At the far northern reaches of Philadelphia, County Line Road abruptly stops at Bustleton Avenue. A stub of a driveway extends the line of the road a few more feet before dead-ending at a small, white picnic table, incongruous in this landscape of big box retail stores and their giant parking lots.
Adrienne Mackey, JJ Tiziou, Sam Wend, and I survey our options. Beyond the picnic table, a muddy pit and a tangle of brush separate us from another major road, with cars whizzing by at high speed. We are on a mission: to walk the entire perimeter of Philadelphia. On our third day of a Cross Pollination artists residency, sponsored by Adrienne’s performing arts organization Swim Pony, we have already logged 40 miles.
We are not easily deterred. Sam, our navigator, consults the map on her phone. Following Bustleton down to the next crossing will take us blocks away from the border. Going straight means a plunge into the brush and a dash across that highway. “Ever play Frogger?” JJ asks. We head for the thicket.
Philadelphia, as I come to know intimately over the next five and a half days in February, is an oddly shaped city. The southwest and northeast corners ruffle like a pair of lace cuffs, those borders defined by the meanders of creeks, Poquessing up north, Cobbs and Darby out west and down south. The eastern and southern boundaries swerve to follow the bends of the great tidal Delaware, while the slimmer Schuylkill softens the edge of the mid-northwest. The rest of the borders, though, are a rigid bar graph of lines that rise and drop at right angles, boundaries measured with surveyor’s precision, marked on the map with a straight edge. (For more on how Philadelphia got its particular shape, see Steve Currall’s article from these pages HERE).
The problem, made painfully clear as we struggle through the mud ditch at the terminus of County Line Road, thorns snagging our sleeves and vines lassoing our ankles, is that not all those straight lines correspond to walkable paths. Many of the city’s borders do serve also as thoroughfares. In the first two days of our journey we have already walked the lengths of City, Northwest, Stenton, and Cheltenham Avenues. But County Line, whose name promises a long continuous border-defining route, deposits us into a series of obstacles that make us feel like intrepid adventurers in a fairy tale or even more so imperiled characters in a video game.
The aggressive vines and the dash across menacing traffic lanes is just the beginning. We enter another thorny swampland and arrive at the steep wall of a railroad embankment, with a gully (“a moat,” JJ calls it) between us and the slope of loosely piled rocks. A blast: a Regional Rail train roars past. We leap over the gully, scramble up the slope, cross the railroad tracks, and plunge into more woods, following the yellow path of a gas pipeline. We can see those yellow pipes extend ahead, meeting up with a small, suburban road. County Line continues in a new guise as a residential street.
But before we reach it we hit another, wider stream, and there’s a backyard on the other side. The owner comes to the edge of his property to confront us, his dog taut on its leash. “You’re trespassing,” he says.
JJ is trying to move a fallen tree trunk into the stream as a bridge. Sam is passing out plastic bags to cover our shoes. “This is for a project,” says Adrienne. We’re all aware how lame this sounds.
The property owner doesn’t seem convinced, but he does walk away. We’re hoping he’s not inside his house calling the cops.
We cross the stream, passing to the right of his yard. We realize his house is on the other side of the unseen city limits. No wonder he was so hostile, we joke. “He’s not from Philly.”
On the Edge of Enlightenment
Last fall, when I received word that I had been chosen for a weeklong artists residency to collaborate with a photographer (JJ) and theatre director (Adrienne), I did not envision myself jumping across an icy stream with plastic bags over my shoes under the suspicious scowl of a homeowner and his vigilant Boxer. But when the three of us, along with Sam, Swim Pony’s assistant who documents Cross Pollination projects, first met to discuss our collaboration we all talked about engaging in the city in some way. We tossed around words like “procession” and “pilgrimage.” Both JJ and I, pictured on Swim Pony’s website in front of computer screens, these so-called “creative spaces,” were eager to get outside of the confines of our often solitary practices. We discovered a common interest in maps, both as portraits of place and guides for moving through a geographical space.
