Listen: Sounds & Senses with Suzanne Erb

In this episode of Sounds of the Rail Park, elevate your senses on a walk through Phase One with Suzanne Erb. Listen to Suzanne and Friends of the Rail Park Executive Director, Rebecca Cordes Chan, as they chat about the sounds, scents, and textures of the Rail Park as they travel through the space together. 

Suzanne Erb is a Center City, Philadelphia resident with a career dedicated to diversity inclusion. From the time she left the Overbrook School for the Blind at the end of her freshman year in 1971, and entered her local high school as the first totally blind student, she has demonstrated her belief that inclusion not only brings diversity of values and ideas to organizations, but it can also be easily accomplished with some forethought and planning. In her role as an Accessibility Advisor, she shows, by example and knowledge sharing, how you can design your meetings and conferences to be universally inclusive.

As an advocate, She sits on boards and commissions including the Tenants Union Representative Network, where she holds the office of Secretary, Disability Rights Pennsylvania, where she also serves as Secretary and chaired the City of Philadelphia’s Mayor’s Commission on People with disabilities. She also serves as a member of various advisory boards, including the Business Advisory Council for the Philadelphia Job Corps, and chairs the Philadelphia Citizens Advisory Council of the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation.

She is also knowledgeable about assistive technology for people who are blind, which she uses both personally and professionally, and has helped people to make informed decisions regarding the purchase of assistive technology for their personal use.

In her spare time, Ms. Erb is a professional musician, as an organist and choir director for 25 years. She enjoys visiting Philadelphia’s parks and green spaces.


Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:00:00] 10 years ago, a small group of community members looked at the rusty rails that run through their neighborhoods and saw a potential, potential for a usable, beautiful public space. When completed the rail park will connect more than 10 neighborhoods with three miles of continuous green space, a space for everyone, young and old, athlete and artist, neighbors and visitors alike. Friends of the Rail Park presents Sounds of the Park.

[00:01:00] Hello, and welcome to another episode of Sounds of the Rail Park. I’m Rebecca Cordes Chan, executive director of Friends of the Rail Park and today I’m at phase one of the Rail Park on the Noble Street entrance, just east of Broad. I’m walking in talking today with Suzanne Erb who you’ll meet in just a moment.

We’ve been thinking a lot lately about universal design, access to public space and how we can make the Rail Park as welcoming as possible to an ever-growing community and the focus of this episode is two-fold. First, we want to assist blind or visually impaired people plan their visit to the Rail Park, where the access points are and what they should know or be aware of before visiting.

Secondly, for those who are not visually impaired, we want to bring a new perspective around what it’s like to experience public space for those who are, so with that, I’m happy to introduce Suzanne Erb. Suzanne, thanks so much for joining me today on this walk through the Rail Park. 

Suzanne Erb: [00:01:57] Oh, thank you very much for having me, [00:02:00] Rebecca. This is great.

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:02:01] We’re so happy to have you here. So we met through a connection at the Institute on Disabilities at Temple university, but I don’t actually know a lot about you or your story. Do you mind telling me just a little bit about yourself? 

Suzanne Erb: [00:02:11] I wear a bunch of different hats. I am a trainer, a consultant, a musician. I serve on a bunch of committees and I like to do things that I can enjoy and I like to help other people enjoy life too. I work part-time for an agency called Networks for Training and Development. So I keep pretty busy. 

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:02:37] Wow. That’s amazing. So since the topic of this podcast is parks and public space and specifically the Rail Park, I’m just curious, do you often go to other parks and public spaces in Philadelphia? 

Suzanne Erb: [00:02:46] Yes. Oh yes. I love, I love parks of all kinds and I’ve been to many parks nationally, internationally and I really enjoy going [00:03:00] to places like Fairmount Park around the Wissahickon area and I just like going anywhere where there’s grass and trees and non cement spaces because I live in center city, Philadelphia so this is a treat. 

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:03:20] So before you visit these parks and public spaces, where do you find your information or how do you kind of plan your visits? 

Suzanne Erb: [00:03:26] Well sometimes I go online and find out things if there’s anything and sometimes if I’m going with other people, with someone who can see, uh, they may have already been there and then of course, after I’ve been to a park several times, I know a little bit about the park already. One of the things that I rely on is sort of a passive echolocation if you will, it’s a sort of a way of describing it, where you listen sort of [00:04:00] for sound against your face and if, if you try putting your hand on your face or very near your face, you’ll notice that you can sort of hear the air and you can hear where your hand is relative to your face and when you’re wearing a mask, this part, isn’t this part of your skin on your cheek isn’t really receiving the same kind of information because the mask blocks it.

