For the last 15 months, my sanctuary has been the 348 acres of grassy lawns, cracked tennis courts, and overgrown golf course that make up Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park in South Philadelphia.
I’m not alone in relying on this South Philly gem, one of few green areas in an area of dense rowhouses and trash-strewn streets, to get through the pandemic. Officials say they’ve seen an “unprecedented” increase in visitors during the pandemic, according to WHYY News, with park trash collections –– one way to measure usage –– up by about 50%. And even as the world has begun opening up, I still end up visiting the park a few times a week for a jog, tennis, or just a little nature.
So I was surprised and frustrated when one weekday in mid-May, I arrived at my beloved FDR Park to find it bustling with construction — and the 20th Street entrance blocked by security guards. A huge swath of the park had been taken over by the Philadelphia Flower Show, which this year has left its Convention Center digs for the first time.
This is a mistake. The Philadelphia Horticultural Society, which has organized the Flower Show since the 19th century, should move it back to the Convention Center and never return. FDR Park — and parks in general — are public resources. They should be forever free and open to all — not walled off and reserved only for those who can shell out 45 bucks.
Iconic parts of the park like the boathouse and the Olmsted Pavilion are off-limits, separated from the general public by chain-link fences. The show has also eliminated much of the parking normally available in the park, making it difficult for those with accessibility issues or more far-flung park-goers to visit without a car. Restrictions began in mid-May and are scheduled to continue until June 25.
To be fair, much of the park is open to pedestrians. But I’m not the only one whom security guards have blocked from entering at 20th Street, which is nearly a half mile away from the next public entrance. I don’t blame the guards for doing their jobs, and more recently they have not stopped me from walking in, but I’m frustrated that neither PHS higher-ups nor city officials instructed staff initially that this entrance was, in fact, still open to the public. It’s a small inconvenience, but it speaks to the peril of turning over public space to private interests without strict oversight.
This isn’t the first time Philly has done exactly that. Every year the city leases out Franklin Square in Center City to a private company that runs a ticketed Chinese Lantern Festival (canceled in 2020 by the pandemic). Dilworth Park, across from City Hall, is managed by the Center City District, an economic development agency that ruffled feathers when it leased prime real estate to a Starbucks coffee kiosk –– even though it was already leasing space to another Starbucks-branded cafe in the plaza just yards away.
Of course, the city can make much-needed revenue from leasing out park space, and private interests using public land often promise to leave it in better shape than they find it. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society is paying the city $25,000 to use FDR, according to a city spokesperson, and is providing services like tree pruning and restoration of the park’s historic gazebo as part of the deal.
Still, I find it depressing that the park’s first big dose of love and attention in years is not coming from the city, on behalf of Philadelphians who rely on it, but from a private interest working on behalf of its customers. I am not one of those customers, so on recent visits to the park my view has been of barriers and idling trucks.
I’ve heard the Flower Show’s new home has gotten mixed reviews for less philosophical reasons: Many visitors have complained of long lines and a lack of drinking water, and it’s simply not as pleasant to take in the flowers when it’s 90 degrees and humid or torrentially raining. I’m hoping that is enough to send it packing next year.
In the meantime, I’m thinking about taking jogs in the Convention Center. I hear it might have the room.
Miles Bryan is a reporter and audio producer based in South Philadelphia. Previously he was a reporter for WHYY News.