BY JOEY SWEENEY
Early this afternoon, a friend sent us some images of an odd sight: Rittenhouse Square on a Friday afternoon, just around lunchtime, with benches upon benches and no one sitting on them. Which is to say, not only were the benches sparsely populated, but so too were the balustrades that, though it was not the original intention of the park’s design, people have liked to sit on for decades now. We bring up the balustrades because, just in case you hadn’t heard, it is now somehow illegal to sit on them. In the wake of this news, an entire city has scoffed.
Even for a Friday in January, albeit with highs just under 50 degrees, the sense that the park was somehow a little more empty, a little more lonely than it ought to be, was palpable. “There’s no one around,” our friend messaged. “It’s winter and all, but it’s a nice day.” In their place, a police car, in the middle of the park, looking almost like it had been left there by mistake. What could be the culprit? “Vibe jacked?”
Indeed. Rittenhouse Square — in fact, the entire system of Squares, comprising Rittenhouse, Logan, Washington, Franklin and Penn — was a major piece of William Penn’s original concept of Philadelphia as a “green countrie towne,” with all of them arguably there to preserve a vibe. And while the other Squares have certainly had their ups and downs, Rittenhouse has been and shall always be one of the of the great third places, not just in Philadephia but perhaps in all of North America. Everybody, and I do mean everybody, goes to Rittenhouse Square. As a public space, it could not be more democratic.
Which is why such offense is being taken to the sudden ban on the balustrades — and why, on Tuesday afternoon, brave and noble citizens of this city will gather in protest on those very walls. The powers that be claim the law has been put into place to curb what is admittedly one of the city’s more brazenly open locales for outdoor pot smoking, but mostly everyone else sees it as something else: Part of an ongoing war on public space in this city that seeks to undercut what makes locales like Rittenhouse so great in the first place. If you want to crack down on pot smoke, common sense would say, then crack down on smoking pot (which, by the way, would be easy to do if some of those pot smokers were perched on literally the highest, most visible sightline in the park). But don’t kill the park’s vibe. Some days, that park is the only good vibe this city has.
UPDATE: Well, whaddya know. Sometimes these things just work themselves out.
Regarding Rittenhouse Square, I'm frustrated too. This government is very large and at times things just get by you. Sit where you want. ✌️— Jim Kenney (@JimFKenney) January 15, 2017