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Amy Kelly dreams that the Cherry Street Pier on the Delaware River waterfront is reborn as a new Hotel Chelsea, the legendary New York City artist residence that was once an epicenter of American bohemianism.
“Maybe one day somebody will write a book about this place: This person used to hang out here; this person was friends with that person,” Kelly said. “It’s kind of exciting.”
The Cherry Street Pier opened in October 2018, the former shipping dock for the United Fruit Company renovated as a semi-enclosed public park with a community of on-site artists. Under its roof are stacked shipping containers outfitted as artist studios. Visitors to the pier are encouraged to see what they are up to.
The studio rentals are structured to ensure new artists can rotate in periodically, but Kelly has been there since the beginning: first as a teaching artist with the resident company Portside Arts Center. When that organization folded she returned to Cherry Street Pier as an independent artist.
“I didn’t want to leave. I love it here,” she said. “It’s beautiful. It’s got these big windows, and the view of the water, and the rest of the artists. We get along really well.”
The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation (DRWC) is now celebrating five years of the Cherry Street Pier as a public amenity, hosting markets, festivals, performances, exhibitions, and parties. Creative director Sarah Eberle said the concept has been successful: She will soon welcome the one millionth person to the pier (likely this spring), and the artists have benefitted from their residencies.
“I’m happy to say that most of our artists have left and have gone on to bigger and better things,” she said. “That was always the goal, that it would be an incubator that would elevate these people.”
Thirty-seven artists have moved through Cherry Street Pier since it opened, including Sharif Pendleton, who has gone on to open Laser Philly, a laser cutting design studio in Northern Liberties; and fiber artist Carla Fisher, who moved to Oriental, North Carolina, and founded the artist center ArtWorks Oriental.
The prominent pop-up book artist Colette Fu has been a resident, as has former city poet laureate Yolanda Wisher, who wrote an ode to the Cherry Street Pier:
pier of peers, now you’re many stories
& we are your united fruit
free. alighting from many republics
of the body & mind
garden of artists along the river
cargo of undomesticated dreams
The Cherry Street Pier is one part of the DRWC master plan to attract Philadelphians to their own waterfront. It has renovated other dilapidated piers into parks, but Eberle said Cherry Street is the centerpiece development. Because it has a roof and walls with large windows it is able to keep dry and protected in most weather conditions, while keeping itself open to the river.
The pier is able to show somewhat vulnerable public artwork — it has hosted exhibitions of electric neon tubing and a glass fountain with live mussels — and still be open-air enough to be an unexpectedly crucial space during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when people needed to gather but keep their distance.
“During the pandemic the pier really shifted, and became a place for nonprofits and other organizations and artists to have a safe space to work in terms of rehearsals or performances,” Eberle said. “Since the pandemic we’ve continued to follow that model.”
The Philadelphia Ballet has become a regular guest, staging free dance performances on the pier. The ballet provided Eberle with a special moment that confirmed the value of what she does.
“This mother and daughter came in to see one of their free performances that they were doing on the pier, and this little girl was crying because she had never seen professional ballet dancers in person before,”she said. “That’s the best moment. That’s what Cherry Street Pier is for: To make those little girls see those ballet dancers and think, ‘I can do that. I can be that ballet dancer.’”
Eberle said the last five years have been a process of experimenting and fine-tuning the pier. For example: Not all artists like to be in a semi-public studio space, or to comply with the rental agreement that says they have to be in the studio a certain number of hours when the pier is open to the public. But some artists nevertheless want to be part of the community. Eberle plans to launch a new program this winter that will bring in non-resident artists.
A 5th anniversary exhibition is currently on view at the Cherry Street Pier, featuring large-scale artwork that has appeared in festivals on the pier, a photo array of past artists, and a visual history of the industrial dock. It will be on view until January 1.
Saturdays just got more interesting.