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:04:36] Yeah. I’m trying that now and I can definitely see how that would be challenging even for someone who’s not already thinking and practicing. Could you just describe how you got here? How did you access phase one today? 

Suzanne Erb: [00:04:47] Okay. Well, I was very lucky today. I was able to get a ride from Lyft and the driver brought me right up here to the park. All I needed was the address, [00:05:00] the driver knew exactly where to bring me and he brought me actually to the top here where the actual park is rather than down below where the GPS actually directed him.

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:05:13] It’s a common problem. Glad to hear it and so one last question, before we start walking. Okay. It sounds like you’ve been to a lot of different parks and public spaces across Philadelphia, even, even the world for that matter. In your opinion, how could people who design or manage public spaces or even, you know, your, just your fellow neighbors make these spaces more accessible for people who are visually impaired?

Suzanne Erb: [00:05:33] Well, I think having tactile markings can be very helpful. If there are any signs, it would, it might be helpful for them to be tactile as well, maybe to have a braille signage and res print signage so that if there are markers that that might be helpful. It might also be helpful to have audio tours like, like this one where, where [00:06:00] people can actually find out about things beforehand and, and I think also just make sure that there are walkways that are easy to navigate. There are many, many, many parks where I have walked that weren’t really well-designed for people who are blind or people who use wheelchairs and so I think that having walks like this can be very helpful. That doesn’t mean that we can’t walk in woodsy areas because we can, and we do, and we enjoy it, but there might be some people who may not be as able to do that.

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:06:49] So I think we’re ready to start walking. We’re going to walk from the Noble Street entrance towards Callowhill and Suzanne, as we go, if there’s anything that piques your interest, I’m happy to describe it in further detail. 

Suzanne Erb: [00:06:59] Okay. 

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:06:59] All [00:07:00] right. Shall we walk towards the Story Wall?

Suzanne Erb: [00:07:02] Okay. 

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:07:05] We are now in front of the Story Wall. We’re going to orient ourselves a little bit to your left and so it’s a steel Story Wall. Um, but it looks a little bit rusted actually um, from, from here. It was created by Cloud Gehshan, who’s a local design company and there’s an illustration of the convergence of two rail lines, which is supposed to emulate the, the railroad spur that is historically part of the infrastructure of the Viaduct. It again is it’s metal. It kind of looks it’s a wall, but it it’s actually also functioning as a screen as well and in front of the screen there’s a lot of wooden decking that contrasts the metal and then on the screen itself, there are numerous locations and companies that are part of what made this part of Philadelphia, the Workshop of the World and so there’s all these different businesses and companies listed. 

Suzanne Erb: [00:07:55] What are some of the main ones? 

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:07:56] The Baldwin Locomotive Works, Kitson Lights, the Goodman Brothers and Hinlein Hat company. One of my favorite things on The Story Wall is actually a chewing gum company that’s located on the kind of right side of the screen. There’s just so many to pick from here. There’s a car company listed up there. I see a couple of different breweries. And I’ll just note that each one of these companies it’s stamped into the walls, it’s actually a laser cut. So you can kind of through the wall, you can see the building in the background as well as several plants that are kind of poking through.

Suzanne Erb: [00:08:28] But you can’t, you can’t actually feel the story wall? 

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:08:32] So we, we can take a step up onto the wooden benches and feel the story wall, if that would be okay?

Suzanne Erb: [00:08:38] Yeah. Why not? Let’s do it. Oh, okay. So, oh, good. Well, I can just feel it. Okay. Yeah. Things are actually etched in and you can actually feel, let’s see. It says 1849. Okay. Yeah. Okay. Yeah. But these, these letters are like [00:09:00] stylized and, oh but this is so cool. 

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:09:03] So this is another, it’s a more raised part than the parts that are cut out and this is supposed to be the historic rail line. Yeah. So all the other parts that are laser cutouts are the companies, but this raised part is the Rail Line itself. 

Suzanne Erb: [00:09:17] You know, I’m reading for, for people who, I’m reading one letter at a time and I’m feeling, but this is cool. This is great. So if you come to the park and you’re blind, you actually can, you actually can feel, if you’re willing to climb up onto a platform and then climb up to another platform, you can actually feel the story. 

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:09:48] All right. Shall we, shall we continue walking?

Suzanne Erb: [00:09:50] Let’s keep going, sure.

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:09:51] So story walls behind us, we’re going to venture onto the park now. 

