How Society Hill arrived at a “values” set
By Linda K. Harris
On Thursday evening, the last of three public forums was held at the Independence Seaport Museum to gather ideas and ideals that will form a grand plan for the future development of the Central Delaware River. About three dozen residents of Society Hill were among those who turned out to join in the discussion.
An affluent neighborhood filled with restored historic homes and elegant multi-storied new residences, Society Hill extends from Lombard Street north to Walnut and from Front Street west to Eighth Street. It is a community that enjoys theaters, fine restaurants, coffee shops and all of the amenities that are needed for daily living.
In the introduction to the public meeting, Harris Sokoloff, an expert in civic engagement with the Penn Graduate School of Education, encouraged the group to “speak your mind freely and make room for others to do the same.”
And that is precisely what happened.
The Society Hill contingency broke into four smaller groups and were led by moderators Bob Walker, Steve Newman, Beth Perry and Lisa Santer.
Mike and Marion Pulsifer are newcomers to Philadelphia, having moved here in September. While there are many things that attracted them to the city – the cultural life, the sense of community, its convenient location between Washington and New York – the waterfront was not one of them.
“You can walk all around Manhattan and they have a bike path,” said Mike Pulsifer. “I’ve walked to the river several times, but there’s no destination. This museum is the most exciting doggone thing on the river.”
Marion Pulsifer said she’d like to see lighting and landscaping along walkways. “It’s not an inviting access,” she said.
Laura Lane has lived on the east end of Society Hill for 19 years. She laments the lack of accessibility to the river that runs so near to her home, a concern that was repeated throughout the discussions all week. The traffic on Interstate 95 and Columbus Avenue came under fire repeatedly from residents who said it intimidated them or made it impossible for them to get to the river which, in fact, they said, belongs to them.
In addition to the river, Lane wanted to make sure access to the sky was preserved, meaning that she wanted the scale of construction kept human.
“I don’t want to be closed in by buildings,” she said.
Along with accessibility, Elayne Bloom was concerned about the safety of the riverfront. “We value safety and we have it in Society Hill, but we feel we don’t have safety on the waterfront.”
Residents suggested cafés, small shops and entertainment venues as attractions.
“There aren’t enough people using the waterfront which contributes to the feeling that the waterfront isn’t safe.”
Casinos were not what they had in mind, and some residents expressed disappointment that the casinos seemed already to be on their way, and that nothing could be done about it, even though they weren’t really welcome in the neighborhoods.
After much interaction and discussion, the Society Hill groups re-formed into one and compiled a joint list of their concerns. They were:
* accessibility to the river
* open space and open vistas
* sense of community, meaning integrating the riverfront and its activities into the neighborhood
When the more than 300 people who attended the evening sessions, regrouped, Bernice Hamel, a 20-year resident of Society Hill, drew a hearty response when she addressed the crowd.
“Some of the communities we live in right now were reborn by the people who live there. People organized, pioneers came into the neighborhood.”
The same thing can happen with the riverfront, she said.
“As skeptical as we are, we should keep a level of optimism, and I do think there is hope.”
Linda K. Harris writes from and lives in South Philadelphia