Here’s Why the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk Is a Hit

Just a few days after its debut, Philadelphians are acting as if the attraction has been here all their lives.

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“So is that it? Is that the end?”

The woman in leopard-print flats seemed disappointed. She’d just walked the length of the brand-new Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk, entering behind the dog run and trudging 2,000-plus fiercely footwear’d feet to the base of the South Street Bridge, her totally on-trend fall 2014 look rippling in the breeze in time with the undulating waters of the Hidden River. And all this, if her snap reaction was any indication, struck her as a little more meh than majestic.

If it were up to leopard-print flats, the conclusion of the boardwalk, which just completed its first weekend open to the public, would be punctuated by something a little more dramatic than a set of stairs. A length of unsnapped finish-line tape from the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, perhaps, or maybe a jaunty faun coaxing her into an ornate wardrobe leading to Narnia.

Not everyone hanging on this freakishly gorgeous autumn day was quite as vocal about the perceived shortcomings of this long-awaited $18 million project, part of the East Coast Greenway Alliance, an “urban sister to the Appalachian Trail” that stretches from Maine to Florida. But it wasn’t like anyone was blaring trumpets to hail its arrival, either. (Not counting, of course, the trumpeter hired to play as part of a jazz quartet.) It’s early yet, but I think this can be seen as the biggest sign of the boardwalk’s success so far. Philadelphians like it so much, they’re acting like it’s been theirs forever.

With all the recent conversation surrounding the projected usage of the boardwalk, and who, if anyone, it is “for,” I was curious to see how normal city dwellers were incorporating our city’s expensive new attraction into their daily lives, even just three days in. What I saw Sunday was reassuring, both in its diversity and its comfort-food dullness.

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Aside from me and a girl who strolled holding a Thermos and a copy of The Catcher in the Rye that looked like it hadn’t been cracked yet, most people were accompanied by others — couples with dogs, families with young kids, gaggles of millennials holding coffee and smartphones. (This is a great place to get yelled at for using your phone.) Underarmour’d joggers started and stopped their cadences, darting around the crowds — which were quite the mix, for the record. Young, old, gay, straight, black, white, Asian, Latino — not just “silly women in yoga pants and Dorothy Parker hair,” as one Philly Mag commenter recently posited. It was a beautiful reminder that Philadelphians do an excellent job of minding their own freaking business coexisting when it comes down to it.

Most walkers took their sweet time, zigging and zagging along the 15-foot-wide concrete “boards” as if they knew where they were going, pulling off occasionally to soak in the skyline or point at things in the distance like they were in a Cialis commercial. Some offered waves to passengers aboard The Patriot, a reproduction of a 1920s mini commuter yacht that sauntered along the shoreline. The Schuylkill River Development Corporation, headquartered in the Cira Centre that glinted in the distance, organized family-friendly activities like face-painting, balloon animals, caricatures, and a table covered in salt-water taffy, but it didn’t feel like a fanfare-filled event so much as a typical Sunday.

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The boardwalk has inspired some lovely poetry among its prominent supporters — “you’re borne over the water like Huck and Jim on their raft, simultaneously a part of the world and temporarily removed from it,” wrote the Inquirer’s Inga Saffron — but among its users, it’s just another place to check out when the weather’s nice and the afternoon’s free.

And that, to me, is an indicator of the project’s long-term success. Urban works like these often surge at the outset, riding spikes in interest, energy and excitement that ebb as quickly as they materialize. For my money, the boardwalk will sidestep this dip by occupying interesting headspace — an ambitious project that’s still approachable enough to be owned by anyone who wishes to invest a little interest.

Yes, lady in leopard-print flats, that is it. And in Philly, that’s all we need.

Follow @drewlazor on Twitter.