About a week ago, I was invited to a presentation by Levy on the Reading viaduct project — the ambitious dream, festering for a decade, to turn a piece of Philadelphia blight, a neighborhood problem no administration has solved thus far, into a remarkable elevated park. I had assumed the presentation was being held in response to the uproar over the creation of a Callowhill Neighborhood Improvement District a few weeks before — in other words, that Levy's intent was to assuage disgruntled neighborhood residents and sell them on his idea. Then I realized it had been scheduled for 4 p.m.
The presentation, it turned out, was for a small handful of reporters, including the head of the Inquirer 's editorial board. Within a week two editorials appeared in the Inquirer, one backing the park, and the other saying the NID was a good idea.
It had been, to be fair, a heck of a presentation. In person, Levy is hardly regal: He's affable, excited, infectiously optimistic. In PowerPoint slide after slide, a garbage-strewn track became a walking path; a rusty trestle became a vine-covered urban sculpture. A disaster became a dreamscape.
For years, the idea of the viaduct park had been the decidedly underdog cause of a few passionate neighborhood residents, notably John Struble and Sarah McEneaney. Since Levy's coming on board, that's changed. To Levy, the benefits are obvious: Such a park would spur investment and revitalize an area so tantalizingly close to downtown it could become Philly's next neighborhood success story. It is, for Levy and his organization, a Center City vision.
But it's located at the epicenter of another vision, that of Philadelphia's century-old Chinatown community to survive in the face of a slew of other Center City visions that have threatened to destroy it: Market East, the expanded Convention Center, a proposed stadium, the Vine Street Expressway, the proposed relocation of Foxwoods Casino. Chinatown residents unapologetically fought each, sometimes losing but often winning. As Levy strays farther from his Center City kingdom, he'll have to become less the monarch and more the statesman.
So far, despite the acrimony over the proposed NID, Chinatown's leadership still seems open to the viaduct park idea, provided it includes affordable housing. Levy's laid out some ideas already, and Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. executive director John Chin tells CP he finds them intriguing.
Last weekend, I climbed (illegally) onto the viaduct to see it for myself. Looking across the city skyline from that lonely, elevated track, it's hard not to start dreaming.
"Any landscaper, any landscape architect we take up there, they just drool," agreed Struble, the longtime viaduct proponent, later on the phone.
"Look, here's what I think about Paul," Struble suddenly volunteered. "If he was in Boston or New York or Chicago instead of Philly, they'd all be saying, 'How come we don't have someone like him here in Philadelphia?'"