Port Richmond: Residents Hopeful, But Wary, Over Plans to Improve the Riverfront

A Port Richmond resident eats breakfast by the river early Saturday morning with her dog.

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Patty-Pat Kozlowski’s family used to live in Venango. Her father, grandmother and great-aunt grew up in a neighborhood that no longer exists. Into the mid-20th century, the Kozlowskis had farmland near the river. There was a football field where the Venango Bears used to play. Pictures from Kozlowski’s father’s childhood show houses that were bought up by the city and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, torn down and turned into Interstate 95.

The path cleared through the city for I-95 cut off access to the water for most riverfront communities. (Courtesy of the Philadelphia Inquirer)

“Without a doubt, I-95 is what created the barrier between Port Richmond and the river,” said Emily Cooperman, a historian from University of Pennsylvania who is consulting with the Delaware River City Corp. (DRCC) on their trail plans.

“I can tell you personally that it totally split up my family. On Venango Street down by the river there was another community,” Kozlowski said. “My grandfather was a contractor and he had his yard down there with his garages. My grandmother’s aunt had an ice cream store. Everyone lived down there, and now we call it down the back.”

Though they were kicked out of their own little community, Venango residents didn’t go far.

“The funny part is my dad’s family, they didn’t move. They went literally half a block in and lived in the shadow of 95 right there on Venango and Richmond Street,” Kozlowski said. “They’re still there and I only live five blocks away from where my dad was born.”

Now, down the back, east of I-95 to the river, is all industrial parks and garages, Kozlowski said. The two tanks of Philadelphia Gas Works and factories still in operation create a huge concrete and metal jungle that separates the community from the river.

Plans for an elevated highway from Delaware Avenue, which runs through Port Richmond along the river, to Center City go back to the 1930s and the expressway was approved for construction by the city in 1947.

Controversy over the route through Philadelphia quickly became an issue in the design of the elevated highway. Philadelphia architect Frank Weise fought the idea of I-95 being built along the waterfront, warning the Philadelphia City Planning Commission that the elevated roadway would cut the link between the city and the river and undermine waterfront development.

This is why the section of I-95 by Penn’s Landing is depressed and access to the river is available.

The rest of the highway extending north along the Delaware River, however, continued to be built as an elevated road, and did split most riverfront communities in half. Kozlowski said tBridesburg is the only river ward neighborhood that lies east of I-95.

Venango was completely demolished by the time I-95 was built through Port Richmond in 1968.

Now, that section of Port Richmond is largely abandoned save for some auto body shops, contractors and other manufacturing businesses.

“That whole part east of 95 in Port Richmond was just forgotten. We lost all the homes down there,” Kozlowski said. “It’s an eyesore and it’s horrible. I don’t know why they didn’t develop it.”

“You know, our saying was that no one goes down the back. You either go to walk your dog, to dump your furniture because there’s no police activity back there and nobody’s watching because it’s dark with no lights, or your go back there to make out,” Kozlowski said. “And I think everyone in Port Richmond did one of the three. That’s what down the back is now.”

A Port Richmond resident ate breakfast by the river early Saturday morning with her dog.

Pulaski Park, a half-acre strip of grass and trees along a fishing pier at the end of Allegheny Avenue, is the only nice piece of waterfront left in Port Richmond. It is surrounded on both sides by giant industrial parks, but the little patch of green space is a well-loved and well-visited part of the neighborhood.

Weekend fisherman Anthony Sheridan has been coming to the park via the Allegheny exit of I-95 early Saturday mornings for a long time because it’s the closest place to fish.

“People come out in full down here on the weekends. I get here at 5:30 a.m. and catch catfish from my truck,” he said. “If you cleaned up the water and the trash, it would be 10 times better.”

Port Richmond has always been an industrial community. The port used to be a major maritime commercial center for the city and made war ships during the world wars. Due to the closing of the port’s railroad access on Conrail, it was phased out as a part of the city’s industry and the biggest user today is the Tioga Marine Terminal.

After Venango was dismantled, large commercial companies bought up the land east of I-95 because it was a cheap place to set up factories and plants. The vast majority of the riverfront in Port Richmond is privately owned and does not allow access to the neighborhood.

When asked why something to improve this vacant area between the community and the river wasn’t done in the 50 years since I-95 was built, Cooper, Kozlowski and Tom Branigan, the Executive Director of the DRCC, all gave the same answer: Good question.

Residents like Kozlowski are tired of looking at empty concrete junkyards and industrial factories when they look to the river. Hearing stories of their grandparents spending days on the river like it was the Jersey shore have made some people in Port Richmond and other communities come together to improve the waterfront.

These efforts have been a combination of home-grown conservation teams and city commissioned organizations that use grant money to build a better riverfront a improve access for residents.

