There’s no memorial, no plaque within sight. In the dusty parking lot-slash-field off Frankford Avenue overlooking the curve where Amtrak 188 derailed, the only physical difference neighbors can tell between last year and now is the fence.
Before the crash, which killed eight and injured hundreds, the only barrier made of flimsy chain links, they say. The tracks are now guarded by steel. The top of the fence even bends inward, making it all the more difficult for anyone to scale.
Everything’s quiet, as it usually is in this southeastern corner of the Frankford neighborhood. One year ago it was in a frenzy. Crash victims flooded into the nearby streets, seeking help from the neighbors. The NTSB and cleanup crews set up shop in the field. TV trucks and media overtook parking lots and Frankford Avenue. The block shut down for days.
Up until then, Frankford had mostly been in the news for crime and decay (the neighborhood ranks among the most violent in Philadelphia and the majority of households make less than $35,000 a year) when it was in the news at all. Early news reports suggested the Amtrak accident happened in Port Richmond, and Frankford Junction is technically in the middle of Port Richmond and Frankford, not really belonging to any neighborhood.
The stretch nearest the tracks, along Frankford Avenue between Pike and Butler streets, is mostly industrial. There’s a building owned by SEPTA, auto and electric businesses and an ink production company. A small number of houses line both sides of Frankford Avenue, and a side street in the middle of Pike and Butler, Buckius Street.
Frankford is one of Philadelphia’s most diverse neighborhoods. Combine the census tracts comprising it and there are high numbers of black, Hispanic and white people.
Walk around Frankford Avenue near the tracks and Buckius Street these days and the diversity is apparent: Young white men talking to construction workers, black women walking to a bus stop, an older Hispanic woman who doesn’t speak English. Marvin Middleton moved to a house on Frankford Avenue a few months ago and calls the area “pretty quiet.” He says neighbors often say hi when they walk by.
Like stretches of many neighborhoods in Philadelphia, problems exist here. The houses are old, and many are dilapidating. A toilet seat stands in the front yard of one house. Tom Lorman works at Cabrun Ink Production nearby; a couple months ago, his car was broken into there. A family walks through the field overlooking the curve calling for a lost dog. One of them says he worries drug dealers got their pet.
When the train crashed, the neighborhood sprung into action. People helped crash victims out of the train cars and offered water and the use of their cell phones.
“The neighbors got a bad rap all these years,” said Ron Bordone, owner of Pete’s Clown House Restaurant, “but they did a good job.”
At the restaurant, located at Frankford and Pike, guests start discussing the poor infrastructure of the neighborhoods once they find out I’m a reporter. Sewer lines have been fixed by a crew that’s been on the street in recent weeks, but problems sometimes don’t get solved until they get really bad, like an enormous sinkhole — “30 feet by 30 feet” — that closed down the area a couple years ago.
Bordone has worked in the neighborhood since he was a teenager. He started off as an employee at Pete’s Clown House Restaurant and later became owner. He says that like many others he grew up on those tracks, calling it the “Dead Man’s Curve” because of an accident that occurred there in 1943. He hasn’t seen much change not only in the last year but in the last several years.
Lorman, outside Cabrun Ink, says, “It’s going to take a while for that Fishtown gentrification to make its way up here.”
It seems the only changes have happened with the tracks in front of Cabrun Ink, not the neighborhood behind it. There’s that new fence, plus Lorman is sure the trains don’t take the curve as fast as they did before the accident.
“They’re definitely going slower,” he says.