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.

But there are surprises. At a section of Grays Ferry called Forgotten Bottom, there’s an unlikely neighborhood link to the river. In front of a paved lot where they park Philadelphia Trolley Works buses, the bank is landscaped and serene — oddly, one of the more inviting river spots in the city. As we passed, at least a dozen people fished.


Just north of the bus lot, behind a Waste Management garbage transfer station, is the SRDC’s next big project, a bend in the river known as DuPont Crescent. DuPont’s Marshall Laboratory in Grays Ferry closed in 2009, killing an estimated 350 jobs, and the company gave the city nearly seven acres of riverbank (the city already owned five more), which were contaminated by years of testing truck paint. The SRDC is making it a park and plans eventually to connect it to the main bike trail.

At long last, we passed Center City and saw the Art Museum. On a dirt riverbank, a guy pulled up a catfish as big as a fax machine and put it in a cooler.

“I can’t believe he’s gonna eat that goddamn thing,” Patrick said. We rode in closer and asked: “Do you eat those?”

He yelled back: “Sometimes.”

We approached the waterfall, and the roar of traffic from the Expressway gave way to the cool white noise of rushing water. We stopped and bobbed there for a few minutes. “What do you think?” Captain Joe finally asked. “Are we good?”

I looked up at the elegant Museum. We don’t do grandiose and magnificent much anymore, do we? Face it, we’re scrappers and grinders now. We shoehorn pretty little parks in behind prisons and next to garbage transfer stations. We improvise fishing docks and playgrounds in places nobody said we could. We let tugboat guys shop at Walmart. We don’t need piers with “ecological monitoring” and iPhone apps. Piers where we can just hang out — and maybe, please, get a coffee?  — will be just fine. I’m starting to think: We can get this done.

Yeah, I said. We’re good. I snapped off a Twizzler in my teeth, and we headed for home.