Pennsylvania Legacies #201: From the Start

The idea for the North Delaware Greenway came from Congressman Bob Borski, but it was Mariann Dempsey’s dedication to his vision that made it a reality. PEC Executive VP Patrick Starr talks with Dempsey about her early life, her long tenure in government and nonprofits, and her role in actualizing an 11-mile corridor of trails and parks connecting northeast Philly to the riverfront.

Mariann Dempsey — ‘Mare,’ among friends — helped launch the North Delaware Greenway in 1995, inspired by then-Congressman Bob Borski’s idea to create 11 miles of public multi-use trails along the postindustrial Delaware Riverfront.

Dempsey was born and raised in Kensington, where she knew Robert Borski long before his election to Congress. The two developed a lifelong friendship and professional partnership, with Dempsey serving as his executive assistant for Borski’s entire 20 years as a U.S. Representative.

“He’s the big brother that I didn’t have,” she said.

Around the time Mr. Borksi was sworn in, I-95 was under construction. Dempsey remembers how Borski hated that the interstate cut through the playground where he used to play basketball, not to mention people’s homes.

“When it was built, it literally cut everyone off from those neighborhoods to the river,” Dempsey said. 

That fueled Borski’s drive to establish the greenway. After leaving Congress, he traveled to different areas of the country and abroad, taking note of what other communities were doing with their own riverfronts as templates for what he could do in his native city.

“It became a cause for him. It was a gift he wanted to give to his constituents,” Dempsey said.

PEC Executive Vice President Patrick Starr and Mariann Dempsey in front of the site of the future Robert A. Borski Jr. Park in Bridesburg along the North Delaware Greenway.

PEC Executive Vice President Patrick Starr met Dempsey and Mr. Borski in the 90s when the congressman visited Starr in PEC’s Philadelphia office and shared a vision for transforming the Delaware River. Starr has been part of the North Delaware Greenway Initiative sever since, helping to found its parent nonprofit, the Riverfront North Partnership (originally named the Delaware River City Corporation), and serving on the board until 2019.

Dempsey also worked at PEC in the early 2000s. She was a major force in establishing the Northeast Riverfront Taskforce, which brought together more than 40 stakeholders—including elected officials, city managers, and environmental professionals—to coordinate efforts. PEC also facilitated the first North Delaware River Greenway Master Plan, created in 2005, to guide trail and park development.

Most recently, a half-mile section of the Kensington & Tacony Rail Trail was completed in August, marking the penultimate step in completing the 11-mile trail corridor. The final “pearl in the string” is the 10-acre Bob Borski Bridesburg Park set to break ground in October.

Dempsey retired this year, but her legacy lives on in the public spaces she helped create. The trails have become a vibrant place for community events and volunteer work. Last year, over 250 programs took place in the parks and on the trails, including walking groups, movie nights, and tree plantings

“People need somewhere tranquil and restful to go out and be among nature, listen to the river flow by, and just be able to relax,” Mare said.

And while Dempsey has taken a step back, she recently moved to a condo in one of the few residential areas along the Delaware River in Philadelphia.

“I walk across 50, 60 feet and onto the grass of the riverfront,” Dempsey said.

The greenway doesn’t currently extend to her home, but she just might have to change that. 

Episode Links

Josh Raulerson (00:01)

Today is Friday, September 29th, 2023. I’m Josh Raulerson, and this is Pennsylvania Legacies, the podcast for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. Last month, city officials and trail advocates in Philadelphia celebrated the opening of a new half-mile section of the Kensington and Tacony Rail Trail. PEC’s Patrick Starr was there for the party and told local reporters what made the day so special.

Patrick Starr: (00:26)
Good things take time. Great things take a little longer. We are connecting Northeast Philadelphians back to this riverfront after decades of having been cut off from it.

