Summer greetings, summer babes. Just wanted to give a little heads up that I got a thing happening, a happenin’ happenin’. It’s a photography show at Gravy Studio & Gallery in Kensington, and it opens next Friday, August 1st. For the occasion, we’re throwing a little First Friday shindig from 6-10pm, so please do come out.
I’ll have more about this next week, and I will catch everything up on One Man’s Trash in August. The project is in full force—I’m still collecting trash on weekly hikes—I just need to find the time to sort and record the items, edit the photos, make the maps, publish the reports, and maintain sanity. All a challenge, all in due time.
There’s nothing to it, really. No agenda, no mission, no checklist — nothing but the serendipity SEPTA might bring you riding it where it goes. At least that’s been my approach to the Independence Pass project, both in 2009 and five years later, Friday the 13th of June, 2014.
My connect-the-dots approach to travel was this time accommodated a little better by SEPTA’s weekday schedule; unfortunately, one of the only two dots I had this time around was unavailable. Fox Chase Farm, the other actual working farm (after WB Saul in Roxborough) in this fifth largest city in the country, does not keep regular hours for the public, and I couldn’t reach anyone to make an appointment. Their web site’s contact form, in which I explained the Independence Pass project and the desire to visit and perhaps pet a horse, wouldn’t let me submit my request because “phillyskyline.com” kept being flagged as gibberish. Well harrumph, Fox Chase Farm!
My desire to see Fox Chase Farm came out of my regular commute. Living in Mt Airy, I travel into Center City on the Chestnut Hill West train, formerly the R8 Chestnut Hill West. The other end of the line was, and for the most part still is, the R8 Fox Chase. I still don’t get why SEPTA did away with the R# system; it was easy to use, people were used to it, and what was the point of changing it anyway? I don’t reckon Sean Agnew would have ever made it to North Korea with Dennis Rodman if he’d established “Paoli/Thorndale Productions” …
Anyway, my other dot was Norristown. Somehow, I’d never been there, despite it being more accessible by SEPTA than even by car. I’d planned on taking the R6 there, but I read the SEPTA app on my phone wrong—again. I have Market East saved as one of my favorites, so in looking up the Norristown schedule there at 30th Street, I thought I had 5 minutes to make the train when I actually had 0. Oops. To the el I went, with a transfer at 69th Street to the Route 100 interurban, the Norristown High Speed Line. During the layover, I took a quick jaunt to catch the spectacular McClatchy Building’s terra cotta bathed in sunlight—just as Upper Darby High’s Class of 2014 let out of the Tower Theatre, where they’d just celebrated their graduation—exactly 20 years minus a day since I walked across Tyrone High’s Class of ’94 stage.
To hear Main Liners describe it, I pictured Norristown as some Camden-like ghost town of desperation—MontCo’s sickman, as Dougherty described Chester to DelCo. Instead, I found a slightly gritty river town whose Transportation Center, connecting regional rail, high speed line, and bus routes, even had room for the Schuylkill River bike trail—as well as one gargantuan garage.
Knowing absolutely nothing about Norristown, everything I encountered was a surprise: the 10-story late modern buildings across from the County Courthouse. The inexplicable 9/11 Memorial made of a steel beam from Ground Zero. The girth of the tuna hoagie at the Court Order Grille, whose slogan is “you’ve been served” and whose walls were covered in autographed 5x7s and framed ticket stubs—of Huey Lewis & the News, Andrew Dice Clay, Johnny Cash. There are even a number of photos with the same man who appears to have toured with Winger posing with the likes of Jerry Seinfeld. I asked the waitress who the longhair was in all the pictures, and she pointed, “that’s the shorthair who’s on the line in the back.” I’d hoped to meet Jay Kowal, the Grille’s owner and former Valley Forge Music Fair security guard, after I finished my hoagie (which was delicious and cost under $7, including a soda and chips), but the place was packed. I dig your place, Jay—next time.
