There are some new wild animals in Fishtown. And we’re not talking about the 22-year-olds.
Take a stroll east on Columbia Avenue toward Penn Treaty Park, and as you approach the I-95 overpass, look up. Across the street from each other, two sculptures are perched atop lampposts: one of a wild turkey, the other a white wolf. On the other side of the underpass, you’ll see more. This time, a series of five-foot-long bronze, red-eyed turtles seemingly march toward the park carrying lampposts on their backs.
But alas, wolves, turkeys, and giant turtles are not native to the river wards in the same way as pigeons and, these days, Pomeranians. (Though real wild turkeys have been spotted in recent years in West Philly and the Northeast.)
So what gives?
As it turns out, the life-size sculptures — installed about two weeks ago — are part of a decade-long plan by the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. to beautify dozens of streets that serve as gateways between Philadelphia’s neighborhoods and its waterfront. The animals represent the three clans of the Leni-Lenape, who, according to tradition, forged a friendship with William Penn in 1682 under an elm tree at what is now Penn Treaty Park.
Most important among those animals are the turtles, which pay tribute to a Lenape creation story that tells of how the world was carried on the back of a turtle.
“The history of the Lenape along the waterfront is something that is hugely important, and that’s a story that should be told and is probably not told enough,” said Karen Thompson, director of planning at the DRWC. “With Columbia being the connection to Penn Treaty Park, there is a special and clear line to be drawn to connect these spaces.”
The process that led to these animal sculptures began in 2011, when the DRWC began plotting to improve the Delaware River waterfront’s connection with city neighborhoods. Chief among those goals was beautifying what the the corporation dubbed “connector streets.” For example, DRWC unveiled a renewed Race Street in 2012, with streetscaping, lighting, and an illuminated installation along the I-95 underpass to better connect the city to the Race Street Pier.
Then, in 2016, DRWC announced the completion of the Spring Garden Street project, which now boasts colorful lighting that brightens the Market-Frankford Line underpass and escorts pedestrians from Northern Liberties to Columbus Boulevard and Festival Pier at Penn’s Landing.
Thompson said two of the next connector streets to see improvements will be Washington Avenue and Frankford Avenue. Both are in the design phase, and DRWC will next work to secure funding for construction.
The Columbia Avenue connector project is largely complete, Thompson said, save for a plaque that explains the significance of the sculptures. She said the public art cost about $300,000 and was funded through grants from the William Penn Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
“It was thrilling,” said artist Donald Lipski on seeing his work installed after the lengthy process. “I was just as interested in it as I was when I designed it.”
Lipski is a recognized name in the public art world. He lives in New York today, but resided in Philadelphia for about six years until 2012. At the time, his studio was located, of all places, in Fishtown.
He felt a special connection with the neighborhood and conceptualized the sculptures, working with local artists and brothers Christopher and John Collins to model the realistic-looking animals. The fiberglass wolf and turkey were fabricated some years ago; Lipski sculpted the bronze turtles this year at a studio in Colorado.
Lipski said there’s something poetic about pairing animals that represent indigenous people with the modern-looking lampposts that light the way. At the time of the signing of the treaty, Penn was a modern man who represented the New World.
“And the Lenape were the old world,” he said. “And there was a coming together.”