To look at Pier 53 today, a thin finger of tree-covered land stretching into the tidal waters of the Delaware River, you would never guess that this was the front door to America for a million immigrants from Europe.
From 1873 to 1915, steamships for the American Line dropped off steerage passengers from places like Italy, Poland, and Germany.
From there, newcomers sought out relatives in South Philadelphia, or boarded the Pennsylvania Railroad for coal and steel towns to the north and west.
"It was our own little Ellis Island," said Scott Quitel, a principal of Applied Ecological Services, a land-use consulting firm in Conshohocken.
A year from now, Pier 53 will have a new look that acknowledges its history while maintaining its natural contours.
The Delaware River Waterfront Corp. (DWRC), a nonprofit steward of the city's master plan for developing the central Delaware waterfront, has marshaled $1.5 million in public and private grants to transform Pier 53 into a park.
The project needs federal and state permits before construction can begin. Applied Ecological will oversee the work, which should start in September and finish by next summer.
Tom Corcoran, president of DRWC, said the Pier 53 project was part of an effort to create a string of parks every half-mile along the six-mile central Delaware waterfront.
The latest and most ambitious effort to open up the waterfront to the public was the restoration of the Race Street Pier. But unlike that manicured park-pier, the two-acre Pier 53 will retain much of its current look, Corcoran said.
"It's two different experiences," Corcoran said.
Situated near Delaware and Washington avenues, behind the Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 headquarters, Pier 53 was one of seven processing centers for immigrants in the United States, said Robert Skiba, author of "Lost Philadelphia," which examines 60 local sites that have disappeared from the urban landscape.
Philadelphia, he said, fell out of favor with travelers. Compared with landing in New York, it took about two weeks longer to get here.
"Because ships had to go around the southern tip of New Jersey and up the Delaware, it added 100 miles to the trip," Skiba said.
The two-story center was noisy and crowded, processing 150 people an hour. There were a restaurant, ticket office, money exchange service, and lobby. In one corner, Skiba said, was an examination room called the altar for quickie weddings for single women who otherwise were not permitted to land.
Outside, hucksters sold food and provisions to families and offered jobs for fees.
The immigration station closed in 1915. After that, the Pennsylvania Railroad used the vast building as a warehouse.
In 1965, the building was destroyed by fire. Over the decades, a new wave of immigrants arrived: invasive flowers, shrubs, and trees. The city's port system took possession of the pier in 1970 and turned it over to a forerunner of DRWC in 1990.
Even though the pier is currently cordoned off with a wood fence, people already are using it, albeit surreptitiously.
Someone used logs and branches to build what looks like a giant wood sculpture. Those same hands salvaged old bricks and blocks of marble to lay a meandering path from one end of the pier to the other.
"People already have taken pride in this spot," Quitel said.
He said the new site will give a nod to the pier's immigrant history, minus a big plaque with a long exposition. Instead, the DRWC would like to evoke the immigrant legacy through a sculpture by local artist Jody Pinto that would suggest a beacon at the end of the pier.
Quitel said the goal was to keep the natural look of the site, while shoring up the pier's perimeter and making the path accessible for handicapped individuals.
The park will have a pocketsize "beach" close to shore to bring visitors right to the water's edge. Quitel said people would be able to put their toes in the water and see how tides, which rise and fall by six feet, alter the profile of the pier.
"We want people to hear things and smell things and touch things," Quitel said. "This will be a magnet of activity."
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