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The History of LOVE Park

On the drawing board in 1682, the area that was to become known as LOVE Park, stood at the center of William Penn's City of Brotherly Love. His vision would soon attract settlers from around the world drawn by Penn's notions of tolerance, design, and community.

Slightly over 300 years later that same space, now known as LOVE Park, drew skateboarders from around the world attracted by tolerance, design, and community. Many of those who came remained, attracted by a city open to a new type of settler.

Yet in 2002, the wheels of government would silence the wheels of the skateboarders.

In 1932 Edmund Bacon, Philadelphia's future city planner designed "A Civic Center for Philadelphia" as his architecture thesis at Cornell. One of the features of the plan was a park at the southeastern terminus of the city's great boulevard, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Bacon could not have anticipated skateboarding when he designed LOVE Park, yet his space became one of the world's most famous skating spots, and came to represent Philadelphia's image, worldwide. That is, until Philadelphia's Mayor John Street banned skateboarding in 2002. This essay describes the history of LOVE Park, dating back to its roots in the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and even further back to William Penn's original vision for his city.

William Penn

William Penn designed Philadelphia in 1682 with a plan drawn by his surveyor Thomas Holme. The plan connected two rivers with a major street, crossed by another. Where the two streets met he designated a plaza for public buildings. In 1891, over 200 years after Penn specified its intended use, Philadelphia finished its City Hall on exactly this site.

City Hall

City Hall, designed mainly by John McArthur, is a massive, ornate, Second Empire building, with a tower, that is still the tallest masonry-supported structure in the country. On top is a statue of William Penn, sculpted by Alexander Milne Calder, keeping watch over his town. Over the ensuing years there would be several attempts to tear down City Hall, including the most recent in the 1950s. People believed that it ruined the image of Penn's open Center Square, others thought it was ugly and could not properly be maintained. Fortunately none of these efforts succeeded.

The Parkway

Penn created a grid system, based around his Center Square and four other squares as neighborhood centers. By the end of the 19th century, prominent Philadelphians began circulating the notion that the city needed a great boulevard, like the Champs-Elysees in Paris. Other American cities created orthogonal boulevards, but it was decided that Philadelphia's should run diagonally, providing a relief from the gridiron system, connecting City Hall with lush Fairmount Park. This move came at a time when sanitation was a major issue, and parks outside city centers were considered valuable amenities for their fresh breezes.

After much lobbying, the city adopted the boulevard idea and added it to the city plan on April 9, 1906. The next year the city commissioned prominent architects Paul Cret, Horace Trumbauer and Charles C. Zantzinger to create the first real plan of the Parkway.

The idea was to create an appropriately impressive climax on the northern end (the other side from City Hall). In the 1890s P.A.B. Widener, the wealthy Philadelphian art collector, made an unsuccessful attempt to convince the city to build a new public art gallery. In 1903 he tried again, suggesting the Gallery as the terminus of the new Parkway.

Mayor John E. Reyburn (1907-1911) agreed with Widener that the Fairmount Hill at the northern terminus of the Parkway was the proper place for the art gallery. Once completed in 1926, the Philadelphia Museum of Art artfully anchored one end of the Parkway.

In 1917 the city engaged Jacques Greber, the famous French Beaux-Arts designer to plan and landscape the Parkway. He created a magnificent design, now a wonderful example of the City Beautiful Movement. In 1919 Greber's plan was approved by a city-appointed Art Jury. Over the next 15 years a number of civic and cultural buildings were designed to line the Parkway, including the Free Library, the School Administration Building, the Rodin Museum and the Franklin Institute.

A Controversial Intersection

Paul Cret said of the Greber Plan: "[Greber] had to deal with conditions that will interfere with any adequate treatment at that point [where the Parkway meets City Hall], that is, the location of City Hall on a too restricted plot, conditions that have created a difficulty in handling the traffic in the center of the city that seems almost without remedy."

Cret was merely the first of many who observed the traffic problem at this intersection. Edmund Bacon also recognized it, and saw that one of the benefits of the park in his Cornell thesis was to redirect traffic and break up the existing five-way intersection.

Bacon's Thesis

Bacon was part of the reform movement in the 1940s, which succeeded in overthrowing the corrupt Republican regime, when Democrat Mayor Joseph Clark was elected in 1952. The reform also drafted a new Home Rule Charter and created a new, more powerful Planning Commission. Bacon became Director of the Planning Commission in 1949 and Mayor Richardson Dilworth succeeded Clark in 1956.

Part of Bacon's college thesis plan removed City Hall and built new municipal buildings around an open Center Square. By this time Bacon recognized that this idea was not very good, but he believed the park at the Parkway's southeastern terminus would be a great asset. Bacon discovered that in Jacques Greber's original plan he drew a votive column on the same spot as Bacon's park.

