An exhibition and conversation series about our changing relationship with the river as it was, as it is, and as it could be


The River as it Could Be

An investigation of future perspectives, engaging community, student and scholarly voices across Philadelphia

Fields of Knowledge
  • Artistic legacies
  • Design
  • Health / Sustainability
  • Memory
  • Public culture

Organizing Institutions

Slought, City Parks Association

Contributing Institutions

Philadelphia Water Department, Penn Program in Environmental Humanities


Deenah Loeb, Aaron Levy, Alma Siualgi, Nick Yu

Process initiated


Opens to public



4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Along the Schuylkill River Pennsylvania


0% Formal - 100% Informal

Slought and City Parks Association are pleased to announce "The River as it Could Be," the third part of an exhibition and public programming series from May 19th through August 2015 investigating our changing relationships with the Schuylkill River.

In The Redemption of the Lower Schuylkill (1924), John Frederick Lewis argues for the renewal of the Schuylkill river, though spiritual, environmental and capital reinvestment. "Other cities," he writes, "with less population and larger debts than Philadelphia have disposed of their sewage and improved their river banks, and if Philadelphia may not lead in these movements, she should at least be able to follow." In the years to follow, Philadelphia responded to Lewis' plea to improve its river banks, and followed other cities in embracing a movement towards beautification and recreation.

Nearly a century later, what new future might the Schuylkill river hold? Beyond bioengineered landscapes and hydroponic waterscapes, what will the river be in relation to its residents? More than access to or circulation around the river, what meanings and memories will the river hold? As Langston Hughes writes in the early twentieth century, and Anuradha Mathur more recently, water embodies collective memory, lived experience, and struggle. It is both soul and ground, a metaphor for who we are, how we settle, and the way we relate to one another.

With these questions, we seek to enable a series of conversations that engage community and scholarly voices across Philadelphia. We hope to construct, through this project, a new vocabulary that recognizes the importance of place, history, and ecology -- beginning with our own attentiveness to the many tributaries and capillaries that run underneath our soil and streets.

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"I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers..."

-- Langston Hughes, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," 1919


"Water is everywhere before it is somewhere. It is rain before it is rivers, it soaks before it flows, it spreads before it gathers, it blurs before it clarifies...

Is it not time to re-invent our relationship with water -- see water as not within, adjoining, serving or threatening settlement, but the ground of settlement? Could this be the basis of a new vocabulary of place, history, and ecology?"

-- Anuradha Mathur, "In the Terrain of Water," 2011


We are engaging in a site-specific course of study exploring the relationship between water and the built environment in conjunction with a Spring 2015 seminar in the History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania. The course, entitles "Black and Grey," and taught by Aaron Levy, explores aesthetic and ethical considerations in the environmental humanities.

Our particular focus is the Wissahikon Transportation Center, underneath which the Wissahikon creek flows into the Schuylkill river. Together with filmmaker Andrea Ngan and sound artist Paul Baisley, Slought, City Parks Association, and students in the class are developing a short essay film which will be featured in the exhibition at Slought. The essay film is also available from this webpage above.


In conjunction with the exhibition, we have invited Carolyn Fornoff, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, to undertake an interview series and generate a collage of voices reflecting on the relationships between the Schuylkill River and the people that live alongside it.

In what ways do we experience the river; how does it impact us, affect us and make us feel? By recording many different perspectives discussing how we experience the river, we are creating an archive of public memory that articulates the complex intersection between human life and the life of the river.

Questions include:

-- When is the Schuylkill River most visible to you? (e.g. on your commute, while at work, when exercising, (etc.).

-- How would you describe the River? alive? static? animated?

-- Do you go ever go into the river?

-- In what ways is the Schuylkill connected or dis-connected to your daily life? To the city?

-- Have you seen changes in the river during your time living in Philadelphia?

-- What might the Schuylkill River be (look like) in the future? How might you imagine relating differently to this urban river?


Join us for "Rivers of Artifice," a public conversation imagining the river as it was, as it is, and as it could be, on August 18th from 4-5:30pm at Slought.

Organized to mark the final day of the exhibition The Redemption of the Schuylkill, the conversation will feature a range of voices from the arts, academia and the philanthropic sector including Mary Mattingly (artist of WetLand), Nick Pevzner (Landscape Architecture, PennDesign), Andrew Johnson (Watershed Protection program, William Penn Foundation), and Etienne Benson (History and Sociology of Science, Penn).

The conversation will explore the potential for a post-natural ecology one that responds to new forms of interaction between city dwellers and the ground on which we walk and live. Will the desire to control "wilderness" guide our future access to the river or alter our contemporary democratic approach?

We hope to construct, through this conversation, a new vocabulary, one that begins with our own attentiveness to the many tributaries and capillaries that run underneath our soil and streets.

The event will be moderated by exhibition curators Deenah Loeb (City Parks Association) and Aaron Levy (Slought), and has been organized in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania's Program in the Environmental Humanities.