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Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront

The Benjamin Franklin Bridge under
 construction over the Delaware River.
 
 But Not Forgotten

By Harry Kyriakodis
[Special to Writers Clearinghouse News Service]
(The following are excerpts from a new book, Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront, published by The History Press).
MIDWAY on Front Street, between Philadelphia's Old City and Northern Liberties neighborhoods, is a set of ancient stone steps leading down to Water Street. This narrow stairwell, on the 300 block of North Front, is a passageway to the lower street on the line of what used to be an alley called Wood Street. The Wood Street Steps are also a passageway back in time, for they are the last of ten or so public stairways on the alley streets from Callowhill to South Streets, built about three centuries ago at the direction of William Penn, founder and proprietor of the province of Pennsylvania and founder of the city of Philadelphia.
Each one of the "Penn stairs" once lay exactly on the Delaware River's western embankment, providing access to the water from the high ground of the city above. Other than Gloria Dei Church in South Philadelphia, this staircase is the only relic of the colonial era along the Delaware in Penn's City of Brotherly Love.
This account began as an investigation into these stairwells. It then broadened into a chronicle of Philadelphia's riverfront between Vine and South Streets-the city's original northern and southern boundaries. It then expanded north to Spring Garden Street and south to Washington Avenue, basically to round out the story. While the book focuses on the two-block strip of the waterfront from Front Street to the river, there are occasional forays inland to Second Street. This study includes an exploration of the caves that Quaker settlers occupied beside the Delaware and the stories behind Front Street, Water Street and Delaware Avenue. Old City, Society Hill and Queen Village are discussed, as are the famous personalities associated with Philadelphia's riverside and the notable creeks that once crossed this zone. Shipbuilding, railroading and military activities on this stretch of the Delaware are considered, as are immigration and employment matters. Plus, extant and long-forgotten taverns, restaurants, hotels, parks, piers and places of worship are covered.


After a look at the early development of Philadelphia's original port district, the narrative proceeds block by block from Spring Garden Street to Washington Avenue. Why north to south? It just seemed better to begin with the area that still has the most remnants of the past so that some tangible evidence of Philadelphia's lost waterfront could be seen. Seeing the little that remains emphasizes how much is gone. For, ultimately, this book is a lament on all that has vanished due to the heartless routing of Interstate 95 through this two-mile-long corridor decades ago.

Contemporary happenings along the historic central waterfront of Philadelphia are highlighted in the final chapters as the narrative returns to Columbus Boulevard and Penn's Landing. It will become clear that recent conflicts concerning the use and enjoyment of the riverfront are as fresh today as they were over three hundred years ago.

GREAT cities have great rivers, and the city of Philadelphia has two of the finest and most historic rivers in the United States: the Delaware and the Schuylkill. Both have played critical roles in the American Revolution of the eighteenth century, the Industrial and Transportation Revolutions of the nineteenth century, and even the Environmental Revolution of the twentieth century. In the early 1680s, William Penn (1644-1718) specifically established his City of Brotherly Love at the narrowest point between these waterways to take advantage of the benefits afforded by them. In a letter to London, he gushed: "[O]f all the many places I have seen in the world, I remember not one better seated; so that it seems to me to have been appointed for a town, whether we regard the rivers, or the convenience of the coves, docks, springs, the loftiness and soundness of the land and the air."

Penn envisioned his colony of Pennsylvania sprawling westward from the river settlement of Philadelphia, which would serve as the colony's seat of government and base of mercantile activity. Philadelphia's geography made it ideal as an inland seaport, and Penn's settlement responded to maritime opportunities quickly. The city became the first major shipping port in North America, so much so that a visitor in 1756 commented, "Everybody in Philadelphia deals more or less in trade." By the onset of the War for Independence, Penn's town was third only to Liverpool and London as an essential business location.

