Amtrak - Providence to Philadelphia

Sit on the left side to see the water. Six hours of quiet reflection, over and over, over the years. Gray construction gives way to blue coves and straw marshes. Some parts of the ride I've seen from the outside, too.

Like Kingston station, where I dropped off a ride-sharer years back, during my rental-car days. He left his walkman in the car, and no phone number. I still have it, thanks. Turf farms in Rhode Island, which I've read is the biggest state in the union for grass growing. That would make a good slogan: "Rhode Island, where the grass is always greener." (Note: Call the governor.) Westerly (Lana, remember me picking you up at this station, to go to the summer cabin at Yawgoog?). New London, where the big General Dynamics sheds are. Once I told a little kid in the next seat all about the terrifying killing capacity of the Trident nuclear subs they built in those sheds. It must have been in the early eighties, when we were still afraid of nuclear war instead of whatever we’re afraid of now, something harder to name.

The old Smoothie foundation garments factory. Change of engines in New Haven, “Don’t stray too far from the train.” This is where in 1985 I did get off, to meet David and drive to Los Angeles on the “Big Things of America Tour.” The Pentagon, the arch, the canyon, those were on it and duly photographed. Lights out, and mind the gap. The train falls silent but for my tapping keys. Passengers board quietly, as if they are sneaking home late at night. We get moving. Once in this section I got talking and drinking with an art student from RISD and, across the aisle, a dancer named Grace who had actually been in rock videos. She was gorgeous. (Grace, if you’re reading this somehow, give me a call, OK?) Then again, everyone’s better looking on the train, just like everyone’s uglier on the bus.

Stamford’s glistening glass. Bridgeport’s busted-up concrete. Looks like it’s still the poorest city in the richest state. A favorite section: when the train rides across the rooftops of the Bronx. The December sun is shining down on Brooklyn, but not on me. The shit of a million Yankees fans is being processed in pools beneath the train. The looming Manhattan skyline is on the right, with sun streaking through clouds -- what’s called the rays of Saint Augustine, I think. The train descends. Penn Station will be our next stop in seven to eight minutes. For those remaining on the train, please keep an eye on your personal belongings while in Penn Station. Now it’s a bumpy ride among the warehouses, and then the plunge into darkness. In New York City I can feel every one of the twelve time zones between me and Cambodia.

Moving again and my personal belongings are intact. The tunnel’s rumbling switches off as the train is ejected onto the meadowlands of New Jersey, a world of tire dumps, tracks, refineries, feeble streams curling through the bushes. New Jersey used to be famous for this, but not anymore. Too many other places have been Jersified. What happened to Nice Jewish Boy moving company? I hope it’s still there and I missed it. Charmingly named Metropark is populated for the most part by glass boxes. Trenton Makes, The World Takes. And the more the better -- they make Trojans here.

Next station stop, Philadelphia, Philadelphia 30th Street Station. Thirty minutes, ten thousand miles and fifteen years.

Letter to the Philadelphia Weekly

January 5, 1998
What is up with the halo for Penn's president, Judith Rodin? [Naughty and Nice in '97, Dec 31]

Visiting University City, I see a neighborhood that has lost much of the electricity it had during the 10 years I lived there, from my own student days until 1995.

The student population has trickled away to live in Center City, and residential property values have plummeted.

A number of longtime cornerstone businesses have closed down, including Walsh's and Murphy's taverns. Urban Outfitters, the original home of that chain, is now a vacant warehouse. Long-empty shells, such as the former Acme supermarket, have remained vacant despite what would seem to be prime locations. At night, the streets are empty, but for a few security personnel.

Penn could have done much more to prevent this, and could do much more now. One recent example of its history of counterproductive efforts is the explosive growth of the university's shuttle bus and van service.

Driven by anti-crime paranoia, the university built up the service until dozens of vans carted students all over the neighborhood. With chauffeur service so handy, why walk? I watched as the streets became increasingly desolate and dangerous for the few who still walked at night. No doubt it played well to worried parents: their babies can't get mugged if they never go out.

And when the service was expanded to cover Center City west, many students migrated downtown. They get free rides home to a place where walking at night is safer because there are other people around, and there are places worth walking to.
So what's going to lure Penn students and staff back to University City? How about better financial incentives for them to live there? And attractive rent subsidies for a mix of independent local businesses? And walking escorts that go farther off campus--not in uniforms, please--to help get people back on the streets?

No, Rodin's plan is to build yet another hotel and yet another shopping mall in the middle of the campus. That's got nothing to do with revitalizing the neighborhood. It's just another part of Penn's plan to become a self-sufficient world unto itself, where student and staff expenditures stay on campus. It's very 90's: market-driven, corporate, commercialized and isolationist.

Sorry Judith, no halo for that--nor for the paltry efforts listed in the column. None of them represent significant resources devoted by Penn to rebuilding the neigborhood beyond its campus.

Hey, Philadelphia Weekly, why not take that halo back and give it to West Philly's Ethiopian and Muslim communities? They've done far more revitalizing of University City than Penn has. Maybe it's because they live there.

Rich Garella

Click here for a Penn committee's plan for West Philadelphia.

Click to go back to the introduction in the parlor.

photo by DV2 go to top of this page

go to new site entrance

e-mail me your comments