Beneath Interstate 76, on the suburban bank of the Schuylkill River, 200 people gathered on the holiday morning in below freezing temperatures to wield chain saws, axes, shovels and picks.
Traffic droned above and trains screeched past, but they could not drown out the cheers and grunts of volunteers as they cleared brush and leveled ground, working to make possible a cross-river connection between the Cynwyd Heritage Trail and the Schuylkill River Trail.
The Martin Luther King Day of Service inspires community activism in many forms, but this project required unusual exertion. Many of the volunteers were runners and cyclists who already use the Schuylkill River Trail, and were happy to expand its reach. At least half were athletes from St. Joseph’s University. Though they plan on using the trail they were blazing when it opens in September, they saw their labors as a gift to future generations.
The city has received $1.3 million from the state to convert the old Manayunk rail bridge (also known as the Pencoyd Viaduct) into a cross-river pathway for bikers and walkers. On the Montgomery side, that path will hook up with the Cynwyd Heritage Trail. The city has 18 months to use the money, or lose it, so that lent some urgency to the volunteer effort.
Chris Leswing, Lower Merion Township assistant director of building and planning, has been working on plans to connect the two trails for almost four years. He says the crowd at work today is the result of an “unusual partnership” of governments, nonprofits and users of the trails. This is Leswing’s second MLK service day leading volunteers along the river banks. Evoking Dr King’s famous words, he said, “I had a dream that we can clean this stuff up and make a park, and we did.”
The more than 100 St. Joe’s athletes poured out of university buses, and began tackling different tasks by team. The men’s lacrosse team easily unearthed a 20-foot-long piece of frigid iron train rail.
Jake Gill, assistant baseball coach, said the day of service gave his team a chance to “fulfill the Jesuit ideal of service to others. It’s an important part of their four years in school. [Education] is not just an athletic endeavor and it’s not just an academic endeavor; there is a community and a service and a life aspect to it as well.”
A sense of accomplishment rippled through the crowd as the work progressed. A child shouted, “Dad look at how big this branch is!” before chucking it onto one of many huge piles. Trish Gdowik of Roxborough predicted, “I can ride my bike to work, once this gets finished!”
Dan Popernack, a Spanish teacher at the Phelps School in Malvern, led a group of 12 boys working right underneath the expressway. Of the students he brought from the boarding school, four were Chinese.
Asked if it is difficult to explain Martin Luther King Jr. day to them, he said, “This is a day for everyone to help with everyone. That a pretty easy and simple message to get through. You just need to give back, whether you’re in your own land or half way across the world. That translates very well.”