinity… And Beyond //
// Director // Cinematographer // Editor // Kevin Sawicki //
// Calligrapher // Daye Jeong //
// Musician // Johnny Ripper //
// Interview by Alex Igidbashian //
The Reading Viaduct
If you have ever found yourself in the area of 11th street in between Callowhill St. and Fairmont Ave., and your gaze just so happened to drift up your eyes would fall upon rusted railroad structures towering over old stone masonry overpasses. In the summer months, tall grasses and even some trees may be in bloom enough to be visible over the stone. The entirety of the image is forged of relics from the past forgotten in the folds of time despite being located just outside of bustling day center city. This, is The Reading Viaduct, a stretch of abandoned railroad elevated over modern day streets and visible only to inhabitants of archaic industrial buildings in the area. Foliage shrouds this quarter mile stretch which has become a popular hidden gem enjoyed by street artists, photographers and urban explorers.
Previously owned by the Reading Railroad Company and used as the main route for passenger trains coming in from Reading, PA, at one point this stretch of track ran directly into the former station at 12th and Market, present day location of the Philadelphia Convention Center. The spur of track changed hands numerous times and was eventually bought by SEPTA before service was discontinued in 1984 and the track was allowed to fall into disrepair. For nearly 20 years the Viaduct sat unnoticed by most but not untouched by all. Frequent visits by artists, photographers, filmmakers, and wanderers has brought quite a bit of attention to what is considered by most to be a little know public park / urban playground.
In 2003, the city of Philadelphia allocated a grant intended to explore the possibilities of what could be made of the Viaduct. The leading ideas: destruction or rejuvenation. After substantial research and opinions, the numbers came in in favor of rejuvenation, by a long shot. The estimates for revamping the area into a fully funcational public space complete with benches, seating areas, trees and gardens was a mere $5.1 million. Compare this to the two estimates for the destruction of the railway which came in at a staggering $35 for one option and $50 million for another. Supported by a host of organizations including the Reading Viaduct Project, the William Penn Foundation, and the Poor Richard’s Charitable Fund, the Center City District is taking a pages out of the books of New York City and Paris. Projects such as the Chelsea High Line and the Promenade Planteé act as perfect inspirations for designing and creating a “park in the sky” housed the middle of a modern metropolitan area.
The redesigning of the Viaduct has fallen into the capable hands of the Bryan Hanes Studios who has already submitted renderings for what their imagining of the space. Revamped entrances at Broad and Noble, as well as on both sides of 11th street at Callowhill and one to the north at Fairmount will give pedestrians a beautiful new walkway that doubles a seating area and park that offers never before seen views of the Philadelphia skyline. Hanes Studio has taken special consideration in this regard, carefully placing benches and seating areas along parts of the Viaduct that offer a wide range of spectacular angles for viewing the city. These design plans which were submitted to the city recently are to undergo further examination throughout 2013 with possible construction to begin in 2014.
The gentrification of the park could prove to be the catalyst for bringing about aesthetic and social change to an otherwise dull part of the city. Currently, the viaduct shares it’s quarters with brick industrial buildings still baring the faded signs of businesses passed. Though most of the massive spaces have been converted into artists lofts (fitting for the underground art aspect of the Viaduct) the area as a whole is nothing short of bland. Bringing about a brand new park will of course bring in loads of foot traffic to the area while also providing public space for people to meet, eat, and relax, as well a place for children to play and explore.
Though the positive social implications of adding a new park in the middle of overwhelmingly stone center city are too numerable to count, it would be impossible to ignore the artistic value that the Viaduct will, but more importantly, already does provide. Today, a walk through the high grass and stone of gives an adventurer a wonderful example of an area completely left at the mercy of the explorers who have found it. A small shack houses decaying electrical equipment, as well as the walled up Spring Garden Station are beautifully covered in layer after layer of graffiti and street art, canvases which have been left unscathed by power washers or government intervention. Even better than the visual art, are the personal ventures of a few to create something that people can interact with – swings. In plain view and located at varying points on the spur are four extremely inviting swings, one a massive tire swing, another rubber and lastly, two wooden plank swings. I am lucky enough to be close friends with the person who installed those two wooden swings. Kevin Sawicki, a senior Film & Video student at Drexel lives merely blocks away from the 12th and Noble entrance of the Viaduct. I thought it would be interesting to ask Kevin’s thoughts about his contribution to the area:
How did you hear about the viaduct?
