BY JOEY SWEENEY
In the beginning, there were five: Rittenhouse, Washington, Franklin, Logan and Centre. These were the five public squares of Philadelphia as planned by William Penn, in his legendary vision for the “green country towne” that you and I (mostly) enjoy today. For Penn, these areas were intrinsic to a notion about city living and its attendant need to, every once in a while, sit in patch of green and imagine you’re somewhere else.
Along the way, though, the city morphed and changed, shed several skins and grew new ones, and the original five squares emerged into the present day not quite as a whole: Centre Square came to be the site of City Hall, and Logan Square became Logan Circle when Benjamin Franklin Parkway was developed. And though efforts are being made to elevate Logan Circle to a status something higher than a glorified, beautiful median strip, it’s slow going. By my count, we’re down two of the original five.
And of the three that still stand unmolested, Franklin Square has had the most challenges. The park has a history too great and wild to detail here, but let’s put it this way: Writing in 1961 in the classic The Death And Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs characterized Franklin Square as “the city’s Skid Row park,” and it took a solid 40 years for the shame to actually hit us. But over the last 10 years, the park has made an amazing rebound at the hands of Historic Philadelphia Inc. If you live in Old City or Chinatown or are (as most of the park’s visitors seem to be) just passing through, Franklin Square has the carousel for the kids, plenty of space to stretch out and, of course, cheeseburgers for all.
But it’s still something of the red-headed stepchild, thanks to a hellish traffic pattern and the nearby 676. Franklin Square never gets enough love. Which is why, like so many, we were really excited to learn of the Chinese Lantern Festival at Franklin Square, up now and running through June. The lanterns are gorgeous, and hey, anything to get people to use the park, right?
Well, almost anything. Ride by Franklin Square right now, and you’ll see that the park is largely fenced off due to the Festival. At the height of spring. Through June. And yes, anyone can still stroll through the park, free of charge. But only during certain hours. According to a Chinese Lantern Festival press release: "The Franklin Square Playground will continue to be open and free during the evening hours, accessible from 7th Street. After 6 pm, the Festival requires tickets for entry, which are $17 adults, $12 children ages 17 and under, and $15 senior and active military (taxes and fees included).”
But the fence is up 24 hours a day. And sure, we get that Festivals like this are expensive to produce, but given Franklin Square’s shaggy dog history and recent momentum, this is a very bad look. And that’s not the only reason why. Consider this: There is an element of our local governance that wants to play it a little loose with the idea of public space, and Budweiser’s Made In America and Franklin Square’s sudden pivot to museum-style ticketing are a part of what that element is okay with. One more, and it’s a trend. Two more, and it’s a sad commonplace.