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.

The jewel along the river here is Pennypack on the Delaware, a breezy space with softball and soccer fields, places to fish and picnic, and a stunning river vista. Chances are you’ve never seen it. From the city side, the park is behind the Holmesburg prison complex and comically difficult to find.


 “Kind of a strange place to put a playground, behind a prison,” Joe said as we motored by. “Gives them a little message.”

Philadelphia’s riverbanks are so extensive that several groups have divvied up the job of reclaiming them. In Northeast Philadelphia, the go-to group is the nonprofit Delaware River City Corporation, founded by Bob Borski in 2004 after he ejected from a 20-year tenure in Congress representing the Northeast’s river wards. In 2008, the DRCC opened a nature trail, off Pennypack on the Delaware’s north side, that’s like entering another dimension. The first thing I saw when I visited it was a pair of brilliant yellow goldfinches, fluttering like butterflies. Bald eagles nest in there, too. You can hear the breeze gently moving the tall marsh grasses. This is Northeast Philly? (Yes. Venture farther north and you can hear gunshots from the police academy.)

We glided under the Betsy Ross Bridge to Tioga Marine Terminal, its refrigerated warehouses brimming with Chilean pears and clementines. At the foot of Tioga, where Allegheny Avenue almost reaches the water, is a narrow pier, with about three trees, called Pulaski Park. Ten people had fishing lines in the water. Borski’s group is working to create an 11-mile trail from here to where our boat trip started, through existing and to-be-created parks. This is the basic strategy of planners along both rivers: Pick spots to turn into green public spaces. Link the spaces by trails into a sort of emerald necklace, or “charm bracelet,” as they say. Then try to extend neighborhood streets to the river. We looked back at Pulaski as we moved on. “They really cleaned that up,” Patrick said. “It used to be all junkies.”

IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO COMPREHEND what the next mile and a half of riverfront we splashed past must have been like a century ago. The Reading Railroad had yards here when this was the world’s largest rail-to-water freight facility. Jutting iconically from the shore in the heart of the former rail yard is a bizarre structure — a long elevated track with what looks like a ski ramp at the end. It’s the ore pier, Old Pier 18. For decades it was the main terminus for Pennsylvania’s prodigious coal output; the ramp was part of a giant mechanism that flipped coal cars sideways to dump their contents onto barges. From the water, the ramp looks like a squashed Eiffel Tower now. What’s left, mostly, is 240 acres of trees, weeds and dirt hills, green space on brown fields. No development is imminent, so Port Richmond kids have cut through the fences and made it a sort of rebel playland: They ride four-wheelers, play paintball, fish from crumbling piers, tag anything still standing with graffiti.