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In Manayunk, a bridge to the past and the future

Beth Kephart is the author of 20 books, including "Love: A Philadelphia Affair," a love letter to the region and its people

Jason Laughlin / Staff

Beth Kephart

is the author of 20 books, including "Love: A Philadelphia Affair," a love letter to the region and its people

The day after Thanksgiving, it was just us three - my Salvadoran husband, our out-of-towner son, and me. Two with Latin America in their blood and one with a European mix.

We set out for Manayunk, the northwest Philadelphia neighborhood with a Lenape-inspired name that welcomed, as far back as its Industrial Revolution days, other-continent sensibilities. The churches, the songs, the traditions of Germany and Poland, Italy and Ireland. Elsewhere.

We did what we do. Walked the towpath along the canal. Looked for evidence of early mills and waterpower, remnants of lost textile factories, indications of historic floods, the still-new and now-famous subterranean storage basin of Venice Island.

We stood beneath railroad trestles and along the shore where the carved-out canal empties back into the Schuylkill and where Center City flows into view. We climbed the slight hill to Main Street, then turned and meandered up and down, like sewing needles pulling thread. Past Nicole Miller and consignment shops. Past vintage and fine arts. Past flowers, music, Triumphs, and the Spiral Bookcase, where Ann Tetreault and her indie bookstore staff are busy keeping minds alive.

Through it all we kept our eye on the old Manayunk Bridge - the pearly hue of its arched concrete, its funky reverse angle, the stream of people headed in both directions. Bikers. Hikers. Pedalers. The hats and breezy hair and shoulders of those who were leaving the city proper and entering the city proper, high above the Schuylkill.

The bridge is circa 1918. It was built by the Schuylkill Valley Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad, purchased by SEPTA in 1976, and utilized by the Ivy Ridge line until 1986, when commuter service was suspended. For the next 30 years the bridge spalled and waited for rescue.

It has been rescued. It has been bolstered, reconfigured, but not yet lit as part of what planners hope will someday be a 750-mile trail network in Greater Philadelphia. This is a linchpin bridge path, an elemental link between the Cynwyd Heritage Trail in Lower Merion and the Schuylkill River Trail on the other side.

We walked until we found our way to the Manayunk gateway - Main Street to Leverington to High Street, and there (a bit like a magic trick) it was. One month since its public opening, wide and curvy, a new space within an old frame.

The power lines ran like thin corridors above our heads. The nearby transmission towers looked like jumbo Erector sets. There were signs making suggestions about pedestrians going this way and cyclists that way, but mostly, it seemed, people were following their own leads. They were walking a dozen or so across. They were quietly hugging the edge. They were lifting toy-sized dogs into sweatshirt arms to provide a view of the river below, or the crawl on the Expressway to the east. They were jogging their babies in strollers. They were taking photographs. They were cradling their skateboards. They were running with a purpose.

The things people do, when you give them a safe path.

There's a line, on that bridge, dividing the city from suburbs - border crossing. There are signs when you reach and then keep walking the Cynwyd trail - images of pre-Expressway Philadelphia, indications of buried ruins, photographs of the Barmouth train station and its wide-brimmed roof, lessons in geography.

You don't go far before you find yourself looking up toward West Laurel Hill Cemetery, the final resting place for (among many undulating hills of others) the anthropologist Loren Eiseley, the singer Teddy Pendergrass, and the woman, Anna Jarvis, who created Mother's Day.

We had gone from the past into the present. From the city to the suburbs. From the living to the remembered. From the cultures of then to the cultures of now. We were just three, and it was a single afternoon, and we were only walking, but the farther we walked, the more embraced I felt by this community of others, walking free. These picnickers, trail finders, naturalists, fitness seekers, little girls and wheelchaired men, solemn thinkers, laughers.

With our hats and our caps and our headscarves and our heads to the wind, we were one.

With our Latin blood and our European mix, with our personal faiths and our families, with our crossing over and our crossing back, with our dozen across, our three, our one - this was our Friday after Thanksgiving. This is where we had chosen to be. This is where we found or made our peace.

Beneath the sky we share, we walked together on.

Pulled by the past toward what must be a sanctifying present.

Beth Kephart blogs daily at