The Delaware River Waterfront Corp. (DRWC) is working with PennDOT to improve I-95 underpasses between Oregon and Allegheny Avenues, find uses for the land under the expressway and even working with private land-owners to create some parks for public riverfront access at some points.

A before and after image of Allegheny Avenue shows how the DRCC plans to construct the Port Richmond Trail.

Though the majority of the six-mile stretch of riverfront the corporation is focused on is south of Port Richmond, the DRWC will be working with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation to clean up Pulaski Park.

The DRCC is another nonprofit working with Fairmount Park, the City Planning Commission and community civil organizations with plans to beautify the riverfront.

“The development of the waterfront was a dream of Bob Borski, who was a former congressman for this area,” Branigan said. “He looked at the Delaware River as a lost treasure. I-95 separated the communities from the river and his idea and vision was to open it back up to them. That’s actually the mission statement of the DRCC, to bring the communities together with the river.”

Congressman Borski started the DRCC in the early 2000s after raising money for strategic plan studies and a master plan to be designed, Branigan said. After starting his project in the early nineties, a plan for a trail and riverfront improvement is finally underway.

As the overseers of the Delaware River Greenway project commissioned by the city, the DRCC is using grant money from the city, state and federal government to build an 11-mile group of trails and parks along the river.

The trail will extend through Port Richmond, Bridesburg, Wissinoming, Tacony, Holmesburg and Torresdale and will connect on either side to the larger East Coast Greenway, a 3,000-mile bike and walking path from Florida to Maine.

The Port Richmond Trail, funded in part by a grant from the “Take Me to the River” program of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, will be a 12-foot wide asphalt path that will run east on Allegheny Avenue from Richmond Street and along Delaware Avenue into Bridesburg. The trail will widen the sidewalk and be landscaped on both sides in an attempt to shield the walker from the industrial setting along this strip.

The DRCC has plans for an interpretive signage program that it’s working on with Philadelphia historians to tell trail users where they are and what wildlife the Delaware riverfront has to offer.

“I’m hoping that we can get construction started in September or October,” Branigan said. “We’ll be bidding the project probably sometime at the end of August. I believe it’s about seven or eight months of work.”

For the residents of Port Richmond, these plans are welcomed but taken with a bit of skepticism. They’ve heard promises from the city and planning commissions before.

“I think we’ve come to the conclusion of, don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s rain,because when we do come out to these meetings, they’re very long, there’s a lot of information, yet in the end I don’t think a lot of our questions have been answered,” Kozlowski said. “We’ve been hearing it for decades. You keep hearing something and it doesn’t happen you just put it on the back burner.”

Maryann Trombetta, president of the Port Richmond Town Watch, expressed a similar frustration with plans to improve the waterfront.

“I’ll say this, I’ll believe it when I see it,” she said. “They’ve been telling us about this trail for five years.”

There were similar plans to revamp Richmond Street into the next main street Manyunk two decades ago, Kozlowski said.

“We had master planners come in and say this is what the façade would be and the street-scape and we can get all these businesses in there, out door sidewalk cafes and a trolley,” she said. But nothing happened, and now Richmond Street had a lot of smaller shops close due to bigger competition.

Despite being the only waterfront park in Port Richmond, Pulaski Park has a lot of graffiti.

Kozlowski also got discouraged because of failed efforts to turn Pulaski Park into a nice safe area like the Friends of Campbell Square did with the other Port Richmond park about a decade ago.

“I was very passionate about Pulaski, I was always down there cleaning it and we tried to adopt it,” she said. “Working with Pulaski was one step forward, two steps back.”

Kozlowski and other determined residents won grant money from Fairmount Park and Philly Green to plant two American Hop Hornbeam trees in the park.

“We planted them on Friday and by Monday they were stolen,” Kozlowski said. “Somebody actually drove a truck into the park, dug up the trees and yanked them out because they knew they were a good species of tree.”

She would also go down and paint over graffiti on the pier and benches and the next day there would be fresh graffiti tags all over the park. They also received money from the city for a metal sign that described the park, but it was hit by drag racers at night and bent so much the city took it down, Kozlowski said.

“If you go out to Pulaski Park and walk out to the river. it is the best scene of Center City Philadelphia and nobody knows it,” she said. “That’s a wonderful park and we could turn it into the next Campbell Square. Can you imagine if you had that on the river? Everyone would be on the river. We need help, we need help form our city and state because that could become such a great park.”

The DRCC has plans for other programs once the trail is complete to expand the improvement of the riverfront, including kayaking tours and live music. Once the trail is complete, Branigan said it would be turned over to Fairmount Park for upkeep, but the nonprofit plans to continue raising money to guarantee the parks and trail remains clean and secure for residents and visitors.

Residents of Port Richmond will have to see if the DRWC, DRCC and the city keep their promises to help communities reconnect with the riverfront and keep it beautiful.