The Necessity for Ruins

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



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.”


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.


[1810 RIDGE AVE., 2009]