July 19, 2014

CityLove: Philadelphia According to Local Preservationist Liz Maillie

  • By: Grant Stevens
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Liz Maillie, Philadelphia. Credit: Liz Maillie

As part of the CityLove blog series, we wanted to highlight a local leader -- someone who is living the preservation-minded life in the city. For the City of Brotherly Love, we spoke with Liz Maillie about all things Philly.

For historic preservation/placemaking/urban planning fans, what are the must-see places in Philadelphia for a first-time visitor?

I could name dozens, but a few that really stand out include:

  • Race Street Pier: A tastefully designed park on the Delaware River with a fantastic view of the underbelly of the Ben Franklin Bridge.
  • Top of the Tower Tour of City Hall: The best views of center city and beyond, and Greta Greenberger is a gem of a tour guide. If you're not able to make it during visitors hours, check out the views from the top floor of the PSFS Building, the first modern skyscraper in the U.S.
  • Paine's Skatepark: Located on the banks of the Schuylkill River adjacent to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, this park is teeming with life at all hours of the day.

Another of Liz’s must-see places is Bartram's Gardens,  Located on the banks of Schuykill River, ehe gardens are home to the oldest surviving botanic garden in North America.
Another of Liz’s must-see places is Bartram's Gardens. Located on the banks of the Schuykill River, the gardens are home to the oldest surviving botanic garden in North America.

We are big fans of Smith Magazine’s Six Word Memoir Project. What are your six words about Philadelphia?

Our uncoolness will always be cooler.

Where is your favorite place in Philadelphia?

The old Reading Viaduct is an unquestionably special place for me. This now abandoned rail line that Friends of the Rail Park has been working to transform into a public park is near and dear to me for many reasons that go beyond our attempts to re-imagine and re-create this infrastructure.

Currently the space is filled with perennial grasses and a variety of invasive plants that are common to the area. These ecologies are usually banished to residual urban spaces -- an abandoned lot here, a roadside there -- and there is a certain magic to seeing them flourish in a sustained way for 50 city blocks.

The landscape feels honest and ordinary in terms of vegetation and the post-industrial backdrop, but it also feels enchanted as humdrum plants over flow their usual fragmented distribution and spring into an untamed green expanse that moves from meadow to forest to wetland. Of course, some of this very charm, its feeling of privacy, and its true wildness will be reduced when our dreams for the rail park come to fruition. But the joy of traversing three urban miles without having to encounter traffic will of course remain an enduring luxury of the space.

The present state of the elevated section of the Reading Viaduct.  Credit: Liz Maillie
The present state of the elevated section of the Reading Viaduct. 

Your passion for the Reading Viaduct extends to your role as Vice President of Friends of the Rail Park. Tell us a little bit about the organization.

Neighborhood volunteers first began cultivating the idea of converting the ruins of the Reading Viaduct into Philadelphia's own elevated park more than a decade ago. Building on the vision which originated with Sarah McEneaney and John Struble, I co-founded in 2010 the organization which is today known as the Friends of the Rail Park.

Friends was founded to advocate and cultivate visions for a three-mile continuous and connective linear park along both abandoned rail lines, connecting many neighborhoods and cultural institutions to Fairmount Park along the historic elevated Reading Viaduct and City Branch rail cut of the former Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. Spanning more than fifty blocks above and below street level, the three-mile Rail Park corridor traverses several diverse neighborhoods, links some of the City’s most celebrated arts and cultural institutions, and connects to Fairmount Park.

Phase 1 is now slated to break ground within the next year, and the organization is preparing to expand its role beyond advocacy and awareness to include maintenance and programming of Phase 1 of the Rail Park.

A rendering of a completed section of the elevated  Rail Park as it crosses 13th St. Credit: Liz Maillie
A rendering of a completed section of the elevated  Rail Park as it crosses 13th St. 

What other upcoming projects in Philadelphia are you most excited about?

Philadelphia will soon have its very own Bike Share program, slated to launch in 2015. The bike share system will span from the Navy Yard north to Temple University and from the Delaware River to 52nd Street, including approximately 20 stations in low-income neighborhoods. The implementation of this program is just another example of the city's commitment to making Philadelphia one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the country.

What can the preservation field do to attract more people like yourself (folks who probably would not self-identify as preservationists)?

Grow the understanding of the multiplicity of occupations that play a role in stewardship of the built environment.

Grant is the manager of Community Outreach at the National Trust. He's proud to be from a Main Street Community and the Black Dirt Capitol of the World—Conrad, Iowa! Now a resident of beautiful Baltimore, you can most often find him reading, running, or out on the road saving places.


This Preservation Month, let's celebrate and explore historic places, starting with one action a day through the month of May. We can’t wait to see what you accomplish!

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