Sunday, December 21, 2014

A pier with appeal

NHSPIER16C<br />City officials yesterday unveiled the richly reimagined Pier 53 in South Philly, which has been renamed the Washington Avenue Pier park.
NHSPIER16C City officials yesterday unveiled the richly reimagined Pier 53 in South Philly, which has been renamed the Washington Avenue Pier park.

THE PIER slopes gently away from the shore, out above the water.

You follow a path that leads to a boardwalk, and pause on the wooden planks as a sailboat drifts into view, the wind whipping at your back.

And then you think: Holy hell, I'm in Philadelphia right now?

Oh, sure, laugh all you want, but odds are plenty of city residents are going to be pinching themselves the first time they visit the newly reopened (and renamed) Washington Avenue Pier park.

In a previous life, Pier 53 - behind the Sheet Metal Workers Union Hall on Columbus Boulevard near Washington Avenue - served as the city's first Navy Yard, and then as its immigration hub from the 1870s until 1915.

And then it simply faded from view, falling into disrepair as time and the elements devoured what was left behind.

But at a ribbon-cutting ceremony yesterday, a handful of city officials celebrated the pier's staggering rebirth.

Councilman Mark Squilla said that when he first heard about plans to overhaul Pier 53, his reaction was, "Oh, my God, these guys are crazy."

But Tom Corcoran, president of Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, said the Washington Avenue Pier represented another milestone in the ongoing implementation of a master plan for development along the waterfront.

Corcoran said a pedestrian trail will ultimately connect the pier with existing parcels, like the popular Race Street Pier, and other waterfront spots, like a planned fishing and picnic area that's slated to open next summer at Pier 68, near a South Philly Walmart.

Mayor Nutter described the Washington Avenue Pier as "the city's own Ellis Island," serving as "the first step on American soil for more than a million people."

Workers broke ground on the pier last fall. The $2.1 million bill for the project was split among city capital and grants from the William Penn Foundation, the state Department of Environmental Protection and state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

At the end of the rebuilt pier sits the "Land Buoy," an elegant, 55-foot spire that twists into the sky. Visitors can climb a staircase that wraps around the structure, which is topped off by a blue solar-powered light.

The pier is hallowed ground for Jody Pinto, the artist who designed the piece. Her parents landed at that site after immigrating from Italy decades ago.

"I felt like I had to honor the incredible trip that they made," she said.

Pinto designed the spire to mimic the crow's nest of a ship, where a passenger might climb to, to search for land, for hope.

"I wanted people to climb up and experience what it's like to be in a crow's nest, and to think about their own relatives," Pinto said. "I want them to dream and think, which is what you do when you look at a body of water. It takes you away."

On Twitter: @dgambacorta


DAVID GAMBACORTA Daily News Staff Writer, 215-854-5994
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