There are, around the country, many public or private lands that have been turned into recreational sites: railway beds converted into walking/biking trails; riparian edges, formerly industrialized, now used as public access to scenic waterways; other brownfields repurposed as parks; canal towpaths dressed up for strolling along 19th-century economic history. This change of direction in land use is an asset for those who live in proximity to any one of these reclaimed sites. I say, with an embarrassment of riches, that I live within walking distance of all the above, plus one other. An extraordinary other.
The long-abandoned Upper Roxborough Reservoir is a dual reclamation – first, as a manmade structure reclaimed by nature; currently, as a naturalized area embraced by people wanting it to be a protected ecosystem – very much like the recently born-again High Line, in New York City. And it is special in another way, too. There the reservoir sits in its present state – smack dab in the middle of housing developments looking to expand, but also adjacent to a long-preserved site: The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education – straddling the thin green line between “progress” and preservation, economic speculation and natural sustainability. Here’s hoping nature prevails.
Coming upon it, in some sense, is like finding the ruins of an ancient civilization and then, after climbing up to it, discovering within it a kind of Eden or, perhaps, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It is most definitely a surprise – a revelation, even. And it is built at the highest point in Philadelphia, so its effect, and it is a powerful one, may be a result of oxygen deprivation. Inside, its structure has the appearance of a volcanic or meteor crater, a deep concave shape in a mound. Looking at it from the street, because it is built up from the ground, it resembles a miniature green planet emerging full-blown from our own, an island rising from land.
When you ascend its ramps or stairs, on foot or bicycle, you find yourself atop a butte with a surrounding pathway similar in feel to abandoned railroad beds (once there were tracks during construction of the reservoir). The path is probably 1½ to 2 stories above street level, but the reservoir’s interior depth seen from the path is much greater. Its bottomless-appearing bottom is encased by a steep cliff face made of brick and patches of concrete, which slopes and tapers down creating a giant bowl, or, rather, two giant rectangular bowls, side-by-side, similar to a set of joined pet bowls (for dinosaur-sized pets – and it does feel like the sort of primeval place where dino-slurping might have occurred). In one bowl has formed a water feature, a fresh-water lake, with undulating grasses and reeds at the juncture of plant material and water, sculpted patterns created by the wind. It is such a lovely thing to behold, and when the water fowl are present it makes it even more magical and real, as they add audible squawking and wing-flapping in addition to some splashing and the gentle whoosh of water landings.
The second bowl, viewable after following the path a while, is the dry-food bowl side – a regenerated woodland which, after heavy rains, becomes a short-lived wetland and provides changing landscapes seasonally. There are a surprising variety of trees, deciduous and non-, which grow ravenously in among the brick-faced walls as well as at the bottom of the bowls and also around the reservoir’s outer edge, making it all the more hidden from the street. And together with the grasses, the resulting ecosystem presents a near-complete education in the various cycles of growth and succession in nature.
The oval path continues around the entire site, the reclaimed area’s 34 acres inaccessible but visible through a chain link fence that surrounds the bowls. The journey provides the walker or peddler a three-quarter mile circuit through an unusual, reaccessioned environment: a combination of quiet greenspace, sunken forest and crater lake, along with a few remaining concrete structures from its original 1892 functions. It was decommissioned in the early 1960s, so it has had a life of its own for more than half a century. And, too, it supports the livelihoods of various small mammals, large numbers of wetland bird species and the yearly migration of thousands of toads for mating season (this has generated quite an annual springtime event, with volunteers blocking off streets to cars so that the hordes of brown American toads and greenish Pickerel frogs can make it to their appointed rounds).
Not only is this unique site a layered jumble of natural and manmade, knitted together in a stunning repurposing with a life of its own, a history and a future (we hope), but it also has that unmistakable and inexplicable heady feeling of placeness – a kind of accidental placeness that has power derived from a mix of human-built and natural that was never meant to be in concert. Often it is the other way around: humans come in and add something to a natural environment and create an intentional placeness. But here, at the city’s geographical pinnacle, despite the site’s original engineered purpose, one feels so detached from civilization and so connected to nature. Yet, there is such an integration of the two that it becomes a single whole: nature and culture, inseparable. Arslocii.