Journeys: Rivers Run Through Us

Philadelphia has more miles of waterfront than Manhattan. So why don’t we think of ourselves as a river town? Our man sailed around the city to find out.

There are a hundred reasons why a Walmart occupying prime Philadelphia waterfront along the Delaware River is a civic travesty, a cruel suburbanization of what should be the most vibrant city riverbank in the country, a symbol representing decades of failed vision and forsaken plans.


 But there is one benefit. If you’re in a boat on the Delaware in Philadelphia, and you really need a four-pound tub of Twizzlers or some back-to-school pants, there’s a way to get into the store.

I’m not saying what we did is legal. I probably shouldn’t be mentioning it. But if you can look past the homeless men and feral cats and NO TRESPASSING signs on Pier 70 behind the Walmart on Columbus Boulevard, there’s a hole approximately the size of a shopping cart cut out of the chain-link fence that separates the parking lot from the abandoned pier. Apparently, somebody felt this particular connection between the city and the river was lacking — someone with a good set of wire cutters. I’d heard that tugboat crews routinely dock here to pop in and buy provisions. I had to give it a try. Here I was on this boat voyage, a quest to discover why a city situated between two rivers doesn’t feel much like a city on the water at all.

Captain Joe nuzzled his 25-foot fishing boat, the Impetuous, alongside the decaying pier. I scanned the water for Coast Guard boats and the shore for Philly cops. The river was calm. The coast looked clear. I put a foot up on the side of the boat, and she rocked a little.

The tide lifted us high enough that my hands could reach up to the pier’s concrete surface. I hoisted myself and stood in the breeze. It didn’t smell terrible. Once upon a time, great ships from distant lands lined up at this and nearly 160 other bustling finger-piers along the Delaware, to haul the output of Philadelphia’s factories to the world. My eyes darted, and I scampered over cracked concrete and weedy overgrowth toward the cut-through in the fence. Walmart ho!

I’D HAD THIS VISION-QUEST for years, to circumnavigate Philadelphia by boat. Partly, it was a because it’s there thing. Could it even be done? The rivers have to connect somewhere, right?

Mostly, I longed to solve an urban mystery. I’ve lived in Boston and New York and London, three cities (among many) that seem to have cracked the waterfront code: how to have parks, museums, stores, bars, vibrant neighborhoods, all together at the water’s edge. But though Philadelphia has 40-some miles of riverfront — more than Manhattan, which is an island — there’s almost no place where our waterfront really meshes with the places where we live, work, eat, play. Why? Rather than imagine, I decided to get in a boat and go — to search for clues along the banks, to see what’s there and maybe where we’re headed. You can’t go all the way around, of course. What you can do is get in a boat at Philadelphia’s northern borderline on the Delaware River in Torresdale, where the Poquessing Creek divides Philly from Bucks County. You can motor down past Tacony and Fishtown and b and South Philly, around the sprawling Navy Yard, which is as big as Center City, then — yes — right “up the butt” of the Schuylkill, winding north until you reach the waterfall between the Art Museum and Boathouse Row. There you need to stop, having gone about 27 miles in all. It would be eight miles farther to the city’s northernmost point on the Schuylkill, in Roxborough.