Lower Schuylkill: The Upside of Philly’s Underside

Penrose Avenue Bridge, October 4, 1951. (PhillyHistory.org)

It’s a shame no one has anything good to say about the drive from Philadelphia International Airport to Center City. It’s a gritty but grand entrance, this ride on PA 291, aka the Penrose Avenue Bridge, aka the Platt Memorial Bridge to US 76, aka the Schuylkill Expressway—a ride punctuated by the usual roadwork, billboards, questionable signage and occasional pothole. Those features are found just about anywhere. What makes this stretch truly special is the rich urban choreography visible from atop the viaduct of concrete pylons rising above the brackish marsh. That scene offers complex and meaningful drama.

I feel sorry for those who go out of their way to avoid Philadelphia’s gritty entrance. They miss the point.

Platt Memorial (formerly Penrose Avenue) Bridge – Underside. November 30, 1951. (PhillyHistory.org)

The Platt Memorial Bridge experience is considered an embarrassing nuisance. Hosts of out-of-town guests apologize for it. Hospitality hates it. The Inquirer has called it a “grimy industrial gateway … arching over sprawling oil tanks and… steaming stacks.” Most Philadelphians consider this entrance the worst of our worst, but it may actually be the best of our best.

Arriving via the Platt is a genuine and aesthetic Philadelphia experience. It’s an everyman, everywoman, everyday encounter for those in the 56,000 vehicles that pass over this 1.7-mile, 62-year-old bridge. Sure, as the Inky says, it “begins in weeds and ends by a junkyard” but that’s the beauty and the irony of it. By traversing the bridge in our cars, we’re threading a needle, that fragile zone in time and space between refined gasoline and crushed cars. Our reason for passing through breathes life into the scene and gives it a reason for being.

No, it’s not beautiful in the traditional sense, but we need this stuff. And isn’t Philadelphia at its best when it’s averse to pretense? We’re barreling along, there’s a sewage treatment on our right, an oil refinery on our left—plumes of smoke, gas flares burning effluent high above the natural no man’s land below. This scene is nearly entirely man made, taking place above the loneliest and least welcoming stretch of the meandering Schuylkill, two miles beyond the last bit of green at Bartram’s Gardens. This is about the automobile and its victory in the 20th-century city. As drivers, we’re offered a commanding straight shot to and from the city. Rising over the crest of the Platt Bridge may is among the most dramatic and authentic that Philadelphia ever gets. Why should we allow it to embarrass us? Why would we want to avert our eyes?

Philadelphians opened the bridge in 1951; twenty years after the idea was first proposed and just as the automobile had completed its win over the 19th-century city. (The Penrose Avenue Bridge was among the last works designed by architect Paul Cret.) With a ribbon cutting and a celebratory dinner hosted by AAA, the swing bridge from Philadelphia’s Iron Age had been reduced to fading memory. Sixty years later, in June 2011, PennDOT identified this bridge one of 5,000 in the Commonwealth that are “structurally deficient” and launched a three-year “rehabilitation project.”

SPC Corporation – Camden Iron and Metal, 2600 Penrose Avenue (Google)

There’s structural integrity and then there’s experiential integrity. What wakes up both citizen and visitor and puts them in the true Philadelphia frame of mind, what completes the whole Platt experience is the car shredder at the base of the bridge. But SPC Corporation which operates this Godzilla grinder, this Rockosauraus of rust, is planning to leave town. After abandoning a plan to relocate to Eddystone, Pennsylvania, SPC’s parent company, Camden Iron & Metal announced a plan to move back to the city of its namesake. They’re behind schedule a year or so, but “sooner or later” the company confirms, “we’re going to move.”

What a pity. Just as we’ve grown accustomed to Philadelphia’s most apocalyptic and ironic vision, just as we’ve become fully conscious of this 20th-century expression of unsustainability, we’re about to lose its most dramatic expression. As the song goes: “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” and then it says something about a parking lot. Exactly.

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3 Comments

  1. Bill Brookover
    Posted May 10, 2013 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Well said. Sometimes we can’t see the importance of things staring us in the face. I like your framing the trip around the life span of a car – from fuel to crusher. Do you remember when the City briefly proposed a Bicentennial fair on the west shore of the river down under the bridges? I always wondered how that might have played out.

  2. Matt Marcucci
    Posted May 10, 2013 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    Great post, Ken. “And isn’t Philadelphia at its best when it’s averse to pretense?” I couldn’t agree more.

  3. Rich
    Posted May 14, 2013 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Loved your article , I’m a truck driver who runs thru Philadelphia all week. I love the views
    That I can see because I’m high up , especially going over bridges . It’s a view most people
    can’t see because their low or because they’re starring at their phone. Another stunning structure I grew up crossing all the time with my dad was the pulaski skyway in jersey city nj.
    It too soared over industry , wharehouses , and swampland.

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