• Philadelphia Fieldtrip
  • Before I moved to Philadelphia I had never encountered squealing children dancing squealing children dancing through the outpouring spray from open fire hydrants. The water bursting from the hydrants, sometimes surrounded by people in lawn chairs, sometimes with no one around, punctuated the stifling hazy-heat of Philadelphia summers. I quickly saw the act of opening up a fire hydrant as a renegade act of ownership. It’s a beautiful sight and I’ve always thought: surely that’s illegal.

    In the late 1700’s lots of people in the city died from Yellow Fever and every stifling hazy-heat Philadelphia summer there were increasing outbreaks. It led to the creation of the world’s first public water system. As a result all the industry moved further up the Schuylkill River.

    Part of the Fairmount Waterworks System is still there, behind the Art Museum, surrounded by mandated, preserved green space. At the time of its construction it was revolutionary and became a #1 tourist attraction. Today the area hosts runners and rowers, boathouses and roadways, swans and ducks, and eddies of sludge and riverbank trash. When I first moved to Philadelphia, my mother mailed me an article she had carefully cut out from a newspaper and highlighted. It was titled, ‘Drinking Death’, and rated cities with the worst drinking water. An arrow, scribbled star and repeated underlining marked Philadelphia. Old pipes, radiation and my mother’s worry are on my list of things that have sometimes made me feel there’s nothing I can possibly do to avoid impending doom. I drank Philadelphia’s tap water for six years thinking: this is slowly killing me. 

    When considering the small but renegade acts of ownership people display daily in Philadelphia, water provides a nice map. If visiting the city, I would suggest finding a hot day and going to watch people swim in the public fountains. I had never seen people do this before. It is a subversively resourceful activity. I especially like the fountain at the center of Logan Circle. Bronze-cast turtles, frogs, fish and two swans spray water many feet into the air. On any warm day, you will find people wading around and swimming in it, traffic swirling around the edges. Nearby is the Art Museum. I remember going one day and seeing two little kids swimming in the small fountain that’s located midway up on the steps that lead towards the museum entrance. The kids were wearing swimsuits, snorkels and goggles and they were splashing about, collecting coins from its bottom. Not only had they turned the little ornate fountain into their own public swimming pool, they were reclaiming some wishes for themselves.

  • It is arguable that these acts of reclamation are the result of necessity, from a system that is in so many ways failing. And Philadelphia is a perfect petri dish for examining such things. There is also something in this that is exactly what made me fall in love with the city. In the face of all kinds of cruelty, regardless of how subtle, I saw how people persistently create varying alternative systems, allowing for a different kind of ownership over the city in which they live.