Suzanne Erb: [00:09:55] Okay.

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:09:55] And one thing I’ll point out as we go is that we’re actually walking in [00:10:00] between two steel girders and we can actually…

Suzanne Erb: [00:10:02] Yes. This definitely feels industrial and it feels like um, the history, it feels like they’re, they’re pieces of metal and what do they look like? Cause I know they, they feel like pieces of metal on top of each other. 

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:10:17] They’re a little higher than waist high and they’re actually the, if you think about we’re on top of 13th Street right now, so this is the bridge that’s on top of it. So if you think about that, the top pieces of that, and then there are these raised bumps as you pointed out earlier.

Suzanne Erb: [00:10:33] Yeah. 

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:10:33] But then there’s layered pieces of metal. 

Suzanne Erb: [00:10:35] Yeah, they are layered.

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:10:36] I’m going to count there’s 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 of them in total, that span the width of the bridge that we just walked over and then they end and now we’re back onto the elevated portion of the park. So we’re back on the gravel. Um, and we’re going to go, so you just steer a little bit to our right this way. I don’t know about you, but I already feel, and kind of hear the [00:11:00] trees were in a much greener part of it.

Suzanne Erb: [00:11:02] No, yeah. It’s like you, you go from the hustle and bustle of the industrial complex and now you’re in the park. 

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:11:13] Yep. So there are more benches, again, same kind of wooden material, similar height to our left. You can probably feel now we’re in less of a shaded part of the park. The sun is kind of, I feel it beating down on myself at least. Um, but I will know that the benches to our left are shaded so that’s kind of a nice place to take a little break, but we are still walking, so no breaks for us. And then to our right, I’ll just point out as well so we’re now almost a full story in the air.

Suzanne Erb: [00:11:45] Wow.

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:11:46] But there’s a large surface parking lot to our, to our right. So there are a bunch of cars down there in the background. There are more, you know, formerly industrial buildings, um, just kind of in the, in the distance. 

Suzanne Erb: [00:11:56] Uh huh. You know, it’s so interesting. You can hear [00:12:00] traffic and stuff below and it’s so nice to be up here instead and you know, what’s so nice about this is that this is so accessible and you can, you can like come here and be away from the city and you can think, and, and you can feel, let’s see, I think I hear is that trees above me. Yep. Oh, it’s, it’s so beautiful. It feels so good and you can now finally hear birds. Listen to those birds and it really does feel like you’re under, under trees. You’re protected. You’re in an oasis.

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:12:48] So there are some Birch trees, Pennsylvania Dogwood, um, and then we have Redbuds to our left, um, that during the spring were so beautiful. They had all those tiny little [00:13:00] flowers on them, but now they’re, they’re very much leafed over and not quite the same kind of stunning beauty of the pop of red and pink that they are during the Spring.

We are now standing in front of one of the Percent for Public Art projects that’s out on the park. So this is an installation called Dawn Chorus and as I mentioned, it’s a city for Philadelphia 1% for art installation, and it was created by the artist Laynie Browne and Brent Wahl and and so there’s two major parts of the, the installation. The first one is a sculpture that is actually a repurposed utility pole so it’s this big wooden pole that’s situated right next to a tree and it almost blends in with the other trees that are in this particular garden bed on the, on the park. But then you look up and you notice that are these brightly colored aluminum birds. There’s a yellow one, a blue one. I see a red, orange, green, all, all sorts of colors up there and they’re, they’re sitting on kind of the [00:14:00] metal beams that are also jutting out at all different angles towards the top of the pole.

So my impression is that it was meant to kind of draw your eye up, to look up towards the top of the pole. So it looks like a tree towards the bottom, but at the top you’re like, oh no, this is definitely an art installation. So that’s one part of it and the other part of this particular piece is actually calling for a person to look down onto the ground and I’ll actually guide us over and perhaps this might be another opportunity just to kind of touch, touch something on the ground. So if you, right here, and then you just reach down almost directly, your right foot is okay. So the other part of this installation, so there are these different pavers. So if you can feel around this, it’s there. Mostly stone pavers, there are 28, I think pavers all over this part of the park.

Suzanne Erb: [00:14:50] Right.

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:14:50] And each one has a different inscription with different poems, and this was curated by Laynie Browne and so the poems are all about kind of building community and kind of [00:15:00] city life experience. 

Suzanne Erb: [00:15:01] Can you read a couple? 

