As the pandemic slows projects, Philadelphia has a chance to rethink a difficult public space.
By Jared Brey
Most of Philadelphia was still asleep when city workers pulled the nine-foot-high statue of Frank Rizzo off the concrete steps of the Municipal Services Building across from City Hall, loaded it into a truck, and carted it off to an undisclosed storage locker. It was early June, and by then, the Rizzo statue, which depicted in monumental proportions the racist former mayor and bully cop, had been a target of protesters for years. They had tugged on it with ropes and chains, tried to set it on fire, yarn-bombed it with a pink bikini, and covered it in a white Ku Klux Klan hood. In late May it became a focal point of protests again. Long lines of police began standing guard in front of the statue daily. Officially, they were guarding the Municipal Services Building, but as the police presence grew, it began to seem like they were there to protect the statue or the very legacy of Rizzo himself.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney had previously said the statue would be removed as part of an eventual redesign of Thomas Paine Plaza, the elevated public podium that surrounds the Municipal Services Building. But in a statement that day, explaining the sudden overnight removal of the statue, he acknowledged that tying its removal to the long-term plans for a plaza makeover, rather than the immediate and repeated demands of protesters, was “a mistake.”
“The statue is a deplorable monument to racism, bigotry, and police brutality for members of the Black community, the LGBTQ community, and many others,” Kenney said.
Still, for days after the statue was removed, police officers and military service members remained stationed at Paine Plaza as if they were occupying a hill, looking down on the surrounding sidewalks from the high corners of its concrete walls. Pennsylvania National Guardsmen holding rifles and dressed in fatigues blocked access from the street. “Why are the cops being paid to watch this?” someone wrote in chalk on the west wall. Long after the military left town and the police force on site dwindled—up until the time this story went to print—loose security fencing remained around the entire perimeter of the plaza, vaguely suggesting that passersby shouldn’t enter the space, even as city workers and skateboarders nonchalantly passed through the gaps in the fencing. With the provocation of the Rizzo statue gone, Thomas Paine Plaza was exposed: an overbuilt space with no apparent purpose, overpoliced for no discernible reason. What was it supposed to be?
The plaza is one of three prominent public spaces surrounding City Hall in the heart of Philadelphia, just across the street from Dilworth Park to the south and LOVE Park to the west. All three spaces were designed by the Philadelphia architect Vincent Kling and built during an era of overheated civic ambition, starting with Paine Plaza and the Municipal Services Building in 1962 and ending with Dilworth Park (originally Dilworth Plaza) in 1972, the same year that Rizzo took office. For good or ill, the adjacent plazas, each occupying a city block or more, helped to establish a built identity for midcentury Philadelphia. But as the 1960s ended and Philadelphia began rapidly shedding population, its ambitions changed, too. Over time, the triangle of plazas—nearly all hardscape, devoid of greenery, full of weird grade changes and obstructed sight lines—began to feel like the vestige of an era of erroneous ideas.
When Philadelphia’s population began ever so meagerly to rebound around 2006, its leaders started to look again at its central plazas as an opportunity to redefine the type of city it was meant to be. The makeover of Dilworth Park was a signature gesture, opening up a formerly sunken plaza into “a more usable, sustainable, and equitable public space,” in the words of the 2020 ASLA Awards Jury. (The project won the Award of Excellence in Urban Design.) A similarly reimagined LOVE Park, designed by Hargreaves Jones, opened in 2018 to high praise from officials—“a masterpiece that embodies the Philly spirit,” Mayor Kenney said at the time—but harsher-than-usual critiques from the public.
Paine Plaza was supposed to be next. The city issued a request for qualifications in 2018, followed by a request for proposals to a short list of applicants early the following year, including Andropogon Associates, James Corner Field Operations, DAVID RUBIN Land Collective, Mikyoung Kim Design, OLIN, and Sasaki. (“They interviewed everybody. It was like Grand Central Station,” says Lucinda Sanders, FASLA, the CEO and a partner at OLIN, which is based in Philadelphia.) The initial timeline had work scheduled to begin as early as January 2020, but progress stalled after a mandatory meeting for applicants in the spring of 2019. Over the summer a city spokesperson told me that, because of pandemic-related budget cuts, “funding for design for Paine Plaza will not be available this year, and no designer is being selected at present.” So now, the center of Philadelphia appears to be suspended between two half-formed visions, like slides jammed in a projector.
