Imagining Independence Part I

Rethinking Independence Park…Again

(Photo Left) Park designers need to look beyond the usual gimmicks. Photo by Salvatore Patrone.

Last month it was the Mayor’s Office and the Rizzo statue. This month it is the Inquirer and Independence Park. It seems like contests to rethink public spaces in Philly are all the rage these days.

The fact that The Inquirer is jump-starting a conversation on Independence Park is a good sign. Perhaps the Inky/DN move to 7th and Market, and their decision to remain on Market Street East, has jolted them out of their sense of complacency with the mediocracy that has defined the park for decades.

Loyal LCP readers know that our failure to get Independence Park right has been a topic of conversation on these pages ever since we started to publish in 2011. We have decried the failures of the National Constitution Center, the National Museum of American Jewish History, and the African American Museum. We have bemoaned our inability to tell a coherent historical narrative as our counterparts in Boston do throughout the Freedom Trail walkway — a self-described 2.5-mile, red-lined route that leads visitors to 16 historically significant sites. Finally, the Inquirer EdBoard has begun to recognize what we at the Point have known all along: Independence Park is an incoherent mish-mosh of buildings and ideas which provides a check-the-box experience for tourists, rather than an inspiring opportunity to travel back in time to our nation’s birth.

In the Inquirer’s words: “With the exception of the sleepy Fifth Street meditation gardens, the park grounds, and especially the mall, lack invitations to linger, like a children’s play area or benches. Welcome Park, at Second and Walnut, is a forbidding stone hardscape with cracked marble markers. Metal security barriers circle Independence Hall like an ugly bracelet — and an uglier message of unwelcome in a place supposedly celebrating freedom.”

Make no mistake, this is not just about a few blocks in the neighborhoods of Olde City and Society Hill. The way our city and federal leaders answer this question of what to do with Independence Park has very real consequences that can potentially transform every neighborhood across Philadelphia.

A National Park Service (NPS) report released in 2012 shows the tremendous economic impact of the park: 3,572,770 visitors to Independence National Historical Park spent $149,894,000 in communities surrounding the park. This spending supported 2,086 jobs in the local area. A 2015 report by visitphilly.com shows that “growth in visitor spending has generally been attributable to a combination of increases in the number of visitors and to increases in the level of spending by those visitors, which has grown faster than inflation.” 

The bottom line: if we could figure out how to get visitors to spend one more day in and around Independence Park, it would have a far greater impact on the city’s general fund than all of the real estate tax abatements, Keystone Opportunity Zones, and soda tax revenue combined. Tourists adding one more day to their visit would dwarf the impact of our new soda tax.

But, one more day will not come easy and it will not come cheap. One more day will take the political leadership to stand up to those “nattering nabobs of negativism” (the one legacy of Spiro Agnew) for whom warm and cozy inertia has always been preferable to forging into the world of the possible.

This week, we leave you with this tease: The year is 1993. London’s city leaders launch a competition for a landmark to commemorate her new millenium. There was no specific site and no commitment to build anything, but the designs would be published in the Sunday Times. No entrant won the competition. But a husband-and-wife architect team submitted a proposal to build a 443-foot ferris wheel on the south bank of the Thames River across from Parliament. That idea became a reality seven years later as the London Eye which, over its first decade, welcomed over 60 million tourists.

Next week, we will lay out our vision for “one more day.” No, it is not for a ferris wheel in Independence Park.


Imagining Independence Part I

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Liberty City Press is an independent weekly newspaper distributed by the Philadelphia Multi-Cultural Media Network whose members include Philadelphia Sunday Sun, The Philadelphia Gay News, Al Dia, The Metro Chinese Weekly and The Metro Viet News.

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