Saturday, December 17, 2011

Philadelphia Story, Part 2--Waterworks

The first post entitled Philadelphia Story, as some readers may remember, was a tragicomic tale of the hazards of parking in the historic district. That drama took place on the Liberty Bell, Ben Franklin Bridge, Penn's Landing, Delaware River side of town, where I-95 streams through. That was the only part of Philadelphia I knew until recently, other than WHYY's inauspicious Shadow Traffic reports, which detail the endless permutations of rush hour congestion.

One beautiful fall day last month, some friends introduced me to Philadelphia's flip side, west of the Delaware and just beyond the Art Museum, along the Schuykill River. A google-eyed view of Philadelphia shows the Delaware and Schuykill rivers looking like two sides of a vase, with downtown in the middle. Traveling the I-95 corridor and occasionally straying downtown, one sees only one side of the vase.

To visit the Schuykill River side, then, is akin to getting a glimpse of the far side of the moon.

We owe the lovely vista in this photo to the water pollution that, by the late 1700s, forced Philadelphia to seek a cleaner drinking water supply. The Schuykill River was dammed in 1822, and land upstream was purchased to prevent polluting development.
All that land is now the long and lovely Fairmount Park, with bike trails extending all the way westward to Valley Forge. The impoundment is used for rowing races.

Until 1909, the dammed water passed through a Waterworks, turning big drums that in turn pumped fresh drinking water up the hill to a reservoir. From there it was piped down into the city. All very elegant and sustainable. You can see the whole layout in the photo, just as it once looked, except that the Philadelphia Museum of Art is perched on the hill where the reservoir used to be (upper left), and the downtown in the distance has sprouted skyscrapers.

Inside the Waterworks is a first rate, federally run interpretive center that explores all matters having to do with water. You can learn where wastewater goes after it leaves one's house, how the city is trying to reduce stormwater runoff,

and how the shad that once migrated upstream in enormous numbers each spring to spawn played a critical role in keeping George Washington's troops alive at Valley Forge. (Presumably the dam has fish ladders to allow them access these days.)

Along with the appealing ingenuity and sustainability of 19th century technology was a greater valuing of public spaces, and a belief that beauty and utility can cohabit in architectural design.

All in all there was much to cheer about during this visit--a beautiful public space on a beautiful day, and we found our car just where we had left it.

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