Suzanne Durand took her two small dogs for a walk last Sunday down Mount Airy Avenue, a block of million-dollar homes set back on pristinely manicured lawns in the city’s Northwest corner. As she got to the base of her driveway, she was taken aback — trash lined the street up and down her block.
“Baby diapers, dirty clothes, beer bottles, vomit,” Durand, 67, said in an interview at her home last week. “Today, I found a used applicator for a tampon.”
The culprits? Visitors to Devil’s Pool, a once-hidden Philadelphia gem nestled in Wissahickon Valley Park, now easily discovered in online articles, YouTube videos, and Facebook groups with directions on how to find the unmarked spot. To get there, visitors hike in through the park or take a narrow paved road down to the base of the Cresheim Creek, where small boulders overlook a 15-foot basin of water, shaded beneath a canopy of trees.
It’s an attractive nuisance,” said Friends of the Wissahickon executive director Maura McCarthy. “But it’s an attractive nuisance we all love.” Friends of the Wissahickon is a nonprofit volunteer group committed to the park.
Durand’s block is one of the nearest streets for those looking to park near Livezey Lane — which is closed to vehicles — and walk down to the pool.
The influx of people heading to the swimming hole and resulting problems spilling into neighborhood yards has hit an all-time peak this year, Durand and fellow neighbors said. The last time a count was done by Friends of the Wissahickon, in 2011, upwards of 400 people would visit the pool on a summer weekend. McCarthy said unofficial anecdotal car and foot traffic estimates now suggest weekend turnout can be as many as 600. Residents say cars, many with out-of-state license plates, line their streets. And, for the first time, discarded needles are being found among the garbage people leave behind, police and neighbors say.
There have been reports of bad behavior: people urinating on lawns, having sex in public, and trying to swim in a neighbor’s pool.
Dena Dannenberg, 84, who moved into her Mount Airy Avenue home in 1957 with her husband, Jim, 91, said she’s asked every day how to get to the swimming hole.
“No amount of saying ‘this is dangerous’ or ‘this is polluted’ is going to dissuade them,” she said. “They think they’re in paradise and they need to be given options of other places to go.”
Friends of the Wissahickon raised $10,000 to increase police presence over Fourth of July weekend. Police say they’ll enforce the long-ignored no-swimming rule. The extra manpower will only last through the holiday, though, and residents at a meeting on Wednesday night expressed skepticism about long-term change.
“The cops say ‘don’t swim,’ and the kids just stare back and keep swimming,” said resident Jerry Izzard, as he cleaned up in front of his home on Wayne Avenue, where he’s lived since 2001.
Down in the Wissahickon on Wednesday afternoon, about 60 people in swimsuits and water shoes or sneakers gathered along Cresheim Creek, which flows into Devil’s Pool. The sounds of bodies hitting the water ran on a loop as jumper after jumper leapt from one of the large rocks hovering above the swimming hole.
Smack, plunge, whoosh.
“It’s awesome here,” said Brooke Regensburg, 16, of Princeton, water dripping down her face after her first jump.
Smack, plunge, whoosh.
“You have to try it,” said Genesis Jimasiz, 18, of South Philadelphia.
Jimasiz, a recent Furness High School graduate, shrugged off some of the bad behavior reported.
“You cannot control the young people,” Jimasiz said. “And it’s not like anyone’s coming here in the winter. It’s three months. Maybe they should relax?”
Swimming is illegal in Devil’s Pool, as it is throughout the Wissahickon. People have been seriously injured jumping from rocks — or, worse, a 60-foot-high stone bridge — into the narrow portion of the pool deep enough for such a leap. The oasis is also a dead spot for cell service, which adds to danger and wait time in the event of an emergency.
City officials say the water is too polluted to swim in. Devil’s Pool hasn’t been tested, but the creek that runs into it, the Cresheim, tested positive for fecal coliform bacteria, McCarthy said. A nearby, more shallow swimming area known as “the beach” is part of the Wissahickon, which connects with four wastewater treatment plants.
But the area, an amalgam of rocks and moss with the creek glittering in the sun beneath a canopy of trees, is alluring.
A check one day last week found visitors from Northeast and South Philadelphia, Camden, Norristown, Garnett Valley, and Vineland. The spot is primarily trafficked by high school- and college-aged young people of a range of backgrounds, although families hiking through the woods stop by and picnic as well.
Near the edge of the creek, Miguel Bonilla, 20, and a group of friends from North Philadelphia, passed around a joint, watching the jumpers.
Bonilla said his mother first brought him to the pool as a kid.
“I dunno, it’s just like, in the hood, stuff like this doesn’t exist,” Bonilla said. “This is a spot you can chill in, get away from everything, get away from our troubles, and relax.”
Some people are disrespectful, Bonilla said. “The bad people mess it up for the rest of us.”
At Wednesday night’s community meeting, neighbors, in conjunction with the city and Friends of the Wissahickon, talked about potential solutions, including more signs warning of the dangers of swimming, more trash bins, and bringing in portable bathrooms.
Some neighbors argued the only way to curb the influx of visitors is to take away the main attraction by filling the swimming hole with rocks.
— Friends of the Wiss (@FOWissahickon) June 28, 2017
“The solution is not to keep people out,” McCarthy said in an interview. “And it’s not to drive park visitors away. This is their park every bit as much as it is our residents’, who we appreciate and honor, so our concern is making sure quality of access is our focus.”