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Source: Philadelphia City Paper
Date: November 24-December 1, 2005
Byline: Bruce Schimmel

Thanks and No Thanks

How Washington's slaves helped unstall Independence Mall.

What Rebecca Rimel wants, she usually gets. Rimel, the ruling matriarch of the Pew Charitable Trusts, is Philadelphia's most powerful person (so says Philadelphia magazine, who could have read it long ago in City Paper). Recently, though, Rimel received unexpected help in completing Philadelphia's largest and most visible public project.

When I asked Rimel last summer about whether she'd be finishing Independence Park Mall — our most popular tourist stop and our most ludicrous eyesore — her answer was a resounding no [Loose Cannon, "The Stalled Mall," June 30, 2005].

After 10 years and $300 million — which produced a new Constitution Center, the new Visitor's Center and a new home for the Liberty Bell — the Mall needed just $5 million more. But Rimel told me that the wells had run dry and that she'd stopped rattling her cup. It was time for others to step forward.

So a planned First Amendment Plaza, an outdoor cafe, and the President's House would not appear. And, worse, the ugly gray security pavilion (the former home of the Liberty Bell) and the so-called "Great Gravel Pit" that fronts the Constitution Center would not disappear.

The Mall was stalled. And as such, said Rimel, the official gateway to Philadelphia's historic treasures would continue to look (as she put it) "pretty much of a wasteland."

But now, just six months later, a smiling Rimel is standing behind a podium, looking with anticipation toward the Great Pit. Sharing a stage with John Street and Ed Rendell, she recently greeted a phalanx of reporters and well-wishers with the cry, "Say goodbye to the Pit." Independence Mall would soon be finished.

By next Fourth of July, the Great Pit will become a great grassy commons. The grungy security center will also be gone. The Mall, at last, will be open from end to end. By the following July, in 2007, a new First Amendment Plaza will become the nation's first official speakers' corner, and millions of tourists will pass through the resurrected skeleton of the President's House — where George Washington lived, and where the chief executive also kept his slaves. So Who's to Thank for Unstalling the Mall?

From the podium, Rimel tossed out thank-yous like garlands. She acknowledged her own foundation, Pew, the Annenbergs, and the William Penn Foundation. She thanked Street and Rendell. She thanked the architects for their dreams, and the media for their dogging. Just prior to stepping onto the stage, she even thanked me personally for dubbing the big pit, the Pit [Loose Cannon, "The Pit and the Plaza," June 23, 2005].

Rimel also thanked Mary Bomar, the uber-diplomat of the National Park Service. The Mall's security has always been the elephant that couldn't be moved until the feds were satisfied. But just a couple of weeks ago, Bomar finally forced her boss, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, to sign off on a security scheme that wouldn't turn the birthplace of liberty into an icon of incarceration.

And what got Washington, D.C., unstuck, I think, were George Washington's slaves. Historians, advocates, along with plenty of ordinary folk, demanded that all the stories of the President's House, including those of its slaves, be told.

Politicians listened. In September, Congressman Chaka Fattah came up with $3.6 million for the President's House. Added to the $1.5 million already promised by Street, that project now has a half-million dollars more than is needed for completion.

So let's add a couple more names to Rimel's list. First up, Ed Lawler, the independent historian who uncovered the slaves' lives, and who confronted the Park Service for burying their past. Thanks to Michael Coard, the loud-mouthed lawyer who cranked up the volume on the Park Service's puddin'headedness. To Joyce Wilkerson, Street's chief of staff, who helped wrest the beleaguered project from the fumbling feds, and who has put the project on the fast track.

And, posthumously, thanks are due to the nine people who were enslaved in Washington's household. To Hercules, Washington's brilliant and famous chef, who eventually escaped to freedom. To Oney Judge, Martha Washington's personal servant, who also escaped and managed to remain free, despite a president who was determined to hunt her down.

To Washington's three stable hands, who were locked up nightly, and to whose prison millions of visitors will soon bear witness. To the other slaves, whose names and stories we someday might learn.

These untold tales put the President's House project into high gear. In effect, the slaves forced the funders and the politicians and the rest of us to catch up. So let's give thanks this Thursday to the memory of these Americans who were almost lost to history, and whose silent contributions inspired the completion of the nation's grandest monument to liberty.

 

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