Josh Raulerson (00:38)
The K&T extension is the latest success in an effort going back almost 30 years to former Congressman Bob Borski’s vision for an 11-mile trail corridor along the Delaware River in northeast Philly. Well, since then, the North Delaware Greenway has become an important part of an even bigger vision, the Circuit Trails Network, and beyond that, the East Coast Greenway running from Maine to Key West. Patrick’s been part of the North Delaware Greenway Initiative from the beginning, serving until 2019 on the board of directors for its parent nonprofit, the Delaware River City Corporation later renamed the Riverfront North Partnership, which Patrick helped to found. Mariann Dempsey, ‘Mare’ to her friends, was part of the effort even before that. As an aid to Congressman Borski, last summer she became the final member of that founding team to bow out and enjoy a well-earned retirement. To mark the occasion and to learn where things stand with the Greenway going forward, we invited Mare to be a guest on this podcast, and we thought, who better to host that conversation than her longtime collaborator and very good friend, Patrick Starr. So without further ado, it’s my pleasure to hand the mic off to Patrick for this episode. Hope you enjoy it.

Patrick Starr: (01:56)
So I’m really pleased this morning to introduce my friend and longtime colleague, Mariann Dempsey. We just call her Mare. Mare, how are you this morning?

Mariann Dempsey: (02:07)
I’m good, Patrick. Happy to be here.

Patrick Starr: (02:10)
I’m so excited to have this conversation. Mare has been shoulder to shoulder with me for more than 20 years on a really cool project that we initially called the North Delaware Greenway, and you might think North Delaware, and you might think upstate New York, upstate Pennsylvania, but we mean North Delaware as in northeast in the city of Philadelphia. So we’re here to talk about that project and most importantly, how Mare contributed to that project over the course of the years. She’s now officially retired. So congratulations on that, Mare.

So Mare, for our listeners, start with who are you, you know, where were you born, what neighborhoods, all that kind of stuff, and how’d you get to be sidekick to Congressman Bob Borski?

Mariann Dempsey: (03:06)
I was born and raised in the Kensington section of Philadelphia back when it was a beautiful, lovely place to live. And, you know, I’m sad that it’s declined to put it nicely. I’ve known Bob since we were teenagers. His friends dated my friends . We were never part of the romance, but we became very close friends. He’s one of my best friends and has been for many, many years.

Patrick Starr: (03:38)
So this is 60 years we’re talking about.

Mariann Dempsey: (03:40)
Pretty much. He’s the big brother that I didn’t have. I’m one of nine, but none of my brothers are older than I am, so Bob, big brother that I didn’t have.

Patrick Starr: (03:51)
So he got elected to be congressman and you were right there working with him from the start.

Mariann Dempsey: (03:58)
Before that, he was elected to become a state representative in 1976, and he shared half of a secretary in Harrisburg. I worked for the city at the time for the streets department, as you well know. And on my lunch hour, I would go out to the payphone in the hall and I had a state phone book and we had an answering service that would take calls for his office. So I would get the calls from the answering service and then call whatever department was necessary in the state phone book and tell them what our constituent needed. He was three years in before he was allowed to have anyone full time. And I got tagged to be it. I was happy to leave the city at the time. I had been overlooked for a promotion and was happy to give them my two weeks’ notice and start with, and start with Bob. You know, when he went to Congress, I went to Congress.

Patrick Starr: (05:03)
And what year was that? 

Mariann Dempsey (05:04)
He was elected, 1982. He was sworn in January 3rd, 1983. It was the day I found my first gray hair.

Patrick Starr: (05:14)
So I didn’t meet you or Bob until fast forward sometime in the late, late nineties. Yeah, I mean, mid to late nineties. I mean, I can still remember Bob Borski and I having some phone calls and one day he wanted to come in to see me, and he came into my office in Center City and he started to talk about his vision for the Delaware River. I’m curious, Mare, when did he first, do you have a recollection of him first talking about transforming the Delaware riverfront for the benefit of his constituents?

Mariann Dempsey: (05:51)
His entire time in Congress, Bob was on the transportation committee, 1983 until 2003. When when we left Congress, it afforded him the opportunity to travel to other areas of the country and even overseas. And he got to see what other people were doing with their riverfronts. One of the things that was most annoying to him when he first ran for elected office was that 95, I-95 was being built and it cut through the middle of a playground where he used to play basketball and just, you know, divided the playground in half and took some of that land for 95. And it wasn’t just, you know, his playground, it was people’s homes and it, when it was built, it literally cut everyone off from those neighborhoods to the river. So when he saw how other areas were being developed and people were being returned to their rivers after industrial pollution, it became a cause for him. It, it was a gift he wanted to give to his constituents.

