Pennsport: Restoring The History Of Pier 53, One Tree At A Time

Spring is here and with it a renewed sense of optimism among businesses in Philadelphia. Projects that had been stifled by the unrelenting winter will have a chance to catch up, including that of Pier 53 on Washington avenue.

In 2012, the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. awarded a $1.5 million contract to Applied Ecological Services Inc. to design and construct the pier’s renovations. The initiative’s endgame is to provide a series of wetland parks stretching from Pier 53 at the top to Pier 68, behind the Walmart, at the southern end. This stretch is connected by a walking/biking trail along the water’s edge.

As winter gives way to spring, a lone construction worker walks past a collection of materials that, Scott Quitel says, will be preserved.
As winter gave way to spring, a lone construction worker walked past a collection of historical bricks and stones retrieved during the Pier 53 restoration project.

“In that area around Pier 53, we’ve done a survey of fish species and found a greater variety than we expected,” said Lizzie Woods, a planner and project manager for the DRWC. “The piers returning to nature, particularly farther south, are falling apart but providing a valuable habitat for a number of endangered fish species.”

Woods also explained that the DRWC, along with the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, conducted the research on the unique ecology and the myriad aquatic plant and animal life around the once crumbling structure. She said that they’ve done a lot of work on mussel species because they are an accurate indicator of biodiversity and water health.

“The one critique I heard was that we don’t allow fishing on the Race Street Pier, so that is one of the goals for Pier 53 moving forward,” Woods said. “We’re working on getting permission from the city to make possible just that.”

Floating mats, that were installed a few years ago, will serve a way for roots to grab hold, thus transforming them into floating wetlands.
Floating mats, which were installed a few years ago, will serve as a way for roots to grab hold, thus transforming them into floating wetlands.

Scott Quitel, the principal ecologist and branch manager of AES, wanted to make the point that the pier is not a fish habitat per se.

“There’s only so much you can do for fish when you’re dealing with an upland structure,” he said. “This isn’t a place where a lot of fish are going to want to come at and spawn. There’s too much ebb and flow. If you want to go to a place that’s great for fish spawning, the John Heinz Wildlife Refuge is the last remaining fresh-water tidal marsh that exists in all of Pennsylvania.”

“The most surprising thing I’ve seen is osprey,” said Steve Richter, a member of the Friends of Washington Avenue Green, which is the new name for the park at PIer 53. “They’re not nesting here. They’re transients but it was still a sight.”

Quitel leaped down an embankment that had been worn away by the tides and spoke about some of the rubble that washes ashore, as if it were golden coins from a pirate’s shipwreck. He reached down and grabbed an old, weathered stone that looked as if it had been there for a hundred years. He talked about how these old stones were a part of the old immigration station that was once known as the “Ellis Island” of Philadelphia.

He said he has old photos of the immigration station but that he’s never matched up which stone went to which building. He also said they are saving these stones in order to use them as a base for some of the benches they are building. They will build Gabion Baskets, where they will wrap the stones in a fencing material, use that as the base and put a seat on top of it.

Scott Quitel, of AES, pointed to a stone he said once belonged to one of the buildings making up the old immigration station on Pier 53.
Scott Quitel, of AES, pointed to a stone he said once belonged to one of the buildings that made up the old immigration station on Pier 53.

As Quitel continued to admire the stone as if a kid in a candy store, he spoke more about the archeological aspect of the site.

“There’s a free opportunity for people to come in and find these little remnants, leftovers from when the Pennsylvania Railroad ran its trains up to here,” he said. “There are these little token things that sometimes I find.”

Looking up, Quitel said part of the plan is to restore the tree canopy to the way it once was.

“When we first came here you would’ve felt like you were in a tunnel of trees,” Quitel said. “But it was exciting because you come up, you walk down – if it’s really high-tide the water is right near you – and then you rise up again. It was a really cool feel and we want to preserve as much as possible of that.”

Quitel said the bulk of the trees were white mulberry, even though they aren’t native to the area.

“Their fruit is really tasty,” he said with a lucent smile on his face, “and there’s still a few of them left.”

AES also plans to add shrubbery and grass to the floor level, even though this layer used to be infested with weeds, Quitel said. He pointed to a false indigo bush revealing that it was the type of shrub they wanted because it can get its feet wet, meaning it can sit on the water’s edge and withstand droughts and floods.

False Indigos are one of the myriad species of shrubbery that will be planted in and around Pier 53 this Spring.
A False Indigo is one of a few that survived the brutal winter.

Quitel also pointed out that it is a soil system and there are fine layers of brick and concrete rubble that make up the base of the pier.

“An archeologist or a cultural expert would have a ball just trying to analyze the different materials that got packed in [there],” he said.

Maya Van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper is a member of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

“One thing we really wanted to emphasize was that anyone can access these places,” Van Rossum said. “They’re for everyone, not just the very wealthy one percent of Philadelphians who previously had a stranglehold on development here.”

Richter shared a similar sentiment, “We try to keep the trail clean throughout the year and we host two or three events each year with either a college-ee or environmental emphasis on it to try and include everyone. This is important. A lot of people’s ancestors made landfall here, not to mention there is a lot of wildlife here. One of my things is the trash in the area, so I hope they put more recycling bins and trash bins to keep that under control.”

Residents have already begun seeing the positive and negative consequences of these revitalization efforts. These include more traffic through the area, including people bringing their families and workers walking along the banks of the Delaware on their lunch breaks.

“When I first started working at Old Navy in 2009,” recalled Aphrodite Bardakas, a local of the area, “there was hardly any path to walk along or safe access to the water’s edge. Everything used to be fenced off but now I see more clear, safe ways to get to the water.”

A man stands in isolation on one of the abandoned piers that make up the "concrete jungle" that has been Philadelphia's waterfront.
A man stood in isolation on one of the abandoned piers that make up the “concrete jungle” that has been Philadelphia’s waterfront.

For years, the waterfronts in Philadelphia were locked away from the average person to enjoy and were colloquially referred to as concrete jungles. But now, the city has something new to possibly look forward to. A Philadelphia that becomes a model for other cities hoping to achieve something similar as far as transforming their waterfronts from industrial wastelands straight out of the show, “The Walking Dead,” and into vibrant, ecologically sustainable areas that are defined by their accessibility to the water.

Lowell Brown and Anne Gingerich of the Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations are frequent visitors of the area around Pier 53 along the Delaware River.

I’m from Pittsburgh and they’ve been doing similar projects as far as making the land along the water nice and keeping it that way,” Brown said. “It’s the same story everywhere. New York City’s navy yards, Pittsburgh and now here.” 

“I’d love for stuff like this to continue,” Gingerich chimed in. “We’re here finishing up a show with Fringe [Arts] and we’ve just been walking along the path all day. It really is beautiful.”

The Pier is scheduled to open to the public in June.

-Text, video and images by Mike Kitay, Jennifer Robnett and Drew Russin.


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