Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River Park complex, an eight-mile manicured recreation trail paralleling an active freight railroad along the east bank of the Schuylkill River is an excellent specimen of post-industrial interstitial planning.
It also represents a dramatic break with Olmstedean park planning—though the park still reflects unnatural naturality with its clusters of antediluvian boulders and dramatically reconfigured riverbank lawns. But the main theme of the park is not to transport users out of an urban world but to foster reflection on the infrastructure of the city itself. In this way does the park resemble what the Germans call a landschaftspark such as that at Duisburg Nord in Bavaria: a multi-use playground for vigorous activity built on a former brownfield site.
In another way these parks tend to make the process of recreation a meditation on the structures and processes of the industrial world. Allowing views of the city’s concealed infrastructure and filled with objects of unknown function, these parks urge us to look critically at the urban/industrial mechanisms that once dominated our landscapes.
Just watching people use the Schuylkill River Path, it appears that the design of the park forces a sort of questioning mode. Whether it is a biker photographing a railroad signal or a woman reclining on a boulder lulled by the white noise of the Expressway across the river, the path designers have carefully created observation zones and structured the experience of moving through a world of transportation and movement.
Traveling northward along the path from its southern terminus at Locust Street, one is immediately struck with the numerous conduits of movement: from the trackage to the left to the vertical movement of pedestrians on the stairway astride the rather nondescript Walnut Street Bridge, to the traffic in the open subterranean tunnel across the river, to the commuter trains inching slowly across Paul Cret’s ominous black railroad bridge: one immediately understands the significance of travel along and across the river. As an expanding city whose core was nearly surrounded by water, Philadelphia recognized early the importance of bridges. By the latter half of the 18th century Philadelphia relied almost entirely on the western rural areas of Kingsessing and Blockley Townships for fuel and food. Philadelphia business elites also feared the loss of the city’s status as a grain entrepot to upstart cities such as Lancaster and Baltimore. The Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture avidly supported the construction of a fixed bridge that would channel western goods into city mouths and markets.
A bridge has straddled the Schuylkill at Market Street since the erection of the 1805 “Permanent Bridge,” a wooden structure operated for profit and appreciated for its design innovativeness. Mimicking highway onramps, today two inclined planes currently link the River Park path with the street grade of the Market Street Bridge. Ascending the plane to street grade, your eye is directed to two great symbols of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Thirtieth Street Station and four stone eagles salvaged from New York’s Penn Station which sit on the parapet of the Market Street Bridge.
Perhaps no other single company has altered the Schuylkill landscape north of Market Street more than the Pennsylvania Railroad. After passing under the Market Street Bridge, three elements testify to the impact of the Railroad on Philadelphia’s form. Just to the right of the railroad tracks after emerging from the Market Street Bridge, a curious black masonry wall appears. This is the last vestige of the infamous “Chinese Wall”: a blockwide elevated viaduct torn down in 1953 which led into Center City and the long-departed Broad Street Station. Both 30th Street and the railroad bridge were an effort to reduce the Railroad’s footprint in Center City in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In place of crenellated Broad Street Station and the obnoxious Chinese Wall, the Railroad constructed its modernist triad: 30th Street, Suburban Station, and a subterranean tunnel connecting them. With the demolition of the Wall in 1953-4, the Railroad opened up a development corridor between JFK Boulevard and Market Street. Other railroads vied for the highly efficient rights-of-way along the Schuylkill. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s main passenger terminal in Philadelphia, a turreted structure designed by Frank Furness, awkwardly stood at 24th and Chestnut Streets.
Meandering further north towards the Art Museum, 30th Street Station looms ever larger while bridge details snap into stark focus. Benches urge an inspection of stonework; of structural members; and materials. The airy and angular Cira Center appears as an apt conclusion to the tour through Philadelphia’s history of connectivity. As Inga Saffron has mentioned, the form of the Cira Center suggests travel of an intergalactic type.
With an extension of the trail to Fort Mifflin slated for 2012, the Schuylkill River Park and path offers new opportunities for meditations on the built environment. Snaking past electrical generating stations, oil refineries, and port facilities, the path represents not just a reclamation of lost industrial space but an opportunity to structure in space a narrative of Philadelphia’s industrial/material past.