Marked Potential: Graffiti Pier

 

A young family of five sets off to explore Graffiti Pier on a recent Saturday morning despite gusty winds and 40-degree temperatures. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Pier 18 aka Graffiti Pier – Marked as a Public Park

Cars line up on the weekend along Beach Street at the entrance to the city’s best outdoor art space, Graffiti Pier. The former anthracite coal-loading pier, part of Reading Railroad’s sprawling Port Richmond Yards, was decommissioned and abandoned by current owners Conrail in 1991. Nature and graffiti writers have since reclaimed the hulking, concrete pile. Today, the pier is a widely popular destination among locals and explorers of all stripes who treat the industrial ruins like an evolving folk art museum and a riverside park.

Although Graffiti Pier is still considered private property, it is one of the most Instagrammed places in Philadelphia and has become a magnet for curious day trippers across the region. The allure of the pier’s endless rotation of graffiti art, magnificent views of the Delaware waterfront, and accessible, well-trodden paths makes it an ideal candidate for the acquisition and reuse as an official public park.

A woman tries out her new camera with her husband inside the ruins of the old coal-loading pier. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The case for preserving Graffiti Pier has been made before, most notably by Conrad Benner, founder of the online Philly street art journal, Streets DeptLiz Spikol for Philadelphia Magazine, and, way back in the early oughts, Hidden City co-editor Bradley Maule on his website, Philly Skyline. Designating the pier and surrounding parcel for reuse as a park would not only formalize an already popular public space, but it would also present a number of trash clean up and riparian conservation opportunities as well, following the models of Washington Avenue Pier, Pier 68, and the Schuylkill River Trail.

Graffiti Pier already possesses many of the perks associated with a contemporary urban park, namely green space, creative placemaking, and shade from direct sunlight. The pier itself is just a slice of land that extends into the river, but it is connected to a largely uninterrupted swath of tidal vegetation from Schirra Drive to Westway Terminal. As shown in the schematic below, benches could easily be placed between archways and along the trails. The relationship between the large columns and open space would allow for pop-up markets and small concerts. Formalized areas for hiking, fishing, and outdoor gathering spaces with tables and seating would contribute to the reuse of the pier as a multifunctional public park.

A sample layout that works with what is already exists on Graffiti Pier. Benches would be placed inside the enclosed areas of the concrete structure providing shaded seating, while round picnic tables nearby would provide places for gathering with views of the water. Existing trees will provide shade. Pairs of trash cans and recycling bins would be placed throughout to help with litter. Bike racks would also provide convenience, while also strategically helping to define space with thoughtful placement.

Emphasis on keeping the space open to graffiti writers is crucial. After all, art is the pier’s primary attraction and core connection to the creative community. For guidance and inspiration, there are several precedents for realizing such a project. Preisterweg Nature Park in Berlin was an old railway center that evolved into a place where graffiti was eventually legalized by the city. In downtown Austin, Texas, the HOPE Outdoor Gallery launched a temporary, multi-level graffiti park in 2011. Programming at the outdoor gallery created jobs for local artists by hosting community art classes, educational gardening, yoga classes, and school field trips.

In our proposal, Graffiti Pier Park would be protected without imposing too many restrictions that would push the graffiti writers and River Ward locals away who have reclaimed this abandoned treasure as their own. Maintaining the rugged, visual quality of the existing structure would be paramount to the character of the park, yet the pier would need to be evaluated for structural integrity and repaired as required. The elevated areas where the coal dumper once operated would be fitted with industrial railings to provide extra safety precautions. Basic amenities like composing restrooms and bike racks would be added for extra convenience. To aid in emergency vehicle access and load-in for events, the parking area and the large path that leads to the pier would be paved.

Once the I-95 expansion in Port Richmond is complete, this large, abandoned tract of waterfront property will undoubtedly become a focal point of real estate speculation. If Graffiti Pier is not formally designated for public space it will likely be demolished in the near future for redevelopment, a fate similar to 5 Pointz in Long Island City. Revered as the world’s “Graffiti Mecca,” 5 Pointz was razed in 2014 to make way for high-rise apartments. Graffiti writers from all over the globe made the pilgrimage to contribute to the walls of the 125-year-old, 200,000 square foot water meter factory. Given the overwhelming popularity of unconventional projects like the Viaduct Rail Park and the Schuylkill River Boardwalk, envisioning Graffiti Pier as a public space that preserves a unique intersection of industrial history and vibrant street art is within our reach.

Take a tour around Philly’s al fresco street art gallery, Graffiti Pier. Photographs by Michael Bixler

About the author

Shila is an NCIDQ certified and LEED accredited interior designer that also practices interior architecture. She holds both a bachelor’s degree in interior design and master’s degree in sustainable design from Philadelphia University. In 2012, Shila started SG23, a small studio that offers design services spanning interior design, graphic design and website design and development. She also teaches a design studio in the continuing education program at Moore College of Art and Design.



9 Comments


  1. Justin Roczniak

    as an aside, here’s a great video of how this ludicrous piece of machinery operated back in the day — though the specific facility shown in the video is in South Philly.

    https://youtu.be/LEAUFP3bPjU?t=3m1s

  2. I’ll take the highrise over this piece of graffiti garbage

    • I agree Bob. Unfortunately, legalizing graffiti will only draw more taggers to the area looking for a blank canvas that will spill out into the surrounding neighborhoods. Passersby only have to look at the newly constructed parts of I-95 next to the pier that are covered with graffiti.

    • Buttchugg goosplatter

      Guys lets not act like this area is anywhere near ready for families with money. Or anybody with money. Also you guys dont know anything about how street art works. If you give them and outlet you control where it goes. Make it illegal eveywhere and you will see plenty more in your precious hoods!

      • Buttchugg,

        You must not have visited Fishtown lately, which is next door to the pier. There are homes going for $300,000-$400,000. As far as giving street artists a place to paint, thereby lessening their painting elsewhere; just look at Paine Park that was built for skateboarders to have a place to go. Plenty of skateboarders still go to the MSB building to skateboard, tearing up the concrete and running into pedestrians.

  3. I grew up hanging out here in the 90’s, and what I know for sure is that the “magic” of this space is a lack of any regulatory authority. Park destination might help that, but unfortunately as value increases in the area the need for family oriented space will probably prevail and thus allow this space to be a shell of a shell.

    Also, the comparison to 5 points is valid but I would suggest that in a local context, the demolition of “54 ville” in SW Philly got no attention but in some ways was more important than a Pier on the deleware.

  4. The city’s next great Park ! Graffiti and all.

  5. Future development is still a major question for this site, but any development that does come should not erase remnants of the Delaware River’s industrial past. The Coal Tipper and all of its graffiti should be celebrated and preserved.

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