Nora Wang is from Nashville, Tennessee. She’s currently a rising junior studying anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.
The river flows from the Appalachian Mountains to the Delaware, curving and twisting like a blue ribbon. It inhales, sucking smaller streams toward it, bubbling and frothing when currents fuse. The river is a sculptor, carving around mountains and through fields, reshaping rock faces and swallowing trees. The river is patient. All it has to do is wait.
Fish splash at the surface, waiting for food to fall from the willows, sycamores, and oaks growing at the banks. Deer and turkey pick their way through the bulrushes to the water’s edge. Beaver dams line the shore and bears stop by the water to drink. The Lenape people named the river Ganshowahanna, or “falling waters” (Kephart 2007, 10). They built a rich society along the banks, hunting native animals and cultivating crops in the fertile soil (Soderlund 2014, 13). The river expands and shrinks, rises and falls, changing course and redefining landscapes. With each season, it is both a force of destruction and new life.
Peter Lindestrom, a Swedish engineer sent to map the area in 1654, described Ganshowahanna as having great “beauty, freshwater springs, and…beautiful fruit trees,” noting that it was “very rich in all kinds of wild animals” (Lindestrom, cited in Soderlund 2014, 16). Ganshowahanna winds through Pennsylvania and joins the Lenapewihittuck, flowing to the ocean. The area where the rivers join is Coaquannock, the “Grove of the Tall Pines” (“Coaquannock Map”). The Lenape people thrived in Coaquannock for “thousands of years” before Europeans arrived (Newman 2012, 193). Today, most people know Ganshowahanna as the Schuylkill River, Lenapewihittuck as the Delaware River, and Coaquannock as Philadelphia.
The Great Treaty of 1682 is remembered as a peaceful transition of land and power, evidence for William Penn’s honor and Philadelphia’s noble origin. However, it is memorialized without any evidence, as scholars have “failed to either debunk or corroborate the tradition, rendering it inadmissible as historical evidence but leaving it fully viable as a source of civic or even national pride” (Newman 2012, 95). The occurrence of one Great Treaty under the Treaty Elm is still not supported by solid evidence. Despite this, it was historicized. The repercussions of this tradition led to the Walking Purchase, when a “missing deed” from 1686 was found years later. Penn’s benevolence was cited when trying to support the legitimacy of the deed, which granted William Penn a section of land the size of “a day and a half’s walk” (20). In the 1737 Walking Purchase, colonists sent their fastest runners west. They claimed much more land than was agreed upon, cheating the Lenape people out of their homes. The Lenape continued to be pushed out of their ancestral territories through a series of violent dispossessions. Now, there are few sites in Philadelphia that acknowledge where the land came from or who it belongs to. Today, Lenape communities reside in Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Delaware, and numerous other states (193).
The Schuylkill river is a uniform line, bounded by rigid steel and concrete. It is geometric and contained. On the west side, the Schuylkill Expressway echoes with the sound of cars and trucks roaring by. Rainbow oil slick drips from exhaust pipes and coats the roads, later swept up by rainfall, streaming into the gray water below. On the east side of the river, a concrete bulkhead with a metal railing holds the water at bay, marking one side of Schuylkill Banks Park. Behind the park, skyscrapers loom. The river slowly ripples, reflecting the concrete bridges and telephone wires that crisscross above. The water is clouded and empty of fish. A plastic bag floats by ten inches under the surface like a spectral ghost. Ganshowahanna is unrecognizable.
Schuylkill Banks Park lines the east side of the river, featuring a long running trail and skyline views. Philadelphia residents visit the park to escape the hustle of the city. They go to “reconnect with nature.” At Schuylkill Banks, visitors are greeted by patches of green grass sprinkled with carefully-placed boulders and trees. The occasional bird hops by, and a few native plants line the railroad tracks at the back of the park. The park presents a familiar scene; joggers and bikers rush by on the running path, people rest on picnic blankets, and workers regularly stop by to make sure everything stays clean and orderly.
Ganshowahanna is what draws everyone here. Without the river, the park would not exist. But although it is the park’s defining “natural” characteristic, the river seems like just another man-made element in the cityscape. The metal barrier channeling the Schuylkill, also known as the bulkhead, is a physical reminder of an unspoken rule: the river is to see and not to touch.
People visit Schuylkill Banks Park without questioning the design choices that were made during its construction. Humans that live in the Anthropocene, a geologic age defined by human activity and intervention, often conceptualize man-made structures as elements that build rather than destroy. Therefore, the construction of Schuylkill Banks Park was viewed as a productive, rather than destructive, process. Furthermore, people living in city environments also become accustomed to synthetic versions of “nature.” A human “ecology” becomes one that was engineered for convenience.