Patrick Starr: (07:15)
So, fast forwarding a little bit more, PEC and Bob and you, we formed a real working partnership and one of the things that you did shortly after, I guess his end of term was you, you took over a responsibility for some critical steps in the process and you actually were employed by PEC for a while.

Mariann Dempsey: (07:41)
Yeah, when we were leaving Congress, I had said to Bob, you know, like, everything looks like it’s really coming together for the riverfront and we’re not going to be here. What’s going to happen? You know, all this groundwork that you’ve done, you know, dragging every elected official in the city out on a boat on the riverfront to tell them what his vision was. Everybody’s going to forget about it. He said, no, no, go home and relax for a couple months because we’re going to start a nonprofit and I’m going to be the chair and you can be the secretary and that’s what we’re going to do. I was like, okay, guess we’re putting on a show in the barn to raise money. But, you know, instead he had conversations with you to which I was not aware. And I went to work at the Environmental Council to help Carolyn Wallace with the Northeast Riverfront Task force, which was, depending on what meeting you went to, anywhere from 40 to 70 stakeholders for the riverfront and what the vision was and how we were going to, to make it happen. And it was people with businesses on the riverfront. It was so many of the city departments, it was environmental groups, it was community organizations. You know, everybody that had any kind of a vested interest in making sure that parks and a greenway were built along the riverfront to bring people back.

Patrick Starr: (09:19)
It’s always been a pleasure for me that one of the things that is kind of a motto at PEC is conservation through cooperation. We tend to work in partnerships and I still remember how the, the, you know, the Northeast Riverfront Task Force for me was just exactly that. It was like anybody who was interested in improving the environment was welcome at that table. And it was so cool for me because you knew all these people. I didn’t know these people.

Mariann Dempsey: (09:52)
I knew the elected officials and I knew the community leaders. So yeah, I mean, it made it easy to make some of those calls and, you know, get people, you know, a lot of them were contributors to Bob’s elections. 

Patrick Starr: (10:10)
So tell us about this North Delaware Greenway. I mean, you know as much about it as anybody. How long is it? What neighborhoods, what’s it about? What’s the, what came out of that vision?

Mariann Dempsey: (10:22)
In total, it’s 11 miles, including the connector streets from Allegheny Avenue to the Bucks County line at the Poquessing Creek where the Foerd Mansion is. 

Patrick Starr: (10:38)

Mariann Dempsey: (10:39)
And there were six parks. We expanded one, we’ve built one, and we’re in the process of finalizing construction information to begin work on an eighth park. The communities involved are Port Richmond, Bridesburg, Wissinoming, Tacony, Holmesburg, and Torresdale. But it’s not just for the residents in those communities. Everybody is welcome. You know, there’s no restrictions on who gets to do what. You know, we’ve been able to build a staff in the last 15, 20 years. Last year we did over 250 programs in the parks and on the trails that range from walking groups fishing. You can come down and do yoga, you can go dancing.

Patrick Starr: (11:40)
Movie nights.

Mariann Dempsey: (11:41)
Yeah, movie nights. We started with movie nights. That was the easiest thing to do.

Patrick Starr: (11:47)
Not to mention the tree plantings and things like that that you do.

Mariann Dempsey: (11:51)
That’s, there’s always volunteer work every, every Friday. Most weekends there’s volunteer groups that come out and help clean up the riverfront, clean up the parks, plant trees, plant shrubs. At last count, I think we were over having planted 2,000 trees.

Patrick Starr: (12:12)
So 11 miles of trail would connect all of this. Remind me, how many miles have we actually got built? And I know we’re working on some right now.

Mariann Dempsey: (12:23)
Yeah. In August we opened the second section of the K&T Trail for, to add another half of a mile to the K&T. But just over two miles of trail, we’ll connect three different parks in total. I think at this point we’ve built just over six miles, I believe. And that doesn’t include the connector streets, because I have no idea what that mileage is.

Patrick Starr: (12:53)
What is really interesting, you mentioned a colleague whose name is Carolyn Wallace. Carolyn was working on the deed transfer for the K&T Trail right-of-way back in 2002, 2003. PEC hosted that work and helped turn that right-of-away over to the city of Philadelphia and put it into the Parks Department effectively. But it just says how long things take, we’re gonna finally cut that ribbon in ’23.

