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.
Classic Skyline is a semi-occasional feature that revisits stories of 21st Century Philadelphia. This one was originally posted 8 June 2009.
Greetings, friends! I apologize for the lack of frequency in which this web site has provided updates; I have big plans for it, just gotta find the time for ’em. One of the big goals is to make it even more photo driven than ever, something that’ll come into sight over the next week like the El rumbling out of the darkness of the tunnel under the Schuylkill and into the fluorescent light of 15th Street. (With apologies to the SEPTA Poet.) This and I have some catching up to do on photos, maps, and stats for One Man’s Trash. All in due time, promise.
In June 2009, shortly after SEPTA unveiled their new single-day Independence Pass, a group of four of us photographin’ friends spent that single-day traveling as far as SEPTA would take us, each documenting his personal journey. We met in the morning at Market East Station (at Starbucks), went our separate ways, and met back at Market East (at Field House pub) in the evening; we clocked in and clocked out from the same station, worked a full shift in the field from 9am to 6pm, and the following week rolled out our respective results in four individual photo essays.
And here we are five years later. SEPTA’s Independence Pass, $10 in 2009, is $12 now, a fair price indeed for a full day’s worth of travel to everywhere SEPTA goes (minus the Regional Rail service to Trenton and West Trenton, which each incur an added $5 should you see a need to travel to New Jersey on a SEPTA day pass). 6 June 2009 was a Saturday; as I quickly discovered on my own journey that day, SEPTA’s Saturday schedule is a little lacking. The four of us had kicked around the idea of encoring the series this coming Sunday, but as everyone knows, SEPTA’s Sunday schedule is even worse.
So instead, we’re doing it this Friday, on a weekday schedule. Chris Dougherty, Steve Ives, Brad Maule, Steve Weinik, FRIDAY THE 13TH. Four dudes, four cameras, one day, one public transit system. And we’ll post our results on this here web site next week—just like we did five years ago. Check out our respective essays with the links below.
Back at the end of March, Septa announced that they would be rolling out a brand new One Day Independence Pass, a $10 pass ($25 for a family of up to five) that’s valid for a full day on all forms of Septa’s transit — regional rail, subway, el, trolley, bus, all of them. The new pass differed from the existing $6 Convenience Pass, which was only valid for eight rides and did not include any regional rail use. A previous $5.50 Day Pass, the subject of a December 2004 Philly Skyline photo essay was valid for unlimited rides on all forms of transit except regional rail, which was allotted one ride.
The new Independence Pass is good for everything, including a partnership with Center City District that allows for rides on the Phlash. A singular side note is that trips originating from the New Jersey stations (Trenton, West Trenton) incur an additional $5 fee.
Septa brands the Independence Pass, more or less, as a way for suburbanites to spend a day at Philadelphia’s tourist sites:
A family, for example, can board a Regional Rail train in Lansdale, connect with the PHLASH bus at Suburban Station for a trip to the Zoo and then return to Center City for dinner before taking the train back home.
(If there was a regional rail station at the Zoo, which can absolutely be done, a suburbanite’s day would not involve a ride all the way to Center City just to transfer to a tourist bus. By the way.)
While suburbanites and their children very well may be boarding in Lansdale and heading to the zoo with a stop at the Spaghetti Warehouse on the way home, I thought the Independence Pass was good cause for a good project carried out by good people with a good eye (and a good reserve of patience). On Saturday morning, I met with The Necessity For Ruins‘ Chris Dougherty, dovate.com‘s Steve Weinik, and Philly Skyline resident Septa expert Steve Ives, whose archive recently got a much needed makeover.
Our starting point was 9am at the Starbucks in the Marriott, directly across the street from Septa’s 1234 Market headquarters and right upstairs from Market East Station. From there, the wind — and Septa — would carry us wherever it would carry us, each one going his own way with a single deadline of meeting back up at 6 at the Field House pub, at the top of the stairway from Market East Station. We’d depart and reunite at the same location, a full and individual shift of riding Septa and photography in between.
There were no rules or requisites. Each person could ride as many or as few forms of Septa’s vehicles as desired. There were no assignments; photos of trains, people, buildings, signs, rivers, animals — it was all acceptable.
Would the four of us make it through the day without any trouble? Would we be hassled by sensitive bus drivers? Overzealous transit cops? Hustlers on 52nd Street? Would any of us actually ride all of Septa’s forms of vehicle? Visit all five PA counties they cover?
In the next four days, we’ll be rolling out our respective efforts, one per day. Steve Ives, Chris Dougherty, Steve Weinik, and R Bradley Maule will each exhibit a day’s worth of travel on Septa, in a uniform format: 40 photos with simple captions and a companion written essay to tell their tale of the day. It begins tomorrow.
Watch the closing doors.
To view the respective essays, please click the images below.