The forbidden waters of the Pennypack

Al­though swim­ming is not al­lowed at Pennypack Park, people use cer­tain area of the river to cool off dur­ing the Ju­ly heat, Fri­day, Ju­ly 27, 2012, Phil­adelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouch­nikova)

Sur­roun­ded by an un­for­giv­ing land­scape of brick and mor­tar, con­crete and as­phalt, Pennypack Park presents North­east Phil­adelphia with a 1,400-acre oas­is of tower­ing shade trees, grassy mead­ows and shim­mer­ing streams.

On mid-sum­mer days, when the sizz­ling city pave­ment va­por­izes every drop of mois­ture, the Pennypack is like a long, cool drink of wa­ter to hun­dreds of hikers, jog­gers, bi­cyc­lists, fish­er­men and pic­nic-go­ers.

It also might of­fer true serenity and nat­ur­al beauty, if not for the many ab­users who seem to vi­ol­ate most park reg­u­la­tions with im­pun­ity.

Park ad­voc­ates say the vi­ol­a­tions range from il­leg­al swim­ming and burn­ing to lit­ter­ing, loud mu­sic and curfew vi­ol­a­tions. On some days, sec­tions of the Pennypack re­semble a beach re­sort more than they do a nature pre­serve. Yet, by all ac­counts, re­l­at­ively little is be­ing done to en­force the rules, which are there to pro­tect vis­it­ors.

There simply aren’t enough park rangers to cov­er the ter­rit­ory ef­fect­ively. Mean­while, Phil­adelphia po­lice of­ten have their hands full with more ser­i­ous crimes in the neigh­bor­hoods.

“Right now, it’s the trash and the swim­ming, and it’s really get­ting out of hand,” said Jim Ry­an, long­time vice pres­id­ent of the Friends of Pennypack Park. “They trash the park from end to end. It’s sea­son­al. Ju­ly and Au­gust are prob­ably the worst.”


Rule-break­ers were par­tic­u­larly act­ive on Ju­ly 4. Most of the activ­ity seemed con­cen­trated along the park’s primary paved bi­cycle path that winds for 7.5 miles from Frank­ford Av­en­ue near Solly Av­en­ue in Holmes­burg to Pine Road in Fox Chase.

Dozens of groups set up pic­nic sites along the path, which es­sen­tially par­al­lels the park’s name­sake creek. They brought their grills, beach chairs and cool­ers. At some points, the throng of adults and chil­dren was so dense that it be­came im­possible to dis­tin­guish where one party ended and the next one began.

Ac­cord­ing to Barry Bessler, the De­part­ment of Parks and Re­cre­ation’s chief of staff for parks and fa­cil­it­ies, there’s noth­ing wrong with any of that. After all, the Pennypack is pub­lic prop­erty.

Yet, not sat­is­fied with the shade and wispy breeze that day, dozens of folks took ad­vant­age of the en­virons to go for a dip in the creek’s shal­low, slow-mov­ing wa­ters. Not co­in­cid­ent­ally, they ar­rived pre­pared for the oc­ca­sion with their swim­ming trunks and flot­a­tion devices.

Swim­ming seemed to be a primary at­trac­tion, al­though no life­guards were on duty.

“With any body of wa­ter with­in the park sys­tem in Phil­adelphia — be it a creek, a foun­tain or a puddle — no swim­ming is per­mit­ted,” Bessler said. “Nobody is al­lowed to be in an un­pro­tec­ted body of wa­ter.”

Drown­ings have oc­curred in the creek, al­though stat­ist­ics are un­avail­able from the park ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Health is an­oth­er is­sue. Ac­cord­ing to Ry­an, who spe­cial­izes in pub­lic safety and en­vir­on­ment­al af­fairs for the FOPP, sewage and con­tam­in­ated storm wa­ter run­off pose a threat to swim­mers, al­though the creek is con­sidered clean by en­vir­on­ment­al stand­ards.

Ry­an tried to warn swim­mers in one re­cent ex­change: “They said they have no place else to go. I said it’s pol­luted and they say, ‘Well, it’s cool.’”


On Ju­ly 4, oth­er park vis­it­ors cracked open their port­able ice boxes to re­veal cases of beer and oth­er al­co­hol­ic bever­ages, al­though drink­ing in the park is an­oth­er ab­so­lute no-no. To com­plete the care­free at­mo­sphere, some groups pumped up the mu­sic, des­pite park re­stric­tions on that be­ha­vi­or.

“The line is drawn in terms of sound. You’re not al­lowed to have amp­li­fied sound in the park,” Bessler said. “You can’t just bring your boom box and play it as loud as you want.”

With day­light wan­ing, some groups left the park be­hind, along with bags of trash filling the few waste re­cept­acles and piled else­where along the path. And some didn’t both­er with bags at all. In­stead, their debris blanketed the creek bed and its banks.

