We are slogging through the underbrush, the vines and weeds grabbing at our legs, sharp-edged bush branches snapping at our faces – think jungle movies you’ve seen, minus the machetes. The ground is crunchy in spots, spongy in others, and in places a swampy stretch meanders alongside us. The sky is vivid blue, and clear, made more so by the dark, penned-in area we find ourselves in. And it is quiet. In a forest, this quiet would not be so unusual – but we are, despite the wild, untouched nature all around us, right in the middle of a city. Ninety-nine percent of Philadelphians don’t know that where we are – under their feet, beneath their cars, almost entirely out of sight and lost in the veldt – even exists; and of the one-percent who do, 99.5 percent of them have never been where we are now walking: a canyon carved into the metropolis, nature taking back what the city-builders and titans of industry bulldozed away.
In New York City more than a decade ago, some visionaries noticed abandoned, elevated train tracks stretching north-south near the Hudson River – and, finding their way up to that level, saw that, left to the elements, the tracks and bridge structure were now a thriving meadow of native plants, shrubs and flowers. Today, after years of work and millions of dollars, the High Line has become a ribbon of accomplishment, a tourist magnet, an exotic and expanded pathway to and from work and play, and a blueprint for others who, in their home towns, have a rail relic with the potential for renewed greatness.
In Philadelphia, there are two. One is called the Reading Viaduct, a mile-long bridge of north-south track that once carried passengers to and from the Reading Railroad Company’s grand Center City terminal. There is a group trying to emulate the High Line there; at the moment, neighborhood politics – it runs through Chinatown, and some are not happy with the development prospects – are putting, at a minimum, a speed bump into the planning.
A less publicized, and at the moment more monumental, project is what has brought us into this urban Amazon. It is called, by its small group of hopefuls, Viaduct Greene, and what the Reading Viaduct is to rehabilitating old passenger tracks, this has its eye on a nearly four-mile swath of left-behind land that once funneled freight trains into town. Most of it is below street level, defined and contained by soaring old stone walls topped by delicate iron railings; the key proponents of the dream – Paul vanMeter and Liz Maillie – hope to take this “inconspicuous, intimate submersive space of mystery, wild excitements,” in their website’s words, and turn it into a nature path connecting the burgeoning Loft Area just north of downtown to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway’s cultural zone, and especially to the new Barnes Foundation building. The two envision numerous access and egress points along the way, leading to, perhaps, a boardwalk or grated walkway that would allow the walker or bicyclist to travel among the untouched greenery without disturbing it (or kicking up clouds of whatever has permeated the ground-surface over the years). The two also envision money from various deep pockets coming forward to make this a reality.
And now we are with vanMeter, as he leads us through this eerie and wondrous conduit, occasionally stopping us at a spot to show us, on his iPad, where exactly we are in relation to the “real world” above us, and what it all looked like back when where we are standing would have put us in danger of being hit by a locomotive. We push on, from the eastern end, emerging from the darkness of a tunnel underneath what is a parking garage into the improbable lushness of this ad hoc city wilderness. We are in another place from what we could even imagine experiencing – except when, from time to too-frequent time, we are yanked back into the reality of our location by piles of plastic bottles and aluminum cans, some tossed with uncaring abandon from cars passing along the overpasses above our heads, and some from the homeless (one who accosts us with the belligerence of a property owner who has caught poachers in his field) who have found this to be an area far more amenable (and, perhaps, safer) than steaming sidewalk grates and stairwells.
We plod on, like the sailors and film crew looking for the beast on Kong Island. We look up, but, in a bit of disconnect, it’s not mountains we see but office and condominium buildings, and the Community College of Philadelphia campus. And always, even as the sun hits us, and the leaves and branches caress us and whack at us, we are constantly aware of the monumental walls of giant cut-block stone, gray and still sooty after all these years, and not going anywhere. We are, in a way, cowed by these giants (in movie serials of the past, they would begin to move towards each other with an ominous rumble, threatening to squeeze us to bloody pulps at the episode’s cliffhanging ending), but in a way elevated by them – they have an emotional impact not so different from the great walls of cathedrals, or of the Pyramids: they seem prehistoric, the work of early humans in thrall to some ancient gods, and that once a year the sun aligns with the tunnel in some religious denotation of the Heavens’ power over us. Of course, the “early humans” in this scenario were underpaid immigrant laborers, the “ancient gods” were robber barons and railroad capitalists, and the streaming “sun” was the gravy train of good old American commerce. But, these days, that sort of financial strutting confidence does seem prehistoric. And we’ll take our resonant monumentality where we can find it.
We emerge, finally, after a six-block walk that takes well over an hour, into a parking lot and then up to the surface, where pedestrians and drivers tootle along, unaware of the amazing bit of natural placeness below their feet, just over the bridge railing, a place they note, if they note it at all, with minimal curiosity. Another amazing, endangered Philadelphia treasure, that deserves the hard work and good intentions that vanMeter and Maillie are applying to it. But, whether they win or lose, whatever happens with their Viaduct Greene project, it is somehow comforting to know that it represents what will happen when all of us silly anthro-creatures bite the dust and nature has the last laugh, rolls up its sleeve and gets to work.