On good bones: once and future state of Philadelphia’s food infrastructure

trolley_lines_to_philly

[THE PENNSYLVANIA TROLLEY LINES CENTERING ON PHILADELPHIA]

Much has been said recently of the importance of Philadelphia’s infrastructural “bones” in weathering an economic crisis that has wrought havoc on urban agglomerations of the last half century that have known only low gas prices, easy access to water, ample highways and debt driven growth.

That our density and a well-developed transit system could reduce expenses was not lost on planners of the early part of the 20th century who looked at an even more elaborate trolley system as the salvation to high food prices.  In this interesting and recently digitized document from 1912 entitled, A Study of Trolley Light Freight Service and Philadelphia Markets, the Wharton analyst Clyde Lyndon King suggests the greater utilization of the region’s interurban trolley network in shipping foodstuffs from the hinterland to Philadelphia.  Admitting that average Philadelphians spent nearly 40-50 percent of their income on food, King argues that by connecting farmers to a developed network of city markets and better regulation of those markets (like that at 1810 Ridge Avenue), customers would see an appreciable decline in the cost of their produce.  Reductions in freight charges and eliminating middlemen and wholesalers would assure “food secured as cheaply as possible.”

[MAP OF FARMERS MARKETS IN 1912]

Much too has been written about the decline of Philadelphia’s food infrastructure and its influence on public health.  The curious paradox, it seems, is that it may have been easier to access fresh foods in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods in 1912 than it is today.  Part of this has to do with the way poverty, neighborhood retail trends, food costs, and processed food technology have colluded to create an urban nutritional wasteland. So while we no longer conceive of the problem of moving fresh food to urban markets in purely dollars and cents, planning bodies like DVRPC are rediscovering the means of better connecting the city to more national and international food flows.  But while we seek access to national and global food sources, wouldn’t it be the consummate ‘green’ idea to reconnect our food supply network to the good bones of our transit system? Though SEPTA and PATCO are avowedly in the people moving business, think about the prospect of light freight cars attached to existing regional rail cars? Or special light freight sections of cars? Users would pay a freight surcharge and be able to move fresh produce from special depots in Delaware County (Wawa extension?), Montco (Hatfield), and Chester Counties (Mushroom express)? Sure we’ve got good bones but it’s time to start moving them in ways they’ve never moved before.

ridge ave farmers market

[RIDGE AVENUE FARMERS MARKET, 1810 RIDGE AVE. HABS]

FarmersMarket_Lot

[1810 RIDGE AVE., 2009]

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3 thoughts on “On good bones: once and future state of Philadelphia’s food infrastructure

  1. Nice post. Great picture of the Ridge Avenue market. It was a particularly handsome example of Philadelphia’s Gothic/Romanesque-revival architecture. I was heartbroken when it was finally demolished. I had always hoped that it would be an anchor for revitalization in that neighborhood.

  2. Forty+ years ago, growing up in Delaware County, I was interested in trains. Even then, the value of rail corridors laid down before development/to encourage development seemed very smart. The train/trolley/interurban transit made places like 69th street station a gateway to everywhere! (OK, my horizons were limited.)
    Now, where I live in (near) Albuquerque, New Mexico, the political government is struggling to invest in rail. Finally, Gov. Richardson got the “Rail Runner” train working between Belen and Santa Fe on tracks purchased from the BNSF RR. Actually purchased the tracks all the way to Raton, in the NE corner of the state. But no light rail. This observation, or rememberance, means that you should appreciate the infrastructure you have and work to make it more effective. Once an area is built, it becomes almost impossible to carve a corridor for transportation. And rail takes up a lot less space than a six-lane highway.
    But, I’m not moving back.

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