We met again and tossed around some more words: “margins,” “boundaries,” “edges.” In all of our conversations we kept circling back to Philadelphia as both the content and the form of our investigation. Should we focus on a few neighborhoods? Stand at a designated street corner for 24 hours and interview whomever happened by? In the end, any idea that focused on parts of the city seemed arbitrary and incomplete. Anything that would give us a sense of the city as an all encompassing whole seemed impossible within the one week allotted to us.
And then someone–I’m pretty sure it was JJ–said, “What if we walk around the entire border of Philadelphia?”
We all pounced on the idea, then wondered if it was even possible? Sam’s thumbs were already tapping her phone. JJ was searching on his laptop. Someone had circumnavigated the city on bicycle, we discovered, and had posted their route online. 64.4 miles, the bike map claimed. That distance seemed doable in a week.
Exploring the edges seemed like a perfect means to go beyond the narrow parameters of where we lived and worked. We were curious. What would the city’s margins tell us that the center might not?
We set out decidedly ignorant, that is we intentionally did not research history or landmarks or points of interest. We simply followed the line, as closely as we could, keeping our minds open to what we might encounter along the way. The contours of Philadelphia gave us a clear route to follow. We followed the line, as close as we could, keeping our minds open to what we might encounter along the way.
Our itinerary: Day 1: Angora to Miquon. Day 2: Miquon to Fox Chase. Day 3: Fox Chase to Torresdale. Day 4: Torresdale to Pier 70. Day 5: Pier 70 to PHL. Day 5.5: PHL to Angora.
(See a detailed, interactive map with GPS tracking and geotagged photos HERE.)
Between Somewhere and Nowhere
Our journey begins not all that far from where I live at the intersection of 61st and Baltimore. We follow the trail into Cobbs Creek Park and immediately step into a Philadelphia I have never seen before. I look toward the street and glimpse tiled rooftops, the steeple of St. Cyprian’s, orienting landmarks surreal from this wooded vantage. Deer watch us pass. We keep walking. I listen to ice cracking as it moves down the stream, to the water flowing. And then, overhead, I hear a familiar voice: “Doors are closing.” We have reached the intersection of 63rd and Market, right under the El tracks. Just an hour into our walk I already feel like my perceptions of place have shifted. I have driven these roads countless times and have never known that this peaceful creek and these silent woods beckoned just beyond the sidewalk.
A week and a half later, when we arrive back at our starting point, my sense of Philadelphia has shifted even more. We’ve hacked through overgrown creek beds, crossed railroad tracks, wandered through suburban cul-de-sac developments hauntingly deserted midday–a fine setting for a zombie apocalypse or disaster film. We’ve passed through a cemetery with tombstones in Arabic, Russian, Korean, and Japanese. We’ve noted the vast and intricate reach of the fuel and energy infrastructure: networks of pipelines, power lines, fields of holding tanks, and those insidious black oil tankers rolling past on railroad tracks and trestles. We’ve trespassed occasionally, aware of the inequitable privilege our shared skin color afforded us when we walked across a golf course or through the Police Department’s shooting range and bomb disposal facility. We’ve discovered riverfront subcultures on the Schuylkill and Delaware, neighborhoods of bait shops and fishing docks where boats bigger than the modest houses were parked on front lawns. We’ve reached the city’s high point, on a broad plateau in Roxborough that seems to rise within reach of the antenna farm, and its low point, Hog Island behind the airport, at the rough edge of the Delaware that feels like the end of the world.
Wish You Were Here
I possess a general sense of the city as whole–a mental map of impressions and memories corresponding to the printed map. Now I have a much stronger appreciation for the interconnections among different parts. Divisions become much less sharp when you’re experiencing a city on foot. The transitions between one space and another, even when contrasts are sharp, become more fluid. Row houses, rusting cars, discarded beer bottles, oil fields, and unexpected meadows meld into a continuity of experience. But at the same time, without a fixed destination, we become attuned to the places that might blur by if we were focused on getting from one place to another. The intensity of walking 16-20 miles a day stimulated attention. Everything started to feel relevant and interesting.
