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David Dannenberg – Board Member, Friends of the Wissahickon (Part 1 of 3)

By Admin | March 2, 2008

David Dannenberg is a teacher at a private school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is on sabbatical this year and spend a significant amount of his time volunteering for the Friends of the Wissahickon, a group of of environmentally-minded activists working to preserve the park land surrounding the Wissahickon Creek. We recently had a chance to meet with him and he gives us his thoughts.


Where did you go to college and what was your academic major?

I went to the Colorado College and majored in History. About a decade and a half after that I earned a Masters degree in Education from Arcadia University (at that time called Beaver College).

How did your association with the Wisshickon and Friends of the Wissahickon begin?

Throughout my life I have had an abiding interest in conservation.

I have learned about ecology through various means ranging from time spent in outdoor settings.

This includes eleven summers attending and working at a wilderness camp and an entire year of high school spent at a traveling school living out of doors, to college courses, to reading magazines and books, to lectures, to television documentaries, etc..

I have frequented the Wissahickon park throughout my entire life, beginning as a toddler in the 1960s taking regular Sunday walks with my parents and both grandfathers as well as excursions to feed the ducks with my maternal grandparents.

Then later, as I grew older, on with hikes with friends.

When I returned from college I settled in Mt. Airy and frequented the park by foot, bicycle, and even occasionally by cross country ski after a good snow or whitewater kayak when the creek was in flood.

Once in a great while I go rock climbing at Livesey Rock. Over this period I have observed the continual, dramatic, heartbreaking deterioration of the Wissahickon.

When I began teaching at the Crefeld School in Chestnut Hill in 1999, I made it a point to commute to and from work by bike or on foot through the Wissahickon.

Additionally, at Crefeld I helped to lead a weekly community service with my students wherein we conducted various projects in the Wissahickon.

These projects were sponsored by Fairmount Park in the persons of the omnipresent and indefatigable David Bower of FPC and Ed Stainton of FOW.

It was through this program that I became reacquainted with Ed, who had been middle school shop teacher and who was then president of the Friends of the Wissahickon. He suggested I join the Board of Directors.

Can you tell us a little about the history of the Wissahickon?

That is a tall order. Thankfully the seminal work on the Wissahickon is currently being written by Carol Franklin and David Contosta.

When that is published anyone will be able to obtain about all the information that is known about the Wissahickon.

The Leni Lenapi frequented the Wissahickon gorge but did not settle here. Beginning in the late 18th century and stretching into the late 19th century, the Wissahickon was an industrial area.

The early, or first Industrial Revolution was water powered, and mills were constructed along any waterway with enough volume and consistency of flow to support them.

Along the main stem of the Wissahickon and its tributaries there were at one time 57 mills of various types, 35 of which were located in what is now Philadelphia.

To provide a sense of the scale of the industrialization of what is now “wilderness” park consider that Rittenhousetown, site of America’s first paper mill, on the Monoshone Creek near its confluence with the Wissahickon, had at its largest extent over 50 buildings. This town existed near the corner of what is now Wissahickon Avenue and Lincoln Drive.

By the end of the 19th century water power was being supplanted by steam and electrical power, and though some of the water powered mills were converted to coal (steam) power, most were essentially abandoned.

At that time, the City of Philadelphia, in an impressive act of foresight, acquired the land on both sides of the gorge, demolished all but one of the mills (since about 1905 the home of the Philadelphia Canoe Club, at the confluence) and all but one of the road houses (the Valley Green Inn) and made the gorge part of Fairmount Park.

This was done for two reasons. First, the Wissahickon had been legendary for its beauty from its first visits by colonists right on through the period of industrialization.

For even though the valley was industrialized, many trees removed, and roads and other infrastructure installed, the area retained its charm.

Bear in mind that the industrial activity of the 1800s occurred on a far smaller scale and was far less destructive than that of later eras.

Consider, for example, that the main material used in construction was native rock which blends well with the surroundings.

Secondly, the Wissahickon was and is an important source of drinking water for residents of Philadelphia. Today, after the creek water passes through 5 sewage treatment plants upstream of the city, it flows through the park, then joins the Schuykil River.

It flows a few hundred yards down along the river’s east bank, whereupon it is pumped up to the Queen Lane reservoir. It flows thence through city pipes then through the taps in our houses into our drinking vessels.

Through the first three quarters of the 20th century the City of Philadelphia was a comparatively responsible steward of the Wissahickon. The trail system that consisted of foot paths—some of which likely dated from the time of the Leni Lenapi– and mill roads was taken care of.

During the Great Depression, the WPA reconstructed major sections of upper trail as well as Forbidden Drive, and built dozens of stone retaining walls and many stone buildings.

In the first 2-3 decades following WWII, there was dramatic change in the park caused most of all by ill conceived (from the point of view of park preservation and citizen access) construction on the borders of the park, especially on the west side, that forces excessive amounts of erosion-causing storm water through the park.

How has the park aged since the 1970s? Has the park deteriorated under current Fairmount Park Commision management?

Since the 1970s the Wissahickon park has deteriorated markedly.

It has seen increasing use by people (currently estimated at around a million visitors annually) with a simultaneous enormous reduction in city resources dedicated to park maintenance and capital projects.

The budget for Fairmount park has been cut approximately 75% in real terms since the early 1970s.

This means for example that Fairmount Park’s masons, ostensibly responsible for all stone, brick, concrete, stucco, and plaster work in all of Fairmount Park including the park buildings, has gone from a staff of over 150 people, to a staff of 5.

This means that Fairmount Park’s District 3 which includes the Wissahickon, street trees throughout northwest Philadelphia, numerous small parks in the area, and numerous ball fields, has had its staff reduced from 50 or 60 people to around 8.

In the early 1970s, twenty full time park policemen patrolled the Wissahickon park on horseback in three shifts. Now there is virtually no police or other credible law enforcement or emergency response in the Wissahickon.

In the the face of this neglect by the city, Fairmount Park Commission strives valiantly to make the most of its resources. The dedication of their staff is truly impressive, as they work to make the most of the resources allocated to them.

Does the Philadelphia Water Department have any oversight responsibility for the Wissahickon?

The Water Department has a Watersheds Department that has some responsibility for watershed parks including the Wissahickon. The Philadlephia Water Department also has a great deal of infrastructure in Wissahickon.

For these reasons, Philadelphia Water Department personnel and equipment are at work in the Wissahickon almost as frequently as Fairmount Park Commision personnel and equipment. Often the two agencies work together and both agencies work with the Friends of the Wissahickon.

However, in aggregate, the city has proven itself inadequate to the task of caring for its citizens’ parks.

This overall situation has created the need and opportunity for the Friends of the Wissahickon to take an ever greater role in improving the Wissahickon park both for the park’s ecological health and longevity and for enjoyable use by the public.

Copyright 2008 DailyInterview.com

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