SAVING THE CITY'S HISTORIC SOUL
IT'S a new day, Philadelphia. With a shiny new administration in City Hall, there's every reason to be hopeful. And yet, Tuesday's ruling by Commonwealth Court Judge Keith B. Quigley allowing the state to abrogate its agreement to preserve the historically significant Philadelphia Life Insurance Co. buildings at Broad and Arch to make room for the expansion of the Convention Center cuts deep into Philadelphia's soul.
IT'S a new day, Philadelphia.
With a shiny new administration in City Hall, there's every reason to be hopeful. And yet, Tuesday's ruling by Commonwealth Court Judge Keith B. Quigley allowing the state to abrogate its agreement to preserve the historically significant Philadelphia Life Insurance Co. buildings at Broad and Arch to make room for the expansion of the Convention Center cuts deep into Philadelphia's soul.
Yes, cities have souls - and Philadelphia, despite our rough-and-tumble veneer- has a sensitive soul within. Our sense of self as a city - as Philadelphians - is defined by intangibles. By the size of our streets and the dirt under our feet. By the crowning heights of our skyscrapers and the tattered edges of our former industrial glory. By the food truck and the sidewalk café.
Cities are ephemeral collectives of the best and worst of man, housing homages to civilization in our great temples of art and culture and barely housing the homeless lying on the sidewalks. Cities are places of contradiction and tension as much as places of change and choice.
The decision to tear down an important collection of historic structures is a choice that's been made and upheld in the courts. The question now is less about who did what to whom as what impact it has on our civic psyche.
We're a large public family, after all. The city is our home, and the streets and buildings and parks and public spaces are the living rooms of our public lives.
What they look like, how they affect the streetscape and how they make us feel are as important as how comfortable the couch is in our den and what wallpaper we pick for our living room. They are quite literally the fabric of our lives.
So we should care about these things. When we tear down a part of our past, we lose a part of ourselves. We need to do this thoughtfully and carefully.
The decision to extend the Convention Center was an economic decision. It's about positioning Philadelphia to compete with cities with larger facilities and selling Philadelphia to bigger crowds.
And one of the ways we sell Philadelphia is through our history and historic buildings. Nearly alone among American cities (and believe me, having just returned from Atlanta, I know), we have the real deal - real city streets with real buildings made of real materials, something you can never recreate in one fell Disney World-swoop of nostalgic city-making.
The cruel irony in the state's decision to demolish the Philadelphia Life buildings to expedite the expansion of the Convention Center is that they are also killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Our historic, lived-in and well-used buildings are precisely what makes us Philadelphia - it's the skin we live in and our face to the world. The ineffable "why" that people love Philadelphia. Exactly what "sells" the city.
The more we tear down the past in the name in the progress, the more we become Houston, Atlanta, Los Angeles and other faceless edge cities that spiral around a decentralized core. So editing and adding to the landscape has to be done with care.
Imagine North and South Broad gone and City Hall whipped off the map, replaced by single-use mega-structures with acres of parking. That's Anywhere, USA - not Philadelphia.
Yes, cities grow and change and evolve just like individuals. And embracing change and accepting the new is healthy and vital to staying relevant as a 21st century city of choice.
But we can't do this indiscriminately, and we can't act without thoughtful dialogue - without seeking to understand the ramifications of our actions. Healthy change is a dance of subtlety and nuance, in which many factors are balanced and decisions are arrived at through thoughtful conversations. Not necessarily through end-runs in the courts.
With a new administration in City Hall, there is hope that the goals of growth, economic development, historic preservation and city planning will work collaboratively to smartly recognize the hidden jewels that make us who we are while unleashing the latent greatness that lies within.
The city's historic buildings nourish our collective soul. Will we suffer death by a thousand cuts? Or will we nurture ourselves through careful stewardship of the irreplaceable past
we've inherited? It's our call. *
Harris Steinberg is the executive director of PennPraxis at Penn.