How Spruce Street Harbor Park Succeeds

 

Along the "urban beach" | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Along the “urban beach” | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Perhaps it’s a particular Philadelphia disease to track wasted opportunities in urban design, real estate development, and architecture. Even casual observers, I sense, wonder why the new South Street Bridge is so inane or the Avenue of the Arts is so boring. How could it be, as this writer has occasioned, that the Museum of the American Revolution will be so reactionary? The list goes on, of course, as each time someone builds a new row house with a curb cut and private garage they’ve squandered the chance to add something beautiful or interesting or lively to the streetscape. In this new urban age, interesting and lively is what matters, what stirs the heart, what creates desire. It’s also what sells.

So it’s a rather distinctive pleasure to note the success of Spruce Street Harbor Park, a temporary public space at Penn’s Landing that opens officially tomorrow. The magic of this pop-up piazza, conceived by Groundswell Design Group and commissioned by the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, is in the way it exploits the present space, a ham-fisted and disconnected accretion of sculptures, baroque walkways, and, indeed, water into a bustling hangout suitable for private leisure (napping in a hammock) and being seen by the crowds. We often speak of “transformative design,” i.e. an intervention that can change the way we view or interact space–or even an entire city. This is just the thing, done at limited expense for maximum pleasure.

Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

A key is the way the designers sought to exploit the scale and proportion and cloistered feel of the space–they must have quickly realized how suitable it would be, like a true piazza, to function like an outdoor living room. They smartly built into the elements already here, rather than obliterate them. Thus, Venturi Scott Brown’s Columbus Memorial sculpture, the 106 foot phallus installed to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the explorer’s “discovery” of America (really Italian influence on the cultural and economic life of this city) has become, as any sculpture would at the center of a piazza, the focal point for tables and chairs. Suddenly, the sculpture, placeless for 22 years, has been given a sense of purpose, and with lights strung (in a Baroque display), a sense of playfulness the post-modern design has always demanded.

You arrive at this new center via a grove of trees and hammocks strung out along a row of fountains I never quite realized existed, but it’s best viewed from the harborside, where new walkways connect you to the water and intimate cafes and gardens. Groundswell installed floating gardens in the harbor, remarkably without interfering with the scale of the space, so that the silly swan boats–now charming in this context–can maneuver around. If you go at night, take note of the role of just a little colorful lighting to create a sense of activity and excitement.

Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

The park will remain open until August 31.

About the author

Nathaniel Popkin is co-founder of the Hidden City Daily and author of three books of non-fiction, including Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City (with Peter Woodall and Joseph E.B. Elliott) and two novels, Everything is Borrowed and Lion and Leopard. He is co-editor of Who Will Speak for America, an anthology forthcoming in June 2018, and the senior writer of the film documentary "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment."



2 Comments


  1. I was there on Friday night. It was awesome! Being a Baltimore son, my one major gripe with Philly was its near-complete lack of a waterfront destination. Until last weekend. And for two months only.

  2. Pretty cool (and it shows up in google maps

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