The Redemption of the Schuylkill

By Carolyn Fornoff
Ph.D Candidate in Romance Languages

Philadelphia is a city defined by its rivers—the Schuylkill separates West Philly from Center City, and the Delaware delineates the city limits from New Jersey—totaling 40-plus miles of waterfront (even more than the island of Manhattan!). The Schuylkill River, flowing south through the city, is at the heart of Philadelphia today. It is also integral to university life: Penn rowers scull the river at daybreak, student athletes jog alongside the water’s edge and many faculty and graduate students cross the river by foot or bike each day on their way to and from campus.

But even though the Schuylkill is intimately connected to the cityscape, it is easily taken for granted, as a static and unchanging resource. To flesh out the rich history of the river and its continuing importance, this summer Philadelphia City Parks Association and the Slought Foundation teamed up to run a public programming series examining Philadelphia’s dynamic relationship with the Schuylkill. PPEH faculty and artist in residence, Mary Mattingly, have helped to shape the program (you can hear Mary talk about her installation WetLand and the PPEHLab at WetLand on August 18th). At the suggestion of the PPEH Director, Prof. Bethany Wiggin, I came aboard to design an interview series to accompany the programming.

I am a doctoral candidate in the Department of Spanish & Portuguese at UPenn, currently completing a dissertation that examines the discourse of animality and nonhuman figurations in twentieth-century Latin American literature. Because I was interested in creating a community of graduate students engaged with the environmental humanities, last year I began the Anthropocene and Animal Studies Reading Group, where students from different disciplines comes together monthly to discuss and think critically about recent scholarship. Participating in the project with City Parks & Slought was a way to further extend this community past academia and attend to the local coordinates that situate my day-to-day life.

The project, “The Redemption of the Schuylkill”, takes its name from a fascinating volume published by City Parks in 1924. This unique document written by civic leader John Frederick Lewis (available for download from Slought’s website) urged Philadelphians to face the increasing pollution of the river brought about by rapid industrialization. Lewis organized his document into three parts: “The River as it Was” featured scenic historical engravings of the Schuylkill’s idyllic past, “The River as it Is” included a series of photographs from 1924 depicting the river’s neglect and visible contamination, and “The River as it Should Be” detailed an assertive “plan of redemption” articulating the necessity of cleaning the river up and moving forward with its revitalization.

Nearly a century after the publication of Lewis’ call to reclaim the waterways (as equally vital to the Philadelphia community as the urban expansion that produced its pollution), the current installation at Slought examines how we continue to interact with and care for the river today. The programming is divided into three sections that mirror Lewis’ original structure. For “The River as it Was,” Deenah Loeb of City Parks and Aaron Levy of Slought brought together a roundtable of experts—including Joel Fry of Bartram’s, Elizabeth Milroy from the PMA, photographer Michael Kolster and Penn professor and PPEH affiliated faculty, Etienne Benson—to discuss the legacy of the river captured through images and words. To represent “The River as it Is,” Slought is currently exhibiting wet plates by artist Michael Kolster alongside a commissioned set of portraits of the Schuylkill by Geoffrey James entitled “Further Redemption: The Lower Schuylkill Now.” And, for the “River as it Could Be,” filmmaker Andrea Ngan and her art history class at Penn created a short essay film examining the Wissahickon Transportation Center and the river that flows underneath.

As part of this project, I have been interviewing a wide array of Philadelphians who forge everyday connections with the Schuylkill. To investigate the multivalent modes in which we experience and interact with the river, I have spoken with artists such as engraver Nancy Agati and dance choreographer Leah Stein who find creativity in the river, as well as individuals active alongside it like Michele Gruebnau of the Girl’s Rowing Club, and professionals who advocate for the river at work, including Joe Syrnick of Schuylkill Banks and Ellen Schultz of Fairmount Waterworks. The purpose of these conversations (a selection of which are now available to listen to on Slought’s website) is to assemble a snapshot of the complex intersection between human life and the life of the river today. I hope that these archived conversations will prompt the listener to think about the contexture of self and place, as well as index how the Schuylkill has become a site of affective attachment that anchors the Philadelphian community.