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Celebrating Preservation Month with Randall Mason
In honor of National Preservation Month, the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia is featuring 31 historic preservation leaders in Philadelphia and the local buildings that have inspired them. Historic Preservation and City and Regional Planning Associate Professor Randall Mason recently revealed his choice: Schuylkill River Park. Read Randy's words on the history of his neighborhood park and its industrial roots below.
Schuylkill River Park, between 25th and the river, Spruce and Delancey, opened in 1966. It is my neighborhood park, and greatly loved by its many users. It is also a rich historic landscape and complicated preservation story. The park and its surrounds give glimpses of earlier landscapes that preceded today’s recreation ground. Layers of 19th- and early 20th-century industrial development structure the neighborhood and frame the park; modern play spaces attract us to sit, run, garden or walk the dog; this Park landscape and its story also recall an earlier moment of gentrification. The mid-century disappearance of buildings, businesses and communities is also part of the story.
In the 1960s, this western edge of Center City transformed from a workaday industrial district to a gentrified neighborhood abutting what became the Ritt-Fit District. John Collins’ design, part of his larger Schuylkill trail scheme, traded hard edges for soft ones. (Just before park construction, the main part was a City impound lot.) Markward Playground, a community garden, and the still-working rail corridor (and now its parallel trail) frame it. Visions for open space between Center City and the river date from booster John Lewis’ 1924 The Redemption of the Lower Schuylkill and have been implemented by the contemporary heroes at SRDC and the City.
Through an urban history lens, Schuylkill River Park perfectly embodies the turning-inside-out of industrial cities to become consumption cities. In the mid-20th century, Philly’s boosters claimed this riverfront park would “civilize a wasteland” create an “urban resort” yet were “not designed to foster gentrification”. We all know how that worked.
Today, the working-class neighbors, coalyards, and docks are gone, and the neighborhood park steals the show. The few industrial traces left are mostly big ones surrounding the Park, all preservation victories: the big warehouses (now loft apartments and condos) and the grid of surrounding blocks of 19th-century rowhouses. When I slow down, more subtle traces come into focus – the former Killeen’s Bar at 26th and Pine (the sign for the “Ladies’ Entrance” remains); or, underfoot, some rubble peeks through the park’s grassy mounds. While our preservationist sensibility usually dwells on what remains, in SRP, what’s missing -- and filled with new life -- is also part of the story.