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:15:02] I should also mention they’re in different languages, but I’ll read there’s one in English over here. The other interesting thing about them is that some are oriented so you can read them from the walking path we were just on and then others are oriented, we’re again, nearby a bench and this particular one that I’m about to read is oriented so that you can read it while you’re sitting at the bench that’s opposite of the one that is by the walking path.

This is actually one of my favorite ones. ‘I’ll have a million neighbors in the city / All at once above below, it’s easier for love.’ And it’s by Bernadette Mayer.

Suzanne Erb: [00:15:31] Oh, I like that. 

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:15:33] Yeah.

Suzanne Erb: [00:15:41] Oh boy. Now it smells like a park. It does not smell like Center City anymore. It’s a great, this is indeed a great place to come and be away and think. 

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:15:57] So right now, we’re in [00:16:00] front of, uh, one of the pollinator beds in the park and so this bed was actually rather recently put in. It’s meant to be kind of our showcase pollinator garden. Um, a lot of the plants pieces on the park are actually pollinator species. So they’re meant to attract bees, birds, other species that are going to kinda, spread that pollen around, but this particular bed we put in a number of ornamental pollinator species to really call people’s attention to the park.

So I’ll just move your hand over here. This one’s a little dried out right now, but as you can feel, that was a flowering plant at one point and this one kind of behind still a fairly soft, but I think it eventually begins to be a little pricklier as the season wears on and it dries out a little bit. Um, but this is, it’s a fairly, it’s one of the longer beds on the park. So we’re just really, really happy to have it up here.

Suzanne Erb: [00:16:49] You know, that’s really good. We need to do everything we can for the birds and the bees and this is great. People forget how important they are. 

[00:17:00] Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:16:59] So true and especially in this part of the city is one of the only green resources and so of the only places that those pollinators can hang out.

We’re walking into another rather shaded part of the park and so when we spoke with the landscape architect for The Rail Park, one of the things he mentioned is that they tried to emulate kind of the feeling of, of walking through almost like a meadow at certain points and so right now we’re actually flanked on both sides by large plant beds and so you kind of get this feeling of like, again, walking through a meadow or some sort of, kind of almost overgrown fields and so now on our left is another raised platform. This, this part is much higher than the other parts that we’ve been before and we refer to this part as the electric platform, because it overlooks a Pico substation. You might hear that hum too. Um, there’s a, it’s almost a full block full of, um, just kind of electrical equipment that power is a major portion of the city actually. So hence hence [00:18:00] the name. 

Suzanne Erb: [00:18:00] Yeah. Well, you know, this is such a good example of being able to have a park in the midst of all of the urban stuff, and we really need more parks.

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:18:20] Now we’re at kind of a crossroads here. If we’d go to our left, we’ll continue on to, uh, almost like walking on a deck and if we continue to our right, there’s just more gravel. So I’ll let you pick which way we, we go.

Suzanne Erb: [00:18:33] Oh, let’s go on the gravel.

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:18:34] Okay. So we’re going to veer to our right here. Right now there’s another plant bed to our left. We’re still on the gravel, but there’s decking for right now coming up and then there’s actually a railing. We are several stories in the air. Beyond the railing there is a surface, another surface parking lot, but beyond that surface parking lot, there’s a large two-story mural. This mural is called The Stamp of Incarceration [00:19:00] and it features a person that is James Anderson. It was created by the artist Shepard Fairey and it’s a couple of years old now it was created in 2015 and so just describing the mural itself and just what’s up there. 

It’s a largely red and yellow mural, cream colored accents as well. I’ll read to you, what’s on it because we can’t feel this one, it’s a little big. Might need a ladder to get up there. But towards the top, it says program administrator of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. On the left, it says political science major, on the right peace prize nominee and there’s more writing towards the bottom. $70 billion spent annually on corrections. Again on the right side, 5% of the world’s population, 25% of the world’s prisoners and then USA 25% underneath that and then towards the bottom, it says ‘Living Proof’ and then on the far right side, ‘People Can Change’. 

So underneath the people can change formerly incarcerated gang member and drug addict and at the very bottom of the mural, [00:20:00] it just says James Anderson and so James Anderson is also featured very prominently as the main figure in this particular mural and he is the person that the saying ‘Living Proof That People Can Change’. Um, that’s in reference to James Anderson. 

Suzanne Erb: [00:20:13] That’s great.

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:20:19] Let’s keep walking. 

Suzanne Erb: [00:20:20] Okay. 

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:20:23] So this is another part where it’s meant to feel like we’re kind of meandering through an overgrown field. It certainly feels like that to me right now. I’m getting brushed by the plants we walk through here. 

