Caring about the Schuylkill


Philadelphians allowed the river to decline. But the fish are back, the Water Works is restored, and more improvements are on the way.

Posted: November 25, 2012

Beth Kephart

is the author of 14 books, including "Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia's Schuylkill River" (Temple University Press)

Of the two rivers that carry Philadelphia's dreams toward the sea, it is the Schuylkill that has always snagged a good chunk of my heart. It feels personal to me - the Schuylkill's roving through time, her baptisms and floods, her primeval sheen, her helpless submission to toxins and sludge, her muddy regrets and redemption. The river rises and falls. She floats us on her back and steeps. She comes at us from the hills and carries on beyond us. We know her, and we need her, and she is a mystery.

When we ruin the Schuylkill, we ruin ourselves. We become, as we once were, a city with a stench, a city that festers. We forfeit all three faces of time - the past, the present, the future.

Remarkable things happen, however, when we care. When, for example, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission collaborated with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Philadelphia Water Department to ladder the Schuylkill for American shad, striped bass, tiger muskellunge, and perch, and fisherpeople returned to the river's shore. When Ernesta Drinker Ballard campaigned to restore the abandoned, crusty Fairmount Water Works (once a recognized jewel, once an international destination), and won. When the Schuylkill River Development Corp. set its mind on creating an actual riverfront destination - river access, river walks, river events, bridge enhancements, trails - and saw the vision through.

We allowed our river to become an offensive stew, but she's hardly that anymore. We killed the fish, but they're back. We abandoned Frederick Graff's magnificent Water Works until, in 2003, it was rechristened as the Philadelphia Water Department's Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center (FWWIC) and became the place where the story of the river and its watershed gets told. Where does the river go, and how does it feed us? Why does it matter how we treat her? Who is responsible for keeping rivers safe? What happens every time we forget?

Close to a half-million people have stepped down and through the FWWIC since its opening nearly 10 years ago, and this summer alone, according to Karen Young, the executive director, 2,000 kids stood within those dampened walls, beside the old turbine and pipes, and listened to the gurgle and pulse of the Schuylkill. They looked at river water squiggling beneath microscopes. They counted the fish near the ladder. They flushed the toilet and talked about the ways the river moves.

The river lives. Its rising stewards are today's microbe-counting kids. There's talk in some corners that Philadelphia is on its way toward becoming America's Greenest City, a fact that likely confounds any Philadelphian capable of looking back and remembering. Young, not surprisingly, is one of the believers. She's also the force behind a transformational project designed to retool FWWIC as both a beloved watershed learning institution as well as the acknowledged global center in developing and sharing sustainable water and land-based initiatives.

Young has a plan; she has a timeline. She wants better awareness of the FWWIC and its possibilities. She wants to create new experiential learning opportunities that can precipitate greater civic action and global understanding. She wants to convert 12,500 square feet of adjacent Water Works space - the former John B. Kelly Pool - into a new educational commons. She wants to honor this very personal place through which the river literally runs.

In pursuit of this vision, Young has initiated an in-depth master planning process designed to get people from all across the country thinking and talking about the center's future. Key to this process was a charrette conducted Nov. 9, in the FWWIC itself, during which 18 exhibit designers, lighting specialists, and storytellers divided into three brainstorming teams. The teams met in the shadows of a pollution display. They met in an educational classroom. They went outside and dug up chocolate river mud. They watched the glimmering reflections of the river trace across the old stone walls.

I know because I was there, joining several other jurors at the end of that day to react to the ideas that had been generated. There were schemes that focused on connections among other area institutions. There were ideas designed to elevate the FWWIC's visibility, via exterior lighting and outdoor sculptures, say, or by the creation of a reflecting pool in the parking lot. There was talk about snaking the river's timeline across the old Water Works floors - a trickle of water, a tale. There was an early sketch of a kinetic waterfall.

And so, like the river itself, the ideas stream forward. The possibilities burble on the surface, and a new phase - a conversation with the public, a vetting of RFPs, a refinement of a strategy and plan - is set to begin. Philadelphia's Schuylkill is local, geographically contained. But the story of its redemption may well prove to be a story of global consequence. It will be, in fact, if the FWWIC has its say.

Beth Kephart blogs daily about literature and life at

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