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.

A time-traveling rail-yard worker from even the 1950s would have no clue where he was on this changed land – until he’d recognize this singular monument and freak out, the way Charlton Heston does in Planet of the Apes when he sees the Statue of Liberty: “You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you!”


Remnants of past greatness were everywhere. The magnificent PECO generating station in Kensington was designed by John Windrim, architect of the Franklin Institute. It stands there inactive, a giant mausoleum. No one knows what to do with it. Right next to it is Penn Treaty Park, a hidden jewel, one of the few places in Philadelphia where you can wet your hand in the river. The way it juts out at the river’s bend makes its vista of the Ben Franklin Bridge spectacular. If it were a mile south, Penn Treaty would be the most popular spot in town. But how often are you at the corner of Columbia and Beach? It’s the story of our waterfront, really: Out of sight and out of mind, the river became a place to stow unused things – a decrepit former ferryboat nightclub, and the abandoned SS United States. A backyard rather than a front yard. You done using that? Just leave it anywhere.

THE WHOLE PENN’S LANDING area is overdue for an upgrade. I won’t dredge up the decades of bad plans, grandiose ideas, politics, payola. Bottom line: Penn’s Landing is too annoying to get to, and would it kill them to put in a Panera Bread? Things are changing, maybe. The city has embraced a “Civic Vision for the Central Delaware,” conceived by the University of Pennsylvania’s PennPraxis design team. The vision has city streets extending to the water, riverfront trails, green spaces. Probably its coolest hallucination is a grassy Great Lawn at Penn’s Landing. PennPraxis has an artist’s rendering of an imagined view from the river, looking straight down Market Street, with boats in the foreground, a grassy shore, and City Hall right there down the road. Maybe if you stare at it long enough, you can see a parade for the 76ers’ next NBA championship heading down Broad Street.

The real-life starting point for Penn’s Landing’s future is Race Street Pier, under the Ben Franklin Bridge. The plan is to make the pier a compelling public space by spring 2011 and get people flocking to the river. The foot traffic, the idea goes, will “pedestrianize” the area. Hellbent car traffic on Columbus will slow down, to “urbanize” the street. That will spur new -development — cafes, stores — and get things rolling toward a riverfront we can love.