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Source: Philadelphia City Paper
Date: June 30-July 6, 2005
Byline: Bruce Schimmel

The Stalled Mall

Splintered by security, Independence Mall can't raise the final $5 million.

It's the most beautiful vista offered by Independence Mall — shame that 2 million-plus visitors never see it. But everyone in this crowd is too busy gathering up their purses and wallets, corralling their kids, or (like me) holding up their pants, waiting for their belts to emerge from an X-ray machine.

I am standing inside the former Liberty Bell pavilion. According to the mall's master plan, this panorama of Independence Hall and the new Liberty Bell Center is meant to serve as a backdrop for a new First Amendment Plaza: a 40-by-100-foot, white-marble plaza meant to serve as America's own speaker's corner.

But instead, visitors must pass through a phalanx of rent-a-cops. And as if to drive home the ugly symbolism, the bell and the hall are barely visible through the old pavilion's picture windows, now covered by a scrim of security curtains. Instead of free speech, we have security.

First Amendment Plaza remains unbuilt, says the National Park Service, because it is unable to find the last $5 million to finish landscaping this block. The feds, the commonwealth, the city and foundations like Pew, William Penn and Annenberg raised more than $300 million to build the Constitution Center, the Indepenence Visitor's Center and the new bell pavilion. But now nobody — no government, no foundation, not even a single individual — is coming forward to kick in the final $5 million.

The usual funding sources, insiders say, are tired. And to be sure, it is tough to find funding for landscaping. It's not like a building, where you can put a name on an auditorium. You can't put a set of golden arches over the First Amendment Plaza.

Rebecca Rimel, who heads the Pew Charitable Trusts, which spearheaded the building effort, describes the mall today as "pretty much of a wasteland" — echoing what others whisper. Still, she says Pew is no longer beating the bushes for foundation money. Rimel does suggest — and it's hard to tell if she's kidding — that I should convince City Paper to sponsor fund-raising parties on the mall to raise the remainder. I suggest instead that we could send out interns to rattle cups filled with pencils at tourists.

But with mall security a mess, even collecting quarters would be a challenge. What might you get for your money? A Freedom of Speech pavilion that you could only visit after being screened? A President's House memorializing slavery for which you've got to be frisked? Now there's a living civics lesson.

Rimel declined to comment about security. But anyone can see what security is doing to this block, and why funders might stay away. Still, Park Superintendent Dennis Reidenbach insists that the fund-raising drought isn't related to security. I find his arguments disingenuous.

Drawn up before Sept. 11, 2001, Reidenbach says that the mall master plan has remained unchanged; security hasn't taken away funds from finishing the mall, he says, because security monies are earmarked.

That said, Reidenbach admits that completing the mall master plan "can't happen until we make some decisions that deal with security" — for which the parks service is still waiting for "guidance" from Washington. Reidenbach concedes that Independence Park is the Interior Department's most difficult security issue, which he believes will have to be addressed at the Cabinet level.

Among those waiting on security guidance from Washington, where decision makers are evidently sitting on their hands, is the City of Philadelphia. The feds have pledged $2 million and the commonwealth, $6 million, with grants from foundations and others bringing the total pledges to $11.5 of a needed $16.5 million. The city, so far, has pledged nothing towards the balance.

The city and the park service are currently tussling over several proposed security measures. The biggest issue is Chestnut Street which, in one version of the park's plans would be closed to traffic and pedestrians. In an urban setting, with traffic flowing between the bell and the hall, the great fear is a truck cruising down Chestnut Street loaded with explosives.

The mall's designer, Laurie Olin, whose firm is designing the security for the Washington Monument in D.C., is appalled by the ridiculous federal efforts to protect Independence Hall. He thinks the mall ought to be left open.

Having the liberty to walk freely through Independence Mall, says Olin, "is about the most fundamental principle that the revolution was all about. You should be able to come here on a bus from Atlanta, get here in the middle of the night, and walk up and hug Independence Hall."

But as long as the feds continue to fiddle with security, I think there will be little money to finish any project on the Liberty Bell block — whether it be First Amendment Plaza or the adjacent President's House, where slaves once served our leaders.

As Reidenbach sees it, there are basically only four security choices: You can screen just for the bell, just for the hall, for both the bell and the hall, or nothing at all. He expects a decision from Washington within a few weeks.

And as is the case with many civil liberties, the best choice a government can make is to keep its hands off.


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