Last year I did an internship in New York City where I visited the High Line, a reclaimed railway turned into an elevated walkway/park. I have visited NYC many times before but never experienced it from this perspective. The views between skyscrapers were magnificent, especially at sunset. It was quiet. I forgot about the bustling street below me and could sit on a bench to listen to music and bask in the warm sunlight.
When I returned to Philadelphia, I noticed the 50ft tall cement block near Vine and 12th. I drove around the block to get a better view and could see rusted trestles in the distance. I thought to myself, “How have I never noticed this before?” I reminisced of my fond experience atop the High Line. Every time I drove past it, I pondered, “How do I get on there?” I dreamed of how a High Line in Philadelphia could revitalize the entire area and be a perfect place to get away from (or above) the city.
Later that week, I ended up doing some research. I went on Google Maps and Street View to figure out where the railway started and ended, what parts were above and below ground, and how far it went. After reading up on the history and finding out the name, The Reading Viaduct, I searched for groups attempting to salvage the space. I was happy to find others that shared my dream of turning the Viaduct into an above ground park. (therailpark.org)
How did the idea for swings arise?
When I first laid eyes on the Viaduct from the ground, I could only make out the rusted trestles that supported the electric lines. I knew the viaduct had a gorgeous view of the skyline and wanted to create a place to relax and take it all in. Since the Viaduct was surrounded by chain-linked fence, a bench or chair was out of the question. I couldn’t afford to buy a swing so I decided to make one. I found a scrap piece of wood in my apartment, bought 200 feet of rope from home depot, and clear coat spray paint – at together it cost me about twenty dollars.
That night, I sawed the board in half and drilled holes on the sides. My friend came over to help illustrate a message on the swing to be – “To Infinity… and Beyond.” The words face the ground so as the rider swings up into the clouds the message can be read. I wanted to express my dream of the Viaduct being transformed into a park and show how anything is possible if you reach for the sky. I wanted the rider to experience a moment of joy and release from the city.
Do you feel that what you have done is “public art?”
I don’t think I realized that it was a form of public art until I visited the swings a second time. I noticed that it was being used often, showing signs of wear on the seats and ropes. I noticed signatures and other graffiti on both sides. The swings have become a part of the Viaduct. I feel that I’ve created a space for adventure seekers, like myself, to take a moment during their journey and view the world from a different perspective. As long as people use it, I’ll be happy. If I visit and they’re gone, I’ll put up another one.
What do you hope the swings will do for viaduct?
I documented the fabrication and installation of the swings in an attempt to raise awareness of the Reading Viaduct and it’s potential to revitalize this part of the city. I hope others take a few hours on a sunny day to explore the Viaduct, sit on the swings and experience a completely different Philadelphia.
The entrance to the Viaduct is at Noble & Broad Street, behind the railroad cart hotdog stand. Please use caution while exploring the Viaduct as it is technically trespassing and there are hazards like rusted metal and holes that fall 30 feet down to the street level. Feel free to use the swings and sign them. Enjoy the beautiful urban environment.
Like others, Kevin documented his exploration of the viaduct and the experience of installing the swings in his video To Infinity… And Beyond. As seen by city’s investments, Bryan Hanes’ designs, Kevin’s participation, as well as the evidence of countless other adventures, The Reading Viaduct is without a doubt a perfect example of a free open space where art and public participation can collide to provide everybody with new perspectives.
References and Further Information
Reading Viaduct Project: http://readingviaduct.org/
Plans & Designs: http://www.centercityphila.org/docs/ReadingViaPres0312.pdf
// swings make smiles //