Loc­al deer for­aged through the piles seek­ing scraps of susten­ance.

Mean­while, dozens of people re­mained in the park ap­proach­ing and bey­ond the 9 p.m. curfew, ap­par­ently set on ig­nit­ing and rev­el­ing in some haphaz­ard In­de­pend­ence Day fire­works.

“Ju­ly the Fourth. That’s a big pic­nic day. That’s total de­struc­tion,” Ry­an said. “It’s like an atom­ic bomb hit.”

The trash re­mained overnight, al­though city crews even­tu­ally re­moved it.


Sim­il­ar prob­lems per­sist dur­ing run-of-the-mill week­ends, though to a smal­ler scale.

Last Sat­urday, groups began gath­er­ing in late morn­ing along the bike path between Frank­ford Av­en­ue and the Welsh Road un­der­pass.

Two older wo­men sat on a steep bank as two teen­age boys and two young­er girls waded in the creek nearby. A 2-foot-wide “No Swim­ming” sign was hanging on a tree just be­hind them. The wo­men were un­will­ing to dis­cuss the chil­dren’s activ­it­ies.

Mere yards away, FOPP vo­lun­teers were claw­ing through the un­der­brush to re­trieve weeks-old lit­ter. They gath­er to clean the park on the fourth Sat­urday of every month, even as they watch oth­ers break the rules in front of them.

“You can’t let it both­er you. We do this be­cause we en­joy be­ing out in the park,” said Jim Smyth of Burholme.

“Some of the kids’ drink­ing spots are a real mess,” said Kev­in Sweetra, who lives near Welsh and Wil­lits roads. “So we go and clean them up. Then we come back the next time and it’s back to the way it was.”

About 50 feet down­stream, an­oth­er group ar­rived. There were three or four wo­men with sev­er­al chil­dren, who im­me­di­ately scur­ried in­to the wa­ter.

One of the wo­men, Mari, said she was the only Eng­lish-speak­er in the group. She said she came with re­l­at­ives “for the river and the weath­er. The weath­er is per­fect today.”

When asked if she felt if it was safe for the chil­dren to swim in the creek, Mari replied, “With the par­ents [here] it’s safe.”

She de­clined to trans­late for the oth­ers in her group.

“They only want to have fun and that’s it,” she said.

They had no reas­on to be­lieve that the au­thor­it­ies might ar­rive to spoil their fun. City park of­fi­cials, park vo­lun­teers and loc­al po­lice all agree that vi­ol­at­ors get a free pass more of­ten than not.


There are 24 park rangers to patrol the city’s 9,200 acres of parks. Among those, only a hand­ful are as­signed to the Pennypack and oth­er smal­ler parks in the North­east, such as Burholme and Fluehr parks. Dur­ing the sum­mer, they work in two shifts daily.

“At any giv­en time, there’s not a whole lot of people patrolling in the North­east,” Bessler said.

“If two of our rangers go to Frank­ford and Solly and there’s a hun­dred people swim­ming, what are our rangers go­ing to do? They’re not go­ing to pull people out of the creek. They’ll ad­vise them, [but] those people may stay in the creek.”

The park ad­min­is­tra­tion does not com­pile stat­ist­ics for vi­ol­at­ors. The city’s Bur­eau of Ad­min­is­trat­ive Ad­ju­dic­a­tion handles pro­ceeds from fines.

Sec­tion 15-202 of the Phil­adelphia Code cov­ers park reg­u­la­tions, so po­lice have en­force­ment powers, too.

The 8th dis­trict cov­ers most of the park east of Roosevelt Boulevard and has a few off-road mo­tor­cycles to ac­cess the bi­cycle and dirt paths. One day last month, Sgt. Mike Colello joined a mo­tor­cycle patrol and saw the prob­lems firsthand.

They cited two people for drink­ing al­co­hol.

“Then we went up to the band shell (near Welsh Road) and saw hun­dreds of people swim­ming,” Colello said.

Like the rangers, they didn’t have enough hands to make a dent in the prob­lem.

Po­lice have had some suc­cess with the drink­ers, ac­cord­ing to Capt. Len Ditch­kof­sky, the 8th dis­trict com­mand­er. In June, of­ficers ar­res­ted al­most two dozen people for open con­tain­er vi­ol­a­tions near Frank­ford and Solly av­en­ues. Stat­ist­ics for Ju­ly wer­en’t avail­able as the Times went to press.

But the park’s prob­lems en­com­pass a lot more than drink­ing. It amounts to con­sid­er­a­tion for the rules and for fel­low park users.

“The whole idea is cour­tesy and re­spect,” Bessler said. “It’s the re­cog­ni­tion that oth­er people are us­ing the park.”

Re­port­er Wil­li­am Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or

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