River Plan Would Put Rowing Within Reach Of More People The Proposed Camp On The Schuylkill Would Teach The Sport To Those Who Cannot Now Afford It.

Posted: December 12, 1996

Anyone pausing on the east bank of the Schuylkill beneath the Walnut Street Bridge will see the usual evidence of a restless river, a sleepless city - waterborne trash, discarded bottles, graffiti-marred abutments.

Margaret Mund and Hilary Langer see something else - a dock, where pencil-thin sculling craft bob in the water, a place where schoolkids take up oars for the first time and working folks can put down their cares for an afternoon.

A spot, they say, where democracy in rowing can flourish.

It's a rower's paradise, they insist, this weeded spot below the waterfalls and considerably south of the traditional scullers' hot spot in front of Philadelphia's famous Boathouse Row.

An equal-opportunity paradise, too: The site would host a rowing camp for inner-city and disadvantaged kids, retirees, and others unwilling or unable to pay the cost of joining one of the fancier clubs north of the falls.

The camp would go a long way toward answering critics, particularly City Council President John F. Street, who two years ago attacked rowing as an elitist sport and briefly imperiled one of Philadelphia's premier river events.

All it would take to realize that vision, say Mund and Langer, are equal doses of vision, perseverance and patience.

A boatload of money - say, $90,000 or so from generous benefactors - wouldn't hurt, either. The camp's supporters are almost halfway there.

But first, the Fairmount Park Commission, which owns the land, has to approve leasing the tract to put a rowing camp on the river's edge. The Schuylkill River Development Council, which is developing the proposal, will make that pitch at the commission's January meeting.

Until then, said Mund, a program director at the river council, the camp will continue to take shape on paper.

In her office on South Street, the river has been reduced to a light-blue series of bends on diagrams and topographic surveys. It's shaped like a ladle as it passes through downtown Philadelphia, holding Center City in its cup and brimming with possibilities.

In the middle of that cup, at the base of the Walnut Street Bridge, would be a rowing school catering to people who wanted to row before and after work and during lunch. The rest of the day, the camp's instructors would teach rowing free, primarily to inner-city school groups and senior citizens.

``We want the community to use this,'' said Mund, 38, a planner who moved here from Indiana 10 years ago. ``This can be used recreationally.''

Langer's interest is more personal. He's president of Vesper Boat Club, a 650-member organization and Boathouse Row fixture, and has learned the river from a different perspective - from a scull, gripping oars and grunting with effort while the Schuylkill's banks slip by.

Like Mund, he envisions a low- and no-tuition school that would teach others something he discovered years earlier while rowing in his native London.

``Rowing is fun,'' said Langer, an architect. ``Just imagine: If we could get kids from schools from all over West Philly, and get them to row, they'd say, `I really like this.' ''

The park commission has dealt with rowing before, and got splashed in the process.

Two years ago, Richard Gibson, then a commission member appointed by Street, launched an assault on rowing and the Dad Vail Regatta. Gibson said the annual collegiate rowing extravaganza - its organizers, the private boathouse clubs and the city, which hosts the regatta on Fairmount Park property - didn't do enough to recruit minority schools. Street joined in, questioning whether the regatta should even be held in Philadelphia.

The uproar died down nearly as quickly as it had erupted - some boat-club presidents pledged to recruit more minorities, and city officials rallied to support Dad Vail - but the public-relations damage had been done. Rowing, the critics said, was only for the elite.

A new rowing camp could help change that perception, say park commission officials, who have given the proposal a warm reception.

``Everyone is in favor of the project,'' said Bob Hunter, special assistant to William Mifflin, executive director of the Fairmount Park Commission. ``This would give us a chance to reach into the community and expand the sport of rowing.''

Mund and Langer, who have developed plans with help from Street's staff, want to have a temporary dock and storage area ready by May 15. It would remain open, from daylight to dusk, until Nov. 1, charging adults $180 for 10 lessons and allowing children and teens participating in accredited school and community groups to learn for free.

The camp, which would receive no city funding, eventually would expand to feature a permanent boat shed and dock, said Mund.

Putting a rowing school on the Schuylkill's southern reaches would signal the possible start of a turnaround for the lower river. When settlers arrived here more than 300 years ago, the water flowing past what is now Center City was clear and clean, teeming with fish.

The river changed as Philadelphia grew. It became a 130-mile highway of commerce, dotted with coal-laden barges heading south from Schuylkill County, as a young nation demanded more energy to fuel its industrial age.

Barges made way for filth, and the Schuylkill was hardly more than a sewer by the beginning of this century. Clouded with pollutants, clogged with a meat-rendering plant's discarded animal carcasses and cluttered with the flotsam and jetsam of a growing city, the river was a moving sewer.

Now, it moves with life again. There are more than 40 kinds of fish found in the lower river, and the water is the cleanest it's been in years, council officials say.

The only thing missing, Mund thinks, is a healthy population of rowers.

The same situation existed seven years ago in Pittsburgh, say rowing enthusiasts, where a handful of optimists established the Three Rivers Rowing Association with nothing more than two rowing shells and a big dream.

In 1997, the association will conduct classes in a 15,000-square-foot, $1.7 million boathouse adjacent to a three-section dock capable of handling scores of boats at once.

Other cities also have begun rowing programs - Portland, Ore., Seattle, Chicago, Baltimore and Rochester, N.Y., to name a few.

There's no reason Philadelphia cannot be included in those ranks, said Michael Lambert, executive director of the Pittsburgh association.

``Philadelphia has a great tradition of rowing,'' he said.

But tradition does not pay the bills, and council members estimate they need about $90,000 to buy a used trailer, plus eight single crafts and two sculls capable of carrying four people each. Funds also would pay two instructors and a supervisor.

The money also would buy a 16-by-70-foot floating dock that's been used once - this past summer, at the Olympics in Atlanta. Additional cash would be needed to pay insurance, utilities and security bills. The council has raised about $40,200 from corporations and private donors.

There also are government agencies to satisfy, and the council must have proper state and federal permits before it can launch the first boat.

Finally, there's the site. It's awash with weeds, dotted with debris and tattered by trash that the council would have to pay to get cleaned.

And filled with potential, say Mund and Langer.

Boatloads of it.

FOR MORE INFORMATION * The Schuylkill River Development Council can be reached at 985-9393.

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