Mariann Dempsey (13:23)
The, the pieces that we thought were going to be the easiest and quickest to be built and they’re taking the longest to be built. Yeah. And its acquisition, its environmental issues. You know, there’s a host of—

Patrick Starr: (13:38)
Yeah, yeah. There were some property owners who insisted they owned that right-of-way. And even though that’s not what our deed search said, and in the end, you know, we won all those cases, the city won all those cases, but yeah, it delayed everything. So when you think about all of this, why is this important to the, to the community? Why is this Greenway important?

Mariann Dempsey: (14:01)
Oh, I think it became evident if not before, during Covid that people need somewhere tranquil and restful to go out and be among nature, listen to the river flow by, and you know, just be able to relax themselves.

Patrick Starr: (14:22)
It’s amazing to be able to say that about a riverfront that used to be the host of foundries, a coke plant, I mean, and now it’s a resource to the community for tranquility. I just love it. When you think about all the things that you did with this project, Mare, what are, what are some of the things you’re most proud of in terms of your contribution?

Mariann Dempsey: (14:45)
My contribution? Well, number one, growing the staff in the beginning. You know, we had $0. I worked at my kitchen table and after two years off, we were formed in 2004. In 2006, we finally got funding from the Business Privilege Tax program with the city of Philadelphia that gave us a hundred thousand dollars a year. We had one partner who quit on us after one year. We had another partner who quit on us after two years. And then it took us another three years to find another partner. So to say that funding was tight is an understatement.

Patrick Starr: (15:30)
And you worked hard to try to secure some basic operating funds for the, for the nonprofit.

Mariann Dempsey: (15:36)
Oh, definitely.

Patrick Starr: (15:37)
At some point you left the employment of PEC and became an employee of the, of the Delaware River City Corporation. Let’s give it a name and which is now called the Riverfront North Partnership.

Mariann Dempsey (15:49)
Well, technically we’re still Delaware River—

Patrick Starr: (15:51)
Technically. Yeah, I know . Alright. Alright.

Mariann Dempsey: (15:54)
But our, our working name is the Riverfront North Partnership. But yeah, it’s, I mean that was Mayor Street named the Delaware River City Corporation because at the time there were large vacant properties along the riverfront that developers had bought and had planned on housing. Rather than bring back any in industrial uses, it was going to be a new city on the Delaware River. Thousands of homes. Then 2008 happened and the bottom fell out and nobody built a house.

Patrick Starr: (16:26)
Yep. There’s still not been a house built to my knowledge in any of those proposed developments. Not a one. 

Mariann Dempsey: (16:33)
No. There’s now huge warehouses going up.

Patrick Star: (16:36)
Yeah, yeah. And things changed dramatically. You had a big role in a project that I found really intriguing, and I’m curious if you could talk about that. You, and this you did when you were at PEC, you researched the history of the Delaware River Corridor, the whole area. And you created with the support from, I think, a grant with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources a whole signage interpretive program for the entire corridor.

Mariann Dempsey:(17:10)
Yeah, 27 signs were designed. Ultimately there were supposed to be like 75 of them, but we only had enough in the first grant from DCNR to formulate 27, I believe. It was fascinating to me. And I worked with some of the local historic societies in Bridesburg and in Tacony, but I mean, I went to the United States Archives downtown. I went to Temple, to the Urban Archives. It was fascinating.

Patrick Starr: (17:44)
Well give us one of those stories. What was one of those fascinating stories that you discovered? Maybe you knew a little bit about the tail end of it, but you didn’t know the beginning. 

Mariann Dempsey: (17:56)
I knew there was a statue on top of City Hall of Billy Penn. Come to find out that that statue was built in Tacony at the Tacony Iron Works.

Patrick Starr: (18:07)
So it was fabricated there.

Mariann Dempsey: (18:09)
Yes. In sections that were then taken down to City Hall. To this minute, I don’t know how they got all those various sections to the top of City Hall and all bolted together. But that was just amazing to me that, you know, things like that were going on.

Patrick Starr: (18:29)
And some of those buildings still stand, right? I mean is that particular foundry building still there or not?