From there, I ambled through Norristown to kill another hour until the next R6 train, stumbling on Napoleon LeBrun’s old Montgomery County Prison (built 1851), which made it easy to picture Moyamensing Prison in place of the Acme that replaced it at Passyunk and Reed in South Philly. Moyamensing Prison’s design came from Thomas Ustick Walter—who LeBrun beat out to design the MontCo Courthouse, across the street from the Prison.
Riding the regional rail back toward town, I quickly discovered just how close the train hugs the Schuylkill River. The R6 rides like our own mini-Adirondack up the Hudson Valley, only instead of the Tappan Zee and Hyde Park, it’s the Blue Route and Conshohocken.
After passing through Manayunk, I hopped off at Wissahickon Station, a place I thought fitting both to have a look at the Wissahickon Transportation Center, which has such incredible potential, and to get out onto a trail in my personal year of the Wissahickon. On the way there, I noticed an alley across Ridge Avenue from the station platform that appeared to snake along the top of the ridge above Main Street. On the wall retaining Ridge Ave appeared a giant graffiti tag “GEEZ” that I stopped to photograph. That’s when the bald man with the goatee came barreling down the narrow alley I previously didn’t know existed in his Subaru, stopping to ask me what I was photographing.
Relating the above paragraph to him, he replied, “well I think it looks like shit.”
I said, “that’s cool, beauty’s in the eye of the beholder and all.”
He said, “well where I’m from, beauty’s in the eye of the beer holder … and I’m thirsty!” (Seriously. He said this.) “If you want to take pictures of something nice, come with me and I’ll show you a new park.”
“Beg your pardon?” I asked him, thinking he must be referring to the new Venice Island Park.
“It’s a new park, right along the tracks—people are gonna love it. C’mon, hop in!”
“Uhhh, no thanks, I actually have to go … this way,” I said, gesturing toward anywhere else that I couldn’t get to fast enough.
“Well I’m not gay or nothin’, and I’m not gonna twist your arm,” he finally said before peeling out.
After a quick stop for a cold water at Tommy Gunn’s Deke’s BBQ—the worst possible land use for a site adjacent to what ought to be a comprehensive gateway connecting Wissahickon Park, Kelly Drive, the Schuylkill River bike trail, and the Wissahickon Transit Center (both bus and train)—I headed into the woods.
Hiking the mile or so up the 100 Steps and past Kelpius’ Cave, I scrambled up and across the Henry Avenue Bridge, catching the 32 bus at Philadelphia University right before the rain came. During the ride through East Falls, North Philly, Brewerytown, and Fairmount, I dicked around on my phone as one does these scatterbrained days. Pulling my nose out of stupid Instagram and Facebook for a second, I saw the dramatic, darkening sky against the shiny brand new Symbiosis sculpture by Roxy Paine and had to get out to see it. Pressing my luck, I ran up the stairs of the Art Museum like some fictional dimwit (I was wearing Chucks) to see the charcoal clouds draped behind the familiar skyline. That was when the sky really opened up.
After waiting out a fast, furious shower, I hopped on the first bus I saw (again the 32), heading for South Broad Street and a visit to my pal Conor. After trading stories—his of Paris and Monaco, mine of Norristown and Upper Darby—I had an hour and a half to ride a little more SEPTA, so I went straight downstairs to the Subway. Had the Special come and it was 2008, I would have headed down to Citizens Bank Park to survey the bustling scene. Instead, it’s 2014, year of the dismal Phillies and the shell of a team Ruben Amaro has decimated, and there were just as many Cubs fans on the Walnut-Locust platform as there were Phils fans. I caught the local instead. Thanks, Rube.
