By Kellie Patrick and Matt Blanchard
Like the residents of other river ward neighborhoods who spoke of their hopes for the future of the Delaware Riverfront, South Philadelphians want to preserve and enhance their quality of life.
As in Society Hill and Kensington, they wanted greater access to the waterfront, parks, and affordable housing. And they don’t want casinos.
But most of the people who crowded Tuesday’s Penn Praxis session at Furness High School – many walked from their nearby homes – either work at the port or are related to someone who does.
And so their list of desires skewed in that direction: Dredging the river for larger ships, enlarging the port.
“Philadelphia is lucky enough to have two rivers,” said Anthony Evers, 51, a longshoreman. “The Delaware side has always been the working side.”
A working port can co-exist with green space and residential development, Evers said. The sheer size of a casino and its parking lot trouble him.
Because many who work the river also live in the neighborhood, their casino concerns are also related to their quality of life.
Some predicted property values would plummet. Others shouted that gambling is a vice.
“We’re a spiritual community,” said Terry Paylor, a board member of the Whitman Council, a South Philadelphia civic association who has lived in her neighborhood for 48 years. She cited the names of four parishes — and also about seven schools in the area.
“I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with casinos, but if we’re putting them in their face in the formative years, aren’t we saying it’s OK?”
Anthony Brocco, is a third-generation longshoreman and a Fernon Street block captain who seems equally proud of both. He worries if Foxwoods Casino is built, his little street, two blocks away, will overflow with traffic. “It’s the epicenter,” he said.
And it’s not just car traffic Brocco worries about. It’s also drugs and prostitution – things he wants to keep far from his son, also named Anthony.
Evers, Paylor and Brocco spoke outside the school, where Brocco picketed, and inside, where longshoremen refused to break into the small working groups used in prior Praxis sessions to capture each citizen’s vision of the riverfront. Instead, Harris Sokoloff moderated a rowdy, hot-tempered discussion in which residents expressed considerable anger at the casino scheme, politicians and the planners themselves.
But upstairs in the school’s library, about 30 residents were willing to take part in the small group discussions that have been a key part of other neighborhood sessions. They interviewed each other about the specific ways waterfront plans should bolster five planning values Philadelphians said they want reflected at the Delaware: History, Safety, Economic Sustainability, Diversity and the Environment.
Considering safety, resident Heidi Warren found a linkage between her personal safety and the scale of building projects.
“Just knowing my neighbors adds to that feeling of safety. When people have a sense of community, they get to know each other, and it creates a safety net. It’s the little things. People keep an eye on them. That goes for garbage on the sidewalk, and it goes for watching the kids.”
Warren said the giant scale of recent waterfront developments makes public space anonymous, and seems inimical to that sense of community, and undermines the sense of safety.
Warren wasn’t alone. During the final step in the collaborative process, residents pooled their ideas on safety and found that building size played a role. As one woman remarked: “What we have down on the river now are very large things. It’s not neighborhoody at all. It’s not built at the right scale to make a person feel comfortable.”
Breakthroughs were made on other subjects as well.
The Diversity working group quickly arrived at a key insight: Maintaining a lively mix of uses on the waterfront will require the force of law – new zoning laws that would require all new construction to be mixed-use.
The Environment working group realized that the Delaware was clean enough for most uses, yet public access is severely restricted.
“The river’s useable, and now we’ve got to use it,” said John Dawson. “Much of the river bank is inaccessible and in poor condition … Sometimes you’ll see kids swimming off the piers. It’s all derelict property, but they’re using it anyway.” Dawson saw no reason not to simply open access points for swimming, fishing and other activities.
The Economic Sustainability group’s work reflected the sentiments of the more rowdy debate going on in the cafeteria: The city desperately needed long-range planning to protect and expand the port facilities that employ so many, they said.
And why not bolster the economy by honoring the legacy of the working river? Philadelphia’s long and largely unknown maritime history could easily become an asset in the lucrative tourism market – if steps were taken to highlight that history, they said.