Yesterday I played tour guide by showing a friend - new to Philadelphia - how to enter the bike path along the Schuylkill River. Although I see the path daily as I walk to work, crossing the river via the Walnut Street bridge, I hadn't really explored the riverside since its renovation.
Fact is, although it is a river, to me it represents a sea of memories. The Schuylkill Rivier runs alongside the west end of Center City Philadelphia. Between the river and the city lies railroad tracks that carry an army of redundant metal boxes up and down the coast. When I first moved downtown, that region was truly a "no-mans" land. For those wondering, the word Schuylkill means "hidden river", which was quite fitting back in those years.
There was an overgrown plot of land that led to the tracks. Although it was a park of sorts, it was in sad shape. It was commonly known as Judy Garland Park, since the only people who really hung there were gay men of all ages. From the park you could connect to the tracks - which you could walk down until you were alongside the mighty Philadelphia Museum of Art. If you ever looked up, that is.
Everyone hung down by the tracks during the warmer months in the early 80s. The party time was the weekend - as the bars closed - everyone made their way west. Some hung on the 2000 block of Spruce Street - the Merry Go Round, as it was called - since cars would circle the block all night long - crusing for men and chatting with friends. It got so busy that the city put up traffic signs prohibiting left turns after midnight at each corner of the square.
The tracks were where you hung if you were too fucked up to head home. The tracks were where you hung if you were too young to get into the clubs. The tracks were where you hung if you were too closeted to actually be seen around a gay bar. The tracks were a community all of itself. A bunch of gay men and teens, several boom boxes of music, drugs for those that wanted it, sex for those that craved it, and a river that couldn't care less.
I left the tracks and Judy Garland Park when I left CC Philly in the mid 80s. In 1992 the neighborhood clashed with those that hung out there - and they all clashed with the police who had a heavy hand in handling the situation.
My friend Glenn Holsten (currently traveling the country in support of his new documentary 'Saint of 9/11') produced a public tv documentary about neighborhood reaction to the park, called 'AKA Judy Garland Park', back in 1994 - during the decade when things boiled over along the river.
Cultures clashed. Police rolled in. A darker element - even darker than the ones I had seen back in the 80s - took over the tracks. Casual drug use turned into drug deals gone wrong. Bodies were found floating alongside the riverbank - identified as gay men but murder or suicide? No one ever solved those cases. The push to clean up the riverbank was on.
So - yesterday I walked along the river, and although I was engaging in pleasant conversation with my friend on a sunny afternoon, I was haunted by memories. I saw pillers that stood to support thousands of people crossing the river daily - and that represented mental mile markers of places that I hung at at night, a quarter century ago.
We were able to walk along the river straight to Boathouse Row and back. Sculptured grounds, benches and ample lighting made this bank worthy of one to visit again. If nothing more than to say hi to the ghosts of my past.