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.

What will Race Street Pier be? Last summer, the project was awarded to Field Operations, the firm that did New York’s High Line park. In his winning presentation, Field landscape architect James Corner proposed making it “a place to simply come and hang out and enjoy views and other people.” So the plan incorporates the Philadelphia-friendly concept of not requiring us to do very much. As we passed Penn’s Landing, really the only thing I was envisioning was getting arrested for taking a boat to Walmart. After climbing ashore, I sauntered in and made my purchases: a four-pound tub of Twizzlers, a gallon of Sunny D orange drink (so we wouldn’t get scurvy at sea), and a DVD of the movie Death to Smoochy for $3 (an impulse buy). Then I hustled back through the hole in the fence to the boat. I wasn’t alone. At the pier when I got back was a tugboat from Norfolk, Virginia, whose crew was doing the same thing I was.


IN 1943, SOMETHING INEXPLICABLE happened at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, if you believe hokey sci-fi movies. In The Philadelphia Experiment, the government made the USS Eldridge invisible. Now they’re attempting a transformation just as mind-bending at the Navy Yard: developing functional, thriving property on the Philadelphia waterfront. The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, which is managing the property, has an advantage that managers of Penn’s Landing never enjoyed. PIDC owns the whole thing, having bought the 1,000-acre site from the Navy for $2 million in 2000. Now they’re installing wide avenues and extending old ones. More than 100 companies have moved down here, including Urban Outfitters and Tasty Baking. The place has a campus vibe and an Old City feel. All things considered, though, the blank-slate Navy Yard is too easy. The real measure for how successfully we take back our shorelines may be along the narrow Schuylkill River, which has dense Philadelphia neighborhoods on both sides.

A nonprofit called the Schuylkill River Development Corporation, led by Joe Syrnick, the city’s former chief engineer, is getting Philadelphians closer to this river. Syrnick is working around entrenched industry, plus the Schuylkill Expressway, plus train tracks that separate Center City from the river. In 2000, the SRDC’s Schuylkill Banks project did the seemingly -impossible – got Center City residents down to “the hidden river” (that’s what Schuylkill means in Dutch), via stairways from the bridges that meet a riverside bike trail running from the Art Museum to Locust Street. Under the Walnut Street Bridge is a dock where they launch riverboat and kayak tours.

 Where the Delaware and Schuylkill meet, the water swirls a little, but in our boat the transition was an easy turn starboard. The Schuylkill is dark and mucky at its bottom. We saw flotsam that had nowhere to go — a broken baseball bat, a dead striper — and passed miles of Wonka-esque contraptions at Sunoco’s refineries: tanks, tubes, balls, steam pipes. The lower section of the river is beyond human recreation.