Rediscovering Spruce Street’s power to unite Philadelphians

From left to right: Alexander Williams

From left to right: Alexander Williams

I was born on Spruce Street. There’s not a lot that’s happened there that I haven’t experienced. I remember when a rowhouse became Philly’s first gourmet restaurant, Le Bec Fin (now Vetri). Later, the Mom and Pop grocery store and laundromat of my childhood turned into Yupscale eateries. And what had been the discrete, gay nightlife at the Venture Inn exploded into a multitude of popular bars and restaurants now known as the Gayborhood.

So, when I first heard of Spruce Street Harbor Park, I thought: Cool. They are finally doing something about the boring concrete expanse that is Penn’s Landing. Hammocks, beer, ice cream, food trucks? How nice for the hoards who roam South Street on weekends. But it wasn’t reason enough for me to ever cross Delaware Avenue. That is, until last week.

A friend and I were at a Headhouse Square bar, when the dance floor suddenly emptied. It was only 9:30pm.

“Where’d everyone go?” I asked.

“Over to Spruce Street Harbor,” said a guy, hoisting a backpack and heading for the door.

My friend and I looked at one another. Why not? Neither of us were exactly sure where the Park entrance was, as we walked in the general direction of lights illuminating the waterfront. The biggest challenge was the pedestrian crossing at Delaware Avenue. We were only halfway across the street when the light began a countdown 10-9-8-7-6 towards our becoming a statistic on the Evening News.

Upon entering Spruce Street Harbor Park, the first thing I noticed was the expressions on the faces of children. For most, it was after their bedtime, but there they were, dazzled by garlands of multi-colored lights hanging from trees, eating ice cream, playing games and splashing in fountains. Teens were clustered, madly texting and flirting. Families and couples on dates gathered at café tables in lushly landscaped terraces. Others stood in line at Jose Garces and Federal Donut food trucks. It smelled like Heaven.

“C’mon, you’ve got to see the Beach,” said my friend.

I followed him onto a Beer Garden magically floating above the River. Since when is Camden romantic? Well, it is when viewed at night from Spruce Street Beach. We sat in Adirondack chairs, our feet in the sand, and gazed out at the lights of the Ben Franklin Bridge, the Moshulu, the Camden skyline and the stars. I even tried crawling out onto one of the rope hammocks suspended over the Delaware. It felt better than a Sleep Number bed. How long has this been going on? (Um, four years!)

Now about those hammocks. I had imagined a limited row strung out over pavement. The designers of Spruce Street Harbor Park were waaaaay ahead of me. Hammocks hung from trees throughout the Park, turning a slice of Philly into a Bali beach. And, yes, every hammock was occupied. It was like looking for a parking space.

By the time we found the terrace where the dancing was happening, I was already gaga about the Park. It reminded me of childhood memories of the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, a place in which family tensions dissolve in the presence of captivating aromas, the taste of ice cream, colored lights and summer breezes. All this without the white knuckle drive on the AC Expressway!

However, it was the blues dance event in the Park that turned me into a True Believer. A dozen or so couples moved gracefully on the cement terrace while others danced in a pool of water that came up to their knees. Women danced with women. Men with men. And every other combination. They were casually dressed in shorts, t-shirts, sneakers, mini-skirts. Some soaking wet. What they had in common was that most were in their twenties and were regulars at Powerhouse Blues, a non-profit organization that offers low-cost dance lessons and dance events in Center City.

Although my friend and I were new to the blue dance scene (and old enough to be the parents of most of the other dancers), we gave it a whirl. I felt like I was on a luxury cruise. Music. Laughter. Dancing. Good food. Games for kids. Ships listing in the harbor.

That’s when it hit me. We are supposed to be a deeply polarized nation, poised for an election that will rip the country apart. Racism and police brutality are dominating social media. And yet, there at Spruce Street Harbor Park on a Sunday night, I saw hundreds of Philadelphians of every color, ethnicity, age, race, religion and income level sharing the joys of a summer night in peace and friendship.

They say we need to start a national conversation. Maybe what we really need are more shared public spaces like Spruce Street Harbor Park where people from diverse communities can come together and rediscover their shared humanity.

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