PVM, RIP

February 10, 2014 |  by  |  Possible City  |  ,

 

Paul vanMeter | Livin'thehighline.com

Paul vanMeter | Livinthehighline.com

Few could dream the possible city as well as Paul vanMeter, the landscape gardener and founder of ViaductGreene, who died suddenly at a hospital in Reading Thursday night. “Today the world is on cusp of a hyper-urbanism of dramatic and disruptive change. Places that power our imaginations will drive cities forward,” he wrote in these pages, arguing for his vision of a three mile linear park connecting the elevated Reading Viaduct to the submerged City Branch railroad. Paul’s vision, the dream he incubated in a partnership with Liz Maillie, the co-founder of ViaductGreene, and later with Leah Murphy and Aaron Goldblatt, was to tap into the extraordinary ruin of the two railroads, infused as they are with history and time–and living flora–to create a world renown public space that would delight and lift Philadelphians. He was a certain, proud, and insistent dreamer himself infused with the experience of New York’s High Line and various transformational landscapes in Europe.

“Paul had a deep knowledge of horticulture practices and a great love for plants and digging in the dirt,” Leah Murphy wrote on the Friends of the Rail Park blog. “As a long-time railfan, Paul could easily recite the episodic history of railroad dynasties and ever evolving rail networks across the states. In some ways, the City Branch was just waiting for Paul to come along.”

Philadelphia born, Paul was moved equally by the ripe history of the Reading Railroad as he was by the fecund, wild landscape that had spontaneously emerged throughout the three mile ruin. Indeed, his great pleasure was leading small groups of people along the Viaduct and the City Branch, delighted by the landscape as it exists today. “The best and most memorable walk I ever took of the proposed park end to end was with Paul and a small group I had assembled,” TEDxPhiladelphia organizer Emaleigh Doley told me in an e-mail. “I remember from our walk that Paul didn’t really talk much about what it could be–both the City Branch and the elevated Reading Viaduct were already places in his vision. Paul’s rambling and wild style perhaps best fit the environment.”

Photo: Friends of the Rail Park

VanMeter had his detractors, for nothing and no one should stand in the way of this dream. He challenged journalists (this one included), policymakers, and other advocates to elide to his ideas and strongly held notions about how the project should go. This led to inevitable friction and caused a split among ViaductGreene’s board last year. In the fallout, Paul held onto the name and logo of ViaductGreene. Maillie, Murphy, and Goldblatt renamed the organization Friends of the Rail Park, which later merged with the longstanding organization Reading Viaduct Project, and has become the de facto official project advocate.

These changes were clearly difficult for vanMeter, who kept giving walking tours of the Viaduct but otherwise found himself on sidelines. He was angered by and disappointed with coverage we and others gave to the project recently. But since the start of the year, he’d been working to bring ViaductGreene back into the conversation about the transformation of the rail lines. According to the organization’s website, in 2014 he planned a symposium on the “spontaneous garden” and an ideas competition for future designs. “…success—if you can put together some moments that actually go well, that give you something you can hang your…” Paul tweeted last week, quoting Philip Seymour Hoffman talking about the role of Willy Loman.

Earlier that day he tweeted from Joe Morgenstern’s tribute to Hoffman in the Wall Street Journal: “..by turns generous, self-deflating, grandiose, inscrutable and mysterious,” words that no doubt we could use today to describe vanMeter.

“Paul had one of those unquestionably one-of-a-kind personalities. He danced to the beat of his own drum, and that rhythm was on a whole new level of percussion. He always had something to say and, for better or worse, was never shy about speaking his mind. Though we didn’t always see eye to eye, his sharp observations and perspective were and will continue to be important to us,” said Murphy.

Philadelphia will indeed miss you, Paul. Your legacy is still being shaped by the unfolding project, but your contribution is certain. Without you and your passion for railroads, history, and plants, we wouldn’t be dreaming “a garden of intersecting culture and wildness along the soaring and submersive landscape infrastructures that are the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad 9th Street and City Branches.”

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is also senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine.



2 Comments


  1. I’m saddened to hear this news. Paul’s enthusiasm for was contagious and inspiring. I hope Liz is OK… I am bummed out big time…

  2. I was one of those critics of the City Branch portion of VIADUCTgreene’s proposal. I’m sorry, though, I never got to go on a tour of the right-of-way with Van Meter in spite of that.

    He was a spririted advocate for his position and for the Reading Viaduct park, and the conversation will be diminished for his departure.

Recent Posts
The Physical & Political Importance Of Goldtex

The Physical & Political Importance Of Goldtex

August 29, 2014  |  Morning Blend

Loft District conversion project finally complete, Manayunk parish to preserve historic church, Temple professor talks ’64 riot, major mixed-use for NoLibs, and previewing Greenfest Philly 2014 > more

Ruminating On Lost Columbia Avenue

Ruminating On Lost Columbia Avenue

August 29, 2014  |  Soapbox

In this third installment in our series, Ethan Wallace examines the long term effects the Columbia Avenue riot has had on this weary section of North Philadelphia. Dubbed an "extinction event", Wallace sifts through the ruins of the once vibrant neighborhood while considering the encroaching development of Temple University's campus and the social unrest happening in Ferguson, Missouri. > more

'Scared Half To Death,' Reporter Says

‘Scared Half To Death,’ Reporter Says

August 28, 2014  |  Vantage

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Columbia Avenue riot. For the second installment of our series, we have a first person account by Philadelphia Evening Bulletin reporter William Naulty, who was sent in to cover the mayhem on the night of August 28, 1964. > more

Roxborough Sawmill Preserves An Old Industrial Aesthetic

Roxborough Sawmill Preserves An Old Industrial Aesthetic

August 28, 2014  |  Morning Blend

One man's mission to preserve the physical history of industrial Philadelphia, groundbreaking for Rodin Square, street mural requested for Triangles Plaza, the genesis of JFK and 30th Street Station, and this weekend's Made in America Fest > more

Bridesburg, Riverfront Neighborhood Now With Riverfront Access

Bridesburg, Riverfront Neighborhood Now With Riverfront Access

August 28, 2014  |  News

With a land swap championed by Councilman Bobby Henon, Philadelphia gained a win-win scenario with the expansion of Dietz & Watson's facilities and a new riverfront park. Plan Philly's Jared Brey and Hidden City's Brad Maule explore the future park in Bridesburg—the riverfront neighborhood which will finally have access to the riverfront > more

Rodeph Shalom As A Beacon On North Broad

Rodeph Shalom As A Beacon On North Broad

August 27, 2014  |  Morning Blend

A look at the historic Jewish synagogue’s expansion, the economic importance of bike lanes, Suzanne Roberts Theater gets $2.5 million boost, remembering the Philadelphia Trades School, and approvals from the Historical Commission > more