In­de­pen­dence from the trod­den path

Philadel­phia’s come a long way since the Found­ing Fa­thers walked its streets — and the coolest new spa­ces are best cruised by bike

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY ME­LANIE D. G. KA­PLAN Spe­cial to The Wash­ing­ton Post

Across from Philadel­phia’s Rit­ten­house Square one morn­ing in April, I waited for my break­fast at the cafe Parc. Street maps and high­lighters cov­ered the ta­ble, andmy bike hel­met sat on the bench next to me.

My go-to meal be­fore a big ride is oat­meal. But when my or­der ar­rived, cov­ered with a brittle, scorched-sugar top­ping and look­ing as though it had made a de­tour through the dessert cart, I won­dered what other sur­prises this day would bring.

I folded my maps, vowed to read the menu more care­fully next time, fu­eled up onmy sweet oat­meal brulee and set off for a day of ped­al­ing.

The week be­fore I ar­rived in Philly, the city had launched its new bike-share, called In­dego (named for spon­sor In­de­pen­dence Blue Cross). The ben­e­fit of wait­ing for dozens of other cities to set up pro­grams first was that Philadel­phia could learn vi­car­i­ous lessons (such as of­fer­ing a pay-with-cash op­tion, mak­ing the bikes ac­ces­si­ble to more peo­ple) and, pre­sum­ably, take time to im- prove bike lanes and fix pot­holes.

Ar­riv­ing as a bike-share novice, I thought this would be a groovy way to check out a few new city parks and public spa­ces along the Delaware River to the east, the Schuylkill River to the west and the 30-block Cen­ter City in be­tween. I walked to­ward the row of elec­tricblue, two-bas­ket bikes on the op­po­site side of Rit­ten­house. On­line, I’d signed up for a $15 one-month membership, which bought me free rides for up to an hour. So all I had to do was swipe my credit card and tap a few but­tons on the touch screen for the dock­ing sys­tem to un­lock a bike. I ad­justed the seat, checked my watch and headed east to­ward the Delaware.

Flanked by the Walt Whit­man and Benjamin Franklin bridges, the sec­tion of the Delaware River wa­ter­front ac­ces­si­ble to tourists is largely industrial. Wil­liam Penn, who sailed up this river in 1682, might rub his eyes in dis­be­lief if he saw the trans­for­ma­tion un­der­way to­day.

Spruce Street Har­bor Park is one of the most popular new spots — a sum­mer pop-up with a roller skat­ing rink, ham­mock gar­den, float­ing barges, shuf­fle­board and board­walk

con­ces­sions that con­verts into an equally charm­ing ice skat­ing park in the win­ter.

The mas­ter plan is to con­vert a six-mile stretch of this gritty wa­ter­front into an ex­ten­sion of the bustling city, with parks ev­ery half-mile, a bike trail and a $250 mil­lion re­de­vel­op­ment of Penn’s Land­ing. Al­ready, the city has opened Wash­ing­ton Av­enue Pier (for­merly Pier 53, home of the city’s im­mi­gra­tion sta­tion and the coun­try’s first navy yard) and Race Street Pier, a two-tiered park with free morn­ing yoga, de­signed by the firm be­hind New York’s High Line.

I biked up the river, hug­ging the wa­ter, past-Moshulu, a tall ship that now houses a restau­rant, and In­de­pen­dence Sea­port Mu­seum. At Race Street Pier, I dis­mounted and walked out over the wa­ter un­der the Ben Franklin Bridge, tak­ing in the views. From there, I biked to­ward Mar­ket Street, re­turn­ing my bike just be­fore the hour ex­pired.

Af­ter sampling house-made ice cream with teeny spoons at the Franklin Foun­tain (gin­ger and ve­gan co­conut, both worth writ­ing home about), I walked west, stop­ping in the cob­ble­stone court­yard where Ben Franklin’s house and print shop once sat. I couldn’t help pop­ping in to see the Lib­erty Bell, which seemed a minia­ture ver­sion of the one in my child­hood mem­ory.

Be­fore I picked upmy next bike, across from City Hall, I made a de­tour for a $1 slice at Rosa’s Pizza, where you can pay an ex­tra buck to sub­si­dize a slice for some­one who is home­less. When you pay it for­ward, you can leave an ad­he­sive note, and the walls are now cov­ered with mes­sages like “Peace, pot & pizza” and “Have a pizza my heart.”

In prepa­ra­tion for my trip, I had con­sulted with a few lo­cal cy­clists who of­fered rid­ing tips. The grid lay­out makes get­ting around Philadel­phia fairly easy, but the city’s still not as bike-friendly as I hope it’ll be down the road. Among the best bike lanes are those on Spring Gar­den Street, 13th and 22nd headed north, 10th south, Spruce Street west and Pine Street east. Cy­clists also ad­vised stay­ing away from the streets with trol­ley tracks, such as 11th and 12th (too easy to catch your tire and take a spill) as well as busy Broad Street (where 14th should be, but nam­ing the nu­meral will cer­tainly re­veal you as a tourist).

