Southwest Philadelphia: Revitalizing the Schuylkill by Bartram’s Garden

Over the summer, Bartram’s Garden hosted a meeting to get community feedback on the Bartram’s Mile, a stretch of trail that would connect Bartram’s to the Schuylkill River Trail that currently ends around South Street.

They used the opportunity to reach out and find other ways to connect the people in the community to the waterfront. And to help lead them in that effort was Justin DiBerardinis, who came on board to make that connection through programming.

But during the meeting, they found many people still viewed the Schuylkill as an industrial and polluted waterway. One man from Bartram’s Village told a story about falling into the river as a child. When he came out, he was covered in oil.

“It was like this for a century,” said DiBerardinis. “But now there’s a possibility for the river to serve a new purpose.”

Trash from the Schuylkill River
Trash from the Schuylkill River

The history of the Schuylkill as a polluted river goes back to the Industrial Revolution. Although it was Philadelphia’s main source of water, the industries that built up beside it flooded the water with sewage and waste. Coal mined in northern Pennsylvania coated the river all the way downstream to Philadelphia. Although the water from the Schuylkill was considered unsafe by the end of the 1800s, it continued to be the city’s source of drinking water.

These industries blocked attempts to clean-up the river throughout the 19th century and until the 1940s, when The Schuylkill River Project, a joint state-federal clean-up effort, was created. The river was further cleaned in in the 1970s with the introduction of the Clean Water Act.

Although the Schuylkill River was still far from perfect, efforts over the 20th century had greatly improved it. The Schuylkill River was still the source of drinking water for 1.5 million people. The northern section of the river within Philadelphia became a hot spot for rowing and boating with Boathouse Row. Walking along the Schuylkill River Trail, you can follow the sparkling waterway all the way to South Street.

But still the community surrounding the southern section of the Schuylkill saw it as polluted, a thing to avoid, rather than a place to spend their free time.

So the staff at Bartram’s Garden decided to take on the challenge of changing the perception of the river and make it a place for recreation for the whole community.

People cleaning up trash at the Schuylkill
People cleaning up trash at the Schuylkill

They say the garden as a connection point, tying the Schuylkill to the South Philadelphia community with the addition of the Bartram’s Mile to the Schuylkill River Trail. But it also represented a connection in a more figurative sense. It remained as a reminder of a time when the river was used for recreation spot despite the industrial sites that have built up around it. DiBerardinis hoped this unique space would be able to bring back the use of the Schuylkill in recreation for the community.

To do this, he organized a Community River Fest that will take place in June, complete with a boat parade down the Schuylkill. Bartram’s also just finished a big wetland restoration project in the southern part of the garden. The project brought tidal action, plants and wildlife back to the area and offered new educational opportunities in water ecology.

Bartram’s weren’t alone in their efforts to revitalize the Schuylkill. To keep up the cleanliness of the river, they worked with organizations like United by Blue.

United by Blue, a clothing brand based in Philadelphia, started in 2010 with a unique goal. For every item they sold, they pledged to pick up one pound of trash from a waterway. Knowing large amounts of waste in the ocean comes from urban rivers like the Delaware and Schuylkill, United looked around the city for a good location and found the folks at Bartram’s Garden for the site of their first clean-up.

For Mike Cangi, the vice-president of United by Blue, their mission became more personal the more he got involved.

“Whether I’m kayaking or surfing, the pollution over all is affecting that,” he said. “So cleaning the rivers is the main channel to stop the trash from getting out there. It’s cool to be able to be out there so often and make an impact that you know is going to make a difference in the future.”

United By Blue store front
United By Blue store front

Over the past four years, UBB did 104 clean-ups across the country in 21 different states. But they continued to return to the Schuylkill over a dozen times, many of those being at Bartram’s Garden. The amount of trash they pull out has gone down, even though their volunteer count has gone up.

Cangi said the people at Bartram’s Garden are always there to help with United by Blue clean-ups, but many of their volunteers come from different areas of the city, opposed to the surrounding southwest community. He, would love to get the people around more involved.

DiBerardinis said he hoped Bartram’s will offer access to the Schuylkill for a whole new group of people, who haven’t experienced it as a source of recreation yet.

“People usually think of Boathouse Row but that’s sort of exclusive,” he said. “We want Bartram’s to be the people’s Schuylkill River.” w=500 h=281]

– Text, photos and video by Nicole Soll

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