This past June a magnificent new outdoor art park opened in the Callowhill area of Philadelphia. It’s free, it’s not easy to get to, and it has not been built to attract tourists. It’s so very Philadelphia.
Dubbed the Rail Park, the concept has been simmering for almost a decade, and its first quarter mile finally debuted this past June. Though it is mainly elevated, it is not a high line and it is definitely not meant to mimic New York City’s High Line, according to Bryan Hanes of the design firm Studio Bryan Hanes.
“Rather,” Hanes explains, “this park is an artwork in progress, one that reflects the industrial history and culture of its neighborhood.”
And what a history. In its late 19th and early 20th century heyday this area was known as the workshop of the world. There were more factories and shipping plants in Philadelphia’s industrial enclave than in any other location in the United States. Rail lines to serve these manufacturing behemoths snaked along a good three miles throughout the city; many remain, abandoned and derelict and waiting for funding to be reborn as a public entity.
Money does not float around Philadelphia the way it does in New York. With a budget of slightly over $10 million (New York’s High Line initial $50 million grant from the state was just one of many funding sources) and an almost two-year construction process, the two-block start of a hoped for extensive, three-mile rail park opened. It extends from ground level North Broad and Noble streets to elevated Callowhill Street between 11th and 12th streets.
My husband, Toby, and I took a tour of this park shortly after its official debut on June 14. There was an air quality alert during our visit and the temperature was in the mid 90s. The park invites one to linger, but not on that particular day. We definitely plan to visit again. Even with our shortened time — less than an hour stroll — there was much to exclaim about. This is a setting to which one can easily apply the adjective unique.
We entered the park through the street level section at Noble and Broad, which is the wheelchair access entrance. It also serves as an easy bike entrance for those not wanting to carry their bikes up the stairs at Callowhill Street.
After the first steps along Noble Street, the walk begins to rise as old construction for the railroad traffic of decades ago carries the setting aloft. (After much public debate, it was finally decided that it would cost more to tear down the abandoned rail lies than it would to convert them to a public amenity.)
Upon reaching the top of a short incline, we were greeted on the left by a stunning 80-foot-long, nine-foot-tall corten steel story wall designed by the Cloud Gehshan studio. The structure, an artwork in its own right, is also a functional component of the park in that it masks the noise of a nearby building. Function, art, and history are melded throughout this park.
Corten steel is noted for both its strength and its orange-toned, rust-like appearance. In the rail park, it is used as a unifying, colorful artistic element throughout. Its most dramatic and notable use covers more than 50 feet of the story wall, which presents a pictorial history of the area (the remaining wall footage honors donors and designers).
Cloud Gehshan’s staff spent months researching the businesses that were located in the area during the railroads’ construction in the 1890s. The results — a map of the city, company logos, buildings, product advertisements from the period — were laser cut into the wall. In addition, there is a stainless steel, gray-toned line running through the wall that shows the route of the entire proposed, three-mile rail park — but that is many fundraising years away.
As Bryan Hanes notes, this quarter-mile section of the rail park is meant to be a neighborhood attraction. The corten steel wall alone invites continuing and repeat visits to fully comprehend the diverse historical activity in the area. If you should get tired of standing and digesting all the images, the steps up to the wall provide seating. Actually, as a neighborhood attraction, seating is everywhere throughout the park, mimicking in some way the front stoops of old houses. The abundant seating is possible because the rail park is considerably wider than New York’s High Line.
As denotes a park, plants are everywhere — but carefully contained. Shrubs and flowers, in particular, are enclosed in corten steel planters. The orange-hued tones of these planters will be especially attractive in winter and will carry through the introductory color of the wall at the Noble Street entrance. These raised planters are a necessary protection against the many dogs that are walked through the park.
We soon learned it was important to look down at our footsteps. This enabled us to read the engraved poetry that is randomly embedded in granite pavers. The languages — English, Spanish, and Chinese — reflect those spoken by immigrants over the past two centuries — and today too as Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood is a short walk from the park.
These engravings are the work of Philadelphia artist Laynie Brown and are one of two commissioned artworks. Sculptor Brent Wahl created the other, located about halfway through the park’s walk. Titled “Dawn’s Chorus,” it resembles a railroad telegraph pole and is decorated with brilliantly colored bird sculptures (another nice touch for winter visitors).
Toby was impressed with the quality of the woodwork creating the levered seating and decking areas throughout the park. Workmen were still putting the final touches — under large umbrellas on that beastly hot day — as we walked about. He talked to some, complimenting them on their efforts, and was told they considered it a pleasure to be engaged in a project with such high, exacting standards.
At the end of our walk, the Callowhill entrance, we came upon what many may consider the park’s piece de resistance: a series of five huge swings. These 15-foot steel structures are meant to — and do — echo the massive constructions that could once be found on old railroad industrial beds. Crafted from high-grade weathered steel, each one can support about 10,000 pounds.
The seats and all other wood throughout the rail park are a Brazilian walnut known as Ipe. This wood was specified by Philadelphia’s Park and Recreation office and for good reason: It is mold, fire, scratch, and water resistant — no obnoxious graffiti here.
Toby and I sat on these swings and gently rocked back and forth as we could see the city stretch out around us. Each swing is large enough to hold several people, and we saw a family of four perspiring away (it was really hot that day) on another one.
What surprised us that even with that heat, there was a steady stream of dog walkers, bikers, and families strolling through the park. And there were smiles on every face. The park is never closed — it would be quite difficult to seal off the Noble Street entrance — and LED lighting is embedded throughout so that it never appears dark and abandoned.
While this may be designed as a neighborhood park, it is one that can’t help but attract tourists. The sooner you visit, the less crowded it may well be. Be prepared to smile, say hello to the people on the swing next to you, and people watch as you view the surrounding vistas and admire the superb design that created this park.
There is a parking lot by the Noble Street entrance and the Reading Terminal Market, with abundant parking nearby and worth a foodie visit in itself, is about a four block walk away. And, of course, there are the many restaurants in nearby Chinatown.
For more information: centercityphila.org/foundation/our-work/rail-park.