Reading Viaduct: Abandoned to Beauty: Philadelphia's New High Line
The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad built Philadelphia’s Reading viaduct in the 1890s. It went through the northern neighborhoods of Callowhill and Chinatown between Vine Street and Fairmount Ave. The bridge was made of steel structures and arched masonry supports. These supported the trains bringing items such as merchandise, coal, anthracite and people to Philadelphia. A sign of Philadelphia’s industrial might then, but by the 2000s, it was rusting away.
The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company was first chartered in 1833 to deliver coal from Pottstown to Reading. During the early 1880s, railroad companies had power at a level similar to the government. They controlled land in a number of states as well as having jurisdiction to transport products. Whether it was animals, raw materials, or minerals, the railroad had a tremendous and profitable influx of money. In 1924, the Supreme Court ruled the company split into two. This was because they were running as a monopoly in surrounding states after the companies split. Reading Railroad became a main carrier of passengers into Philadelphia for nearly 100 years. It dominated this region, in particular Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey.
The viaduct built in the 1890s connected its railroad with Reading Terminal at 12th and Market Streets in center city Philadelphia. The bridgework was located between 11th and 12th Streets where Wood St. intersects. The Reading Railroad stopped service in 1984 because of the closing and unknown future of Reading Terminal, the viaduct became an eyesore of rusted metal and overgrown trees and bushes.
Reading Terminal’s demise led to a redevelopment movement. (The Pennsylvania Convention Center opened inside of it in 1993.) Ideas on how to redevelop the abandoned Reading Viaduct surfaced shortly after in the early 2000’s. New York City’s High Line of a park in the sky was influential. In 2003, urban engineers revealed that the tearing down the structure was going to cost ten times that amount of making the viaduct a park. Costs as high as 35.5 to 51.2 million dollars were estimated to take down the historical structure. However, the investment for benches, access ramps, and pillars was only around five million dollar. The five million would also create recreational pathways for pedestrians and cyclists, opportunities for home, businesses and jobs, offer one of the best views of the Philadelphia Skyline. Most importantly, it would incorporate a bridge between neighborhoods rather than act as a barrier.
The train tracks transect diverse and rapidly redeveloping neighborhoods. The purpose of the ‘City in the Sky,’ or as it is now labeled ‘Reading Rail Park,’ is to unite multiple neighborhoods that have seen manufacturing and industrialization come and go. As seen in pictures, the bridge looks like a ‘Y’ and offers a vast amount of space for the park and dozens of blocks for revitalization.
Today, one can see the progress and result of what is a beautiful addition to the neighborhoods of Callowhill and Chinatown. Starting at 1300 Noble Street, one can walk down a finished path to the intersection on Callowhill, 11th, and 12th street. What has been completed is just a quarter mile strip, labeled phase one. The Rail Park organization has immediate plans after the completion of phase one. Over the next couple of years, it plans to use approximately three miles of the unused track - around 50 blocks to create an urban green space. That will stretch from 11th and vine to 31st street and Girard Ave.