Blunt Needle

The opening of Penn Park–the University of Pennsylvania’s new athletic complex, accessible to the general public–marks a new era in Philadelphia. Think of it as the first stitch in a long-anticipated seam joining Center City and University City. Having anxiously awaited the opening of the park, as a Penn student and now as an alumna, it seemed like construction workers were on a never-ending mission to move giant piles of dirt from one part of the demolished parking lot to another. Two years later, it was not without reason: Penn Park is a first-rate collegiate athletic complex that also offers visitors magnificent views of Center City.

But how exactly will this epic landscape be experienced by the “non-affiliated?”

Photo: Lauren Drapala.

Entering the park from the south is somewhat like stepping through the rabbit hole, traversing over three rail lines (Amtrak, CSX and SEPTA) in an axial, covered bridge with windows into the skyline of Center City. Crossing through the other side, Franklin Field now stands monumental over the new tennis, softball and soccer fields around its base. Despite the proximity of the rail lines and the Schuylkill expressway, the atmosphere is serene, brightened by the reflections of the gleaming skyline. While struck by the composition, I never stop moving. Indeed, the area is a flurry with teams practicing–Penn’s logo is branded at every turn–and I stick closely to the newly paved asphalt that clearly marks where I will turn next. There are not many options, either in asphalt or turf.


Photo: Lauren Drapala.

Penn makes no pretenses about what this park is about: an athletic complex for the university. While it would’ve been easier for the school to close the area as part of its private campus, President Gutmann wanted the park to be “an essential part of welcoming people not affiliated with the university into West Philadelphia.” But how, exactly? The areas of the park not specifically designated for athletics are expanses of turf, with little seating or landscaping to invite visitors to linger. Then again, that’s not really the point, is it? This is not a city park, and, in fact, Penn raised an impressive $46 million to build it without any assistance from the City of Philadelphia.

In this uncharted territory, it is hard to imagine how this park will integrate into the daily life of the city. In that sense, it is disappointing, raising questions about the manner of the University’s engagement with the city. It is a vibrant extension of the campus, perfectly situated in the city, and will be a heavily utilized athletic facility. Should we then merely conclude that where Penn goes, so goes the city? Or, as the University continues to push east, threading the seam, might we hope for a more nuanced needle?

Photo: Lauren Drapala.

About the author

Lauren Drapala works as an architectural conservator at the Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust. Since moving to Philadelphia in 2008 to earn her Masters in Historic Preservation from the University of Pennsylvania, she has been mesmerized by the wealth of architectural resources throughout the city and its surrounding districts. Continuing the research she began in her graduate work, Lauren is currently authoring a book about the 20th century interiors and decorative screens of Robert Winthrop Chanler. Learn more about this project at

Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.


Recent Posts
Church Demolition By The Numbers: More Questions Than Answers

Church Demolition By The Numbers: More Questions Than Answers

December 9, 2016  |  Soapbox

Since 2009, 28 churches have been demolished in Philadelphia. Is development pressure to blame? Partners for Sacred Places staffer and Hidden City contributor Rachel Hildebrandt says yes and does the math on the unabating trend > more

Hidden City Campaign Passes Halfway Point On Way To $30,000

Hidden City Campaign Passes Halfway Point On Way To $30,000

December 8, 2016  |  Buzz

Needed still to reach must-get goal of $30,000: about 180 readers to give $15, $25, $50, $75, or more! > more

Fade And A Shave: Inside Philly's Black Barbershops

Fade And A Shave: Inside Philly’s Black Barbershops

December 7, 2016  |  Last Light

Contributor Theresa Stigale documents life inside neighborhood barbershops with this photo essay > more

America's Oldest Road Takes Center Stage In New Documentary

America’s Oldest Road Takes Center Stage In New Documentary

December 5, 2016  |  Vantage

The King's Highway, the oldest continuously used road in America, is the subject of an award winning documentary premiering tonight at the Kimmel Center > more

A Moving Monument

A Moving Monument

December 5, 2016  |  News

Nearly four years after Hidden City proposed relocating the forlorn Newkirk Viaduct Monument from the side of the train tracks to the forthcoming Bartram's Mile segment of the Schuylkill River Trail system... that has happened. Brad Maule has the story of the 177-year-old monument's relocation > more

Inside SEPTA's Unused Underground Concourse, To Be Restored

Inside SEPTA’s Unused Underground Concourse, To Be Restored

December 2, 2016  |  Last Light

The Center City Concourse, a network of underground pedestrian walkways, has sat empty and largely unused for decades. But big plans are in the works to reopen and reanimate the dead space. Samantha Smyth and Chandra Lampreich takes us into the abandoned tunnels with this photo essay > more