Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

In Praise of Rob Stuart

The Inquirer's Miriam Hill wrote a wonderful obit today about Rob Stuart, the Center City activist who died of a heart attack Wednesday. I met Rob, and his awesome wife, Sarah Clark Stuart, in the course of writing about the efforts of the Friends of Schuylkill River Park to force the CSX freight-rail company to allow park users to cross CSX rails in order to get to the recerational area. Rob and Sarah, along with their fellow activist Russell Meddin, were, to me, the Holy Trinity that forced CSX to do the right thing. The current park - vibrant, beautiful and well-trod - is the result.

In Praise of Rob Stuart

The Inquirer's Miriam Hill wrote a wonderful obit today about Rob Stuart, the Center City activist who died of a heart attack Wednesday. I met Rob, and his awesome wife, Sarah Clark Stuart, in the course of writing about the efforts of the Friends of Schuylkill River Park to force the CSX freight-rail company to allow park users to cross CSX rails in order to get to the recerational area. Rob and Sarah, along with their fellow activist Russell Meddin, were, to me, the Holy Trinity that forced CSX to do the right thing. The current park - vibrant, beautiful and well-trod - is the result.

Rob was only 49. I am having a hard time grasping that his mighty heart has stopped beating. But I am so thankful that he used it for great and selfless things while he walked this earth. Thoughts and prayers to Sarah, their two daughters and to all who knew, loved and admired Rob. The city is a better place because he was here.

In honor of Rob, printed below is the last park-related column I wrote, published March 27, 2009. Rob had just completed a short documentary about the effort it to took to bring the park to fruition. It was called "Free the River Park," and Rob hoped it would encourage activists everywhere to remember that even the most intractibile forces can be moved, with enough persistence and hard work.

What a legacy he has left.

Here's the column:   

NEVER DOUBT that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. "

I often think of that observation by anthropologist Margaret Mead when I bike the lovely path of Schuylkill River Park.

If you don't know the tale of how SRP bloomed to life, the park might not seem like a marvel. It's just a skinny, 1.2-mile ribbon that hugs the riverbank in western Center City, anchored to the north by the Philly Art Museum, to the south by a small plaza at Locust Street.

But SRP has brought energy and vitality to what had long been an isolated, trashy and scary stretch of riverfront that attracted mostly the homeless, the luckless and the heartless souls who'd prey upon them.

Now, the park is crammed with pedestrians and bikers, pram-pushing parents and tai-chi practitioners, all delighting in what had once been a little-seen vista of the river.

In warm weather, a tour boat ferries sightseers to Bartram's Garden and back. Kayakers paddle around in their colorful little banana-peel boats while nappers snooze on the lawn.

It's a convivial spot (even Halloween parades and movie nights are staged there) enjoyed by 14,000 to 16,000 visitors each week.

And it simply would not exist if not for a small, driven band of activists who saw, before anyone else could, the urban attraction that the park could be.

But, first, they had to fell the giant blocking their vision: CSX Corp., and its railroad tracks that run parallel to the park.

I could share in detail how the founders of SRP slowly, relentlessly and successfully got CSX to join their mission to establish SRP for public use.

But you'd have more fun watching a documentary about their efforts, which screens this Sunday at the Philadelphia Film Festival and CineFest (part of a four-short-film presentation).

Titled Free the River Park, the 15-minute movie explains how CSX had, for years, used its rails as a parking spot for freight cars headed somewhere else.

Back then, CSX didn't fret that its tracks were open to the public. But once plans for a park kicked into gear in 2003, CSX, citing safety concerns, wouldn't let park-users cross its tracks to get to the river.

Park advocates knew that CSX was more concerned about disruption of its operations.

So they formed a Web-based advocacy group - FreeTheRiverPark.org - to help CSX see the light.

It took four years, endless meetings, thousands of petitions, one federal lawsuit, many demonstrations, City Council hearings and subpoenas, and strategically placed video-cameras for FreeTheRiverPark to convince CSX to be its partner in the reclamation of the riverfront.

I became a big fan of the group. Its mission was so right, its organization so smart, its response to setbacks so nimble, that its efforts were a thrill to write about (which I did several times in my column).

What moved me then was how it didn't give up, the way many do when confronted by a rich and powerful Goliath.

What moves me now is how thousands of us are benefiting from the group's commitment.

And what astounds me is that CSX has become an enthusiastic park partner. The technology that the corporation is using to design state-of-the-art rail crossings is so sophisticated, the corporation plans to use the park to showcase its safety efforts.

Talk about a win-win.

 "Our hope, with this film, is that activists will be inspired to confront other issues that are perceived as permanent and intractable," says Rob Stuart , Free The River Park's producer and director, and one of the organizers of FreeTheRiverPark.org.

"We hope they'll mimic our tactics to make change happen."

 The literature promoting Free the River Park describes it as "a testament to tenacity."

 Somewhere, Margaret Mead is nodding in agreement. * 

Ronnie Polaneczky Daily News Columnist
About this blog

When my phone rings here at the Daily News, nine times out of ten the caller begins the conversation with, “Yeah, so what happened was…”.

Because this is Philly, the caller doesn’t say, “My name is Bob” – or Mary – “and I wonder if I could have a moment of your time?” Philadelphians are too direct for that. They just say, “Yeah, so what happened was…”, and then tumble into a tale they think oughta be shared with a wider audience. I love getting these calls (even the ones where it becomes clear, after 30 seconds, where the caller sowed the seeds of his own misery), because they give me chance to connect with fellow citizens in a way that no other job allows. Well, okay, no other job for which I’m remotely qualified.

That’s why my blog is titled “So What Happened Was…”. To me, it’s the quintessentially Philly way of saying, “Once upon a time.” When I hear it, I know a good story is coming. And I can’t wait to see how it turns out.

Ronnie Polaneczky has been an award-winning columnist for The Philadelphia Daily News since 1999, offering a front-steps perspective on every aspect of city life, from the sublime to the stupid. In her past life, she was the editor-in-chief of Atlantic City Magazine, associate editor at Philadelphia Magazine and a fulltime freelancer published in Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, Reader's Digest, Men's Health, MarieClaire and others. She lives with her husband, daughter and various pets in the city's Fairmount section, where she dreams of one day singing The National Anthem at an Eagles game. In addition to her column and blog, you can enjoy Ronnie's musings in podcast form here.


Read more from Ronnie Polaneczky at Earth to Philly, the Daily News blog on anything and everything "Green Reach Ronnie at polaner@phillynews.com.

Ronnie Polaneczky Daily News Columnist
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