6 June 2007 |
The upper Delaware is dappled by hidden little beaches, buzzing cutouts at the edge of the woods rung by smooth cordgrass and tidal mud, which you can access by shimmying down thorny bluffs or following trails of trampled brush. On Memorial Day, with tadpoles at my feet and chartreuse dragonflies sunning on the sand, I stand at the river’s edge. The clouds are high, the air still, and voices – from descending kayaks – are distant. Ten feet off the shore, stepping gingerly across the glazed but not slippery rocks I plunge joyfully below the surface, extending across the dry spring’s easy current and into the legendary shad grounds. The river holds me in its firm heavy arms so that for a brilliant moment I float, simply and unmistakably content.
Now a few days later, I’m on the lower river, behind the Wal-Mart at pier 70. I stand in front of a large white sign half-covered in black graffiti. I no longer feel content. Danger No Trespassing, it says. Just behind me, in the parking lot, rumble the engines of a dozen idling tour buses. Fifty-odd others from New York and Maryland and Ohio – it’s the one place where tour operators can park without being charged – jam the macadam. Right here is the origin of our city – Lenni Lenapes escorting Sven Svenssen and his men up the shore and later Stuyvesant and then William Penn, and still two centuries on right here a million immigrants – the powerful, sea-like expanse that ought to inspire us and remind us of who we are. Yet never has this river seemed so distant, so superfluous to the life of the city.
The Delaware shore line, brutally fragmented and shunted aside, is also effectively barricaded away. It occurs to me that since the Schuylkill now has its Banks, its team of marketers, its own personality (as interpreted by the author Beth Kephart in the forthcoming wonderful, feverish Flow), the name Hidden River ought to be reassigned.
Remarkably, I’m not alone along this narrow stretch of grass between the Wal-Mart parking lot and the chain link blockade. Chris, from Kensington, walks his two Shih Tzu and draws on his pipe. He says he used to take the dogs to Penn Treaty Park, “but Gizmo was attacked so I don’t trust the dogs there anymore.” He comes here twice a day. Lovers lie on a sliver of grass beneath a parking lot tree. Electricians on lunch break dangle fishing lines – “Beats installing plasma TVs,” says one – and here geese bookend their gray goslings. The Danger No Trespassing sign repeats itself infinitely. The sun pours across our faces. We stand gazing out like prisoners at the gate. There is hunger, but also sadness, in our eyes.
Curious, I roam the fence and in a few minutes come across an opening. Someone has bushwhacked a trail through lush mallow, sumac, and clover. The walk, which leads right down to decaying wooden piers, is enough of a reminder of Memorial Day. But here a half-dozen hand-built cat shelters line the way. According to Chris, in defiance of Wal-Mart management, a woman named Linda comes every night to feed the hundred or so cats that live in the brush, put water in their bowls, and leave them plastic toys. “They keep away the rats,” he says, smiling.
The irony, as the historian Steve Conn notes in his wise and prescient Metropolitan Philadelphia, is that the lower Delaware is healthier than it has been in fifty years. Now we ought to dive in; instead we’ll build windowless casinos and other simplistic tourist amenities. This idea, laments Conn, “misses the point. It misses the river itself.”
At the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal, the shoreline abuzz and the Walt Whitman swelling above, the river is everything. Longshoremen are moving steel from the gray Elena Topic onto the flatbeds of trucks; other pieces go onto CSX freight cars. Meanwhile hundreds of containers sitting aboard the Cap Sunion – probably frozen meat from Australia and New Zealand – await the crane. Up close, by the way, the cranes are majestic symbols of contemporary industry — and they are powerful, the strongest one capable of lifting 385 tons of weight. The port is booming, in part thanks to the controversial but mostly symbolic agreement to dredge five feet to a depth of 45 feet. Larger ships are coming.
Dredging, of course, has its rightful detractors. But I’m willing to support it, especially if in exchange we can find ways for all of us – and not just shipping magnates – to recapture this river. These days, I’m just trying to get near it. At Pulaski Park, I slip on the rocks and nearly fall in. But at Penn Treaty, having learned of the William Penn Foundation’s ongoing study of swimming in the Schuylkill and Delaware, I remove my shoes and socks. Travertine ruins float in the haze just above the shore — and I take those first, primal steps. It seems to me the river swoons.