In a post-industrial neighborhood that inspired one of the strangest movies put to celluloid, a plan is afoot to transform its gloomiest ruin into a walkable elevated oasis.
City officials and neighborhood supporters are preparing designs and raising money to clean and green a three-block branch of the mile-long Reading Viaduct, an abandoned railway that moved commuters and goods from 1893 to 1984, in an area nicknamed "the eraserhood."
The tongue-in-cheek compliment is a reference to the 1977 film "Eraserhead," whose creator, David Lynch, lived within the grim patchwork of crumbling factories and vacant warehouses as an art student in the 1960s and called it his muse for the movie's bleak and bizarre urban wasteland.
Over the ensuing decades, empty buildings have been built into loft apartments and artists' studios but large plots remain stubbornly isolated. Turning the eyesore into an inviting greenway will attract people, development and business, say members of the Reading Viaduct Project.
"This can be a park that not only benefits the neighborhood but the whole city," said Sarah McEneaney, a painter who since 1979 has lived in this six-block-wide community dubbed the Loft District by real estate agents and officially known as Callowhill. With bustling Chinatown to its south and hipster hangout Northern Liberties to the north, parts of the neighborhood feel like a no-man's land.
Inspired by similar efforts in New York City, McEneaney and fellow neighborhood resident John Struble created the nonprofit Reading Viaduct Project in 2003 and began promoting the elevated park idea. Their efforts picked up steam after the High Line, an old rail bed on Manhattan's west side remade into an elevated park, opened to kudos and crowds in 2009. Similar projects have been proposed in cities including Chicago and St. Louis.
"An asset like this will never be built again," said Struble, a woodworker who has called Callowhill home since 1997. "There's too much potential to let it go away. When landscape architects see it, they get very excited _ it's a blank slate."
Walking on the viaduct, with its 360-degree views, it's easy to see why. The railway, already overtaken by small trees, flowering plants and tall grasses waving in the wind, resembles a meadow weaving among a series of huge old buildings _ some redeveloped, some vacant. The entrance to the viaduct is gated and locked but mattresses, liquor bottles and other detritus make it clear that people frequent or live along the rusting tracks.
"This is a neighborhood with no parks, no green space," Struble said. "The viaduct as a park would make it a much more welcoming, pleasant place to be."
Seeing was believing for Paul Levy of the Center City District, an influential private sector-sponsored business improvement organization. He was a skeptic until he checked out the High Line shortly after it opened, followed by a walk on the arched stone span.
"For a very long time, I was not a big believer in the concept," he said. "From below the viaduct all you see is broken glass and dark shadows ... but once you get up in the air there's this wonderful sense of overview, perspectives you can't otherwise see."
But there are challenges to opening those views to the world. Though a study commissioned by the Center City District estimated it would cost $14 million less to stabilize and landscape the viaduct than it would to demolish it, no funding sources have emerged. And the owner of most of the viaduct hasn't approved the development yet, Levy said.
Reading International, a California-based entertainment conglomerate that absorbed the remnants of the defunct Reading Railroad, is in discussion with city officials, who would not comment on the ongoing talks.
Until the ownership and funding issues are hammered out, a more modest plan calls for development of a spur of the viaduct owned by the region's transit agency, which has given permission for the project. A William Penn Foundation grant is paying for initial design ideas, Levy said.
"We're talking about a $3 million to $5 million piece that could be achievable and used as a demonstration" to boost the rest of the project, Levy said. "We don't need to spend $150 million like the High Line. We don't need something elaborate for it to be an asset that everyone can enjoy."
Not everyone has been keen on the idea.
Some neighbors, many in bordering Chinatown, want the viaduct demolished to make way for affordable housing and worry that a park will gentrify the area and push out longtime residents. They are also upset about a proposal to create an improvement district that would require a fee from property owners for services like trash removal and street cleaning.
The tax would amount to about $140 a year for a property owner paying $2,000 in real estate taxes. Opinions differ on whether that's a bargain considering the benefits, or a burden for fixed-income and elderly property owners.
"A tax increase will be a real hardship to me," James Morton, 68, said at a City Hall hearing in September. "Sometimes I don't have enough money to pay for all my medicine each month."
Viaduct development proponents have been talking more with Chinatown neighbors to dispel rumors and make them part of the process, McEneaney said.
"There's plenty of room to develop the viaduct and have more housing," she said. "We can have affordable housing and green space to make the neighborhood a better place to live."
Rob Schuler, a photographer who lives just north of Callowhill and said the viaduct is one of his favorite models, thinks a park would mean the end of the old "eraserhood" moniker.
"Maybe there will be a time when that name goes away because it will be completely transformed," he said while setting up his tripod in a sunny spot below a coal-blackened stone archway. "It won't have any resemblance to that scary, dark place anymore. It's a cool movie, but good riddance, you know?"
Reading Viaduct: http://www.readingviaduct.org