Bridget A. Brody, C’22
The Benjamin Franklin Parkway is a boulevard, diagonal to the grid, leading from the Philadelphia Museum of Art to City Hall. It is Philadelphia’s most important civic and cultural space, and a kind of memory corridor.
In 2013, Philadelphia launched a “More Park, Less Way” action plan to facilitate improvements to traffic flow and pedestrian safety, as well as make the public spaces surrounding the Parkway more accessible (Tanenbaum). City officials felt there was a dearth of amenities along parts of the Parkway, and with that, little to entice citizens to stop and linger. This action plan was designed to draw and retain Philadelphians to these underutilized public spaces, and to increase urban vibrancy along the Parkway (“More”). Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell said, “The Benjamin Franklin Parkway is Philadelphia’s grand boulevard, an incredible cultural epicenter that has the opportunity to become a vibrant, bustling public space for all Philadelphians” (Tanenbaum). With this, city officials intended to redesign the public spaces around the Parkway to be more welcoming and reflective of Philadelphia’s culture. Mike Carroll, the city’s deputy managing director for transportation explained that the redesign of the spaces around the Parkway was for “laying the foundation for a public thoroughfare that is as livable as it is iconic, and as welcoming as it is grand” (Tanenbaum). While features of the redesigns implemented following this action plan made certain areas more welcoming to some groups, other groups of people—and their connections to the city’s past and future—have been neglected. By redesigning public space, planners are, consciously or not, redesigning spaces for collective memory.
The first steps toward renovation began at Dilworth Park, on the west side of City Hall, the site of William Penn’s original Centre Square (Saffron). Plans for its renovation began in 2012, and, $55 million later, the redesigned park reopened on September 4, 2014 (Kostelni). The 1970s design of the original plaza was thought to be uninviting, cumbersome, aging, and confusing. The original area was merely a large swath of concrete that people would pass through to get to the SEPTA that connects at the park. The Center City District (CCD), a private business improvement organization, led the program to provide green space, access for the disabled, improved connections to the region’s transit system, and other amenities that were lacking in the original design (Scott). The project was funded by a TIGER grant administered by the Federal Transit Administration, grants from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, funding from the City, and private and institutional donations. The CCD constructed the redesign to offer programming that would assist in financing the operations and upkeep of the park (Scott). Moreover, the new space was designed to be a place for people to gather, be entertained, dine, and relax.
The redesign featured freshly planted trees and shrubbery, a sweeping lawn for picnics, moveable chairs, fountains, public art, a Starbucks, a glassy new SEPTA entrance, advertising kiosks, and space for rotating events. In order to generate even more revenue during the holiday season, the new redesign features both a fountain that transforms into a skating rink in mid-November through February, as well as a winter beer garden and holiday market (Briggs). Year-round, the space is used for concerts, movies, light shows, weddings, parties, and other events in order to attract more people, while also bringing in a sufficient amount of revenue. The CCD has a 20-year lease on the park with a 10-year renewal option. With this, the CCD will manage, maintain, and program Dilworth Park with events and amenities year-round while providing full-time private security as well as security cameras throughout the space (Kostelni). Because the city does not have a budget for park upkeep, the CCD sees the ads, businesses, and event spaces incorporated into the new park as essential to financing the park’s continued maintenance; money made inside the park covers around 61 percent of the $4.7 million that the CCD spends annually to provide security, maintenance, and programming (Briggs). As Center City District executive director Paul Levy explains, “What we’ve done in all these parks is relieve the city of its need to spend tax dollars on cleaning and other maintenance responsibilities” (Briggs).
