March 9-15, 2006
city beatWater Worked
Trains and a fundraising gap keep New River City visions from being realized.
: Michael T. Regan
Well, there are two thing in your way. One involves CSX; the other has to do with an elusive $5 million.
In the year and a half since the $14 million trail opened, CSX Transportation Inc. and the city have been locked in a fight over access. Trains can block street-level crossings at Locust Street for up to three to four hours a day, making it dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists to cross. CSX wants the city to build an overpass; the city prefers an automated gate. After ignoring subpoenas from City Council, CSX officials in December testified they would investigate the situation. Since then, the company has shown a "better cooperative spirit," says Julia Chapman, chief of staff for Councilman Michael Nutter. "But we don't have the answer figured out yet."
Adds Fairmount Park Commission Director Mark Focht, "Clearly we would like to have the CSX issue resolved once and for all so we can insure safe access."
In the meantime, residents can get to the trail and its attractions from the north or via ramps and stairs on bridges over the river. But CSX, which didn't return calls for comment, isn't the only problem.
Once you take the trail north to the Water Works, there is still no direct route up a cliff from the renovated buildings and grounds where the Interpretive Center opened in 2003 and Water Works restaurant is set to open this spring to the Art Museum. At the time of her death in August, feminist and environmentalist Ernesta Ballard had already raised much of the $23 million spent over two decades to renovate the National Historic Landmark.
Only the final phase, the South Garden and cliffside paths, went unfinished. Now, a group of 40 women calling themselves the Women for the Water Works is trying to raise $5 million to complete the project. Today, they're $3.6 million short.
When Women for the Water Works Chairwoman Leslie Anne Miller, formerly general counsel to Gov. Ed Rendell, visited the Water Works in the rain last week, a dozen people were there checking out the view. At one time, it attracted thousands. Back in the late 18th century, Philadelphians fearing yellow fever decided to protect their drinking water from contamination. Steam engines and water-powered pumps lifted it from the river into reservoirs where the Art Museum is now. The system was considered an engineering marvel but the river eventually became polluted anyway and the Water Works shut down in 1909.
By the time preservation efforts got underway in the mid-'70s, the buildings (which at times have housed an aquarium, swimming pool and cafe) and fountains were severely damaged and the gardens were barren. Enter Ballard.
"She did these things because she believed in the causes not because she wanted to bring any glory to herself," Miller says. "She was a Quaker."
A Fairmount Park commissioner for 21 years, Ballard was the first woman to run the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society the story about how she refused to take the job for $2,000 less than her male predecessor is legendary and she expanded the Philadelphia Flower Show.
When people asked her what they would get for writing a fat check for one of her causes, she would say, "You get the satisfaction of knowing you did something really good for Philadelphia." She easily coaxed dough out of suits without losing her trademark cool. "Oh, add another zero," was a common refrain, remembers friend Mary Ferrell, who heads the nonprofit that fundraises for the park, the Fairmount Park Conservancy.
"She just would not give up," Ferrell says. Water Works "was her last project. And she didn't quite finish it. And I promised her we would."