In contrast, the Indigenous concept of Place-Thought asserts that “we (humans) are made from the land; our flesh is literally an extension of the soil (Vanessa Watts, cited in Davis and Todd 2016, 769). Davis and Todd contest the common idea that the Anthropocene started with industrialization, instead naming colonization as the “golden spike” (763). Evidence for this can be found when examining the Schuylkill River. Though Indigenous communities did modify their landscapes, the concept of Place-Thought emphasizes the reciprocal nature of human-landscape interactions. The Schuylkill River and its wildlife thrived for thousands of years under Indigenous stewardship. But after just a few hundred years of colonization, the river was unrecognizable.
Schuylkill Banks Park was engineered to encourage people to move through space in specific ways, enforcing certain social behaviors while discouraging others. It mimics the feeling of “nature” while discouraging anything actually “wild” from inhabiting the space. The only “wild” plants grow by the train tracks in defiance of the park’s aesthetic. The logics behind these design choices are fundamentally incompatible with the concept of Place-Thought, illustrating how the dispossession of the Lenape people was accompanied by the loss of Indigenous caretaking practices and the displacement of native plants and animals.
Development of Schuylkill Banks Park started in 1992 after architect John Collins proposed the construction of a riverside trail that would bring community members to the Schuylkill River. The park has since won numerous awards (Schuylkill Banks 2022, “A Brief History of the Lower Schuylkill”). The installation of the metal and concrete bulkhead was central to the park’s design. Constructed in 1997, the retaining wall is now 4,785 feet long (Schuylkill Banks 2022, “Building and Maintaining the Bulkhead”). The two images below taken by the Bedwell Company in 1997 show the bulkhead being constructed (Bedwell Company, Schuylkill River Project Bulkhead). The left image is looking north from the Walnut St. bridge, while the right image was taken in the opposite direction.
Just thirty years ago, human intervention dramatically changed the ecology of the Schuylkill. But people quickly got used to the bulkhead. Now, they barely remember what the original shoreline of the river looked like. We forgot that rivers are supposed to ebb and flow with the changing of the seasons and weather patterns. We caged Ganshowahanna in a channel and now the bulkhead is a commonsense ecology, a defining feature of the river itself.
Infrastructures like the bulkhead create illusions of human control, but the concrete is cracking underneath the surface. Since the time of its construction, the bulkhead has been inspected and repaired numerous times. Divers routinely sink under the surface of the river to locate places where the concrete slowly crumbles. Then, heavy machinery wheels into the park to dig into the earth and refill the concrete (Schuylkill Banks 2022, “Building and Maintaining the Bulkhead”). The repair process is constantly “ongoing.” Meanwhile, the river is patient and persistent. With each passing day, more water seeps into the bulkhead, slowly, inevitably destroying it.
Ganshowahanna was not meant to be channeled. Kristina Lyons discusses the seasonal cycles of water and their effects in her article, “Rivers have Memory.” She shows how a devastating 2017 flood in Mocoa, Columbia was a result of the river’s “memory work,” which is “its capacity to remember the courses of its currents, the expanse and heights of its beds, and the areas that it seasonally occupies and may have previously occupied” (Lyons 2018, 295). Her work then extends to urban planning, explaining how designs must take “memory work” of rivers into account. In order to protect citizens from flooding and other events, the natural cycles of rivers need to be considered and respected.
Like other rivers, Ganshowahanna will “pulsate, expand, and return to [its] previous course” (Lyons 2018, 296). The memory work of the Schuylkill is a form of survival that mirrors Indigenous persistence in the face of colonization. Davis and Todd discuss Indigenous “resistance in the face of apocalypse, and the renewal and resurgence of Indigenous communities in spite of world-ending violence” (Davis and Todd 2016, 773). Colonization was an “ending of life-worlds,” the source of both Indigenous dispossession and the dispossession of rivers and landscapes (773). However, just as Lenape communities continue persisting today, Ganshowahanna embodies survival. The city expends resources repairing the failing retaining walls instead of considering whether the infrastructure was necessary in the first place. By installing the bulkhead, humans have only delayed the river’s inevitable escape.
The differences between the Schuylkill as it is now and Ganshowahanna, the river as it was before colonization, can be visualized using maps. This map from 1934 envisions what the river and Philadelphia might have looked like under Lenape stewardship. It attempts to recontextualize the space, displaying only Indigenous place-names and avoiding the use of borders that define the space. In the map, the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers curve organically, winding irregularly through the landscape (Philadelphia Region When Known As Coaquannock Map, 1934”). While there are likely inaccuracies in the map, as it was not created by Indigenous people, the image displays the beauty of the vegetation and wildlife that once flourished alongside the river.