Even though the CCD is a non-profit, the City has received pushback from Philadelphians who are not satisfied with their public spaces being managed by quasi-governmental private groups. The new redesign represents one of the largest public-private partnerships undertaken in Philadelphia and raises questions about the increasing role of quasi-governmental organizations in the meaning of public space (Briggs). The park’s aesthetic seems to do the opposite of embracing an expanding creative class. Architecture critic Inga Saffron finds the new comforts of the parks to be undermined by an “uptight and controlling sensibility.” As she wrote, “The new Dilworth is a suit in a jeans-and-T-shirt world” (Saffron). The “high quality” materials used in the redesign, including five types of granite, “evoke the atmosphere of a slick corporate lobby” (Saffron). The benches in the park are also made from granite, and Saffron feels that a wood version would have, “softened the official feel of the space” (Saffron). With this, the privatization of the plaza has created a corporate-feeling park that is less warm and inviting to the many cultures that the City had hoped to attract.
Kitty-corner to Dilworth, LOVE Park underwent a similar $26 million renovation that began in February 2016 and opened in May 2018 (Dent). The original park, named JFK Plaza, was considered “a playground of possibility” (Hill). The original LOVE Park sat above an underground parking garage and featured Robert Indiana’s aluminum LOVE sculpture (which gave the plaza its nickname “LOVE Park”), the Ellen Phillips Memorial Fountain, and a circular metal Fairmount Welcome Center nicknamed “the flying saucer.” In the 1980s, the Park was claimed by a tight-knit community of skateboarders who used the park daily (Cianciotto). LOVE Park was considered a mecca for skateboarding due to the circular granite staircases and walls, along with various stone benches and ledges, which deemed the space an ideal setting for skateboarding jumps (Hensell).
Local skateboarders effectively took ownership of the Park. In an interview, Vince, a skateboarder who frequented LOVE Park explained: “We really considered it ours, because we were there and we took care of it. When it snowed, we were shoveling it out… I don’t know of any other citizen who would just willingly shovel a city property for free” (Cianciotto). Skateboarders of all ages worked to protect skateboarding as feature of LOVE Park. To them, LOVE Park was a place of belonging beyond that of a traditional public space: it served as the foundation of their culture. Skateboarding pioneers inhabited the area daily, and the skateboarders formed a community in this shared space. These skateboarders also shared the space with other groups: the local homeless community and drug dealers (Cianciottto). These groups peacefully co-existed, and they “mutually respected and supported each other’s uses and needs for the park, be it to skate, sleep, use or sell drugs, or just hang out. This was a relationship bound through their stewardship of the land they collectively inhabited” (Cianciotto). In fact, the nickname “LOVE Park” was given to JFK Plaza by these groups of skaters and homeless who inhabited the space in the 1980s and was adopted by the public as the Park’s official name a decade later (Fish). City officials and members of the public, however, saw these “locals” as antagonists and threats to what the space ought to be; “they demanded a space where law-abiding citizens could access and use the plaza free of the threat of flying skateboards and inebriated park dwellers” (Cianciotto).
In 1994, the City’s Managing Director passed a law that banned skateboarding in the park, although the ban was loosely enforced at the time. This was followed by an array of anti-homeless, loitering, eating, and punitive sleeping laws, as wells as crackdowns on drugs and petty crime in an effort to reclaim the space by the City (Cianciotto). Although City officials introduced a city-wide homeless plan that was reported to be successful, LOVE Park nevertheless held out as “the last major homeless encampment in Center City” (Boldt). With this, the skateboarders and homeless who inhabited the Park were centered in public discourse, and a local Common Pleas Court Judge, Richard B. Klein, complained, “the average person has been taken off the plaza” (Rubin). After 1,000 skateboarding citations were issued at the Park in 1999, another provision was passed in 2000 to expand the skateboarding ban to all non-recreational public spaces in Philadelphia, increasing penalties, heightening enforcement measures, and even deploying undercover police (Cianciotto). In the fall of 2002, the city closed LOVE Park for a small renovation that would add features such as armrests on benches to reduce the “skateability,” as well as the “sleepability,” of the Park.
