05/28/2014 03:17 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Unusual Spaces, Unusual Characters

Over the course of producing Unusual Spaces, I've encountered a recurring theme: Behind each fascinating unusual space, there are equally fascinating unusual people who have taken up their cause.

Case in point: Paul VanMeter.

A landscape gardener by trade and Philly railroad history enthusiast by passion, Paul co-founded an organization called VIADUCTgreene in 2010 to shed light on a neglected three-mile long abandoned railroad corridor passing through central Philadelphia.

Paul became well-known locally and beyond for leading enthralling, quasi-legal tours of the City Branch tunnel (the subterranean part of the three-mile stretch) and Reading Viaduct (the elevated part). Taken together, the two sections of Paul's tour offered a unique glimpse into the city's glorious industrial past as a pivotal commercial corridor during the American Industrial Revolution, a time when the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad claimed title as the largest company in the world.

On an unseasonably warm Saturday in late October, I finally made it to Philly to join Paul on what he amusingly referred to as his "expensive hobby."


He offered to take me on the more adventurous version of the tour, which began with us dodging fences, scaling down a brush-filled slope and landing in a valley near a set of train tracks. Isolated from the bustle of Philly's busiest streets above, we entered into a large rail tunnel carved out of the earth well over a century earlier. Brilliant sunlight spilled through the surface-level grates, casting a spectacular interplay of shadow and light.

As we proceeded, Paul seemed to have every aspect of the Philly's rail history at instant recall. He carried with him an unwieldy and worn catalog of photocopied archival images, an evident labor of love that he would dutifully whip out as a prop at each junction of our tour. Judging from his infectious enthusiasm, however, you might have guessed instead that this was his first time stumbling upon the most exciting discovery of his life.


The space -- as you can see in the video -- is utterly breathtaking. I immediately understood why Paul had devoted so much of his time to this cause. More than anything, he wanted people to simply know it existed. How many times had Philadelphians passed over these tunnels or under the Viaduct, completely unaware of what they were missing?

Paul was fiercely passionate about his vision. So passionate that it ultimately instigated an irreconcilable divide between himself and other individuals involved with the redevelopment of the Reading Viaduct. No matter -- Paul's advocacy through VIADUCTgreene, along with the efforts of other local visionary organizations, have fundamentally reshaped the conversation about smart, creative uses for this incredible site.

Paul suddenly passed away just a few months after the filming of this episode. As I read the countless blog posts, tweets, and comments crafted in tribute, I couldn't help but feel that I was lucky to have had the opportunity to share those few hours with him and capture him doing what he loved the most.

The organization currently leading the effort to develop the Reading Viaduct -- Friends of the Rail Park -- will continue the mission of establishing a new use for these iconic remnants of Philly's illustrious past. The myriad concepts that have emerged over the past few years are just a hint of the possibilities to come.


While Paul unfortunately will not be around to see those plans come to fruition, he'll surely be remembered for encouraging us to consider, in his words, the "past, present, and possible" for this truly unusual space.