In April 2003, a chunk of the South Street Bridge (SSB) fell onto I-76, prompting a closure and a quick fix. This was the first I'd heard of this happening, but
it apparently wasn't the first time it happened. I shrugged and thought "huh," but my curiosity took me to the Bridge to take a look. I'd walked over it a
hundred times because it's got arguably the best view of the Philly skyline (dot com). This time, though, I went to take pictures OF the bridge
instead of FROM it.|
Two months later, in June 2003, another chunk fell out onto the highway. It made me wonder how often stuff falls into the Schuylkill, since there aren't thousands of motorists to report it to the police. I went over to check out the damage, and don't you know there were chunks of concrete the size of fireplace logs lying on the highway. This happened around 4pm on a weekday. Very fortunately, no one was hurt or injured, but it did put a serious damper on the commute home.
It's January 2006 now, and on Monday the 23rd of the same month, yet another chunk of falling concrete caused a weekday closure of the 76. Some think it will take death to close SSB and once and for all rebuild it. Are they wrong? By philly skyline's official count (which may or may not be accurate), there have been five closures to one of the most used bridges in the city over the past three years. But first, it's important to get a back story.
If we go all the way back to the 1866, we'll find that a dedicated commission was established to connect the southwesternmost quadrant of a young but blossoming Center City to the western side of the Schuylkill. And build it they did, completing it ten years later. It took all of two years for it to collapse and fail. A wooden bridge replaced it and lasted over forty years before the next -- and current -- version of the bridge was completed in 1923. (phila.gov.)
Now, the SSB we all know and loathe was not the same bridge when it opened in 1923. Interstate highways were unheard of. (Hitler's Autobahn, after which Eisenhower modeled America's system, wouldn't open for another decade.) No, SSB was your average span from point A to point B, with a lift in the middle for passing boats. It remained so until the late 1950s when the Schuylkill Expressway opened and the lift was paved over.
Interstate highways have a tendency to change landscapes. In the most literal sense, this was true with SSB. Mind you, SSB is not just the span across the Schuylkill River by the AT&T Building at 27th Street to 76's off-ramps -- the bridge actually runs from 27th Street all the way to Convention Ave at the traffic light by Franklin Field, passing over sets of railroad tracks owned by CSX and Amtrak on either side of the River, and it carries utilities across the River as well. The portion between 76 and Convention Ave isn't in that bad of shape. The part from 76 to 27th Street though ... hooboy.
I-76 will be celebrating fifty years of Sure-kill driving tradition in just three years, 2009. That means an already 83 year old bridge will have spent well more than half its life serving traffic it wasn't built to serve. Wear and tear is natural, but the wear and tear SSB has endured was unthought of at its inception.
As an aside, SSB is not only a dumping ground for interstate traffic. Every June, the Odunde procession marches from 24th & Grays Ferry down South Street to the bridge, where offerings of fruit and flowers are offered for the 'new year' celebration. And, well, for a number of years, when Penn's football team beat its archrival Princeton, its students tore down the goal posts and marched them down to the bridge for their own religious sort of offering. And truth be told, when my beloved snail of the North Sea, Simon, met his maker, I took his shell to the bridge, sending his remains downstream in hopes that they'd sail back home.
Which brings us back to, well, 1998 anyway. SSB's delapidation is no secret, and its
Inga Saffron actually reported in July 2002 in her Changing Skyline column that the then-under-construction Schuylkill River Park would extend to South Street Bridge, under the guidance of the Schuylkill River Development Corporation (SRDC). SRDC's masterplan, of course, extends the River Park from "the dam to the Delaware." It's already gotten from the Art Museum to Locust Street, so South Street is its next phase -- pending, of course, the rebuilding of SSB. An artist's concept shows a cantilevered boardwalk that extends to a ramp up to the bridge from the path below, a concept that was referenced by Sam Switzenbaum's announcement for the South Bridge condo conversion of the Kennedy Center on Schuylkill Ave.
Where does this leave us now? Guess we'll see. Right now, we're operating under the impression that SSB will undergo massive surgery next year, a sixteen month rebuilding process that will leave us a new bridge. Will it be a Santiago Calatrava awe-inspiring landmark? Ha ha ha ha ha. Silly Philadelphian. We'll be lucky if nobody dies from falling debris between now and 2007, let alone actually tearing down and rebuilding a bridge in sixteen months, or even hearing a starchitect's asking price.
So, with this lengthy introduction, I present to you South Street Bridge, as it was in 2003, which is to suggest that it was in better shape than it is now. Oh yeah, the streets department has laid macadam where there were holes in the sidewalk. (But they entirely closed the north side's walkway -- you know, the one with the best views and the turrets with seating?) And they must've done something about those concrete chunks that keep falling on the highway. Right? ... Right???