The City of Underdogs (thanks, Eagles), the (sometimes) City of Brotherly Shove, has a new chip on its shoulder: The "improved" LOVE Park, a.k.a. John F. Kennedy Plaza, at 15th Street and JFK Boulevard. The city is daring you to like it.
Some say it's a flat, hostile landscape, a thumb in the eye that promotes a "war on sitting," a social conundrum recently explored by a colleague.
The "war on sitting" wasn't born here. Cities around the world have been tearing out benches to deter drug dealers from setting up shop and the homeless from using them to flop, according to the CityLab website. When benches are not removed, they are fitted with dividers, perhaps to keep people from lying down and sleeping.
By the time the city decided to redo it, the old park was loathed by almost everyone not on a skateboard.
The new LOVE Park has only four benches with backrests. A bunch more are backless, just slat boards with a giant metal staple, apparently designed to prevent people from lying down. If that was the intent, it fails.
Dividers on benches provide personal space, and perhaps even a bit of safety. We skeeve physical contact with strangers. Would you be comfortable in a theater that didn't have armrests?
But while the dividers encourage you to sit, relax, and enjoy the surroundings, they also discourage the homeless from sleeping on the benches.
The homeless population was one of the problems with the old LOVE Park, along with rats (drawn by food left by the lunch crowd), and the skateboarders, who caused thousands of dollars of damage. For a "park," it didn't have much grass.
It still doesn't, but on a recent sunny morning I saw something that made my jaw drop: Two blue ping-pong tables on a walkway, with paddles and balls attached to the tables in a mesh bag. Surprised, too, were Nassim Motya of the Northeast and Angie Sheehan of Queen Village, who picked up paddles and started to volley. (A few days later, the paddles were still there. Who says we can't have nice things?)
Standing at Robert Indiana's iconic LOVE sculpture, Guy Garrett from Ohio told me he likes the park. He had been to Philly before, but not to LOVE Park.
Joanne Verploeg, who lives in Bala Cynwyd, had been. "Far and away, it is a huge improvement," she said. "I remember when it was a homeless encampment with rats and smelled of pee."
Sheehan took a break from ping-pong to tell me she was "a bit surprised by how level it is. I expected it to be more elevated."
The question of expectations brought me into a conversation with Baldev Lamba, who chairs the department of landscape architecture and horticulture at Temple University's Tyler School of Art.
The new park is a big step up, he says, while acknowledging that it "discourages some behavior, like sleeping." People stretched out and sleeping "makes other people reluctant to come into the space."
People have a way of ignoring the highfalutin' designs (by people like him), he says, and using the park in their own way, sometimes good, other times not.
The components of a good park, in Lamba's expert opinion, are: people, comfortable seating, presence of water, shade, food, "and a sense of safety."
LOVE Park lacks some of that, but it holds an ace: The LOVE statue. It is a people magnet. The park will be a success.