by Kathleen Dolan
Near the beginning of “On the Wissahickon,” a documentary that recently premiered at the Ambler Theater, a close-up shot focuses in on a small stream of water emerging from below the pavement. The camera works its way upward, and as the scene widens, we see the pavement is at the edge of an expansive parking lot. The camera pulls higher, and the Montgomery Mall comes into view under a big sky. The shot ends on an aerial view of the mall, and the narrator tells us that this is the beginning of the Wissahickon Creek, its headwaters paved over to build the mall’s parking lot.
David Contosta, Ph.D., professor of history at Chestnut Hill College and co-producer of the documentary, spoke at the Ambler Theater on May 14 for the documentary’s premiere, saying that he visited the parking lot where the Wissahickon Creek is now buried.
“When you're in the parking lot, there's one of these gratings, and you can look down and see the beginnings of the Wissahickon, and you can hear it gurgling down under there,” Contosta said.
The creek flows for 23 miles, beginning in Montgomery County and running through the Wissahickon Valley before spilling into the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park System. It is a beloved urban oasis and a source of the city’s drinking water, but it currently faces a crisis: Its waters are polluted and its banks are eroding, threatening the valley’s ecosystems and the nearby communities.
“On the Wissahickon” tells the story of the valley’s past, present, and future. The story is complicated and has many branches, much like the creek itself, each reaching out across time and into the lives of its many past and present proprietors and inhabitants. Throughout the 20-minute film, its majestic waters, carving through gorges under the arboreal canopies of the Wissahickon Valley, are on display in all their grandeur. So, too, is the damage that’s been inflicted upon it for the past 400 years. The scene of its paved-over headwaters is one of many examples in the film that reveal the creek’s imperiled state, as the film continually presents this reality alongside its beauty.
The film, produced by John Cotter and Tori Marchiony of the PBS show “Articulate,” is based on a four-volume book co-authored by Contosta and Carol Franklin, “Metropolitan Paradise: The Struggle for Nature in the City.”
The premiere screening at the Ambler Theater, in front of more than 100 attendees, brought the history and in-depth research of the book together with the voices of the Wissahickon Valley’s visitors, stewards, activists, educators, and community members. The evening served as a call to action to restore and save urban green spaces and, in doing so, provide a model for the world, which continually faces urgent and impactful environmental decisions.
“This problem has a lot of stakeholders,” said Maura McCarthy, the executive director of the Friends of the Wissahickon.
McCarthy, a strong voice in the film, participated in the panel discussion at the Ambler Theater. Also appearing in the film and panel discussion was Gail Farmer, the executive director of the Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association. Although their organizations are located in two separate counties, the two often work together, united in a mission to restore the health of the valley.
“We need to see the system, not just a site,” Farmer says in the film, speaking to land-use control and the fact that the Wissahickon passes through 13 municipalities, all of which make their own decisions about what happens to the land surrounding the Wissahickon.
Contosta and Franklin took the stage at the Ambler Theater, speaking briefly about how their book came into existence.
“We were lucky to come of age at the dawn of the environmental movement,” Contosta said.
Franklin quoted the Quaker saying: “It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”
“This book was our candle,” Franklin added.
Contosta and Franklin began writing the book in 1998 and published it in 2010. They both saw their diverse academic backgrounds as key in telling the whole story. Franklin is a landscape architect, and Contosta a historian. The study of the Wissahickon’s evolving physical landscape is intertwined with stories from individuals who have lived in and around the valley, and the book incorporates a range of historical accounts, figures, voices, and perspectives into its sprawling narrative in a seamless manner.
Franklin called the book “a community manual,” while Contosta said it’s “a manual as to what has been done, what worked in the past, what didn't work in the past, what needs to be done now.”
The film is an 11-year project — Marchiony worked tirelessly to distill the four volumes into 20 minutes — and it traces the last 400 years to when the Europeans began to settle in the area, inhabited previously by the Lenape. The burgeoning industry of the settlers along the creek saw the construction of mills — textiles mills, grain mills, paper mills — and the subsequent pollution of the creek and the city’s drinking water. The film features paintings from the era of mills standing on the banks of the Wissahickon, marking the changing landscape at the time and the beginning of the creek’s degradation.
In the mid-19th century, the city began efforts to restore the valley and safeguard the city’s drinking water, buying up land along the creek, closing mills, and establishing the Fairmount Park Conservancy in 1867.
“We're literally getting sick emotionally and physically, and in the 19th century, there's this idea that nature is recuperative and restorative,” Contosta said. “They really did believe you could have this transcendental experience, you could commune with God, you could come in with nature, you could be taken out of the noise and the pressures of the city.
“So there's this juxtaposition between the wicked city or the unhealthy city on the one hand, and nature being restorative on the other. So it has a dual purpose. Both of them having kind of to do with health, the water with physical health and the park with the kind of mental health or emotional health.”
That juxtaposition can be sensed today. In the documentary, park visitors talk about their love of the Wissahickon and discuss how nice it feels to forget they’re in a city, but they also lament not being able to swim in the creek’s water. Some of them talk about the current crisis the Wissahickon is facing, a crisis that looms large. Those historic efforts benefitted the creek, but the health of the Wissahickon is still in peril, as rapid development and suburbanization continued well into the 20th century and up to the present time.
“There's a real crisis now,” Contosta said. “The city part of it is preserved in the park, but the portion of the Wissahickon Valley beyond the city has been particularly impacted by suburbanization and development and the post-World War II period.”
Carly Freedman, an urban farmer who became a prominent figure in the film after a spontaneous interview on a park trail, spoke about the paved streets and parking lots causing water to run off into the creek instead of into the landscape, bringing with it brake fluid, oil, and other hazardous chemicals. She also spoke about bank erosion as a result of how water is being absorbed.
In addition to rapid development and the politics determining land use, the message of the film landed squarely on the idea that, if progress is to be made, people in the region need to care.
Exposing individuals to the outdoors from the beginning, when they’re children, is how Maleka Diggs, the founder of Eclectic Learning Network, is doing her part to help.
“Childhood has moved inside,” she observes in the film, while the kids in her program explore the tall grass and trees of the park as part of their curriculum.
There are aspirations to enter “On the Wissahickon” into festivals far and wide, bringing the Wissahickon Valley to a more global audience.
“We're emphasizing in the book, again and again, that this could be a microcosm of what has happened in metropolitan stream valleys, not only in the United States but around the world,” Contosta said. “And the lessons that we've learned here could be applied elsewhere.”
For more information, please visit www.wissahickonfilm.org.