By Guest Contributor Melissa Andrews, Destination Schuylkill River
PLAY Manayunk is happening on Saturday, May 16 in Manayunk and celebrates outdoor recreation, fitness, and healthy living in our area. Did you know that this event is inspired by major changes to the neighborhood over multiple decades, and that Manayunk’s own canal towpath is a major character in that story?
A walk on the towpath on a beautiful day feeds the senses. All along the path, there are views of the canal and adjacent Schuylkill River, but patience and repeat visits yield more unusual sights. Turn around the bend near the Flat Rock Dam, and you might see – and hear – a melodious flock of Carolina wrens; closer to Main Street Manayunk, you can greet the canal’s resident great blue herons, red-bellied turtles, or pumpkinseed sunfish. There is also a growing collection of murals and three-dimensional art; muralist Paul Santoleri’s new work on the Fountain Street steps is worth the short walk up from the towpath toward Umbria Street.
The towpath can also pique your hunger. Depending on how the wind is blowing from Main Street, you may pick up the scent of spicy noodles with chilies, a grilling burger, pulled pork tacos, or the intoxicating smell of fresh-baked bread. From the efforts of numerous community groups who help tend plantings, the towpath is also an ideal place to stop and smell the flowers.
You will not be alone in experiencing these sensations. Every day, people who work and live in Manayunk and its surrounding Philadelphia and Lower Merion neighborhoods come to the towpath to run, bike, stroll, fish, and enjoy a rare moment in nature. Now, with the completion of the new Venice Island Performing Arts and Recreations Center, you can catch a show put on by the Manayunk Theater Company or the Delaware Valley Opera Company. Better yet, you can jump into a pick-up game of basketball.
While life along the canal seems idyllic now, it has not always been so. In the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, the towpath helped Manayunk rise to prominence as an industrial neighborhood that contributed to Philadelphia’s overall industrial revolution. Manayunk’s factories and mills produced a wide range of wares, most notably textiles and paper. The water from the Schuylkill River and towpath powered their production, and carried the final products down to the City of Philadelphia and from there out into the world.
Like any industrial town, Manayunk was packed with workers, grit, smoke, and noise, as well as the mules that helped pull commercial barges along the canal. During this time, the waterway – so useful for the creation and transit of Manayunk’s goods – became degraded: the old familiar story of economic gain at ecological expense. Without labor regulations, the factory workers also suffered. Men, women, and children alike faced long hours, dangerous machines, and hazardously poor air quality. Hard work was the word of the day, with most factories operating three shifts a day, six days a week. Under this intensive use, the once idyllic riverside became a location that most people avoided during their few respite hours.
By the late twentieth century, most heavy industry had moved out of major cities, if not out of the country. Manayunk was no different. With most factories and mills shut down, the commercial corridor became dilapidated and mostly vacant, and the once-busy towpath and canal became silent and overgrown.
Manayunk’s second life began in the 1980s, as a new wave of entrepreneurs opened an eclectic variety of shops and restaurants in the center core of the district and moved progressively outward. New business owners and residents not only began rehabilitating buildings, but also initiated intense cleanup and reclamation projects on the river, canal, and towpath, placing pressure on public officials to also invest in these resources.
Manayunk is now once again filled with the sights and sounds of a returning natural world. Visitors who revel in these open spaces, along with numerous fitness, health, and recreation groups who use these outdoor areas as their playground, advocate for more of these experiences and opportunities. This return to nature is what we at Manayunk Development Corporation are celebrating at PLAY Manayunk on Saturday, May 16. We invite you and your family and friends to Venice Island (7 Lock Street) to take part in all of the outdoor activities that the area has to offer, and experience this new chapter of Manayunk’s history for yourself.
About the author:
Melissa Andrews is Project Manager and Watershed Education Coordinator at Destination Schuylkill River, a project of the Manayunk Development Corporation that focuses on planning, programs, and projects on water and land. With a background in environmental planning and design, she loves being able to step out her door – both at work and at home – and have quick access to some of the best parks and trails that Philadelphia has to offer.