Paine Plaza is built on top of occupied office space in the Municipal Services Building, where Philadelphians occasionally go to get city-issued licenses and permits and pay utility bills. Portions of its 88,000 square feet lie underneath the building’s overhang, and one sunken section is dedicated to the Hub of Hope, where people experiencing homelessness can find showers and laundry facilities and access supportive-housing services. It’s home to several iconic pieces of public art—a bronze pile of gnarled human bodies called Government of the People, installed in 1976, and Your Move, a series of oversized board game pieces including chess, Parcheesi, and Sorry! added to the plaza in 1996. From the street, the whole thing is nearly impossible to see, surrounded by a granite wall that’s six feet high at its shortest point and an imposing 16 feet at its highest, towering over the sidewalks in the northwest corner.
Over the years, celebrations and demonstrations have made use of all three plazas in various ways. An Occupy Philadelphia encampment took over Dilworth Plaza for several weeks in the fall of 2011, only to be evicted by the city when the redesign was scheduled to begin. The private management of the space since then by the Center City District, a business improvement district, has been a perennial controversy. When the Center City District announced last year that it was opening a Starbucks on the south side of the plaza, it struck many people as a conspicuous symbol of the park’s creeping privatization. Protesters set the Starbucks on fire late in the spring as protests against the killing of George Floyd filled Center City, notably leaving a small café on the other side of the plaza and a local coffee shop across the street undamaged. LOVE Park serves as a regular meeting place for demonstrations and marches, too.
Officials have been wanting to make improvements to Paine Plaza for years—a 2013 planning document for Center City notes that the site “does not function as a desirable public destination”—even as they acknowledge that it should be a place that welcomes protests and demonstrations. In the RFP issued last year, the city said that the redesign “should provide unique opportunities for civic engagement and understand the need for public demonstrations and events,” while strengthening Paine Plaza’s relationship to LOVE Park, Dilworth Park, public transit, and the street. In another document responding to applicants’ questions, the city noted that the plaza is “a location for politically charged assembly.” City representatives declined to elaborate on a new vision for the space, saying that it was meant to be developed through a community engagement process after a designer was selected.
“[Paine Plaza] had a blankness to it—it’s really like a platform,” says Bryan Chou, ASLA, an associate principal at Mikyoung Kim Design, who attended the meeting about the redesign last year. “It was never developed as a place for tourists or for ingrained programming, so it really was for the people of Philadelphia.”
Now, with destructive budget cuts on the horizon, the city is finding the limits of its ability to use public space redesigns as a way of projecting a fresh image. And it’s pursuing shorter-term interventions. In August, the mayor stood in front of a row of news cameras, a few paces behind the space where the Rizzo statue used to be, to dedicate a new mural placed across the entrance of the Municipal Services Building.
“This place, this spot, has been a really difficult place for a long time,” Kenney said. “And the remnants of what was here [are] gone, and the remnants of what is being born [are] right behind me.”
The work, called Crown, is a reworking of Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix, and it features photographs of protesters from Black Lives Matter demonstrations arrayed in a crown shape behind the seal of the city. The artist is Russell Craig, a former inmate at Graterford Prison, who started working with Philadelphia’s Mural Arts program while he was incarcerated. At the dedication, Craig said that a series of portraits he had worked on for a previous installment at the same space had included brick walls as backdrops, in a reference to Rizzo’s brutality as police chief and a famous photograph of a group of Philadelphia Black Panthers stripped naked and handcuffed against a brick wall that ran in the local news in 1970.
Craig later told me that his early ideas for the new piece were more politically explicit, depicting cops in riot gear poised over top of prostrate protesters. At the request of the Mural Arts program, he says, he reluctantly toned it down. But he was still happy to see Rizzo removed and Crown installed, even if he won’t put too much faith in progress until “they take down Mount Rushmore.”
“That’s a space for the people,” Craig said of Paine Plaza. “[Rizzo] is for one type of people that want to oppress others. So it was overdue—long overdue. It was a small step, but it was a good step. So we’ll celebrate the little win.”
Jared Brey is a freelance reporter in Philadelphia.