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Monday, 12 July 2010

Philly's Plymouth Rock?

Streets Near the Delaware  Hold Key to City's History

Belgian Blocks

Photo/Writers Clearinghouse

Richard Carreno
Junto Senior Staff Writer Bio
Memory lane is usually a state of mind. But Harry Kyriakodis, a 45-year-old history boffin and a preservationist, can pinpoint Philadelphia's first memories with physical specificity, two bits of 18th-cenury street-scape in an orphan neighborhood near the Delaware River.

Kyriakodis' historic Philadelphia isn't for tourists. Forget the quaintness of Elfreths Alley, or the oozing charm of Society Hill.

Kyriakodis is more of an urban archaeologist than tourist guide. Think gritty. Think less than pretty. Think what's left of an old Philadelphia before the auto marauders and developers rip-sawed along the Delaware. Their legacy? The gaping wound of I-95 and the Delaware Avenue speedway, bleeding an endless stream of vehicles knifing through an area that was once the city's stepping-stone to its future and, now, history.

Kyriakodis and I -- and about dozen or so of other members and friends of a local preservation group called Save Our Sites -- made our way gingerly across Delaware Avenue. There are few traffic signals, and the ones that work give pedestrians about 30 seconds to dash across. Soon we were at Race Street, under the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, and Kyriakodis is leading us to what well may be the city's oldest surviving original streets.

Kyriakodis is a lawyer when he isn't hiking the city's less-known pathways. He's also a non-stop talker. He tells us about paving stones. (Cobble stones are round. Belgian blocks are rectangular). How the Frankford El used to run nearer the Delaware before its tracks were relocated to make way for I-95. ('If a building's side is stucco, that means that another building used to be beside it. If there's an empty lot, a building used to be there').

Kyriakodis also runs pre-arranged tours and presentations, and has done so for about the last 10 years. (In our group, one urban explorer was even wearing a hat that approximated a pith helmet).

Before us, amid the roar of the highway and the buzz of Delaware Avenue, is an all-but-forgotten pie-shaped wedge of two streets between Vine and Callowhill. If Philadelphia had a Plymouth Rock, referencing the city's birthplace, as it might have looked in the early 18th century, well, somewhere near here would be just about right.

Though the spot isn't located in contemporary street atlases, Kyriakodis had taken us Water Street. In particular, the last remaining bit of Philadelphia's original Water Street, when that now-small roadway actually bordered the river. And just above an original bit of Front Street.

For all its untouched history, one famous landmark, the Penny Pot Tavern, once located at the corner of Vine and Water streets, didn't make into the 21st century, however. (Beer was sold there for 'a penny a pot,' as decreed by the Duke of York, and hence the pub's name).

With a final flourish, Kyradokis introduced us to the Bank staircase, just about halfway between Vine and Callowhill. The stair well, about 10 feet across, now cracked into rude, broken slabs of granite, spans 13 steps in all, divided by a single landing.

In early Philadelphia, Kyriakodis told us, there were dozen of stair cases like these, leading down from Front Street to the waterfront. The stairs afforded easy public access to the water, but they also created fresh air streams, flowing from the river into the teeming business and shipping districts nearby.

'This is the last one,' Kyriakodis said. 'William Penn would recognize these steps. If he came back, he wouldn't recognize most of today's Philadelphia. But he'd recognize this place.'

Kyriakodis told me later that a proposal is now before the Pennsylvania Historical
Commission to declare the steps for blue plaque landmark status.

Interested in other Kyriakodis-sponsored events?

Monthly activities, free and open to the public, are scheduled through September. Contact Kyriakodis via phillyfello@aol.com, or telephone at 215-928-5660.