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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: March 28, 2003
Byline: Stephan Salisbury

New park chief no stranger to strife

Mary Bomar, who helped build an Okla. City memorial, takes on the Independence Park imbroglio and Chestnut reopening.

The last year has not been kind to Independence National Historical Park.

Merchants have shouted: Free Chestnut Street!

Visitors have bristled at heavy security.

City dwellers have thrown up their hands at the hostile welter of construction equipment and barricades and fences and bike racks that seem to proliferate in piles all over Independence Mall.

Scholars have snorted that the park is giving history short shrift. Angry citizens have even taken to the streets over what the park plans to say - or not say - about the Liberty Bell and slavery and George Washington's living arrangements.

Is this the cradle of liberty or a breeding ground for hornets?

Mary Bomar, superintendent of the park for less than two months, brushes the waspishness aside. Born a Brit, a U.S. citizen for 24 years, a Park Service vet, and grandmother of seven, she is, you might say, difficult to ruffle.

She sought out this new job after serving as the first head of the Oklahoma City National Memorial. She also headed Oklahoma's Washita Battlefield National Historic Site.

"I wouldn't go to a place if I didn't think I'd be successful for myself and for the community," Bomar said the other day as she sat in her new office on the second floor of the landmark Merchants' Exchange Building at Third and Walnut Streets.

"And so I came in here, and there are lots of challenges. People from the Park Service said, 'God, Mary, there are places in the Park Service that are a lot easier to manage... .'

"But there is no better place I'd rather be than right here."

Bomar - who spent three years working with survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing and other members of that shaken community to get the memorial there up and running - will certainly be tested in Philadelphia.

Shortly after her arrival, Mayor Street did an about-face and decided to reopen Chestnut Street, closed between Fifth and Sixth Streets in front of Independence Hall since shortly after 9/11.

Local merchants are overjoyed and plan a big reopening celebration on Tuesday.

Bomar is not overjoyed, although she seeks to put the best face on the situation. At the same time, she is reluctant to concede defeat for the Park Service on the Chestnut Street front, at least publicly.

"The mayor owns the street," Bomar said. "We've had a great relationship with the mayor at the National Park Service. We've had constant communication. [City Managing Director] Phil Goldsmith has been great to work with. We're trying to pursue an agreement that will work for both entities. And we'll continue to do that."

City officials say the issue of Chestnut Street is closed, so to speak.

"The mayor expects Chestnut Street to open," said mayoral spokeswoman Barbara Grant. "That's his decision. We are moving forward."

That said, the city continues to discuss overall security issues with the Park Service.

"Those are the concerns that everyone shares," Grant said.

Bomar said she is sensitive to complaints about the impact of security measures on the look and feel of Independence Mall. A design team is looking at ways to improve the situation.

But improving the aesthetics does not mean ending tight control. Screening, barricades, limited access - all are part of the park's future.

"We've had no incidents, tourism is rebounding, and people that come here say they are comfortable with security," said Bomar. "Since 9/11, we implemented the screening process and that has ensured that Americans can come here and have a memorable visit, just like their grandparents did."

But $17 million of landscaping is still looking for funding, as is a $4.5 million commemoration of Washington's slaves and of the President's House, where Washington and successor John Adams lived.

Lack of money for completion of those projects could mean a future of dirt and gravel on the mall, and demonstrators, upset over the lack of a slavery commemoration, on the streets.

Where is the money going to come from?

"Private funds," Bomar said. "Public and private partnerships are absolutely the way we should be going."

That is true for raising money, for construction projects, even for programming.

"My strength is working with people," she said. "Working with partners, the community. I listen and learn before I make decisions."

In the case of the slavery and President's House commemorations, park officials had no plans for either. But scholarly criticism and angry voices from within the black community prompted a change of course.

Now, involvement of the broad community in formulating park policies, exhibits and programs must become the norm, say some in the cultural world.

Bomar does not disagree.

"I will bring people in to the table," she said. "We must include our partners in our decisions. We have to make sure... to do it at the beginning, at the birth of a project - not wait until after plans are in place. I want to do that at the birth of a project, to bring everybody in. And sometimes that's a difficult job.

"But if you try to be very open with what you do and build a trust with the community, I think you'll always come to the best decisions and you'll make decisions on good information."

 

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