Last spring, a little girl walked into one of the oldest piers along Delaware Ave., a building with its original structure and facade, and her eyes lit up like she had sneaked downstairs and saw Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.
What she saw instead was a group of ballet dancers going through a routine at Cherry Street Pier.
“I want to be a ballet dancer,” she said. “But I’d never seen someone perform in real life before.”
The girl was elated. So was Sarah Eberle.
“It was amazing to see that,” Eberle said. “I love those moments.”
Eberle has worked as the general manager of the pier, along with the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation (DRWC), since its opening three years ago and she was recently promoted to creative director of the waterfront. She has seen the space evolve from oversized-storage facility on the river to a hot spot in the city, where art is celebrated and city dwellers and visitors of all ages can feel welcomed.
“I don’t want to discount some of the early programming that we had, some which drew really big crowds, but honestly, we really hit our peak during the pandemic,” Eberle said of the summer and fall of 2020. “I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we’re open-air, we’re so large and we’re able to still do things and give people an option to get out of their house in a safe way. It’s just been growing, growing and growing since.”
Cherry Street Pier, formally Municipal Pier 9, opened in October of 2018 and has quickly emerged as a versatile, multi-use space with art studios, a performance space, food vendors and regular free activities for kids of all ages.
It is also a place artists call home — 14 artist studios creatively work out of individual, fishbowl-like shipping containers — and where kids, teens, young adults and older folks can find something fun to do on any given day.
“It’s a nice escape for people,” Eberle said. “You get to the end of the pier and you don’t even feel like you’re in the city anymore.”
The pier is also a place with history.
Pier 9 was originally built in 1916 and finished two years later (Eberle believes the explanation for the construction delay could, ironically, be due to the Spanish Flu pandemic).
One hundred years ago, the pier was home to the United Fruit Company. Ships were parked along the Delaware and delivered freights of fruit. The United Fruit Company (now Chiquita Brands International) distributed throughout the city from the pier for decades before moving to the Navy Yard more than half a century ago.
Then, the pier was home to a company that refueled ships. And then it was mostly abandoned for some time, other than used as a gigantic storage bin. Do you remember the trolleys that ran down Delaware Ave. in the 1990s? Those were stored at the current Cherry Street Pier and have now been repurposed as food trucks.
The DRWC acquired the pier from the city more than 30 years ago and tried to partner with developers. Nearly everyone wanted to tear the pier down and start from scratch or build condominiums.
The DRWC wanted to keep the oldest pier and its foundation intact, so they decided to develop it themselves. What came next was a $4 million makeover project to repurpose the space into a creative public venue.
In 2017, artist Ann Hamilton and the Fabric Workshop and Museum held an exhibition at the pier and Cherry Street Pier’s current form took shape.
“There was a tremendous response from the public,” Eberle said. “DRWC was really impressed with the number of people that came to see this art exhibition, so we thought, ‘Well, maybe that’s the direction we should take this pier.’”
Every popular spot has an origin story. Cherry Street Pier’s is multi-layered, spanning a century.
Today, the pier is a place where both aspiring artists and young families can take free art classes on Fridays and Saturdays, where couples can enjoy food and drink in an open-air garden and where young girls can dream about being a ballerina.
“What I love about the pier is every time you walk in, there’s something different happening,” Eberle said. “One day it’s people performing ballet, the next day it’s a drag queen cabaret, the next day it’s tap dancing. We want the person out walking on the street to see something different every time they’re here.”