The Delaware River waterfront was the axis of the Port of Philadelphia's maritime, commercial and political bustle for some two hundred years after the city's founding. For a long time, when people outside Philadelphia thought about the city, this lively place was what came to mind -- and not in a bad way. This was where wheeling and dealing went on to encourage local, regional and national enterprise. This was where a good amount of the nation's military forces got their start. This was where transportation advances and other inventions were created and exhibited. This was where terrible urban contagions began. This was where early American capitalists made their fortunes. And this was where the individual American colonies were crafted into a nation.

Philadelphia kept its position as America's greatest trade center until the 1820s, when New York's location and financial strength bumped Penn's City to second place. Still, the city's riverfront remained the heart of town. But as the river district grew increasingly grim and grimy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it started to be taken for granted and then became an afterthought. This change in regard was fostered by Philadelphia's relentless push to the west, first to the deforested area beyond Sixth Street in the 1700s, then to the City Hall neighborhood in the 1800s and then to points west, north and south in the 1900s.

As wealthy residents and merchants left the original part of Philadelphia for greener pastures, the Delaware River's edge became forlorn and unattractive-a forgotten backwater, so to speak, and certainly nothing to celebrate. The river itself practically died before World War II because of pollution, while commerce on and by the water declined dramatically afterward. The mile-wide Delaware, long the city's front door, had shut. An Interstate highway was then run through to seal the deal.

Happily, though, Philadelphia's central waterfront has been receiving attention lately. Exactly three hundred years after William Penn founded his city on the Delaware, work began on refurbishing two abandoned municipal piers at Penn's Landing for residential use. This was the first new housing along the river in over one hundred years. Other activity has followed since then, with multimillion-dollar condominiums and increased recreational, entertainment and dining venues of all sorts drawing money and movement back to this part of town. Penn's Landing has become a citywide gathering place, and even a casino has joined the mix. Philadelphia has finally rediscovered its lifeblood river and the adjoining riverfront.

All told, this is surely the most storied and interesting section of Philadelphia, as it has changed the most -- for good or bad -- over time. A strong case can be made that it has changed more than anyplace in America.

NEEDLESS to say, the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room is Interstate 95. The highway creates an immense physical barrier that separates walkers, bikers and even motorists-not to mention entire communities-from the river throughout Philadelphia. The I-95 divide is psychological in places, so urban planners hope that landscaping and other improvements will help alleviate the problem and get people to cross the highway to the Delaware. But there's no disguising or denying that I-95 brutally severs the waterfront of Philadelphia from the rest of the city, especially Center City, and it makes Penn's Landing underwhelming as a space for recreation.

Yet this is merely the outcome of a much larger, more poignant issue. Simply put: the worst part of an Interstate being built through Southwark, Society Hill and Old City Philadelphia in the 1960s and '70s is that the physical record of almost three hundred years of Philadelphia history was thoughtlessly obliterated. The memory of countless Philadelphians living, working, eating, drinking, shopping, visiting and even dying on the Delaware's west bank during this time has been lost and forgotten. It should also be noted, as a final wistful comment, that the superhighway covers the spot where William Penn, the great lawgiver, humanist and real estate developer, first set foot on Philadelphia soil.

And for what purpose? Just to allow anonymous motorists from parts unknown to pass through Philadelphia in the blink of an eye? This utter lack of respect for Philadelphia's past would be unthinkable if the artery were constructed today. Other options would definitely be explored besides routing a noisy fifteen-lane expressway through such an important (yet admittedly shabby) part of Penn's City. Even the possible submersion or demolition of the highway, proposed as of late, could never restore what is gone forever.

Ultimately, though, this has been an account of how the city of Philadelphia has related to its principal river over time. The story is one of ongoing conflict between various uses of the Delaware and the city's original waterfront, ranging from commercial to transportational to residential to recreational. It began playing out in the late seventeenth century during the time of William Penn and Samuel Carpenter. Later, Stephen Girard and Paul Beck contributed greatly to how the story played out. These and other noteworthy men and women molded the riverbank over time and were intimately involved in what happened along this two-mile-long strip of land.

The continuing saga of the Delaware River's western embankment is more relevant in the twenty-first century than ever as the City of Brotherly Love finally rediscovers and reclaims its historic waterfront.

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