Suzanne Erb: [00:20:33] Yeah and yet there’s plenty of like, if you’re, if you are using a wheelchair or something, you might, it might look like we’re sort of in the midst of overgrown, but there’s plenty of room for walking.

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:20:45] Okay. So now there are more benches, but these benches are almost stacked beams instead of before it felt more like a plank ducking and then we’ll go out onto the ducking again, here to our right. 

[00:21:00] Suzanne Erb: [00:21:00] Oh yeah. This feels like a deck, almost feels like a boardwalk.

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:21:08] Now we’re directly over Callowhill Street, but still very much raised up above it. If we orient ourselves a little bit to the left, there are, let’s see here, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 swings and so if you remember at the beginning, when we were talking about kind of the metal structures that were remanence of the, the old part of the railroad bed.

Suzanne Erb: [00:21:29] Right.

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:21:30] So these swings are meant to incorporate those original materials and we can actually walk up and maybe touch these as well. But they’re oversized swings. The swings, like the seat and the backing of the swings are made of the same, you know, boardwalk-esque, wood materials and then you’re touching the metal kind of railing on the side of it right now.

Suzanne Erb: [00:21:51] Oh, so you really can sit, oh yeah up in this swing. 

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:21:57] I’l get on here with you. 

Suzanne Erb: [00:21:58] And you know, it, [00:22:00] it feels… It’s relaxing. You can just enjoy, you know, you can bring, you can bring your laptop up here and you can write your great American novel. Oh man. Oh man. Don’t tempt me. I could stay here for a while. 

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:22:24] This one is directly in the sun. So it’s a little warm right now, but there are two that are more shaded, but yeah, these are one of the most popular things in the park are these big old swings. So there’s a swing, but in the structure that they are connected to and what supports and holds the swing up is actually very high above our head and it kind of almost forms a triangle up above us. It comes in pretty steep. Let’s see, that’s more, it’s probably a 45 degree angle up there. I’ll also just note that right now. I don’t see much of it, but every so often people will write with chalk on the metal parts that hold the swings up. So as long as it’s with chalk, we don’t mind.

Suzanne Erb: [00:22:59] Right, [00:23:00] right. 

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:23:00] Um, but yeah, it’s kind of a fun part of the park. It feels very ephemeral, ‘cause every time it rains, the chalk is washed away. 

So we’re nearing the end of the park, Phase One and then if you were to turn to our left here, we’re actually approaching the stairwell entrance. That’s right off of Callowhill. We’re not quite there yet. We’re going to transition from this gravel to a metal grate and that will really signal that you are now on stairs.

Suzanne Erb: [00:23:27] Ah, okay. 

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:23:28] So there’s, there’s a fairly large platform, but then it does go down about two stories of stairs, right? 

There are two basically doors that are meant to kind of emulate The Story Wall we started with to get here um, but these are our, again, it’s kind of that perforated metal again, but this time it’s meant to kind of walk off the undeveloped part of it. So you can kind of, again, there’s kind of plants poking through. You can kind of see the greenery behind it. Um, but it’s really meant to signal that, like, this is the end of the park, so please stop here. 

Suzanne Erb: [00:23:58] Right. So this is [00:24:00] really more of a visual thing and that if you were to touch it, you know, that’s it.

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:24:06] Yeah. So we can actually walk up and touch this too if you’d like. Again, it’s that kind of perforated metal.

Suzanne Erb: [00:24:13] Thank you so much. This was, this was really a treat for me. I think you’ve done a great job of, of explaining, and it just feels like such an oasis amid the noise and, and the clamor below. 

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:24:29] Of the city life. 

Suzanne Erb: [00:24:30] Really, this is really a treat.

Rebecca Cordes Chan: [00:24:39] Thank you for joining the Friends the Rail Park. Friends of the Rail Park is a 501C3 organization that drives the vision behind the transformation of historic rail lines that traverse Philadelphia into a continuous three mile linear park and recreation path that connects and enlivens the social, historical and environmental fabric of Philadelphia’s communities.

Special thanks to our partners: Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, Center City District, William Penn Foundation, the John S. And James L. Knight foundation, 1830 family foundation, Wells Fargo Community Giving, the Philadelphia Cultural Fund, the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development and the board of directors and many members of the Friends of the Rail Park.

This tour was produced by Studio D Podcast Production for the Friends of the Rail Park. Music and Sonic branding by Simeon Church. Sound design, mixing, and mastering by Simeon Church and Ashley Lehman. Project supervision by Dylan Garven.