In writing an account of our “Walk Around Philadelphia,” I struggle with the desire to take readers through every step, trusting that you too would appreciate knowing about the dog skull Sam found in Tacony Creek Park, the vibrantly colored tiles of Jello on the buffet table at the Hibachi Grill on Cheltenham Avenue, the X-rated graffiti, or the song we made up to celebrate the plethora of beer and water bottles lining our route. I would love to regale you with observations about faux roof lines or the many variations on the surprisingly persistent row house or twin housing types or the impressive reach of SEPTA bus lines. I’d be pleased to share my geeky thrill at seeing 22nd Street cross Cheltenham Avenue (the first appearance of the Center City grid!) or discovering that there is an actual wooded grove at the start of Woodhaven Road, which turns into that behemoth of the Northeast, Woodhaven Avenue. But I’m afraid these stories would take as long to tell as the walk itself.
In the end, we’ve underestimated how long the walk would take us. The project spills into a second week, and the predicted 64.4 miles stretches into 102.7. No cyclist, we realize long before we hit 50 miles on day three at the entrance to Franklin Mills Mall, has scaled boulders and slashed through brambles to stick close to the curves of Poquessing Creek. On the next to last day, we make a conscious choice to extend the journey. We become so enthralled and committed to covering all the edges of Philadelphia that we loop around the entire airport even though only a fraction of the perimeter is actually within the city limits.
We expected the border to show sharp distinctions between Philadelphia and its suburbs, but that is rarely the case. Because border streets, like City or Cheltenham Avenues, serve as conduits around the city, they have their own identity as corridor districts. Institutions like St. Joseph’s University spread across both sides of the border line, as does the Korean district centered around Cheltenham Avenue, with houses and churches more common on the Philadelphia side and shopping centers dominating in Cheltenham. Up in the northwest and northeast, we walk through many neighborhoods where the only distinction between Philadelphia and non-Philadelphia are the colors of the street signs and the recycling bins.
It is the shifting rhythm between natural and manmade borders that truly defines our journey. We spend two hours walking the length of Cheltenham Avenue, twisting down into Tacony Creek, and then climbing up to meet another straight division formed by the regional rail tracks. Those spacial contrasts, much more than the border divisions, can be startlingly abrupt. In the wetlands of Pennypack Park we take a moment to sit in silence, attuned to birds’ melodies and the breeze through the beachgrass. A few minutes later we’re walking along high razor wired fences surrounding the city’s riverside detention center.
Invitation to the In-between
On our last morning, which begins in Terminal A at the airport, we exit the sprawling international transportation hub by skirting the Arrivals ramp, then walk underneath I-95 to step into the serene landscape of Heinz Wildlife Refuge. Wind ripples the water. Ducks paddle placidly. There are heron and geese, and in a distant tree, an eagle’s nest. We see the Center City skyline and behind us, in the distance, the glass and concrete monolith we have just left. We hear the traffic flowing above on the highway, consumed by what these Delaware wetlands might have looked like long before anyone ever had an idea to build a city here. The juxtaposition of jarring, daily commerce while immersed in wilderness has a profound effect on the senses.
There is a temptation after completing such an epic, exhausting undertaking to bask in the accomplishment. Despite the celebratory selfies we took when we reached the last of our Welcome to Philadelphia signs back at the intersection of 61st and Baltimore, we’re not looking for handshakes or congratulations. We want our walk to inspire others to seek out the edges.
I urge you to take some time to turn away from the blue glass spires at the city’s center. Forget, for a while, the Cradle of Liberty and the appealing symmetry of William Penn’s grid. Pick a point on the border. I suggest Glen Foerd, where the Poquessing flows into the Delaware, just after sunrise when the sun strikes a silver path across the river. From there head south past wetlands and boat yards, warehouses and bridges, power plants, water treatment facilities, and miles and miles of highway construction. By the time you reach familiar territory–Ben Franklin Bridge, Penn’s Landing, Ikea–your head will be reeling with a new, intimate understanding of our complex and fascinating city. It’s not all beautiful. Many parts are harsh and gritty. It’s not all even that walkable. But it is all Philadelphia.
Swim Pony will host a presentation of “Walk Around Philadelphia”, the Cross Pollination residency project of Ann de Forest and JJ Tiziou, at the Philadelphia History Museum, 15 South 7th Street, on Wednesday, April 27, 6PM to 8PM and Friday, May 6, 6PM to 8PM. See details and register for the event HERE.