SARAH CLARK STUART and Russell Meddin have a problem.

But all things considered, it's a happy problem to have.

The organization they helped to found in 2003, Free Schuylkill River Park, was born in the face of CSX railroad's threat to cut off the park from the Logan Square and Fitler Square neighborhoods.

CSX tracks separate the park from the neighborhoods, and CSX was adamant that no one cross them. But fencing them off would render the park a cattle chute, hindering its use and crippling waterfront development.

Clark Stuart and Meddin, longtime Logan Square neighbors, wanted to "free" the park from this nonsense, hence the name of their web-based advocacy group.

So what's the problem?

This week, the mayor and CSX agreed to a solution precisely of the kind that the corporation once deplored: the installation of gated and signaled pedestrian crossings at the park's Race and Locust Street entrances, along with a pedestrian bridge over the tracks just south of Locust.

So now that Schuylkill River Park has been "freed," what should Clark Stuart and Meddin call their group?

"It's too soon to say," chuckled Meddin yesterday, still jubilant about Tuesday's agreement. "There's still a lot to do."

Explained Clark Stuart, "We want the community involved in the design of the gates and bridge, and we have to figure out who will monitor the project."

So who knows what roadblocks the group might face between now and the end of 2009, when construction is supposed to be completed?

I guess it's prudent, then, to wait on a name change.

But it's not too soon to cheer Clark Stuart and Meddin, along with web-campaign guru Rob Stuart, board chair (and at-large City Council candidate) Andy Toy and others who managed this grass-roots campaign so deftly, they made it look easy.

Given its deep pockets, many lawyers and political ties, multibillion-dollar CSX should've destroyed Free the River like a freight train on a mole rat.

Except Free the River kept outsmarting its opposition.

When CSX wanted to close off its tracks in the interest of public-safety, Free the River responded by documenting instances where CSX tracks are wide open to pedestrians.

When CSX denied that it was using the tracks as a parking lot, Free the River installed "train-cams" - outside the windows of apartment dwellers whose homes overlooked the park - to monitor the parking.

"I knocked on doors until I found people who'd let us mount the cameras," recalled Meddin. "That was fun."

The group also made a big stink about how often freight cars filled with hazardous materials idled on the tracks - suggesting that CSX's bad neighborliness was more sinister than anyone had thought.

Every action by the group was meticulously explained on its site (www.freetheriverpark.org), and "action alerts" were sent to its growing list of subscribers any time the group needed lobbying of City Council, CSX or the company's own customers to get behind pro-access initiatives.

The response was so instant, the rebuttals so relentless, CSX just couldn't stay nimble.

Still, it goes without saying that Free the River had powerful support on its side.

This week's agreement wouldn't have happened if Federal Judge Bruce Kauffman hadn't pushed for a settlement between CSX and the city; if Mayor Street and City Council weren't behind the project; if Gov. Rendell and Sen. Specter and state Sen. Fumo hadn't lent backup, and if other advocates and elected pols hadn't gotten behind the project in the first place.

But it's also clear that support never would have coalesced if Free the River hadn't had the savvy to first make a case for its cause to a major funder - the William Penn Foundation - and then organize so strategically that it became easy for park lovers to support the cause.

"There was such a groundswell, it kept us going," said Clark Stuart. "People's belief in this was so inspiring."

But just because people believe in a great idea doesn't mean it will turn into something real and wonderful.

They need help to make that happen.

Free the River helped them. And the waterfront will never look the same because of it. *


 
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