Art and Activism: ICA Board Member Sarah McEneaney and the Reading Viaduct Project

“We don’t know who installed these swings,” Sarah says. “But they used good hardware.”

“How’d they get up there?” someone asks.

“They must have shimmied.” We all look up to where the swing’s ropes attach to the towering catenaries, forty feet in the air. “Within days of the electricity being cut off—after the new substation went live at the northern end of the viaduct—the copper wire strung between the catenaries was hit by scrappers.”

“Official scrappers, or unofficial?”

“Unofficial,” Sarah says, laughing.
Miranda: Sarah-on-the-swing-A

Sarah swinging

We are standing on the Reading Viaduct, a stretch of abandoned elevated railway which used to carry trains in and out of Philadelphia. The last trains ran in 1984, and this is a ribbon of deserted urban wasteland now, a weedy track a couple of stories up running through the middle of what was once a heavily industrialized part of the city.

All around the viaduct, which runs through Callowhill and Chinatown, other neighborhoods have been revitalized. “They call our neighborhood the hole in the doughnut,” Sarah says.

Sarah McEneaney is a painter, an activist, and an ICA board member, one of two artists who sit on our board, adding their vital perspective to the work we do. Her paintings are in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and many other institutions, and she was the subject of a major survey exhibition at ICA in 2004. Sarah is also one of the founders of the Reading Viaduct Project (RVP), which for the past ten years has been working to reclaim the viaduct as a public green space in much the way the High Line in New York was reclaimed and is now a much enjoyed grassy oasis on Manhattan’s West Side. Having housed two sets of tracks, the viaduct is twice as wide as the High Line; Sarah dreams of a bike path, playing fields, maybe a café.
Miranda: Building SM

photo: Sarah McEneaney

Sarah has given innumerable viaduct tours. Today’s was organized at the request of Gary Steuer, Philadelphia’s Chief Cultural Officer, who is (sadly) stepping down from that post in October. Margot Berg, Director of the City of Philadelphia’s Public Art Program, is here too, along with RVP co-founder John Struble, ICA Assistant Development Director Jeffrey Bussmann, two young men from Atlantic City who are into urban archaeology (“professionals by day, excursionists by night,” they say), and me. It’s a cool, bright, blue day, and the city views up here are fabulous. Plantain and small yellow flowers push through the gravel and dirt, along with grasses and weedy vines. Scrubby trees wave purple blossoms. “We came up here with a bunch of horticulturists,” Sarah says, “and they identified everything. They were really excited, especially when they found a little magnolia tree.”
Miranda: City-in-background-CR-A

photo: Carl Riccio

We pass the former Reading Company Building which has been converted to artists’ studios, a big brick edifice with “Black Beauty, The Bicycle With The National Reputation” written on it in white block letters, a charter school, the Trestle Inn, and a building boasting “Offens Flavors” which has been converted into condos. Bells ring out, and someone asks if they are from the nearby Church of the Assumption. “Those are from the former Inquirer building,” Sarah says. “But it’s true we’re trying to keep the church from being torn down.”

At the north end, a fence separates us from an old switching station. A big tire swing dangles. Gary gets in so Sarah can take his picture, and then they talk strategy for a while. Gary, who was involved in the High Line project, has advice for Sarah and John about who they should talk to in the city, and how. “This project will add value to people’s property,” Gary says. “And to their lives.”
Miranda: 2-on-swing--Sarah

photo: Sarah McEneaney

“You probably know we have documents for the first section,” Sarah tells him. She means that there is an agreement in place with SEPTA, which owns a narrow spur of the viaduct, to lease that spur to the city for a dollar a year. Redevelopment, however, will cost seven or eight million dollars, so there’s still a lot of work to do. And as for Reading, which owns the main property, they’re not willing to sell or lease at all. Unless they change their minds, there’s a limit to what can happen up here.

Jeffrey finds an old railroad spike: a souvenir. Sarah points out the old shelter where she once used to wait for the train. Now, she says, skateboarders hang out up here on the weekends, and the homeless occasionally stash their stuff behind the bushes. Though we pass some smashed bottles and blowing plastic bags, a few old shoes and some broken pottery, there’s not as much trash up here as you might expect. “It seems the space is pretty well respected,” I say.

“Yes,” Sarah agrees, and then she laughs. “By everybody but Reading!”

Years ago, when I first read that Sarah referred to herself as both an artist and an activist, I wondered how, for her, those things were related. Up here, listening to her talk about the transformation of this place, I see how her particular vision informs everything she does, whether it is showing us in her paintings how the world looks through her eyes, or trying to make the actual world look a little bit more that way.
Miranda: McEneaney-painting-A

“Viaduct, West Poplar,” 2013Egg tempera on wood36″x48″Courtesy : the artist and Tibor de Nagy, NY

More information about the Reading Viaduct Project is available here.

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