It has been a little over a week now since Dilworth Park has opened, to much fanfare and almost equal dismay. A few usual suspects have weighed in and their general consensus is that money was squandered on a park that doesn’t deliver. Some have approached it with a smart, informed eye while others with impulsive vitriol. How things pan out with Dilworth Park upon completion will ultimately be revealed in time. However, now that the dust has settled for the moment, I think that it is worth stepping back to consider the social impact the park will have on this once famished space. To get a glimpse of the new dynamic culminating there all you have to do is sit and observe.
On paper, I shouldn’t much like Dilworth Park and I didn’t expect to. $55 million is a lot to spend on glass and a granite floor. I concur with Inga Saffron’s assessment that the space could use some softening up. Her questions about a private company leasing this historically public space–indeed what in plan is the city’s public living room–are incisive. This issue would benefit from a bit more public scrutiny. What we can and cannot do in front of City Hall is now regulated and enforced by a private company, the Center City District. This feels like a major, democratic overstep.
But if you spend some time there taking in the crowd and even talking to a stranger or two what you will find is an inclusive public space that is as progressively Philly as one could have hoped for. That is where it succeeds.
The old, urban renewal-era plaza was a cold, dead place. It was not a space to linger much on your lunch hour nor was it a destination to take your kids to on the weekend. It was tired, bleak, and a little threatening: a perfectly dark-humored metaphor for city government. I know the sun must have shined on Dilworth Plaza, but be damned if I can remember when, with the exception of the two months before it closed for construction.
In October 2011, Occupy Philly took up residence at City Hall. Overnight the movement transformed Dilworth Plaza from a lonely urban wasteland to a warm and supportive civic space, accomplishing what Occupy Wall Street in Manhattan failed to do. It really was an astonishing scene. I had visited Zuccotti Park in Manhattan on the 7th day of protests and wasn’t particularly impressed. Confusing, half-baked populist rants and fashionable tomfoolery dashed my expectations of a solid working class protest. Many activists voiced thoughtful, intelligent grievances, but these were ultimately drowned out by goofy, self-absorbed irreverence. Needless to say I had my doubts on the first day of Occupy Philly.
To understand what was just then developing at Dilworth Plaza you had to be there among the tents, signs, and people. I won’t get into the specifics of why they were there other than to say that the downturn of the economy was devastating for many. I met folks from Pottstown, PA to Vineland, NJ who had lost their homes to foreclosure, who were disabled and had their veteran benefits cut, people who were working three jobs to pay for their children’s health insurance, and many others who had been laid off. Time and time again I was told that they came to Dilworth Plaza because they didn’t know where else to go. The people that made up Occupy Philly were scared, angry, and hurting, and those fleeting weeks at Dilworth Plaza provided them with temporary collective compassion. So, I immersed myself in it and spent as much time as I could at City Hall, observing, talking to people, and even marching.
Until Mayor Michael Nutter ordered the police to clear the encampment on November 30th, it was evident that Occupy Philly had become an unsung model for all other Occupy encampments. The City and Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey did a pretty amazing job respecting, protecting, and keeping the Occupiers safe. Believe it or not, it was a harmonious dichotomy. One detective told me that by order of command the Philadelphia Police Department at Dilworth Plaza, officers were required to listen to the First Amendment being read over the radio every morning. You could almost hear Frank Rizzo rolling in his grave. Despite a number of hiccups and a little resentment from the Mayor’s Office toward Occupiers for providing food and shelter to the homeless, it was almost as if the shadow of City Hall had finally been lifted. In the end, it gave Dilworth Plaza an opportunity to shine, and glow it did with the kind of civic engagement that it was intended for.
The last night of Occupy Philly was a sad, deflating occasion. That a $55 million renovation had put a stop to an earnest protest for economic equality was disheartening and extremely distasteful. The irony stung. Yet, evident even on the first day, Dilworth Park restored the space to the people, real Philadelphia people, and I think in the end it will carry on with what the former plaza finally achieved in October and November of 2011. A few design misgivings aside, I think CCD president Paul Levy and his staff and the designers at Olin and Kieran Timberlake were successful in building a forward-thinking park for everyone. No, you cannot protest without a permit, which is perhaps more than disappointing, but that’s where Love Park comes in handy. No, you cannot have public bathrooms, which is cruel and totally boggles the mind. And yes, keeping it clean will be an impossible, Sisyphean undertaking, but that is where private management of the park becomes a godsend.
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Remembering Occupy Philly. Click any thumbnail to launch gallery.