Riverfront an old Friend in ‘Burg

Bridesburg Star
by Brian Rademaekers

Sitting in a small building near the fenced-off banks of the Delaware River, members of the Bridesburg Historical Society listened as Jayne Spector told the story of how the neighborhood had been shaped by the massive body of water. Spector, a landscape architect, flipped through slides showing maps dating to the 1600s, historical photographs, and clippings of poetry written by a sailor back when the area was known simply as “Point No Point.” And as she neared present day, residents began to fill in the blanks with their own history, tied forever to the river.

Spector created the presentation from a project she undertook during a cultural landscape course at the University of Pennsylvania. The idea, she said, was to understand Bridesburg’s changing relationship with the river.  The neighborhood first started out as a handful of inns and taverns set up for travelers using the Delaware River ferry and a bridge over Frankford Creek, Spector explained. In time, that cluster of dwellings evolved into an industrial powerhouse, with hundreds of mills along Frankford Creek and an active port along the Delaware. It was during this era that the banks of the river in Bridesburg were carved out for easier ship access, and a pier extending from Bridge Street was built. Eventually that pier became an important part of the neighborhood. Later, the railroad would come to replace ships as the dominant movers of riverfront industry.

But in addition to the working uses of the river, it still remained a recreational center for residents, with yachts and fishing shacks intermingling with the industry.  “Even during this industrial time, the riverfront was still a mixed-use area with recreation along the river,” Spector said. For some time, the riverbanks in Bridesburg remained a place where people lived, worked and had fun. But after World War II, things began to change. Most heavy industry moved out of the area, but warehouses remained in private hands and access to river became restricted. Even occupied parcels, like the Rohm and Haas plant, became off-limits.

Spector said the Bridge Street pier provides an example of how the people’s relationship with the riverfront changed over time, from a central part of daily life to being non-existent when Rohm and Haas filled in the water at the end of the pier.  “That whole area was carved away, but now that ship access is no longer important, it has been filled back in almost to the point where it was originally. In fifty years, it went from being a pier to a vacant piece of storage land,” said Spector.

With that transition came a change in Bridesburg’s relationship with the water.
“Now, it really has no connection to the river,” said Spector, who regards it as part of a trade-off that resulted from having industry in the area.  “It gave them jobs, but they also lost something in the process,” said Spector.  Robert Dickson, a 62-year-old Bridesburg resident who saw the presentation, feels that loss keenly.  “We used to be able to go down to the river at Bridge Street and then walk all the way down to Allegheny Avenue,” Dickson recalled. “We could walk down just about any street and get to the river. If you went down there now, a cop would stop you like you were a terrorist.” When he was growing up, the river was a big part of the neighborhood. He and his friends always headed for the water to fish and swim, even if they had to climb heaps of garbage to get there. The irony, he noted, is that the river is far cleaner today than it was then, but nobody can get to it. “The fishing is spectacular now, if you can find a spot to get down there,” Dickson said, throwing his hands in the air. He thinks the loss of the river has made the neighborhood less of good place for kids to grow up. “There is nothing for kids to do anymore, and that’s why they get into trouble. The river used to give us stuff to do,” Dickson said.

Fred Siegle, who also grew up in the neighborhood, shares Dickson’s feelings.
“I love Rohm and Haas, but I hate what they did to the pier,” said Siegle. Now 76, he remembers when he used to sneak off from his job selling newspapers near the Frankford Arsenal in the 1940s to find adventure along the river with his friends. When he got older, the riverfront became a place for romance. “Most marriages in the neighborhood were somehow connected to that pier; it was where you went with your girlfriend,” recalled Siegle. With those connections now gone, many in the neighborhood are wondering if the river will ever become as important as it once was.

Sarah Thorp, executive director of the non-profit Delaware River City Corp., said her group hopes to restore the relationship that Bridesburg residents once had with the river. “The whole mission of our organization is to reconnect Philadelphia to the river,” explained Thorp, who will be presenting her group’s vision for the future of the waterfront to the historical society next month. The broad idea, she said, is to create a system of parks and access points along the river that will be connected, allowing people to once again walk the river’s shores. “There are some parks now, but they’re not connected, and they aren’t really connected to the neighborhoods either,” said Thorp.

And while private land owned along the river still stands in the way of true riverfront access in Bridesburg, residents should see changes by 2009, Thorp said. Starting this summer, a decade-old plan to extend Delaware Avenue from Lewis Street in Port Richmond to Buckius Street in Bridesburg will finally get underway. Thorp said the federally funded $18 million project will feature trees, grass and a parallel bike path that will create a recreation area similar to the scenic Kelly Drive along the Schuylkill River. Work will also begin on a riverfront park, to be called “Lardner’s Point”, near the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge. Within the next five years, Thorp hopes the park will be connected to other parks by a continuous green path along the river.

That, no doubt, will make people like Dickson, Siegle and the generation of Bridesburg youth cut off from the river feel more connected to the waterway that brought the birth of their neighborhood.


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