In Philadelphia, “The El” [the Market-Frankford Line] provides essential infrastructure to the city. For those living there, it acts much like a major artery: it runs East to West, river to river. A rapid transit system, yes, but more deeply, a deliverer of the lifeblood of the city—its people—to where they want or need to be.
It begins above ground as a massive tangle of engineered metal, 13 miles long. It then worms its way under the hustle of the city through a blackness that is punctuated only by quick flashes of light, emerging again as it reenters the outer neighborhoods of Philadelphia.
The El snakes its way from station to station, platform to platform. Along the way, it is supported by an infinite army of enormous, riveted, baby blue steel feet. Its long belly creates a dark metal sky over the street below.
Some segments feel long abandoned—boarded up and dark, strewn relentlessly with nobody’s litter. Other segments thrive on an underground economy of heroin and prostitution: the patrons, the pushers and the police playing a circuitous game of cat and mouse in which no one wins. There are some segments that are brightly lit, bursting with activity and bustling with the creative energy of young professionals, aspiring artists and hungry developers creating a city in their own image. Most of the areas, though, are a normal reflection of the neighborhood that each station along the El serves, a tapestry of the different times, textures, and cultures that show up in the peeling layers of history along this 13-mile corridor.
So far, my project has concentrated on the movement underneath the El as it went from station to station. This will eventually be expanded to include the neighborhoods surrounding each station as well.
Editors’ note: If you’d like to see more of Ronald Waite’s photographs, you can visit his personal website. Waite is a member of the LensCulture Network, a recent initiative we launched with the idea of offering talented, accomplished photographers a place to showcase their work on a global stage while also giving them a place to share, learn and engage with one another. The LensCulture Network began with a small number of hand-picked members, and we are very excited to watch it grow and evolve.
If enjoyed this article, you might like these previous features: Moscow Metro, an exploration of the artfully designed subway stations in Moscow; Life from a Tube, images of London’s Tube riders; and The Train, NYC 1984, analog photographs from 1980s New York that capture the diversity, isolation and inimitable mood of the city’s underground world.