Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Then and Now: Northwest corner of 2nd and Market Streets, Philadelphia


One of the most important consequences of the City Beautiful movement was an enduring affinity among city planners for open spaces, grand axes, and vistas, which lasted well through the 20th century. Aesthetic preferences, however, tend to be poor justifications for massive and costly urban renewal projects within democratic societies. Thus, 20th century planners developed alternative methods of selling their ideas. Just as "insalubrity" became the ostensive target of Parisian renewal schemes, "fire protection" obtained great currency in Philadelphia.

In the 40s and 50s, the protection of national monuments against the risk of fire became a chief justification voiced in favor of the complete clearance of whole city blocks around Independence Hall and nearby sites. In the name of fire protection, the National Park Service demolished around 1960 this row of commercial buildings between Christ Church and Market Street. Fire protection is surely a very legitimate concern when it comes to buildings of historical significance like Christ Church. However, few people today would find it an entirely rational justification for the razing of an active city block.

The northwest corner of 2nd and Market has now been an enclosed pocket park for half a century. The park space itself is rather pleasant, if not somewhat underused, and it certainly does improve the church's visibility from the south. Nonetheless, the cumulative effect of the excessive presence of grassy "firebreaks" around Old City's landmarks seems to present visitors with a misleading vision of a colonial city that does not feel particularly urban.

Further reading: Greiff, Constance M. Independence: The Creation of a National Park. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1987.
Original photo: Cuneo. "Department of Public Property-37331-0." 1959. Philadelphia City Archives. PhillyHistory.org. Philadelphia Department of Records. 15 Mar. 2010. http://www.phillyhistory.org/PhotoArchive/MediaStream.ashx?mediaId=140645.

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