Groundbreakings are always exercises in self-congratulation, but Monday’s symbolic start to construction on a new Dilworth Plaza (the festivities were held on the 9th floor of 1515 Market Street due to cold weather) was a particularly enthusiastic love-fest. Indeed, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood–a former Republican congressman–seemed entirely entirely sincere when he said, “You are all blessed with the best leadership of any city in America.”
The key was teamwork, everyone agreed. With Paul Levy and the Center City District leading the way, the local congressional delegation, city officials and SEPTA managed to put together four public funding sources, including $15 million in federal dollars. The William Penn Foundation chipped in close to a million dollars and the Knight Foundation has pledged more than $5 million toward the $50 million project, which will create 900 jobs and be completed by early 2014.
Perhaps we’ve learned from our mistakes. The first iteration of Dilworth Plaza began with high hopes in 1966, yet by the time it was finally completed in 1977 the plaza had become a weapon in one of the most bitter grudges in the history of Philadelphia politics.
Groundbreaking took place a scant two years after Time magazine put Planning Commission head Edmund Bacon on its cover as the face of urban renewal in America. The article lauded Bacon’s projects in Philadelphia–the Penn Center redevelopment, the restoration of Society Hill, and I.M. Pei’s nearby Society Hill Towers–as “the most thoughtfully planned, thoroughly rounded, skillfully coordinated of all the big-city programs in the U.S.” Within a few years, however, that era would be over. Federal money for massive urban infrastructure projects dried up, public opinion turned against new highways and other urban renewal projects that ruptured neighborhoods.
Plaza construction was more than half finished when the project took a bizarre turn in 1973. With former mayor Richardson Dilworth ailing, City Council voted to name the plaza in his honor. Mayor Frank Rizzo, who hated the reformer Dilworth, signed the ordinance but refused to call it Dilworth Plaza. Dilworth’s death in 1974 apparently did little to placate Rizzo, who continued to call it “West Plaza” until the day it was formally dedicated three years later. Rizzo then managed to forget to invite Dilworth’s family to the dedication, and only provided 13 folding chairs for the ceremony. Even the date on the plaque was wrong. One man did receive an award, though–Dilworth Plaza architect Vincent Kling. The honor was given by a trade group called the Building Stone Institute, and considering that the plaza was clad almost entirely in granite, it might have been more accurately called the “best customer award.”
Dilworth’s friends were so incensed by Rizzo’s ongoing snubs that they decided the plaza needed a memorial to Dilworth. They raised $70,000 privately, (the first $20 was donated by Dilworth’s bootblack) and awarded the commission to artist Emlen Etting, who had his own history with Rizzo. When Rizzo was still a captain in the 1950s, he had broken up a party at Etting’s house. Etting responded by telling the press that Rizzo’s men “behaved like Cossacks.” Unsurprisingly, the project languished awaiting approvals from various City agencies. Its dedication ceremony didn’t take place until 1982–a full five years after it was first proposed.
The people of Philadelphia never really warmed up to Dilworth Plaza, and who can blame them. All that stone was softened to some degree by trees and shrubs in summer. But in winter the plaza was unforgivingly brutalist, much like the grand plaza’s of Beijing’s Forbidden City often cited by Bacon as an inspiration for the Penn Center redevelopment. It could look terribly bleak at times; indeed, it didn’t seem like much of a stretch when director Terry Gilliam turned the northern end of the plaza into a post-apocalyptic wasteland in his movie 12 Monkeys.
Yet Dilworth could look like a pleasant, functional urban space on a sunny day when the fountains were in working order and office workers eating their lunches. The problem was that scenes like that didn’t happen very frequently. As often as not, there was the stench of urine, broken escalators, dank corridors and fast food wrappers blowing in the wind.
Photo gallery by Rob Lybeck
The design for the new Dilworth Plaza is less ambitious, and considerably less expensive than the old one. Our plans have become more modest since then, not only due to financial necessity, but also to an evolution in our thinking about urban spaces. Instead of the grand gesture, we have smaller projects like the Race Street Pier, Schuylkill Banks and perhaps one day the Reading Viaduct that are helping Philadelphia become a more livable city, bit by bit. And what could be simpler than Dilworth’s big lawn? Soft, natural, green, human in scale–a reflection of where we are today. Renderings have the power to make the ordinary look marvelous, however, and reality–and the grass–may be a good bit muddier. It always is in Philadelphia.
Peter Woodall is the co-editor of Hidden City Daily. He is a graduate of the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, and a former newspaper reporter with the Biloxi Sun Herald and the Sacramento Bee. He worked as a producer for Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane and wrote a column about neighborhood bars for PhiladelphiaWeekly.com.