I headed north and cut across Spring Gar­den to­ward the Philadel­phia Art Mu­seum and the Schuylkill. En route, I ped­aled through Matthias Baldwin and Sis­ter Cities parks, around Lo­gan Square and up tree-lined Benjamin Franklin Park­way, with heav­enly wide, painted bike lanes. Af­ter pass­ing the Barnes Foun­da­tion, I paused to con­sider “The Thinker” in front of the Rodin Mu­seum and fi­nally ped­aled by the Rocky Bal­boa statue to re­turnmy bike near the steps of the art mu­seum.

Com­pared with my light­weight, nim­ble bike at home, this Trek three-speed was like a tank — sta­ble, safe and lum­ber­ing. It took a lit­tle more oomph to start it, brake to stop it and heft to lift it onto a curb. But my big­gest hand­i­cap that day, zip­ping around with­out a smart­phone, was us­ing only a not-so-great printed map of the bike sta­tions — and my limited knowl­edge of Philly streets — to get around. (In­dego hadn’t yet printed big­ger brochures or added maps to the sta­tions; both were said to be com­ing.)

So I found my­self in that de­light­ful space of mi­cro-dis­ori­en­ta­tion, in which I teeter on a line be­tween cer­tainty of my where­abouts and ut­terly lost. Of course, one of the joys of be­ing on a bike is ex­plor­ing that which might be im­prac­ti­cal on foot — me­an­der­ing down an en­chant­ing block or through a beck­on­ing park. Time and again, I cy­cled just far enough off my planned route that I wasn’t con­fi­dent about find­ing my way back — or find­ing the blue glow of an In­dego sta­tion. Time and again, usu­ally with just min­utes to spare be­fore my hour was up, I did.

With a new bike and a new hour to ride, I headed be­hind the mu­seum and through Fair­mount Park on the Schuylkill River Trail; in this di­rec­tion, one can bike an­other 23 miles north to Val­ley Forge. But af­ter I passed the boathouses, I turned around and headed a few miles south — and, agree­ably, down­hill— past skate­board­ers in Paine’s Park and along the new, four-block Schuylkill Banks Board­walk. I ex­ited at the South Street Bridge, hur­ried over my fi­nal pot­holes to find the In­dego sta­tion near 17th and De­lancey (near where I parked my car for the day) and re­turned my bike at the 57-minute mark.

Be­fore I re­trieved my car, I re­turned to Parc. I’mnot sure which I was hap­pier to see: the re­stroom or the bar. I vis­ited the for­mer and then co­zied up to the lat­ter, set­ting my hel­met on the stool and stretch­ing my calves. I downed three wa­ters and then or­dered a drink for the road — a stiff, re­fresh­ing, well-earned iced cof­fee. Then I strolled to the park­ing lot, try­ing vainly to play down a stride that con­veyed, with­out ques­tion, how I’d spent my day.

PHO­TOS BY TONI L. SANDYS/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

A sunny day in June brings crowds, in­clud­ing bi­cy­clists, to the Franklin Foun­tain onMar­ket Street in Philadel­phia. The old-fash­ioned ice cream par­lor is a few min­utes’ ride from Penn’s Land­ing, a once-gritty Delaware River wa­ter­front site whose sur­round­ing area is the fo­cus of a sweep­ing re­vi­tal­iza­tion ef­fort. A pop-up park with a roller skat­ing rink and a two-level space where yoga is held are al­ready in place.

On the Schuylkill River side of the city, cy­clists cross Benjamin Franklin Park­way near the Franklin In­sti­tute in Philadel­phia.

PHO­TOS BY TONI L. SANDYS/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Along the Delaware River, cy­clists ride to the end of Race Street Pier in Philadel­phia. The project was de­signed by the same firm re­spon­si­ble for New York’s High Line.

A quick pedal south of Race Street Pier, the Spruce Street Har­bor Park and its ham­mock gar­den is a popular new spot along the river­front af­ter an ex­ten­sive re­de­vel­op­ment. The mas­ter plan for the wa­ter­front puts parks ev­ery half-mile.

Far left, a woman makes a trans­ac­tion at an In­dego sta­tion, Philadel­phia’s new bike-shar­ing ser­vice. Pa­trons can pay for the elec­tric-blue bikes by the month or the trip. Left, the In­de­pen­dence Sea­portMu­seum and a Hil­ton ho­tel are part of the makeover tak­ing place along the bike­able river­front.

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