Following renovations, the city decided to strictly enforce the 2000 skating ban by deploying police officers in the Park 24/7 (McKay). In response, city youths held a massive protest, and a group called Friends of LOVE Park campaigned for a “balanced solution,” with 10,000 petition signatures, that would allow skating in the Park on weekdays after 3 pm. This solution was endorsed by most of the City Council and was backed by a $1 million offer from California-based DC Shoes (Heller). However, Mayor John Street rejected their proposal—and the $1 million that went along with it—and continued to strictly enforce of the no-skateboarding rule. Skateboarders attempted to reclaim the space that was once theirs again in 2007, and stormed the plaza on a nightly basis at 2 am, regardless of the threat of police. The crew dismantled many of the obtrusive features added to the park, digging up planters and filling the holes with tiles to skate again. They learned to skate over and around many of the other obstacles designed to inhibit them (Cianciotto).
In 2013, the city initiated plans to entirely redevelop LOVE Park and officially make skating at the park a thing of the past. When the City’s redesign plan was action-ready in February 2016, the ban on skateboarding was lifted for a five-day window before construction began. This period was remembered by skateboarders as “the last days,” and despite nearly freezing temperatures, hundreds flocked to skate at the Park one last time (Hribar).
Because of pushback from the public after Dilworth Park was leased to the privately-run CCD, the City decided to take on the LOVE Park redesign on their own, promising that the city-owned space would remain the “People’s Park”; a funding plan created to minimize the use of the city funds by selling the underground parking garage to a Chicago firm and utilizing the $30 million from the sale (Saffron; Graham). The redesigned LOVE Park features regular programming—similar to Dilworth—an interactive fountain, green lawns and shrubbery, the LOVE sculpture, and the restored “flying saucer,” which has been transformed into a café (Cianciotto). With this, a park unrecognizable from the original, both physically and socially, emerged. Peter, a Planning Commission planner working on the redesign explained in an interview, “part of the redesign was making it so that it wasn’t attracting skaters, so you don’t have to be like ‘No skateboarders.’ They just weren’t attracted to it in the first place” (Cianciotto). The design flattened the park to street level, removed all stairs and jumps that were utilized by the skateboarders, and added garden spaces.
Like Dilworth, LOVE Park seeks to have programming year-round to generate revenue that can be funneled back into the maintenance of the park. In addition, heavily programming the space serves as another tactic to deter people (i.e. skateboarders) from using the park for reasons beyond the event being hosted there (Cianciotto). Furthermore, the Park’s central location presents an opportunity for marketing opportunities, as evidenced in the inauguration of the southeast corner of the space as Bank of America Plaza following a $250,000 donation from the bank (Saksa). The Park is host to an array of programming including “Lunch at LOVE,” a daily food truck rotation; “Parks on Tap,” a traveling beer garden; “the Christmas Village,” Philadelphia’s largest holiday attraction which features an authentic open-air German Christmas market with over local 100 vendors; and concerts of all kinds (Cianciotto). In addition to providing funding for the Park, the City hoped that this programming would activate the new park to appeal to a wide spectrum of users.
However, some argue that the new LOVE Park “is a public space that is less public insofar as a smaller cross-section of the population is represented and visible” (Cianciotto). The communities who previously inhabited the park, and even gave the space its now official name, have been displaced and neglected in the redesign. There is no longer a group that can collectively create new uses for the Park that surpass what is sanctioned and collectively care for the park as they see fit. With this, the durable connections that once produced a place-specific community of commoners has been lost. While people are still free to co-mingle in the space as tourists, event-goers, and diners, these relationships dissolve upon leaving the premise. The redesign fails to enduringly tie people and the place together, as the old space once did.