Mariann Dempsey: (18:36)
No, no. It’s been replaced by Mass Charter School.

Patrick Starr: (18:39)
But what about something like the Disston Tool Works or Globe Dye Works.

Mariann Dempsey: (18:44)
A lot of the Disston buildings are still there. Right. I’d still like to see that become Philadelphia’s Peddlers Village. But it’s probably not going to happen. Nobody listens. But yeah, a lot of those buildings are still there. Tacony was built basically by Henry Disston from the Disston Saw Works, who imported a lot of his employees from other countries and needed housing for them. The closer you get to the river, you can see that there was the Disston mansion. A couple blocks back there was management housing, middle management housing. The farther you go into the neighborhood, then it’s all the row houses for the regular workers. He built churches. One of the churches, and I won’t remember the name of it, the foundation is grindstones from his saw mill.

Patrick Starr: (19:39)
Yeah. I remember one time I was out on a boat with Bob and you could see those grindstones on the riverbank. There are like literally hundreds of the grindstones that were used as like riverbank reinforcements.

Mariann Dempsey: (19:51)
Yeah. And that’s part of where the K&T two section is.  They were trying to figure out some way to display some of the grindstones. So I don’t know what that’s going to look like when it’s done. 

Patrick Starr: (20:05)
That’s very cool. Well, I knew that you had uncovered a lot of interesting historical details and it’s so much the story of that whole corridor that there were large manufacturing plants and neighborhoods grew up around those plants. Like the Philly Coke site in Bridesburg, which had, you know, was this huge coking facility. I mean it was 70 acres or something like that. And the whole neighborhood really just grew up around it.

Mariann Dempsey: (20:32)
Well that and the chemical plant owned by John Haas.

Patrick Starr: (20:37)
Yeah. With the Rohm & Haas Company. 

Mariann Dempsey: (20:39)
Everybody in the neighborhood worked at one of those two places. You know, they either worked for Rohm & Haas or they worked for the coke plant. And then there was the concrete factory that was there, which now that we’re building the park in Brideseburg, that will be the Robert A Borski Jr. Park.

Patrick Starr: (21:00)

That’s the eighth park. The second, the second new park. And that was part of the concept, if you remember all the way back. It was at one point described as a string of pearls. So the string being the trail and the parks being the pearls. And it’s almost all coming to fruition after 20 years. Yeah. So just to kind of wrap things up here, I’m really curious, could you just talk about how PEC helped make this happen?

Mariann Dempsey: (21:29)
Well, obviously they did the first master plan for the riverfront with James —

Patrick Starr: (21:36)
Corner James, who we hired. We did an RFP, we selected a design team. He was field operations.

Mariann Dempsey: (21:44)
And that was while Bob was still in Congress. As we formed DRCC, we then had another master plan done by Chuck Flink, who is the honorary chair now of the East Coast Greenway.

Patrick Starr: (21:59)
And PEC hosted that study.

Mariann Dempsey: (22:01)
Yes. And Steve Mullen from eConsult. And you know, without your influence and your help at PEC, we were kind of dead in the water. You helped to fund the master plans. Duane Bumb helped to get us money from the city for the business privilege tax program. Mark Hankin gave us office space. I mean, you know, and all these people were board members that just reached out and helped in any way they could. I mean, we have a fabulous board. We always have. But PEC was an absolutely vital partner.

Patrick Starr: (22:39)
You know, one of the things that I’m the most proud of Mare is that we also hosted the design for Lerner’s Point Park. I don’t know if you really remember that, but Lerner’s Point Park property had been at one point an actual ferry, you know, location before the bridge was built and then just was sitting there vacant for so many years. But we really pioneered some new concepts with that park. You know, there was no electricity and there was no water down there because it was sort of remote. And we put in the solar lighting, the famous composting toilet, which proved to be a bit of a headache. But, uh, that park was really different because it has meadows and yeah.

Mariann Dempsey: (23:29)

The before and after pictures are incredible. You know, just all the, the torn up concrete with pipes sticking out of it.

Patrick Starr: (23:36)

It was just a mess.

Mariann Dempsey: (22:38)

Not having, not having water sitting between the river and the Water Department facility was just incredible. That just blew my mind.

