Après-ski à Cobbs Creek

The El crosses Cobbs Creek from DelCo into Philly | Photo: Bradley Maule
The El crosses Cobbs Creek from DelCo into Philly | Photo: Bradley Maule

“Polar vortex” … “bombogenesis” … what ever happened to classic nor’easters and plain old blizzards? In three and a half years, including four winters, in Portland, I saw exactly one snowfall: a 3″ job the first month I lived there that was melted by noon the next day. (Still, it shut the city down for at least a day.) This winter? Now this is the east coast. But FU, Weather Channel, I’m not calling a winter storm a name you made up just to stir a hurricane hype into ratings. Pfft.

Anyway. Tuesday, my favorite day of the week, delivered as always with a good foot of the white stuff. Living in Mt Airy, I did the most logical thing: bundled up for a snow hike through the Wissahickon, then met Steve Weinik at the neighborhood’s official snow day bar, McMenamin’s … then woke up the next morning on the couch still in my boots and gloves, feeling like a million bucks. (Truly–man I love winter.) Come Wednesday, the snow was over and the skies crystal clear, that dare-you-to-go-outside pure, cold, clean air. Challenge accepted.

West Philadelphia Jewish Community Center, 1927-2014 | Photo: Bradley Maule
West Philadelphia Jewish Community Center, 1927-2014 | Photo: Bradley Maule

One of the nice things about being an editor of the Hidden City Daily is assigning yourself stories and photo shoots as needed. With news of the West Philadelphia Jewish Community Center demolition in full swing, I had to get out there to see the handsome circa-1927 Romanesque building before it was gone. Yet another historic building from a time long gone meets its maker. Ugh.

While the WPJCC was under construction at 63rd & Ludlow, so too was the widening of Cobbs Creek Parkway, following the old route of Grays Lane (not to be confused with Grays Avenue or Grays Ferry Avenue) (according to Robert Alotta’s Mermaids, Monasteries, Cherokees, and Custer, 1990). Morphing from street grid to meandering sylvan drive, Cobbs Creek Parkway essentially follows the path of Cobbs Creek proper, Philadelphia’s winding western border from City Line Avenue to where the stream empties into Darby Creek, near 80th Street in Eastwick. Cobbs Creek Park, a ribbon of green space with a rec center, a swimming pool, an environmental education center (housed in a Works Progress Administration building completed in 1936), a skate house supported by Ed Snider’s Youth Hockey Foundation, and a popular hike/bike trail, was established as part of the Fairmount Park system in 1904.

As with a number of other examples–Grays Ferry, Gravers Lane, Allens Lane–Cobbs Creek’s naming convention comes from simply dropping the apostrophe, although there are still those who add it back. The apostrophe originates with William Cobb, an English miller who bought land along the creek from the Swedes, who had lived here since the early 17th Century. Remnants from a mill built by Swedish Governor Johan Printz can still be seen farther down Cobbs Creek near the Blue Bell Inn.

In addition to the waterway and Parkway, the West Philly neighborhood from Market Street to Baltimore Avenue and 52nd Street to the Creek takes the name Cobbs Creek. The native Lenape name for the creek, Karakung, lends itself to Karakung Drive in Haverford and the Karakung Golf Course, through which Cobbs Creek and its tributary Indian Creek flow.

Unfortunately, many people know the neighborhood from one of the city’s darkest days, May 13, 1985, when Philadelphia became The City That Bombed Itself. After years of tension and a very public eviction from Powelton Village, a standoff between police and the militant luddites MOVE at their fortified compound half a block from Cobbs Creek Park on Osage Avenue reached its hilt when a police helicopter dropped a bomb provided by the FBI, igniting an inferno that destroyed over 60 homes and killed 11 MOVE members. Of the two who survived the bomb, only one, Ramona Africa, still lives; Birdie Africa, the sympathetic 13-year-old who escaped the fire, burned, died last year in the hot tub of a Carnival cruise ship.

62xx Osage Avenue—"the MOVE block"—in 2014 | Photo: Bradley Maule
62xx Osage Avenue—”the MOVE block”—in 2014 | Photo: Bradley Maule

But the neighborhood rebuilt, and Mayor Wilson Goode denounced the action as unconscionable. Densely populated and primarily African American, Cobbs Creek takes the connectivity of the city grid to the edge, where a spacious park provides many residents with their first introduction to the natural world.

This set of photos follows that idea, the merger of city and nature, under this week’s blanket of snow. Photos were taken along Cobbs Creek, Cobbs Creek Park, and Cobbs Creek Parkway, from Market Street to Baltimore Avenue.

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SEE ALSO:

• PA Community Forests: “On the Threshold of a Dream” (PDF) – a story about the Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Education Center
• PhillyH2O: “Cobb’s Creek in the Days of the Old Powder Mill” – a history of mills along Cobbs Creek written by John Eckfeldt in 1917, digitized by Adam Levine
• UPenn: West Philadelphia Community History Center – a resource created by Penn students and faculty to explore the history of West Philly’s neighborhoods

2 thoughts on “Après-ski à Cobbs Creek

  1. This is one of the reasons why I fell in love with Phillyskyline the first time around. Your photo essays!

    Awesome job, Brad

  2. How sad to see the WPJCC coming down…I had no idea this was in the works. My parents met there on a similarly snowy weekend the winter of 1948-49, during a transit strike. My dad, a new driver, gave my mom a ride home from a Young Hadassah dance, and the rest, as they say, is history.

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