Linda Fernandez and Keir Johnston of Amber Art Collective

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Updated Nov. 26

An accessible urban space decorated by ever-changing street art that hosts performance events and offers waterfront family fun while helping mitigate the effects of climate change.

That’s a compilation of the potential best outcomes for Graffiti Pier, according to the input collected by Studio Zewde, the landscape designers charged with reimagining the iconic modern ruin jutting from the Philadelphia shoreline.

“In an ideal world, this will be a very unique project in terms of the entire globe,” said artist Keir Johnston, a member of local group Amber Art Collective. “That would be best case scenario.”

Amber Art was tapped by Studio Zewde to help bring more voices into the visioning process for the Instagram-famous strip.

Originally a Reading Railroad coal-loading dock and now owned by Conrail, the concrete pier is part of a 6-acre parcel set to be transformed into a public park. Stewardship of the land is being transferred to control of the nonprofit Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, which selected Studio Zewde to oversee the process.

The first public meeting about the park-to-be happened at the beginning of November at Cherry Street Pier.

After presenting boards that displayed some of the main challenges — rising tides will submerge the slowly-eroding jetty; a massive residential development is being built next door — Studio Zewde led a conversation about Graffiti Pier’s future with several dozen people, including street artists, nearby residents and even some folks passing by who’d never heard of the spot before.

“We see design as powered by engagement,” principal architect Sara Zewde told Billy Penn.

Her firm worked with Amber Art Collective recently to incorporate community input into their revamp of Mander Rec Center in Strawberry Mansion. Replicating the same thing at Graffiti Pier is complicated, Zewde said, because “in this case, the constituents of the site are criminalized for the acts that they do — street art and also trespassing.”

Last spring, in May 2018, Philly Police announced a crackdown on trespassing at the pier, which had long been a favorite for graffiti artists looking for open walls and photographers seeking interesting backdrops.

The collective wail over Graffiti Pier’s “shutdown” garnered enough attention among city leaders to spark discussions between the DRWC and Conrail, which led to the current renovation effort.

Credit: Courtesy Studio Zewde

Underground meetings around the city

At the November meeting, two giant canvases asked participants to imagine two things: the best possible outcome for Graffiti Pier, and alternately, the worst.

Lots of what was written on the former — make graffiti legal there, keep it creative, don’t sanitize the space, let it “be a park for a park’s sake” — echoed what Zewde’s team had already heard from street artists at a series of off-the-record gatherings around the city.

Especially since Studio Zewde is based in Harlem, they relied on Amber Art Collective to bring folks to the table.

“We helped establish an initial artists council, then reached out to people we know who are either connected to graffiti art community or live in the neighborhood closest to Graffiti Pier, or are super involved with public space,” said Linda Fernandez, another Amber Art member working with Johnston on the project.

Zewde estimated she’d spoken with at least 30 local artists in advance of public meeting happened.

“One of the artists that we talked to this week said, ‘I actually see the potential for this to move graffiti culture forward,’” Zewde told Billy Penn, noting that parallels to the DIY skatepark at FDR Park in South Philly came up often. “It’s become a motif in the conversation.”

Sara Zewde (center) and associates Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Keeping it above water, saving the grit

One fact about the pier has nothing to do with whether it becomes a public park or not.

Estimates show that soon, the floor of the structure — at just 2 feet above sea level — will be regularly flooded due to rising tides. The parcel being transferred to the DRWC also includes the smaller Pier 18. Located just south of the famous one, that jetty is already disappearing into the riverbank.

“If nothing were to happen, within our lifetimes, Graffiti Pier would be submerged on a daily basis just because of tides,” Zewde said.

She was surprised by the extent of the projections, she said, which basically mean the pier’s pending transformation could be its saving grace. “Where [some] people see this as a loss, it becoming a public place, this is actually the only chance Graffiti Pier has to survive.”

One note on the “best” board at the meeting suggested building what’s known as a “trash wheel” — a solar-powered waterwheel that pulls debris from the river. Baltimore has one of these working a the head of the Jones Falls river as it empties into that city’s Inner Harbor.

While no one wants litter around the pier, many of the artists Zewde spoke with expressed a desire to keep the “grit” of the place. Interestingly, that happens to dovetail with environmental efforts.

“They wanted to keep the [interaction with the] water, the plants, the dense vegetation, the fact that it’s not paved,” Zewde said. “So there’s this odd pairing of what people associate with a street art space and ecological design.”

Climate change projections for Graffiti Pier and surroundings Credit: Courtesy Studio Zewde

Making it accessible — despite nearby development

Right now, it’s not easy to get to Graffiti Pier. There are no roads leading there, or even trails, and you have to duck under wire fences to climb on the structure. That certainly doesn’t keep people out, even after last year’s crackdown, Amber Art’s Johnston observed.

“I visited there a week ago,” he said, “and in a 15-minute stretch over 20 people visited. People were walking there, people were biking there, people were parking their cars right out front.”

Keeping the park accessible — or really, increasing its accessibility — is a big goal for the new design.

The land just west of the pier, in Port Richmond, is slated to be a large residential development. More than 1,000 new units are planned for the site at 2001 Beech St., including multifamily rental buildings and single-family townhomes. No zoning variances are needed, and the project has already won approval from various neighborhood groups.

“That is going to change the nature of this space in a major way,” Zewde said. She hasn’t yet reached out to the developers on the project, but said “that’s high on our list.”

After having those conversations, doing more feasibility studies on the site, and gathering all the feedback, the next step is another public meeting to present the findings. That’s targeted to happen in February 2020.

Meanwhile, the DRWC is embracing its role as steward.

“It seems clear that artists and non-artists alike value the role that graffiti and street art has played on the pier,” DRWC marketing director Almaz Crowe said, “and would like to see that art continue to play a significant role in the space going forward.”

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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...