In contrast, today’s Schuylkill River is confined to straight, uniform lines. Shoreline habitats were destroyed in favor of sharp quadrants. The linearization of the river is just one example of the dramatic landscape changes that occurred to convert the Coaquannock to Philadelphia as we know it. Grid systems divide the city into uniform city blocks. Geometric buildings are our landmarks now, while landforms and animal habitats were navigational tools before. Today’s Philadelphia is a landscape of convenience where the river is an obstacle to be navigated.
When I was considering ways to challenge people’s perceptions of Schuylkill Banks and the bulkhead, I thought back to what the river must have looked like before the city was built. I started reading historical accounts that describe Lenape territory. The diverse river ecology, rich with plant and animal wildlife, is what was lost and what I wanted to bring back to life.
During my research, I became interested in analyzing historical maps to see how the Schuylkill River has evolved. Though the structures lining the river changed, Philadelphia’s streets, buildings, and bridges remained organized in precise grids with sharp angles. Now that the river is channeled, it seamlessly melds with the city, becoming yet another line that is uniform and orderly. Lines are straightforward and simple. Humans use lines as a method of categorization. We use them to develop patterns and systems that make us comfortable. These linear designs allow us to navigate the world without encountering the unexpected. By channeling the river, people tried to force water to follow human rules. However, Kristina Lyons shows us that the project was a failure from the start. Whether it takes days or years, rivers will break free of human infrastructures. They cannot be controlled or channeled. Rivers defy design.
After combing through numerous maps, I started looking at images of portions of the river that are farther from the city. I was struck by the organic shapes and curves of the shoreline. These sections of the river still have vegetation growing from the banks and are likely similar to what the entire river looked like originally.
Through the simple act of breaking down maps and images into their component shapes and lines, I’d discovered a simple way to visually represent the river and the city. My art piece juxtaposes the organic, flowing shapes of a river and forest with the rigid geometry that is characteristic of city planning. I focused on the site of Schuylkill Banks Park, starting by sketching out the basic shape of the river as it is now. Across from the park, on the west side of the river (left side of the image), I imagined the Schuylkill before colonization. I layered paint, ink, and pencil to depict overlapping foliage. Different colors of green and brown indicate that there are multiple species thriving along the water. The shoreline is curved and dotted with plants. The water is clear.
On the east side of the river, I drew the bulkhead, which is the only sliver of white in the painting. The water on this side of the river is slick with rainbow chemicals sitting on the surface. A small strip of homogeneous green land next to the bulkhead represents Schuylkill Banks Park. Behind that, an abstraction of the city extends to the edge of the page. The city streets, cars, and buildings are represented with bold color blocking and sharp shapes. Set against a dark background of black asphalt, the city is beautiful yet harsh.
The piece is meant to highlight the irony in going to Schuylkill Banks Park to experience nature, challenging the conception of the bulkhead as a commonsense ecology. When only set against the concrete landscape of the city, Schuylkill Banks Park feels like a return to the natural environment. There aren’t any reminders of what a river is supposed to look like, so park visitors get used to gazing at the river behind a metal railing. However, this art piece directly contrasts the park with a natural shoreline. In the painting, the green of the park simply blends in with the city behind it, no longer seeming “natural” at all.
Davis, Heather, and Zoe Todd. “On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonizing the Anthropocene.” ACME : an international e-journal for critical geographies. 16, no. 4 (2017): 761–780.
Kephart, Beth. “Prelude.” In Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, 9–12. Temple University Press, 2007. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1bw1hnb.3.
Lyons, Kristina. “Rivers Have Memory: The (im)possibility of Floods and Histories of Urban de-and- Reconstruction in the Andean-Amazonian Foothills.” City & society. 30, no. 3 (2018).
Newman, Andrew. On Records: Delaware Indians, Colonists, and the Media of History and Memory. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.
Schuylkill River Development Corporation. 2022. “A Brief History of the Lower Schuylkill.” Accessed March 14, 2023. https://schuylkillbanks.org
Schuylkill River Development Corporation. 2022. “Building and Maintaining the Bulkhead.” Last modified June 17, 2019. Accessed March 14, 2023. https://schuylkillbanks.org
Soderlund, Jean R.. Lenape Country: Delaware Valley Society Before William Penn. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.
“Philadelphia Region When Known As Coaquannock Map, 1934 ”. Digital Library | Historical Society of Pennsylvania : Item : Philadelphia Region When Known As Coaquannock Map, 1934 . https://digitallibrary.hsp.org/index.php/Detail/objects/5184.
The Bedwell Company. Schuylkill River Park Bulkhead View: Vine Street, 1997, https://www.schuylkillbanks.org/blog/building-maintaining-bulkhead
The Bedwell Company. Schuylkill River Park Bulkhead View: Walnut Street, 1997, https://www.schuylkillbanks.org/blog/building-maintaining-bulkhead