Something compelled me to get off at Ellsworth-Federal, and I’m glad that happened because 1, I’d never really noticed the handsome (if grimy) terra cotta details in the station’s concourse and exits, and 2, I was hungry again. That Huey Lewis hoagie was ages ago and I couldn’t wait another hour to meet back up with the guys. I knew damn well Phỡ 75 was right around the corner. I ordered a small brisket phỡ (no tripe for this guy—I know) and they brought me a large (but still only charged me for the small). Needing a wheelbarrow to leave, I caught the 23 bus north to Market Street, and with about eight minutes to quittin’ time, bypassed 11th Street Station for that at Juniper, where I could squeeze in one more of SEPTA’s many modes of transportation: the green line, the Subway-Surface Trolley.
Walking in to 30th Street Station at 7:02pm, I was pleased to see Weinik and Dougherty already seated at the pseudo-alfresco table I’d reserved for us, beers in hand. When Ives arrived moments later, we clinked our glasses, shared our stories, and promised to do it again in 2019—when the Independence Pass will be but one option on SEPTA’s New Payment Technology. (Probably.)
I can’t give you a compelling narrative to frame the shape of my Independence Pass trip. My plans were loose and I mostly ignored them. By 7pm, I’d ridden 45 miles by bus, train and el and walked somewhere between 7 or 8. But a narrative? A lesson? Some great insight into the Philadelphia, mass transit, America, humanity? I got nothing.
I’ve spent my life building a mega-narrative about this city. This trip was a small part of that. Even without a nice 3-act arc, or some life-changing catalytic experience, it was still a fun day of interesting observations and imagery. You can skip straight to that HERE or you can read my blow by blow recap first:
I broke the only group rule we had before we even started. I had a quick event shoot early in the morning, which I drove to. That meant that after our meeting at Bill Gray… err, 30th Street Station, I drove back to my house, grabbed some lighter lenses, and headed to Germantown Ave to catch the 23. Forty-five minutes late and 10 miles from our official starting point, I was on the bus.
My first stop was at Allegheny Ave, where I headed east on foot. I drive this stretch a lot and have explored bite size pieces by foot, but I have never walked the two miles from Germantown & Allegheny to Kensington Ave.
At Bob’s Crab House on 3rd Street, I got my nickname for the trip: Philly Underground Paparazzi. The guy who gave me the name didn’t want his photo taken and I didn’t push it, so I guess I’m not a very good paparazzo. I did appreciate the name though.
At 2nd Street I stopped off at Freddy and Tony’s for mofongo: a ball of fried, green plantain and pig skin. I took it to go, and ate it at the always-interesting corner of Front & Allegheny. You can see a little of that in the photos.
From Kensington Ave, I rode the el to Frankford and the 14 bus to the northern edge of the city. According to maps, there’s a state park up there. I was there to confirm this strange rumor. It turns out the maps are technically accurate, but otherwise misleading. Without a trail to explore at Benjamin Rush State Park, I was pretty quickly forced back out onto Southampton road. Walking west across the Boulevard, I traced the former campus of the Byberry State Hospital/current location of becursed open fields and Northeast Philly “Maintenance Free” tract housing.
I’d run out of water and it was over 90 and muggy, so after about a mile, I sat under a tree and waited for the 84. To the west, I could get on a train to Olney and repeat my lunch from the 2009 installment of this series, or eastbound I could check out the mouth of the Pennypack Creek behind Holmesburg Prison on the Delaware River. There were some growing clouds in the distance and I was hungry, so I went west.
With a few minutes to spare, I debussed at Bustleton Ave and walked the rest of the way to the West Trenton Line’s Forest Hills Station. This part of the city was entirely new to me. Things of note I saw in the farthest of the Far Northeast included: a full size, fairly modern fire engine in someone’s back yard, an almost comical number of American flags, an abundance of vinyl siding, mysteriously red soil. If you’d knocked me over the head and I woke up there, I probably would have guessed that I was in Atlanta.
From Forrest Hills, the inbound train exited the city the and snaked through the NW crotch suburbs of Moreland > Abington > Jenkintown > Elkins Park > Melrose Park… Fern Rock, Philadelphia.
