Down by the river

April, they say, is the cruelest month. This year March proved equally baleful, teasing us one day with 70-degree temperatures only to plunge us back into winter the next for another bout of bitter winds. It was on one of those out-of-the-blue balmy days that our thoughts turned to Schuylkill River Park.

The slender strip of green that hugs the east bank of the Schuylkill from Locust Street to the Water Works has had a checkered history, and it’s still playing out. Ongoing battles rage between park advocates and freight rail company CSX, whose trains travel on rails adjacent to the park.

The point of contention—beyond the malodorous and sometimes hazardous contents of the freight containers—has to do with access to the park. Right now, joggers, dog walkers and lunchtime strollers can only access it from the Walnut, Chestnut or Market street bridges. A street level crossing should soon be accessible at Race Street, but CSX continues to fight against a similar entry point at Locust—a shame for residents of the newly renovated luxury loft building Locust on the Park, who live steps away from the park but must walk blocks to access it. Officially, at least. In reality, plenty of people ignore the “Do Not Enter” and “Private Property” signs, brazenly crossing the train tracks to reach the park.

On a recent lunch hour, we strolled the length of Schuylkill Banks, as the park is now known, to find out if this embattled venture, so long in the making and so far from the finish line, is worth all the civic ranting and raving.

Earth moving equipment and large piles of earth leave little doubt that this is still a work in progress. Plans call for the park to be extended to South Street, though sufficient funds have yet to be raised, and the landscaping for the rest of the park looks to be in its early stages, with trees little more than saplings and many areas still covered with black tarps.

As soon as you reach river level, though, you start to see why the leaders behind Schuylkill Banks have clung to their vision so tenaciously through the years. The view from here is different. For a city bounded by two rivers, Philadelphia has long lacked the feel of a river city, but here, finally, is a chance for us to get reacquainted with the stately Schuylkill.

Just don’t come here expecting to get away from it all. The constant drone of traffic from I-76 directly across the water provides the soundtrack for a walk here any time of day. On top of that ceaseless hum comes the sporadic grinding and screeching of freight trains plying their slow, stop-and-start way along the riverside tracks.

Within this most urban of environments, though, you’ll be treated to sights and sounds that lift the heart and leave office worries far behind. On our visit we watched a bandana clad Collie joyfully chasing a Frisbee across a broad expanse of scrubby, early spring grass. A group of seagulls bobbed on the sparkling water, while others wheeled through the air calling out as they scanned the rippling surface for food.

Being at such a low elevation gives you a different perspective on the city’s buildings, too. The Post Office building and 30th Street Station dominate the west bank, their Beaux Arts majesty offering a breathtaking counterpoint to the Cira Center’s glassy elegance. And while the bland modernity of the Walnut and Chestnut Street bridges reminds us why the Schuylkill will never rival the Seine, the Market Street bridge is a thing of beauty, with graceful arches topped off by elaborate lighting fixtures, each sporting dozens of milk glass globes.

With ample and varied seating—craggy boulders, polished granite slabs between the Market Street and JFK bridges, and lots of handsome iron benches—and lights every 20 feet or so, the park has a safe, orderly feel that’s enhanced by the almost total lack of trash. Yes, there’s graffiti on the undersides of the bridges and CSX could do a better job keeping its tracks garbage free, but Schuylkill Banks has a spiffy, freshly scrubbed ambiance that’s refreshing in a city known more for grit and grime.

When the landscaping grows in and the warmer weather arrives, the river path promises to be a still more tempting respite from our computers and work schedules. With a picnic in hand from, well, Picnic (the take-out foodery is conveniently en route from campus), we can think of few better places for an impromptu mid-day escape. We’ll see you there.

Originally published on March 30, 2006.

Originally published on March 30, 2006