The idea came to Ed Zampitella at dawn. That’s when high tide reaches the Delaware River at Grafitti Pier.
That morning, Zampitella noticed the water around Graffiti Pier was speckled with litter. Plastic bags, beer bottles and condom wrappers all rushed the shore. He daydreamed about buying a motorboat, taking it out at high tide and swooping up all the litter within reach.
Only problem with his plan: Graffiti Pier was shut down in May. Conrail, the owner of the property, closed it to the public for safety reasons — which likely means Zampitella would be prohibited from setting sail.
Sure enough, Philly Police confirmed to Billy Penn, anyone interested in cleaning up the pier would need permission from Conrail. Otherwise, they’d be on the hook for trespassing charges.
Would Conrail be open to such a thing? It’s complicated.
“Conrail understands and recognizes the iconic nature of the Port Richmond site, Graffiti Pier, as well as the community’s desire to clean the area and surrounding waterway,” Jonathan Broder, Conrail’s vice president of corporate development and chief legal officer, said in a statement. “While the street art and constantly changing nature of the space has inherent cultural value, Conrail’s first priority is safety.”
Hey now! The company appears to recognize not only the common name for the riverfront structure, but also its value to the community. But that doesn’t mean they’ll allow people in for maintenance.
The Philly-based rail corporation likes the idea of allowing neighborhood orgs to clean up the pier. But with that caveat: safety first. Safety concerns are why the pier was shut down in the first place — police told PMN that they had responded to robberies, assaults, a rape and a drowning on the property.
Zampitella has his own take on the concrete waterside tag fest. Since he founded the Last Stop addiction recovery center 17 years ago in Kensington, he’s taken a liking to Graffiti Pier. Just a few miles away from his recovery operation, the pier is a spot where he can clear his head.
“It’s peaceful,” he said. “You’re in Philly, but you’re out of Philly, in a way.”
So far, Zampitella seems to be the only guy looking to clean up the water around Graffiti Pier. But his sentiment isn’t unique. Despite its closure, several neighborhood groups have expressed interest in pitching in to clean up the pier.
Last year, the Olde Richmond Civic Association teamed with environmentally-minded fashion purveyor-slash-cafe operator United by Blue to organize a Graffiti Pier cleanup. Though that was before it was shut down, even then the two organizations had difficulty getting the necessary approval.
“The people that own property there needed a lot more lead time to get the checks and balances in order,” said Kelly Offner, head of cleanups at United by Blue. The approvals have still not come through.
So United by Blue and ORCA have moved the Graffiti Pier cleanup to the back burner. They’re still interested, Offner said, but are waiting for word from Conrail that at least indicates a go-ahead is coming soon.
“The conversation is still open,” Offner clarified. “We have so many other cleanups going on in Philly, so it’s not a make-or-break if it doesn’t happen this year.”
In light of all the interest from neighborhood groups, Conrail is “exploring ways to work with local organizations,” VP Broder told Billy Penn. “We are moving towards a more holistic approach to how we partner with communities in which we operate.”
Meanwhile, Zampitella is feeling a sense of urgency. He’s already obtained a boat from a friend, and has begun the application process for a Pennsylvania boating license. Soon, he hopes, he’ll have approval from Conrail, and can put them both to use.
“This park has a lot of potential,” Zampitella said. “At least we’re not sitting on our butts doing nothing.”