Center City District: We Didn’t Know Protest Was Scheduled for Dilworth

Despite more than a thousand people RSVPing to the Philly Is Baltimore protest at City Hall, the fountains were left on yesterday for about an hour.

Occupy Philly moved in to the old Dilworth Plaza on October 6th, 2011. The concrete plaza was quickly taken over by the activists, who made thousands of signs.

The city was about to embark on a massive, $50 million renovation of the plaza, turning it in to Dilworth Park. Mayor Michael Nutter originally had a truce with the protesters and campers, allowing them to stay until construction started. But when they voted not to move, the mayor struck a different tone. The protesters were eventually evicted from the site.

Construction began. Though the design was discussed at a multitude of forums, when the park opened it felt like a reaction to Occupy Philly: The benches were curved, so you couldn’t lay on them. A fountain took up a large chunk of the park. It seemed like a park that was designed to stifle protest. There’s even a “free speech zone” just outside the park on the north end of City Hall.

Yesterday, we got a taste of it, when the Center City District kept the fountains on during the Philly Is Baltimore protest. They were only turned off about an hour in. The normal schedule for the fountains is 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays and 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekends. The Center City District, which has a 30-year lease on the property, says it did not realize the protest was going to be at Dilworth Park.

“Public reports suggested that 15th and Market Street was to be the staging point for a march through Center City,” CCD spokesperson Linda Harris said. “No request or suggestion was made to the City or the CCD that a rally was to be held in Dilworth Park.”

But it’s not as if the protest was a surprise. It was extensively reported on in the media, with more than 1,700 RSVPing on a Facebook page. Though the largely peaceful protest ended up being smaller than that, thousands of people said they were coming to Dilworth Park. Yet the fountains were left on.

Certainly the rest of Center City reacted. Banks closed. Offices emptied. Some were using it as an excuse to cut out of work early, while others were being too cautious. Previous City Hall protests, like the one at the Christmas tree lighting ceremony in December, had been peaceful.

Republic Bank

Republic Bank on the 1800 block of Market Street closed early yesterday.

The Facebook page for the event for the event also listed City Hall as the meeting point, as did our own coverage. And a “Zumba Party” scheduled for the park was postponed.

This isn’t a huge deal. Perhaps due to the smaller-than-expected crowd, the fountains did not end up being an issue preventing people from gathering. A few people got wet. The crowd had to cramp in to the northwest end of the plaza instead of spreading out more. The fountains didn’t even really drown out the speakers — the news helicopters did. And, eventually, the fountains were turned off. By around 5:30 — an hour after the rally began — the fountains at the northern end were turned off, after shooting in small spurts initially.

“Once the group gathered in the park and speeches commenced, neither the CCD nor the Civil Affairs division of the Police Department received any requests for any special accommodation, such as turning off the fountain,” Harris said in an email. “When the CCD saw numerous questions raised about the fountain on Twitter, we conferred with the City Administration and with Civil Affairs and decided to turn off the part of the fountain that appeared to be interfering with the group gathered in the park. When the group left, the fountain resumed its normal scheduled operation.”

Okay, fine. But this is a park where, if you pay enough, you can plan to put a giant cigarette up to promote your smoking cessation drug. (It was postponed until 2015.) It’s fine that Dilworth Park hosts corporate events like that. But it is on the apron of the seat of Philadelphia’s government. People are going to protest there. The free speech zone at the northern end isn’t enough. Dilworth Park shouldn’t just be the playground of those with money to put up a giant cigarette. It is a public space. And next time there’s a rally there — for any cause — Center City District should be aware of it and turn the fountains off in advance.