Kai Burgmann, C’22
Information to supplement video:
The Willow Street Steam Generation Plant was built in 1927 to generate steam heat for industrial users along the Reading Railroad line. Essentially, the plant burned coal to make steam, which was then brought via rail car to Center City (Kyriakodis 2012). In 1987, PECO sold this steam and distribution system to Philadelphia Thermal Energy Corporation, which shut down the facility and sold it in 1993 to Trigen Energy Corporation (Kyriakodis 2012). Most recently, in 2005, the shuttered plan was purchased by Quyen V. Tran, a Philadelphia resident. No activity has been observed on the property since, and attempts to reach Tran have been unsuccessful (Kostelni 2016).
Not only does this building serve as a historical reminder of the industrial history of Philadelphia, including the brutal history associated with coal, but it also serves as reminder of deindustrialization–a critical era of change for the city (Mackaman 2016).
Recently, there have been reports that Scioli Turco, a conservator organization based in Philadelphia, has plans to remediate the industrial site and remove the excessive asbestos, using Philadelphia’s Article 135, which allows for organizations to take ownership of abandoned sites:
Act 135 is ‘An Act providing for court-appointed conservators to bring residential, commercial and industrial buildings into municipal code compliance when owners fail to comply.’ Act 135 provides an expedited means of alleviating blight and making derelict properties habitable and taxable. This process is accomplished without using taxpayer dollars and without involving local/City resources (Scioli Turco).
However, as stated by Joel Palmer of Scioli Turco, remediation costs are projected to be upwards of $1 million, a considerable fundraising challenge for the organization (Romero 2016).
This building is not on the national or statewide radar, and even barely gets any attention from the city itself. While the Philadelphia media rarely comments on these abandoned buildings, its usual portrayal is a negative image of the plant, using diction such as “blight,” “eyesore,” and “nuisance.” However, the perception from the local Callowhill community appears to be not as homogeneous, with some residents stating that they “like the atmosphere it brings,” (interview with Jon). This appreciation of abandoned buildings, and the purpose they serve to show off Philadelphia as a historic city, is maintained by certain developers. These developers hope that the building is not demolished, and instead is remediated and repurposed (OCF Realty, 2021).
This unintentional monument, hidden in plain sight, represents divergent opinions about abandoned buildings. Such sites mean much more to locals than to outsiders, who have a harder time recognizing and appreciating them. The presence of graffiti further divides insider/outside views, with some seeing vandalism representing gang and criminal activity, and others seeing street art breathing life to the city (Ley and Cybriwsky 1974). The fact that none of the graffiti has been removed from Willow Street Generating Plant suggests that locals, at least, are unbothered by it; one of the few city services that is truly responsive in Philadelphia is the anti-graffiti Community Life Improvement Program (CLIP) (Connor Benner 2021). The future of the plant remains uncertain, but it is clear that Callowhill locals recognize the building as an important part of their landscape.
Benner, Connor. Personal conversation with the author, 2021.
Ley, David, and Roman Cybriwsky. “Urban Graffiti As Territorial Markers,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 64, no. 4 (1974): 491–505.
Kostelni, Natalie. “Nonprofit Attempts Takeover of Derelict Callowhill Property with Little Known State Law,” BizJournals, 7 December 2016: https://www.bizjournals.com/philadelphia/news/2016/12/07/a-move-to-take-over-a-dereli ct-dangerous.html.
Kyriakodis, Harry. “All Steamed Up,” Hidden City Philadelphia, 16 February 2012: https://hiddencityphila.org/2012/02/all-steamed-up/.
Mackaman, Thomas. “Coal,” Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/category/thomas-mackaman/.
Romero, Melissa. “Peek Inside the Willow Street Steam Plant, Asbestos and All,” Curbed Philadelphia, 20 December 2016: https://philly.curbed.com/2016/12/20/13981368/willow-steam-plant-philadelphia-photos- interiors
Scioli Turco.com: https://www.scioliturco.org/faq.
OFC Realty. “Willow Street Steam Generation Plant Will Start Generating Fun,” https://www.ocfrealty.com/naked-philly/loft-district/willow-street-steam-generation-plant-will-start-generating-fun/.