Trying to keep ahead of the rain, I made as straight a shot as I could by foot from Fern Rock to 5th & Olney. At 5th, I stopped in a Trinidadian restaurant where I got goat roti five years ago. The place was still there and it was still in the same family, but had different owners and a very different vibe. The dancehall DJ was gone, replaced with a bright and sparse dining area and a handful of tables. The roti was good—chicken—but better in my last trip. That said, it was still the perfect place to sit and watch a violent summer storm. The owners were curious about my sunburnt, sweaty and disheveled self wandering in with my camera, but didn’t want any photos of themselves for this article. Another Underground Paparazzi failure.
Still raining hard, I took a slow ride on the 47 to 8th & Market. I wandered a bit in the drizzle and got back on the el at 11th Street. I rode it out to 63rd for the classic photo op, then back to 40th to kill off the last 30 minutes with a slow stroll back to 30th Street. When I walked in the door at Bridgewaters, it was exactly 7pm. It’s worth noting that on this day, on my trip, SEPTA performed flawlessly. All routes were on time and stayed on schedule.
Now for the easter egg. How many of you read all that? To you, thank you and congratulations. For your effort and interest, I’ll give a free print from this series to the first 5 of you who write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. THANK YOU AND GOODBYE!
I waited until the most personal part of one of the most Philly songs ever written to begin my voyage across Philadelphia on SEPTA, Independence Pass in hand. I think that there is a small, romantic sense of freedom that one can gain from using a large transit system like ours. A large and varied urban landscape can be intimidating because of the scale of everything. There’s so much to see and so many ways to get places and when one is hit with a touch of the urban wanderlust, the greatest tool and greatest hinderance is not having any particular destination in mind.
Fortunately, this particular project gave the four of us reasonable guidelines to allow for the successful completion of our missions and allow for that wanderlust to take hold and really give us a chance to show what we saw. I only had general places in mind when I started out. I wanted to see parts of North Philadelphia that I seldom visit and check off a number of ‘mental pictures’ that I’ve taken across the city over the years—places that I’ve been by without a camera in hand—and get there the SEPTA way.
As was the case with the 2009 installment of the Independence Pass project, I wanted to use as many modes of transit as I could. SEPTA is in rare company in terms of the scope of its fleet—where even most large systems operate only buses and trains, SEPTA offers variations on those and other modes that are only matched by a small handful of agencies in North America. Being able to quickly fly over or slowly roll through the various nooks and crannies of our fair town offers the observant opportunities to view this city in all of its shades and depth. This is the beauty of having a system like ours. Yes, it serves it practical purpose (most of the time) but we all know that our train, trolley and bus seats are like life in a movable theater.
The show isn’t always good but it’s rarely dull and it is honestly Philadelphia. Here are nine hours of such a show.
Getting there?: SEPTA and mobility across our regional divides — an update
The day after our second installment of the Independence Pass, locomotive engineers, conductors and electricians serving the Regional Rail struck, as advertised. For a day, I missed the rhythmic metallic whoosh on the hour, that audible reassurance of easy connection to the urban core. My mind thought of carpools and the bikeability of Wissahickon Avenue, of the route of the “H” bus and its sleek express version, the “XH”. Of course, we all would survive–perhaps even enjoy it as a kind of adventure of alternative mobility.
Quietly, though, I also recalled the 50-something African-American woman getting on the 118 bus after her shift at the Baltimore Pike McDonalds just outside of Media. It was close to 3pm, the end of a shift starting at 7am, probably. The bus was going to Chester, where she ultimately got off.
I wondered how she would wend her way through the leafy ravines of affluent Delaware County to her shift during a strike. Recalling my trip the day before, I thought about the home healthcare nurses and caregivers wearily boarding the 66 at Frankford Transportation Center. Perhaps behind them was a long hot day in the Kensington, Harrowgate, Port Richmond rowhomes of their elderly patients. What would they all do?
