More reflections on Race Street Pier

By Lily Applebaum
For PlanPhilly

I was out with a few friends and we were looking for something to do this past Sunday, and at my suggestion we decided to check out the newly opened Race Street Pier Park.

We wanted to show off Philadelphia to a visitor from out of town, so rather than take SEPTA we mapped a walking route from West Philadelphia which took us all the way down Walnut Street to 2nd Street, then north to Race Street, and finally out to the park. The walk was long but enjoyable, and many people were out on even this bleak and unseasonably cold Sunday. It was a leisurely stroll, and we allowed ourselves as much time as we wanted to take detours, pausing to go down Elfreth’s Alley or gawk at the grey stone mystery of the Merchants’ Exchange building.

We finally reached Mr. Bar Stool, hallmark of the intersection of 2nd and Race, and were a bit unsure of the right path. We felt a little like explorers even though we were simply following the sidewalk, which led us below I-95. We emerged from the shade of the overpass staring out at the Delaware River, across at Camden, and up at the Ben Franklin Bridge as we waited to cross Columbus Boulevard.

On this particular journey, we all felt that once we reached the park and walked up to the elevated central platform, we had reached a place for resting and some quiet introspection. However, other fellow Philadelphians found different uses for the space: a group of twenty-somethings walked their bikes out to the very edge of the platform and chattered about their ride; several couples came through with their young children to run around and explore the new steps, stairs, trees, ramps, and lawns; four people cast fishing lines into the river from the lower level; one man sat eating a sandwich and typing on a small laptop.

I sat and wondered about the city, the animals, the people and the structures that had come before me. Our walk told an incredible, non-narrative story of the City as we walked past buildings as varied as the historically preserved or the state-of-the-art in hospital construction, slowly ambling through such diverse areas as West Philadelphia, Rittenhouse, Chinatown, Independence Park, Old City.

And now we found ourselves in a beautiful park looking at old and abandoned brick and stone structures with modern skyscrapers in the western sky.  Between trying to think myself back through 300 years of the city’s history, and standing beneath the massive car-and-train scale of the Ben Franklin Bridge, I felt tiny in dimensions of both space and time. And yet, this was not an alienating feeling. It gave me a tremendous sense of place, and of what it means to live right here in Philadelphia, in the United States at the start of the second decade of the 21st century.

Others might have found the floating plastic bottles and tree-limbs trapped among the pier structures at the river shore line unsightly, but I found them a refreshing metaphor for what I hope the pier and further development along the waterfront will bring to Philadelphia: a place for enjoyment and reflection. Not an antiseptic completely cleaned-up addendum to Philadelphia, but rather a connected network of spaces that allows us to use the city to its fullest potential while reminding us of where it has been, and giving us time to pause and wonder where it is going in the future.

Contact the writer at lily.applebaum@gmail.com

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