The Best Seats In The City, Ban Be Damned

 

Sitting on the interior walls of Rittenhouse Square is more than just a great place to eat lunch, meet friends, and smoke weed. On any given day the limestone balustrades at the center of the park hum with youthful harmony as an older crowd of readers, people watchers, and morning contemplators like myself lap up some sunshine and fill in the gaps. It is a timeless, Center City ritual and part of the Philadelphia experience.

The sitting ban initiated by Friends of Rittenhouse Square that went into effect last Thursday, under the authority of the Department of Parks and Recreation, flies in the face of this tradition and the notion of equitable public space. Represenatives of the neighborhood group said that the rule was enacted to curb vandalism and marijuana smoke, and was likely a misguided response to an unrelated nighttime shooting in the park last October. To observers, the decision reeked of privilege and thinly veiled racism, an eerie reminder of the neighborhood’s rich history of classism and exclusivity. The ban backfired after public outcry and general dismay triggered Mayor Kenney to reverse the order on Saturday through Twitter. On his account Kenney wrote, “Regarding Rittenhouse Square, I’m frustrated too. This government is very large and at times things just get by you. Sit where you want.” He ended the tweet with a two finger peace emoji. Although the ban hasn’t been officially lifted the mayor expects it to be “worked out.”

Kenney gets it, I think, and so do the 1.5K people who have shown interest or plan on showing up to the “Sittenhouse Lunch Time Sit-On Celebration” Facebook event today at noon. Will Friends of Rittenhouse Square see the error of their ways? The group could certainly benefit from taking a seat along the balustrades and get to know the young folks there that consider the interior wall of the park a place for communion, connection, and sanctuary.

Sitting on the wall at Rittenhouse Square: a Philadelphia tradition since way back in the day. All photographs courtesy of the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection at Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center.

“Three hippies admire another hippie’s kitten in Rittenhouse Square, 1968.”

1968

“Kathy Friend sits with some friends in Rittenhouse Square on a summer evening, 1972.”

“Young people in Rittenhouse Square, 1967.”

1976

1972

“Employees stand in Rittenhouse Square facing the Army’s Electronic Command Building, after a cigarette butt smoldering in an ashtray forced them to leave the building, 1968.”

“Visitors enjoy the unseasonably warm weather in Rittenhouse Square, 1977.”

“A group of people relaxing in Rittenhouse Square, 1968.”

Rittenhouse Square is the BEST place for grass. “Despite the “Keep off Grass” sign, Mrs. Carolyn Sulby can’t resist the opportunity to cool off under the spray of a sprinkler in Rittenhouse Square, 1957.”

About the author

Michael Bixler is a writer, photographer, and managing editor of Hidden City Daily. He is a former arts and entertainment reporter with Mountain Xpress weekly in Asheville, North Carolina and a native of South Carolina. Bixler has a keen interest in adaptive reuse, underappreciated architecture, contemporary literature and art, and forward-thinking dialogue about people and place. Follow him on Instagram



5 Comments


  1. Great photos My Bixler. I can’t seem to get an answer to my query, but if this is about pot smoking why doesn’t the city simply enforce an already existing ban on smoking in the parks?!

  2. I support the ban on those kids sitting around all day in the square. I was 18 once and I remember that my group of friends certainly attracted all sorts of older weirdos and psychopaths simply because of our age, and there was little we could do to make those hangers-on go away. The sheer number of kids in the park during that time made an incident like this inevitable, shocked as we ALL are by its brutality. I think it’s safer for everyone except old weirdos and psychopaths if the ban is kept in place.

  3. In this instance, I think Mr Bixler is mistaken.

    “Exclusive” would indicate that some people (the rich and powerful?) are allowed to sit on the balustrade while others (the poor; marijuana smokers, etc.) cannot. As I read it, the rule applies (or applied) to all.

    I’ve always found the benches perfectly comfortable. Like Davis (above), I support the ban on ALL smoking in the city parks.

  4. This is all wack. People in parks act in response to park design. Go to any outdoor space with grass and walkways, I am sure you will find areas of worn grass where designers have not accounted for natural movements of users and thus “desire paths” form. In this instance the balustrade is at height where a comfortable conversation between someone sitting and standing at ground level can occur. Those benches are not much more then a stepping stone.

    Where are kids supposed to go? Where are weirdos supposed to go? They go to public space because they are the public. If you have a problem with any of their illicit activity then enforcement of laws are good enough. To criminalize comfortable movements of utilizing public space is wrong and those who support such acts are swindling the public of its right to peaceful assembly.

  5. Rittenhouse Square never had that relaxed vibe I always looked for in a park, despite my living a few blocks away from it for a few years. I always liked Washington Square much better. I can’t remember it ever really being crowded either. Yes, Washington Square was built over a cemetery but that just made me feel at ease with the souls resting beneath.

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