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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Last Word (From December's ICON)

Anyone who has ever had business at City Hall knows that Dilworth Plaza, that desert of concrete masquerading as a “welcoming” municipal plaza, has been a wasteland since its installation in 1973.

Dilworth Plaza, which had some design appeal on paper—an airbrushed design always has a certain appeal--soon became a squatter’s village for drifters and the homeless after its construction. As a haven for the down and out, the plaza soon became known for its “aromatic assaults,” due in part to the absence of public bathrooms.

Despite the best intentions of architect Vincent Kling, people rarely used Dilworth Plaza except as a walk-through space on their way in or out of City Hall. It has never been known as a comfortable place to sit and “linger.”

Why would anyone want to linger in a quarry of concrete?

The prevailing aesthetic in Philadelphia architecture in the 1970s-- utilitarian and modern—resulted in many bad ideas. Not only were drop ceilings added to Romanesque banks, but the city’s 1976 Bicentennial Chestnut Street transit way design proved to be a financial and artistic disaster. The design of Dilworth Plaza can also be seen as a reflection of the mood of the city under Mayor Frank Rizzo: City Hall as an imperialistic, barbed wire camp.

The plaza’s disuse by everyday citizens—minus, of course, the occasional political protest--can also be attributed to City Hall’s isolation as a “fortress” situated on an island surrounded by traffic. People might pass through “the island” from East to West Market Street, but most are not going to rest their haunches on one of Kling’s concrete benches that seem to rise out of the cement like tombstones. These uncomfortable slabs make the casual visitor feel conspicuous sitting amongst the drifters. One inevitably gets the feeling, warranted or not, that anyone sitting there must be up to “no good.

That’s certainly not the ca se in nearby JFK Plaza, where in the warm months, office workers and passersby think nothing of eating their lunch by the plaza fountain.
Ignored by the general public, it was only a matter of time before skateboarders discovered Dilworth Plaza. When that happened, the area was overrun with the sounds of crashing wheels and somersaulting kids. While Kling’s plan didn’t call for an urban roller derby, at least the plaza was being utilized for something other than drinking alcohol from a brown paper bag. Skateboarding, however, is a “sloppy” sport that tends to have a lot of rough edges.

It also creates “damages.” In this case, the city had to shell out $8,500 to replace 7 plaza stainless steel railings, thanks to the “ride ‘em rough” antics of reckless boarders. Realizing it had a problem on its hands, the city then told the skateboarders to take a hike after installing new cleats and discs on the railings and benches.

Dilworth Plaza once again was back to being what it had always been: a magnet for the down and out.

Throughout its thirty-eight year history, the plaza’s sunken tree and shrub-filled transit way spaces near Suburban Station became conduits for trash that seemed to blow in from all parts of town. In the 1970s, I wrote the mayor several times about the collected dirt there but rarely received a response. Nobody seemed to care that these shrub-filled gardens were a dragging vortex for litter. People in those days, in fact, would look into these sunken “gardens,” and remark, “Can you believe this?” Occasionally the city would clean the trash, but then it would go right back to ignoring it for weeks at a time.

Sound familiar?

When I heard about the new 50-million dollar plan to finally reconfigure and “clean up” Dilworth Plaza, I felt some ray of hope. Thanks to a generous federal grant given to transform public spaces, the improved plaza will replace the concrete desert with a large lawn, more trees, (the obligatory) café, and a fountain which will double as a skating rink in winter. The project is scheduled for completion in 2013.

City planner Edmund Bacon’s-inspired Penn Center had a sunken ice skating rink in the 1960s and 70s. The rink was designed so that commuters could observe skaters while waiting for trains in Suburban Station. It was a marvelous bit of Rockefeller Center in then dour downtown Philly, where strangers became friends, or where friends could spot friends watching amateur skaters fall or glide on the ice. The rink was closed when somebody in power decided that a skating rink was no longer relevant, and the area was covered over with—what else?—concrete.

