Across the United States, cities are turning to urban revitalization initiatives to re-purpose underutilized or abandoned space. Think Green Among the Grime. Many have heard of NYC's High Line, which has morphed more or less into a tourist attraction over the years - a popular site for ones iconic 'I <3 NYC' Instagram photo. However, a similar project in Philadelphia has bigger plans for its own obsolete train line. The full vision of the Rail Park will be twice the length and twice the width of NYC's High Line.
A project centered around community & unifying the city across 10 neighborhoods and 50 city blocks, the Rail Park is unlike any other in Philadelphia. In June 2018, Phase 1 of the project was completed. When completed, The Rail Park will transform 3 miles of unused rail lines into a public urban green space for all.
We spoke with Shawn Sheu, The Rail Park's Community Engagement & Programs Manager, about the history of the Reading Viaduct, how the project differentiates from others like the High Line, and the vital role of programming and space activation.
Visit the Rail Park with us! We're excited to visit the Rail Park on April 20th as we explore 4 sites focused on unifying the city during Day 1 of INDIE Confab Philadelphia. - Beyond the Walls: Exploring Philadelphia. Grab your All Access Pass to hear from Shawn while touring Phase 1 of the Park.
Tell us about your role at the Friends of the Rail Park
I am the director of community engagement at the Rail Park. Which means, I am focused on making the rail park a vibrant space that is lively and a center of the community. Through programs and collaboration with community members, we make the Rail Park a space that really reflects them. I work with people from all over the city to make sure that Philadelphians are coming to experience this space.
Can you tell me a little bit about the history of the Rail Park / Reading Viaduct
The rail lines, themselves, were central to the industrial revolution period within Philadelphia. At one point, it was the workshop of the world because of all the industry occurring within Center City. These rail lines were responsible for bringing coal, energy, and power through the city and to the region. They brought new paper to the Acquire Building on Broad street. They brought goods to the reading terminal market.
After they stopped shipping goods through the city, it became a rail line that brought people from the main line in to the city. That was the 1800s through 1900s. In the 1980s, the railroad was decommissioned and became a passive space. In the 1990s, a group of neighbors advocated for it to become a park. This was before the High Line had even happened.
In June of 2018, the first quarter mile, a proof of concept space, opened. This is what we have currently and is accessible to the public.
What is the vision and goal of the Rail Park?
The Rail Park is a mission for a park. A mission for the reuse and transformation of three miles of abandoned rail lines into public space that run across the city linking 10 different neighborhoods together. From Poplar to Chinatown, through the art museum area and up to the zoo.
How does it relate to or differentiate from other projects like those in NYC or Chicago?
We most often get compared to the New York High Line. It differs in many ways, both physically and philosophically. At its core, this is a space that we want to represent Philadelphia. A space we want Philadelphians to use. We want the pieces of the park to reflect the neighborhoods that it runs through. We want the people experiencing the park to live in our city.
That's good to hear.
I think that is very different from the High Line. The High Line is more of a tourist destination whereas we want the rail park to be a place for our neighborhoods. Physically, it is very different in that the High Line is pretty skinny. Phase one is the thinnest portion of the park and everything else is much wider. It has the potential to not only just be a transportation path, but also have spaces for recreation.
What does activation of the site look like in terms of programming?
We try to think about both in Phase one: making sure it is a park that really responds to the name and the larger three miles and continuing to advocate for the community programs. In Phase one, we do a lot of community engagement to figure out what people want to see and what will bring them back. We have everything from yoga to tai chi. We have programs for families, festivals, including a Chinese New Years festival last week. We try to make sure it’s really responsive for the people who live around it. We also do larger arts programming and try to engage this bigger idea of what the park means through public art. We had a large festival last year with Mural Arts, called Site/Sound, where we installed temporary installations along future portions of the rail park.