lost waterfronts -- 3/24/14
Today's selection -- from Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront by Harry Kryriakodis. Civilization was founded on rivers: the Nile, the Indus, the Thames -- and in early America the Hudson and the Delaware. A vibrant waterfront is a priceless resource. Unfortunately, Philadelphia, like many other American cities, effectively lost its riverfront in the 1970s with the completion of its gleaming new interstate highway.
Today's selection -- from Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront by Harry Kryriakodis. Civilization was founded on rivers: the Nile, the Indus, the Thames -- and in early America the Hudson and the Delaware. A vibrant waterfront is a priceless resource. Unfortunately, Philadelphia, like many other American cities, effectively lost its riverfront in the 1970s with the completion of its gleaming new new interstate highway.
"Great cities have great rivers, and the city of Philadelphia has two of the finest and most historic rivers in the United States: the Delaware and the Schuylkill. Both have played critical roles in the American Revolution of the eighteenth century, the Industrial and Transportation Revolutions of the nineteenth century, and even the Environmental Revolution of the twentieth century.
"In the early 1680s, William Penn (1644-1718) specifically established his City of Brotherly Love at the narrowest point between these waterways to take advantage of the benefits afforded by them. In a letter to London, he gushed:
[O]f all the many places I have seen in the world, I remember not one better seated; so that it seems to me to have been appointed for a town, whether we regard the rivers, or the conveniency of the coves, docks, springs, the loftiness and soundness of the land and the air:
"Penn envisioned his colony of Pennsylvania sprawling westward from the river settlement of Philadelphia, which would serve as the colony's seat of government and base of mercantile activity.
"Philadelphia's geography made it ideal as an inland seaport, and Penn's settlement responded to maritime opportunities quickly. The city became the first major shipping port in North America, so much so that a visitor in 1756 commented, 'Everybody in Philadelphia deals more or less in trade.'
"By the onset of the War for Independence, Penn's town was third only to Liverpool and London as an essential business location.
"The Delaware River waterfront was the axis of the Port of Philadelphia's maritime, commercial and political bustle for some two hundred years after the city's founding. For a long time, when people outside Philadelphia thought about the city, this lively place was what came to mind -- and not in a bad way.
The South East Prospect of the City of Philadelphia, by Peter Cooper, circa 1720.
"This was where wheeling and dealing went on to encourage local, regional and national enterprise. This was where a good amount of the nation's military forces got their start. This was where transportation advances and other inventions were created and exhibited. This was where terrible urban contagions began. This was where early American capitalists made their fortunes. And this was where the individual American colonies were crafted into a nation.
"Philadelphia kept its position as America's greatest trade center until the 1820s, when New York's location and financial strength bumped Penn's City to second place. Still, the city's riverfront remained the heart of town.
"But as the river district grew increasingly grim and grimy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it started to be taken for granted and then became an afterthought. This change in regard was fostered by Philadelphia's relentless push to the west, first to the deforested area beyond Sixth Street in the 1700s, then to the City Hall neighborhood in the 1800s and then to points west, north and south in the 1900s.
As wealthy residents and merchants left the original part of Philadelphia for greener pastures, the Delaware River's edge became forlorn and unattractive -- a forgotten backwater, so to speak, and certainly nothing to celebrate. The river itself practically died before World War II because of pollution, while commerce on and by the water declined dramatically afterward. The mile-wide Delaware, long the city's front door, had shut. An Interstate highway was then run through to seal the deal.
|Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront|
|The History Press|
|Copyright 2011 by Harry Kyriakodis|