Dilworth Plaza’s new design, which will include striking glass structures, looks very attractive on paper. Certainly, the rebirth of a skating rink in the area will only work if it isn’t allowed to dry up in the summer months and become a magnet for litter and trash. If that happens, the city can expect a new influx of vagrants.
Skating rinks, just like those sunken transit way gardens, need constant maintenance.

Is Philadelphia up to the task?


When a major earthquake or disaster strikes a U.S. city or far off country, organizations and nations promise millions of dollars in relief funds. It’s a time when pundits tear up and when television news airs special reports about the tragedy. The intense talk dominates the public sphere to such an extent that the focus cannot help but fade as new disasters or concerns take center stage. The problem for the beleaguered country then becomes one of follow-up.

. When a devastating earthquake hit Haiti in January 2010, killing some 300,000 people, 50 nations pledged a total of 8.75 billion in reconstruction aid. The United States was especially responsive, sending in troops, aid workers and supplies. In March, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged 1.15 billion in United States aid for Haiti at a UN donors’ conference. While that money was released, United States money promised for the rebuilding of Haiti, some 500 million under the Haiti Empowerment, Assistance and Rebuilding Act, has been held up by a cantankerous Oklahoma Republican Senator.

Senator Tom Coburn, whom comedian Jon Stewart refers to as a “hole of mystery” because of his secret hold on this bill, objects to a minor provision in the legislation. Coburn has taken issue with the bill’s “unnecessary spending” in the appointment of a senior Haiti coordinator when there’s already one in place: U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merten.

What Coburn is doing, in effect, is sacrificing Haiti’s poor in the name of fiscal responsibility.

Currently in Port-Au-Prince, just ten months after the disaster, about I million Haitians live on the streets. Buildings are still in rubble while a serious outbreak of cholera has hit parts of the island. The situation is so serious that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in October urged the Francophonie group of French speaking nations to remain constant in their pledge to rebuild the small country. “Your friends in the Francophonie will never let you down,” he told the members of the French speaking Alliance.

One should be grateful, perhaps, that there are no Oklahoma Republican types in Canada.

The months-long U.S. funding deadlock, meanwhile, shows no signs of abating, even as the hurricane season threatens to do more damage to the cholera-stricken island.


Angry Americans upset at “socialist Obama-Dems” but enamored of new political faces with no solutions to the country’s problems remind me of that cryptic political slogan, “Throw the bums and replace them with new bums!” Do Americans really think that electing Tea Party Republicans will fix the economy? Do they live on Mars? What’s been said a zillion times before is no less true today: President Obama did not create the bad economy; that economic down slope began under a different president. In campaign speeches, the president was careful to state that economic recovery would be slow and painful. Americans, however, want instant gratification. Many of us also have a messiah complex about presidents, as if one new person in office can—overnight--offer remedies to all the nation’s ills. The truth is that as the world becomes an even closer interdependent network of nations, a president may have less power over the economy than we know.

Come to think of it, November’s sizeable Republican gains have emboldened far less mysterious “holes” than Coburn. In Kentucky, Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell recently told the Heritage Foundation that he and his fellow Republicans should work to repeal “funding for implementation of Obama’s healthcare measure.” McConnell wants to deny poor Americans any healthcare coverage they may be able to leverage under the Obama plan. While the Obama healthcare plan is far from perfect, it’s a small step in preparing America for what it really needs: universal healthcare.

This should not be shocking to Tea Baggers or to those who call Obama a socialist. After all, McConnell and his Republican bagger cohorts in Congress all have “socialized” tax-payer funded universal health care, not only while they are in office but for life. My taxes and your taxes are funding their visits to the doctor, while funding for the poor and almost-poor is looked on as the spawn of Karl Marx.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Author/journalist Thom Nickels is the author of nine books, including Philadelphia Architecture, Out in History and the recently released novel SPORE.


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