Paul vanMeter, co-founder of the nonprofit today known as Friends of the Rail Park, was a visionary. Paul's study of historic rail network maps in 2010 led to exploring the vestiges of the City Branch on foot with Liz Maillie, who would become a fellow co-founder. Discovering the former railway not only largely in tact, but flourishing as a wild landscape rooted in the foundations of Philadelphia's industrial legacy--only a stone's throw from Philadelphia's celebrated arts and cultural corridor, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway--Paul saw the great potential of the City Branch as a world-class public space. Tracing the route to the threshold of the Reading Viaduct east of Broad led to the vision for a continuous three-mile linear gardenpark along the former railways.
This was no accidental discovery--it was the result of a very intentional search for discovery. Paul's particular interests and experiences led him to what would become the nexus of his passions. As a well respected garden designer, Paul had a deep knowledge of horticulture practices and a great love for plants and digging in the dirt. 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.
With an inexhaustible curiosity of researching contexts --historical, cultural, urban, political, ecological—Paul wrote inspired narratives that revealed the interconnectedness of things across time, places, and subjects, always tying them back to what was important to him about the 9th Street and City Branches and about the practice of placemaking itself. There was never a better tour guide--and may never be--who could match Paul's talent, wit, and charm as a storyteller.
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.
It was with shock, deep sadness, and a feeling of great loss that we learned of Paul vanMeter's passing Thursday evening. It’s an unbelievable tragedy that his journey of exploring, as he liked to say, the "past, present, and possible" in his own way has ended so abruptly and with so much left unexplored. It pains us to think of all that is lost with his passing, and all that will never be said or imagined because he won't be around to say or imagine it. Let alone the many things that will be lost or forgotten because he isn't here to do the reminding.
We wish to recognize and memorialize Paul vanMeter's formative contributions to the project and express our grief over the passing of a dedicated fellow advocate. Though just over a year ago Paul and the organization diverged onto different paths towards a shared vision, there's no question that both his absence and his presence will be felt every step along the way as we continue on ours.