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In the News Index

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: June 6, 2004
Byline: Chris Satullo


LOVE Park remains a test case of Philadelphia's will to thrive

"A pimple on an elephant's hide."

With that elegant phrase, Philadelphia's managing director dismissed the issue of whether to restore skateboarding in LOVE Park. Thus, Philip Goldsmith rejected an offer from DC Shoes Inc. to give the city $1 million over 10 years to maintain LOVE. In return, the city would allow street skaters to regain their mecca for a limited time every day, minimizing the annoyance their rebellious, riveting sport would cause. This smart compromise was crafted by skaters working with a group called Young Involved Philadelphia.

But no, serious adults such as Mayor Street and Goldsmith can't be bothered with such trifles. They're too burdened by the demands of running a major, dying city. As they struggle to balance a city budget larded with favors to the politically connected, they must spend their energy to poring over spreadsheets looking for recreation centers to close. Who has time to bother about the one recreation spot in the city that has become an international youth icon?

As you may know, the editorial page I lead has crusaded to restore skateboarding to LOVE Park, a.k.a. JFK Plaza, the awkward little square with the Robert Indiana sculpture near City Hall. This has convinced many serious sorts that the Editorial Board has lost its mind:

What is it with you guys and these obnoxious skaters? They're scruffy, rude, chip the concrete and annoy the lunchers. Why not worry about something important?

This is important. LOVE Park is a test case of whether this city can do the things that cities must do to thrive. Smart cities don't spit on serendipity. They open themselves to spirit, creativity, happy accident, and innovation — with all the messiness they entail. They don't just tuck in the coverlet and try to keep things peaceful while they die.

The mayor and his top aides are talented people who do their best as they see it. But they just don't get it. They don't get how cities save themselves. It's enough to make you cry.

Don't listen to me. Listen to people who know infinitely more than I about what makes cities work, people such as Jane Jacobs, Edmund Bacon, Robert Venturi and Richard Florida.

Jacobs is one of the greatest living thinkers about how cities thrive, and how they fail. To her, healthy cities are organic, messy, various and spontaneous. They hum with the energy of ordinary people making decisions at street level about how to exploit the density and diversity that cities offer. To impose order and neatness on a city from on high, she argues, is to kill it.

It's ironic, I admit, to enlist Edmund Bacon, the famous urban planner who designed LOVE Park, in the same cause as Jacobs. She has warred against the type of grand planning of which Bacon is an exemplar. Wasn't it amazing, though, to see Bacon in his wheelchair at LOVE Park last Tuesday, there to salute the DC Shoes offer? Bless his unsinkable curmudgeon's heart, Ed Bacon celebrates how skaters' discovery of LOVE breathed life into his design.

Venturi is as great an architect as any person alive, and a Philadelphian. A passing remark he made once unlocked for me what makes Center City such a vibrant place. William Penn's street grid, Venturi said, bequeathed something priceless to the City of Brotherly Love. It provided all the sharp-edged order any city needed. Inside the grid, a glorious riot of uses, styles and shapes can flourish.

So at LOVE, where the stately angle of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway meets the central square, a variety of pursuits — skating, lunching, playing chess, taking snapshots — can coexist. You don't have to outlaw rambunctiousness; with a touch of collaborative thought, you figure out how to include it without chasing away the rest.

That's exactly what Young Involved Philadelphia did — and rounded up cash to make the idea work. A smart city would kiss these people's feet. Goldsmith scolded them for holding a press conference without his permission, told them to get lost.

Such hostility would make Richard Florida groan. The Carnegie-Mellon professor wrote one of this decade's most influential books, The Rise of the Creative Class. Updating Jacobs for the high-tech era, Florida says that cities' economic health hinges on their skill at attracting young, creative people (people just like the members of YIP). Such citizens, he says, are not lured primarily by jobs or weather; they pick cities for the liveliness of their culture, their diversity and tolerance. Cities should invest in the amenities that appeal to this class. Think skateboarding, that is, before baseball stadiums.

So here sits Philly, a city the creative class tends to shun. Then serendipity smiles. Gumby-like skateboarders doing what they do — videotaping their flips, spins and swerves to be savored by other skaters around the world — turn an unlovely spot at the city's heart into a legend, a sacred space and holy name to a slice of youth culture. In Austin, in Phoenix, heck, in New Zealand, kids dream of going to Philadelphia, just to skate LOVE. (Can you say: Tourist dollars?)

Do we rejoice at this stroke of luck, nourish and expand on it? No, we criminalize it; we propose to exile skaters out of sight to a "skate park" down by the Schuylkill — a park, by the way, they'll have to pay for themselves. (City Hall is clueless that the "street" skating of LOVE is as different from "vert ramp" skating as downhill skiing is from cross-country.)

We choose imposed order over rambunctious energy. We choose the habits of the old over the innovations of the young.

As a city, we choose death.

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