If you have the occasion to ride the modes of SEPTA in the second decade of the 21st Century, it can be just as much physical travel as a mode of inquiry. Now in the second installment of the Independence Pass series, I’m heartened to know that my compatriots prioritize seeing through and outside the windows of transit vehicles perhaps more than the nuts-and-bolts. (Ed. note: Chris’ 2009 Independence Pass essay is HERE.)
Riding SEPTA is, as the geographer Reyner Banham said of his learning to drive a car in Los Angeles, a means of reading the Delaware Valley in its original tongue. Much of the region is a landscape of legacies; its transportation system a microcosm of the accretive form of growth. It is a landscape punctuated by brief accumulations of capital and people around possibility and promise. But fixed capital, of course, bounds and flees across the planet, sometimes leaving these communities to reknit themselves back into the the fluid geography of opportunity.
The palpable character of each of the modes has much to say of the original geographies and cultures they sought to link. Many of the current City Transit Division buses and trackless trolley routes remained unchanged since the Philadelphia Transportation Company (PTC). These vehicles efficiently and compactly traversed narrow city streets to mills, factories, shops and were feeders for the terminals: 69th and Frankford. These routes relished and were sustained by the city’s density. Even up to the end, they ran a profit.
Regional rail and trolleys were sometimes escapist in their conception. They began and sustained suburban development schemes, their wealthy parent railroad companies using them as real estate playthings. The old Red Arrow division suburban buses, the last great chunk of the private mass transit to be assumed by SEPTA in 1970, have found new lives as reverse commute lifelines connecting the bereft populations of the industrial riverfronts to suburban hamlets, mall complexes, and other job centers embedded in the sprawl.
In pursuit of this, I was interested in exploring and assessing how SEPTA knits together a region still deeply furrowed by race and class. I wanted to explore the weird cross section of Delaware County–from Media, a DVRPC “Classic Town” with a buzzing lunchtime sidewalk culture and speakers playing pop music on every streetpole to Chester, the perennial sick man of Delaware County whose agonizing poverty needs no further elaboration.
I wanted to explore Eastwick as a suburban dream deferred, the city’s postwar vision for a car-centric city-within-a-city seeming hollow now, slightly unfinished and too ambitious. New transportation preferences are emerging that the planners of Eastwick never envisioned. That I saw 2 cars on the vastly overbuilt 100’ cross section of Mario Lanza Boulevard and 40 parked at the bare-bones Eastwick Station suggests residents are embracing a new kind of post-auto independence.
All across the lines, I observed a newly awakened orientation of the built environment to mass transit. I observed numerous cars at Eastwick, the new context-sensitve Paschall Village PHA complex fronting the 11 Trolley, passengers on the 118 cooing happily about the new Bottom Dollar grocery store in Chester on Edgmont Avenue. There are other examples throughout the system: Paseo Verde, Nicetown Court II at Wayne Junction, even in Ambler with residential clustered around its rail stop. Increasingly, SEPTA’s managers get that land uses around stations matter and that facilities must creatively integrate with private development for the benefit of both.
Like a penny on the rail, the strike was short-lived. Obama quickly interceded, an act recalling the one-time importance of the railroad in American life, the President’s power an odd legal vestige of the days of vicious railroad labor-management enmity. The component of SEPTA moving the fewest, most affluent, usually suburban riders was spared a grueling strike. In my last intro essay five years ago I described the Authority in recent years as “a great organism that through great effort has become greater than the sum of its seemingly disjointed parts.”
Five years down the line, SEPTA continues to solder the systems together while increasingly supporting denser land uses that reinforce transit ridership. Yet while the system may be fusing together physically, unity evades SEPTA’s laborers and operators and the poorest it serves. In the intervening years we’ve seen TWU stoppages hurting the less mobile poor while affluent riders have service restored by Presidential fiat over a weekend.
It’s a sign of our persistent ideological fragmentation as a region: the people who ride and operate SEPTA share neither faith in common economic outcomes nor consensus on how we’re all getting there.