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Washington Avenue Green, Philly’s own Ellis Island: Then and Now

The public park was once the third largest immigration port in the U.S.

Washington Avenue Green on the Delaware was once the final stopping point for immigrants arriving to Philadelphia in the late 1800s to early 1900s.
Photo by Douglas Bovitt for DRWC

Airports across the country were sites of major protests this weekend, including Philadelphia International Airport where an estimated 5,000 people, including several political figures like Mayor Jim Kenney, gathered against President’s Trump executive order on immigration.

Kenney, in a statement, said, “Our city has welcomed approximately 260 refugees in recent years from these now-banned nations. We must speak out strongly against this executive order so that these new Philadelphians’ friends and families can also find safe harbor in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection.”

Today’s airports are yesterday’s ship ports, which welcomed hundreds of thousands of immigrants to the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Indeed, Philadelphia was home to what was once the third largest immigration port in the country: Pier 53 on the Delaware River.

Courtesy of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation

Today, Pier 53 is known to most as Washington Avenue Green, an eco-conscious public park that juts out onto the Delaware River. But the pier is steeped in history, beginning in 1873 when the Washington Avenue Immigration Station began its operations.

After first disembarking at Lazaretto Station, a quarantine facility that checked for contagious diseases, immigrants then continued up the Delaware River for another eight miles to Pier 53 in South Philly, the final entry point. From 1873 to 1915, a little over 1 million European immigrants who came to the Quaker City via this port. At the height of the immigration movement between 1910-14, the port was the third largest in the nation.

In 1915, during World War I, the Washington Avenue Green Immigration Station was demolished. It later served as facilities for the United States Coast Guard, while the actual pier turned into an overgrown and abandoned structure along the river. In 2013, the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation revealed its plans to transform the pier into Washington Avenue Green, a public waterfront park.

The $2.5 million project was designed by Applied Ecological Services (AES) and built by AES and Neshaminy Contractors, who preserved and enhanced much of the site’s ecology.

But perhaps the most notable addition to the pier was artist Jody Pinto’s Land Buoy installation. With little knowledge of the site’s history, one might assume that it’s simply a spiral staircase. But as Pinto explained at the opening of the park in 2014, Land Buoy aims to re-capture the very moment that immigrants came ashore to Philadelphia.

“I want people to climb the spiral into a crow’s nest and take the place of what it meant to sight land for the first time.”

Photo by Douglas Bovitt for DRWC