The redesigns of LOVE Park and Dilworth Parks are in some ways similar, and in other ways discordant. Both parks illuminate how power operates through the public space to reinforce exclusion and oppression. At Dilworth Park, people other than plutocrats feel out of place given the new design features. The “corporate” nature of the space makes it less inviting to ordinary people looking for a spot to relax and unwind. At LOVE Park, the original park “locals,” who once cared for the park have now been excluded in the redesign. Unlike Dilworth Park, whose original landscape was forsaken, LOVE Park was already a bustling area pre-renovation (Lind). LOVE Park was utilized and cared for by a diverse cross-section of Philadelphians who have since been displaced. The original design of LOVE invited a human response with its sculptural elements that have since been forsaken in the new flattened and graceless plane. There are no longer walls to sit on, bollards to lean on, nor benches to skateboard on. “Instead of creating a park full of nooks where users can find the right place to steal a kiss or smoke a cigarette, the new LOVE Park is a sterile, corporate landscape” (Lind). The landscapes of LOVE Park and Dilworth parks alike have transformed into spaces that are so often described as “corporate” because the lack of landscaping renders the parks as only active when they are commercialized (Lind). The sponsored programming that takes advantage of the flat platforms at these parks is valuable in generating revenue, but they are also extremely inorganic. Furthermore, the organic alternative uses, like skateboarding, are abandoned and policed out of existence, because they no longer “fit into a prescribed set of uses for the park” (Lind). An entire culture that once cared for and even named the park has since been pushed out with the redesign. LOVE Park was once a place, and since the redesign, the space has become a non-place that now requires tired placemaking interventions to give the space a sense of purpose.
The placemaking interventions that go hand-in-hand with the redesigns of both parks speak to a trend that Inga Saffron terms “activation.” As Saffron explains, “driven by concerns about safety, parks are increasingly being turned into amped-up entertainment zones to ensure they attract a steady stream of visitors” (Saffron). This is entirely the case with both Dilworth and LOVE Park. Both of these spaces have been redesigned to function as multipurpose flat stages for a various revenue-streaming events. These spaces are heavily programmed with events year-round to attract more visitors; their redesigns have come to represent a new program-driven approach to place-making. With this activation, as Saffron explains, “our nation’s downtown parks have been required to perform a task that can often be at odds with the mission of providing respite” (Saffron). The openness embedded in the design of these parks provide no shelter and leave inhabitants completely exposed to the surrounding urban bustle. These spaces bleed into the adjacent streets, precluding park-goers from escaping the noise and constant activity of the city, which is often why people go to parks in the first place.
Furthermore, although both Dilworth and LOVE have some patches of greenery, they are dominated by stone space that detracts from the tranquility that people often seek when going to a park. This differs from successful parks such as Rittenhouse and Washington Square Park, which provide shade and respite with their towering trees and welcoming seating nooks. Instead, the flattened features of Dilworth and LOVE Park create a space that is uncomfortable and uninspired. As a result, Philadelphians do not picnic, sunbathe, or stroll in the new Dilworth and LOVE Park, as their features are entirely discordant from Rittenhouse Park which embraces such activities. Where Rittenhouse is grassy and tranquil, Dilworth and LOVE are stiff and corporate. In many ways, LOVE Park has transformed into another adaption of Dilworth Park with its redesign, as both of these spaces function in the same way and emit the same feeling of rigidness for those who dwell in the area. As a result, these spaces have lost their opportunity to serve as unique and memorable spaces, and instead have transformed into commercialized, micro- managed hubs for revenue rather than relaxation. These redesigns speak to a larger trend in public parks: their desire to be event spaces, rather than places for introspection. With the new LOVE Park and Dilworth Park, the way parks are used is completely changed, and the relaxing features that often attract people to public parks have been entirely abandoned.
The history of LOVE Park, however, and the groups who once inhabited the space and made it their own illustrates that design is not destiny. Just as the skateboarders were able to reimagine the old LOVE Park, the new landscapes of LOVE and Dilworth alike can be reimagined as something worthy of Philadelphia and the people who live here. Although these spaces are currently thought to be rigid and uncomfortable, there is still the possibility for like-minded individuals to resonate with an aspect of the parks and take ownership of the space, just as the skateboarders once did. With change comes the opportunity for new groups to embrace the space as their own, find alternative uses that suit their needs, and foster community building in a currently overlooked public arena.
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