Wednesday evening I made a mad dash to get to the airport 12hrs earlier than I had planned because I had just found out all flights to Philadelphia were being canceled for Thursday. Thus began my long awaited research trip to explore the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and its related archives. Here I sit on Friday afternoon in my hotel room reflecting on what I have seen thus far. Today was supposed to have been my first day in the archive but the continuation of the city’s snow removal efforts from the aforementioned storm has led to the temporary closure of the sites I should have visited today.
All is not lost and I have massaged the schedule for the rest of my stay in an effort to accommodate this hiccup. The possible silver lining to all of this is that I was given much more time to wander the city than I had anticipated when planning this trip. Yesterday, as most of Philadelphia stayed at home and braced themselves against the storm, I setout to explore the parkway that I intended to write about. Although the snowfall would have warranted only a half days inconvenience at home in Ottawa, I have to admit that the cold rain did make it fairly inhospitable to be out and about. The positive side to this of course is that I had the city mostly to myself since most pedestrian and automotive traffic chose to do the sensible thing and stay home.
My first impression of Philadelphia is that it is a city that has gone to great lengths to maintain many of its historic buildings and original layout. Granted my wandering has only really taken me around city center where many of the more obvious tourist destinations reside. For the most part facades at least have been maintained in this part of the city and more modern building standout against this. As you move of the main drag you are confronted with multitudes of red brick row houses and even older attached homes. I may be going down the wrong streets but there does not seem to be a dearth of new condominiums going up in the heart of the city. Most of the condos or apartments I encountered seemed to be from several decades ago, most likely a product of the post war era and ending sometime around the 90s.
This brings me to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Constructed in the years leading into the First World War and envisioned as and extension of Fairmount Park into the heart of the city in the form of a grand boulevard in the Parisian tradition. As it stands now it is impossible to ignore it grandeur but it is easy to question its purpose. The main buildings that populate the boulevard invoke feelings of the greatest European equivalents. In layout however, I am more reminded of the Washington Mall but with more asphalt and less grass. A large swath of the original gridiron design of the city was cleared away to make room for the parkway and a buffer of green space was planned to divide the road from its surroundings. On the other side of this buffer now rise more modern buildings. If you venture a block or two behind these concrete behemoths it is easy to find the streets filled with the older, and in my opinion, nobler brick houses that escaped demolition at the parkways creation.
Is it a park or a throughway? It is tree lined and it is not hard to find green space, or what would be green if not for the season. Much of these spaces exists as islands surrounded by roads. I had heard claims that the parkway was not particularly pedestrian friendly and from what I have seen this may, disappointingly, be the case. If this boulevard is then for cars, what type of traffic venture along it? The existence of a major roadway running through the heart of the parkway would suggest that the parkway has lost utility as throughway. At the same time if this is truly meant as a park space why mire the landscape with yet another impassible road?
As I approached the Philadelphia Museum of Art I was struck by something I was generally unaccustomed to. Not too far in the distance I could hear the constant drone of machinery. To me it did not resemble more common city sounds of traffic and construction. I can only speculate that this noise was the result of some industrial process across the Schuylkill River from where the museum stands. Once I reached the museum I was saved the embarrassment of having to run up the steps and celebrate in the obligatory manor. The steps had not been shovelled and a group of university students had decided to use them as a make shift toboggan hill. As I stood at the top of the steps surveying the scene I was left with the questions I have outlined thus far and I am now contemplating what it means for the research I intend to do. Is it just recently that the parkway has lost its way or will I find the plan was flawed from the start? It seems clear that it was meant as a showcase and not just a throughway but what exactly did the planners intend to show? As the snow is cleared form the streets and the archives of the city are opened to me it is this question above all others that I hope to find the answer to.
I am growing stir crazy again and need to escape my hotel room. I will most likely set out in search of the fabled cheesesteak and try to avoid the Valentine’s Day restaurant crowds.