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Q&A: Jamie Moffett, Filmmaker & Reading Viaduct Cheerleader

For his latest feature project, Philadelphia filmmaker Jamie Moffett is telling the story of some peace activist friends who were badly injured in a car crash during the beginning of the Iraq War in Rutba, a town in Iraq's western Anbar province. The Gospel of Rutba chronicles the group's return seven years later to the war-torn region to thank the natives who helped save their lives.

Moffett left last month for Palestine to shoot footage for background context of the conflict in the Middle East. He recently returned in time to work on another project that's even closer to his heart.

It was 1999, about a year after he moved from his native Palmyra, NJ to Philadelphia to establish a nonprofit called the Simple Way that promoted community development in Kensington, Moffett was working with some homeless families around Tenth and Green Streets in the shadow of an abandoned, elevated railroad bed known as the Reading Viaduct. While the dilapidated space piqued his interest, it wasn't until a few years later that a group of concerned citizens began organizing to create a green space from the former connection to thapphe Reading Terminal. Although the long-term project to create a unique "park in the sky" has been slow-moving, Moffett has lent his considerable creative weight to the project.

"Growing up there were train tracks five blocks from my house and I loved to go with my dad to watch the trains go by," says Moffett, a full-time filmmaker for more than a decade who bought an old barber shop in Kensington on Westmoreland Street and converted it into his production studio.

"Everyone is saying the same thing, that they want to see the Reading Viaduct Park happen. But how? That's the $45 million question. Where I come in is I'm the head cheerleader."

Moffett will lead the cheers before some 250,000 visitors to the Philadelphia International Flower Show this week, where he and a team of artists and activists will promote the Reading Viaduct project, including a coffee table photo book from Moffett. Proceeds from book sales will support the effort, and Moffett is also working on a short film about the project. The recently engaged 34 year-old talked to Flying Kite about his loves, inspirations, and hopes.

Flying Kite (FK): Was your engagement a theatrical occasion?
Jamie Moffett (JM): There's a town called Moffett in Scotland, and I brought my fianc´┐Że there. We went to a lake on top of a mountain and I was able to get down on one knee there. Of course I got video. Here name is Lena and she emigrated to the U.S. from Azerbaijan. She came to Philly when she was 16 and put herself through college. She works with high-risk kids on the autism spectrum. I got a good one.

FK: How's it going at the Flower Show?
JM: One thing that is resonating well with folks is we're referring to the viaduct as a kind of (Interstate) 676 for cyclists and pedestrians. It can be a healthy interstate for people to commute in between different places. With the city branch of the viaduct, which goes west, you can go up all the way to the Art Museum and the new Barnes and connect to the Kelly Drive loop or the Schuylkill River Trail.

FK: How do you pay the bills?
JM: Our two primary sources of income are we do music videos, short films, and promotional videos. Drexel University is one of our clients, and we're doing a five-minute short film for the New Kensington CDC that will premiere in Los Angeles. We just did one for Philabundance. That covers about half our bills. The other half comes from theatrical and DVD sales from our movies. We're essentially a sheep in wolf's clothing, a corporate entity with nonprofit underpinnings.

FK: What makes you think the Reading Viaduct can happen?
JM: It's not unprecedented. There's the Promenade in Paris, High Line in New York, and Chicago and St. Louis are working on one. We're in a situation where we don't have to reinvent the wheel, where we can take cues from other places. I'm not in the real estate business so the idea of here's a great abandoned space, now we're going to sell you this dream about building this park, is sort of new territory for me, but it's a magical space.

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, Paul Levy of the Center City District, John and Sarah of the Reading Viaduct Project and Paul and Liz of ViaductGreen have been so inspiring to us, we've sought to take their commitment to park's possibility and share the idea with as wide an audience as we can

FK: You grew up in Palmyra but the urban environment seems like it suits you better Why?
JM: I chose to move to Philadelphia because I love the interplay between people and space and I also really loved the industrial vibe here. Before the Schmidt's brewery became the Piazza I used to run around that building, from Girard and Second to Germantown Ave. there, I used to hang out in those abandoned warehouses. It was almost like being an archaeologist. These important social spaces that were long vacant were like Philadelphia's ruins. The idea of that really inspires me as an artist and having a chance to dream up a space that was used for one function, left abandoned, and then can be reclaimed as a new social and art space is a dream come true for me.

JOE PETRUCCI is managing editor of Flying Kite. Send feedback here.

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