What’s Your Favorite Public Space?

Tomorrow evening at 7PM at Eighth and Fitzwater in Bella Vista is the annual Cianfrani Park holiday festival. Santa will be there and park caretakers will turn on the “light pyramid” and plug in the menorah. I’ve been involved at Cianfrani, a place that sometimes feels like contested ground, for almost 14 years. I’ve helped resurrect its gardens, paint its fence, plant trees–including one in honor of the birth of my daughter–and I’ve even MC’d the annual fall festival. I’ve seen neighbors fight over dog use–to the chagrin of some, the park is often referred to as “the dog park”–and come together over just about everything else. One holiday about 5 years ago, the menorah was stolen; so we redoubled our effort, replaced it, and took the opportunity to talk about the neighborhood’s multi-culturalism.

Cianfrani is a small, well-used neighborhood park. Its benches are old, its trash cans insufficient, and its lawn is often brown. And yet I can’t think of a space that’s better loved by neighbors, who for more than 20 years have poured their time and money into a constant string of improvements.

Photo: Rob Lybeck

Of course, Cianfrani is not alone. There are dozens of important public spaces, and they’re not just parks, but also sidewalks, transit stations, even transit vehicles, libraries, rec centers, schools, etc. We at Hidden City would like to hear a little bit about your favorite, big or small, central or far-flung, hidden, forgotten, or forlorn. In last Thursday’s New York Times, architecture critic Michael Kimmelman writes, “the best public spaces encourage diverse urban experiences, from people watching to protesting, daydreaming to handball, eating, reading and sunbathing to strolling and snoozing.”

Photo: Rob Lybeck

But are there other criteria you would apply to your favorite space? How about chance encounters? How about casual socializing? How about community-building, or active things like gardening?

Tell us your favorite spaces and why. Send photos, anecdotes, laments, and plans for renovation. Public space, says deputy mayor for transportation Rina Cutler, is going to be Michael Nutter’s legacy. If that’s the case, what do you think needs to happen to make more public spaces more interesting, engaging, and more inviting?

Post a comment here or send an e-mail to editor@hiddencityphila.org.

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. Popkin's literary criticism appears in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, and The Millions. He is writer-in-residence of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.



3 Comments


  1. – I recently enjoyed a Bassets ice cream cone in the newish park behind the Marriott across from Reading Terminal Market on a surprisingly warm autumn afternoon. I hope to do that again soon.

    – My favorite “public” public spot has to be the South Street Bridge over I-95. On a nice weekend afternoon, the bridge is bursting with life. As one terminus is a surface parking lot, finding that many people there was pleasantly surprising. The planters, the seating areas, and art all combine to make what could be a dreary trek over a highway into a great, lively, urban experience.

    My favorite “private” public spot is the newest section of Pennypack Park at the far northern end of the section on the Delaware River at Rhawn Street. Opened a couple of years ago, these amazing reclaimed wetlands are oddly underused. You can go there on a magnificent weekend afternoon and come across less than a half dozen people. Living so close to such a wonderful and almost private resource is really nice. One day, it will be part of miles and miles of riverfront greenway and hopefully it will get the appreciation it deserves. Until then I and very few others will enjoy it privately since no one else seems interested in going there.

  2. New favorite: Race Street Pier. I love being so close to the hulking base of the BFB. The design of the pier and passageway to/from Old City feels very well thought-out and makes me think “Ok, so THIS is what good design feels like…”

    Old favorite: Rittenhouse Square, on the balustrade around the fountain.

    Hidden favorite: Forbidden Drive in Fairmount Park

  3. I have a lot of favorite public spaces (Fitler Square, the Plateau, Devil’s Pool), but to pick just one, I think it has to be that with my feet dangling over the bulkhead at Turtle Rock Lighthouse on the bend of the Schuylkill at Boathouse Row. Sitting there for 15 minutes and surveying the 270° before you, you’re witness to the city in motion from the most peaceful of spots. Amtrak, Septa, New Jersey Transit and CSX/NS trains, I-76, Kelly Drive, MLK Drive, bikes, bladers, joggers, scullers … everything and everyone in motion.

    As for the setting, you’ve got the ancient American arches of the freight railroad lines across the river, with stately Boathouse Row to your left, Drexel Weird (Millennium Hall, et al) on the horizon, the Philly Skyline a quick peek around the corner, and all the wonderful public art along the river, starting with Thorfinn Karlsefni right there.

    And of course, the Hidden River is hidden in plain sight, literally right under your feet.

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