One man, two very different tributes. That’s the story of Louis I. Kahn, the iconic Philadelphia architect whose work has earned accolades and devotion around the world. In New York City last month, his Four Freedoms Park—designed in honor of Franklin D. Roosevelt back in 1974—finally opened to the public. The New York Times called it the city’s “new spiritual center.” Inga Saffron raved in the Inquirer that “nearly 40 years after Kahn imagined Four Freedoms Park, it is remarkable that it is still possible to discover new meanings in the design.”
In Philadelphia, just feet from the office where Kahn likely sketched the designs for his FDR park, is one named for the man himself—the Louis I. Kahn Memorial Park at 11th and Pine streets. Unfortunately, it’s been newsworthy lately only for the influx of homeless and drug users who all too often move in at night (and sometimes during the day). Take a walk past its fountain and the garden that embraces it and you might see folks playing chess at a table, or enjoying an al fresco lunch. You’re also likely to catch a whiff of pot, kick over an empty beer can or see someone camped out for an overnight stay.
As the squares throughout Center City have driven away most folks on society’s fringes, Kahn Park has become a last resort destination. It seems no coincidence that just around the corner is one of the more sketchy blocks in the heart of town, along 13th Street between Spruce and Locust. That’s where drug dealers aren’t afraid to peddle their wares in the open, like bootleg t-shirt salesmen outside of Eagles games. The block is anchored by the Parker Hotel, which looks straight out of Hollywood central casting for a crack den. If you can rent rooms by the hour and the receptionist sits behind glass, it ain’t anywhere you’d want to stay. All of this is a few steps from Vetri, one of the city’s finest restaurants, as well as a host of other great foodie spots and bars. There’s also a University of the Arts dorm nearby. Imagine what the parents think when they drop off their kids and see a stoned drug zombie on the corner, doing the heroin sway?
Homelessness and drug addiction are a part of the urban landscape, of course. On its worst day, Center City’s struggles with those ills don’t compare to what other neighborhoods confront on a regular basis. But there are times when Kahn Park and the nearby blocks feel like a decriminalized zone, a milder version what the cops tried on The Wire when they let the dealers take over “Hamsterdam.” Have a late-night beer at Tria on the corner of 12th and Pine, and there’s a good chance you’ll see a hooker on a stroll. Cops occasionally pass in cars or on bikes. Yet I live nearby and have never seen a prostitute—or her pimp, who’s often close behind—in cuffs.
On a positive note, the Friends of Louis I. Kahn Park are working to improve the lighting, so it’s not such a shadowy scene at night. That block of 13th has also been illuminated in hopes of sending any ne’er-do-wells scurrying back into the darkness. But the park and some of its surrounding blocks are in need of more than just some new streetlamps. Washington Square West is thriving, full of character and a fine extension of Antique Row. With more effort, there could be a seamless link between it and the 13th Street corridor anchored by Stephen Starr’s El Vez and the Marcie Turney/Val Safran mini-empire. Cleaning up Kahn Park is an essential step in that process. Especially in a city best known for honoring history, this great architect’s legacy—and his old neighborhood—deserves better.