Patrick Starr: (23:47)
There were literally no water mains in the immediate vicinity. So yeah, we had to come up with a lot of other solutions. But we created Philadelphia’s first naturalized new park, which also has fishing piers, has walking pads.

Mariann Dempsey: (24:05)

It has has signage.

Patrick Starr: (24:07)

What’s the signage there about? About the ferry? 

Mariann Dempsey: (24:09)
It’s about the ferry. It’s about Lynford Lardner, which is why it’s named —

Patrick Starr: (24:15)
A pump station, right? The City Water Department pump station is named for Lardner. Okay.

Mariann Dempsey: (24:20)
Yeah. And Lynford Lardner had a, a home there at one point, was related to Penn. I think a brother-in-law, but I’m not sure. But—

Patrick Starr: (24:28)
William Penn again. Well this has been a really, really fun walk down memory lane with you. I mean, I haven’t thought about some of these things for forever, but forever. I’m so proud of the outcome. I know you are too. Are there any closing thoughts you wanna share, Mare?

Mariann Dempsey:(24:48)
It was a little hard to retire, although, you know, I haven’t collected a paycheck in, you know, 15 years. So it seems odd to call it retirement.

Patrick Starr: (24:57)
You know, you never said that, but you really have been like a full-time volunteer.

Mariann Dempsey: (25:02)
Yeah. At, at one point for one of the grants that we had, maybe it was one of the William Penn grants, they had to add up all of the volunteer hours, you know, all the different organizations and individuals that came out and helped, you know, plant trees and and whatnot for the riverfront. And I finally said to them, um, does anybody count my hours? Does anybody count the board’s hours? And they were like, oh gee, no. Like, okay, just checking.

Patrick Starr: (25:33)
You were there every day. 

Mariann Dempsey: (25:35)
The last few years, it’s dwindled down, especially, you know, when everybody had to stay home during Covid. So when I came back it was like one or two days a week. But before that, you know, pretty much every day and pretty much anything that anybody needed, I was always institutional history. 

Patrick Starr: (25:53)
And I’m sure you’re going to be going to some of their events, but I think that the closing, one of the closing things that I’m just going to throw out there, we’ll see how it contributes in terms of this conversation. But you ultimately ended up buying a home on the riverfront in one of the few communities in Philadelphia that actually has riverfront access.

Mariann Dempsey: (26:14)
Yes, I do. Well, I had a, a very large home in Torresdale about a mile from the river. And, you know, if there’s blessings from Covid, I just discovered that it was just too much. So, I mean, I always resented the gated communities that how dare they not allow us to come through there. But I’d never really been into one or certainly not as far back as the river because the two very large ones are Delaire and Bakers Bay. Bakers Bay is where I live now. Once I moved here, I realized that there’s really, like, you know, their buildings pretty much go up to very close to the riverfront. There’s really not room for us to access a trail through here, but I now live on the first floor and I walk across 50, 60 feet of parking lot and onto the grass at the riverfront.

Patrick Starr: (27:12)
Well, I’m betting you’re going to get a, you’re going to get a trail built right up to that sometime soon. So , that’s, you can, you can get on the board of the condo association and tackle that one, Mare. All right. Well Mare, this has just been so much fun. Thank you so much for being on Pennsylvania Legacies and having this conversation with me. And thank you so much for your contribution. It’s immeasurable.

Mariann Dempsey: (27:39)
Oh, thank you. It’s been my pleasure.

Josh Raulerson: (27:47)
That was PEC Executive VP Patrick Starr, in conversation with Mariann Dempsey. They are two of the founding members of what would become the Riverfront North Partnership, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary next year. Learn more about the Partnership’s work and PEC’s role in it over the years via the links you’ll find in the show notes for this episode of Pennsylvania Legacies #201 on our website, which [email protected]. All past episodes of the podcast can be streamed there. And you can also check out what PEC has been up to in the world of trail development and outdoor recreation. An emphasis lately on promoting equitable access to the outdoors. We also do a lot of work on energy and climate policy, watershed, health and restoration, reforestation, and much more. Check it out at Thanks for tuning in for this episode of the podcast. We’ll have another one coming up in two weeks. As always, hope you can join us. Until then, for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, I’m Josh Raulerson, and thanks for listening.