Bacon took his plan to Mayor Dilworth. Dilworth showed it to his Commissioner of Streets and asked his opinion. The Commissioner replied, "Mayor, if you build that, all traffic in Center City will come to a complete standstill." Dilworth said, "Good. I'll build it."

Completing Penn Center

The new park, which would become known officially as JFK Plaza, was one of the final pieces of the Penn Center development of the 1950s. In 1952 the Pennsylvania Railroad announced that its infamous "Chinese Wall" was coming down. The "Chinese Wall" was a massive, stone structure that supported the railroad tracks and ran right through Philadelphia's downtown, blighting the entire area. The Railroad decided to submerge its tracks, and allow the area above to be developed.

The city commissioned Italian-trained architect Michael Rapuano to supervise the development of both sides of the Parkway: Eakins Oval and JFK Plaza. Architect Vincent Kling was commissioned to design Bacon's JFK Plaza. He created a space with a cascade of curving granite steps. In 1962, just before Eakins Oval and JFK Plaza were built, the city invited an elderly Jacques Greber to come to Philadelphia to review the new development plans. Greber said that they were very good, indeed. He died soon thereafter.

JFK Plaza was finished by 1965 and dedicated in 1967 to the nation's 35th president. There was a competition to decide what piece of art should be placed in the center of the plaza. The winner was a large fountain with a single burst of water, mirroring the fountains halfway down the Parkway in Logan Square and at the other end on Eakins Oval. This fountain was installed by the Fairmount Park Commission in 1969. The city placed Robert Indiana's famous Love sculpture on the southeastern end of the park, giving the space its nickname: LOVE Park.

Under Mayor James Tate in the late 1960s, LOVE Park was a joyous space that saw kids from different neighborhoods coming to the park happily hopping under double-Dutch jumpropes. During Tate's administration, the city began construction on a round building on LOVE Park, used as a visitor's center.

Skateboarders Discover LOVE Park

In the mid-1980's a group of young people discovered Vincent Kling's curving steps and ledges to be perfect for skateboarding. It was the combination of the different levels and curves, continuous granite surfaces, and the large space for sessions that attracted skaters. Gradually LOVE Park's reputation spread around the skateboard community as skateboarders from all over the city and surrounding suburb flocked to LOVE Park. Its close proximity to all major subway and regional rail lines made LOVE so easily accessible to all. It is at the heart of a dense urban metropolis with a stunning view down the Parkway where onlookers would gather yearly by the hundreds to watch Philadelphia's 4th of July fireworks. All of these factors led LOVE Park to become an icon for the city's youth community.

In the early 1990's, with the rising appeal of urban street skating, some of the world's most talented, professional skateboarders decided to make LOVE Park their training grounds. The space quickly became known internationally as one of the finest natural skate parks in the world. Tourists came from all over to see and skate the famous skate spot. There is even a popular skateboard video game featuring LOVE Park. In 2000/2001, LOVE Park's vast fame was the major factor that brought ESPN's X-Games tournament to Philadelphia twice. This is the first time in X-Games history they stayed for two consecutive years in one city. The X-Games brought millions of dollars in tourism and was watched by 150 million households worldwide. Its events and publicity all focused around Philadelphia's skateboard scene, LOVE Park in particular.

On any given day, business people could be seen sitting around the great fountain, eating lunch, and being entertained by the skateboarders. Children played in the fountain, as their parents sometimes followed them in. Parents from all over the region applauded LOVE Park as a place where their children could socialize, exercise, and interact safely with each other and their peers. The skateboarders defined the space and brought a continuous presence that made neighbors feel safe.

The Skateboarding Ban

In April of 2002, Mayor John Street enforced a ban on skateboarding in LOVE Park and closed the space for renovations. It opened again several months and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, with grass and planters attempting to block all skateboarding. The Mayor claimed it was to make the space more accessible to the public.

Mayor Street then appointed a permanent, 24-hour police presence on the park, with a fine of $300 for skateboarding. This was the most recent of a series of attempts to ban skateboarding in the previous decade. In the past, teenagers complained of being assaulted by undercover police and having their skateboards confiscated or thrown in the fountain and sewer system.

After Mayor Street's decision, the skateboarding community and the local press launched a vivacious campaign to save the park for skateboarders during the X-Games, but to no avail. The X-Games, which some think may have moved to Philadelphia permanently, decided to pack its bags and move on. Several prominent skateboarders — some with six-figure incomes — who had made Philadelphia their home decided to roll out of the city.

LOVE Park with its LOVE statue was an icon that symbolized positivity, creativity, and progressive skateboarding around the world. Where has the LOVE gone?

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