Off the Cuff: July 2007

Finally, the attempt of Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell to hold up the Barnes Foundation’s move to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway is behind us, so I’m beginning to feel somewhat optimistic that we can finally fulfill the original promise of this grand boulevard. The Parkway was conceived a hundred years ago by Paul Cret and Jacques Gréber, two French designers, to mirror the Champs-Élysées in Paris, but it was only half completed when the Great Depression in the ’30s and then World War II, a decade later, derailed construction. The original plan called for the one-mile stretch between the then newly developed Fairmount Park and City Hall to be lined with closely spaced, classically inspired institutions, requiring the demolition of 1,300 properties; the Parkway was going to be teeming with great arts and history-laden destinations that crowds would flock to. Instead, we got baseball fields. And a Youth Study Center, that long, ugly ’50s-era holding tank for wayward youth, built at 20th Street with its rear, where an encampment of deranged homeless spend their nights, facing the Parkway. Thankfully, it will be torn down to make room for the Barnes.

And now, with much of Center City in better shape, we’re poised to take on another big piece of downtown. The Parkway isn’t just important to the city; it will stand as the artistic and cultural center of the region.

There is one major caveat, of course: With its wide-open spaces and 12 lanes to cross at your own peril, the Parkway needs major work before it becomes an attractive destination for walking. In fact, no one walks the Parkway. Why would you? It looks like a place you might go for a jog — or run for your life.

That’s why the Barnes replacing the Youth Study Center is so significant, both literally and symbolically. A quirky repository of great 19th- and early-20th-century art, the Barnes will be a great draw for visitors. But the new museum must become part of a master plan. As Paul Levy, president of the Center City District, points out, “We need to think about the Parkway as a whole — what type of place we want it to become.”

Levy sees it as a “cultural campus,” a truly walkable boulevard of great institutions like the Franklin Institute and the Rodin Museum and the Art Museum and the Free Library and the Barnes, with a mix of cafés and shops and other venues right along the street. Then we really would walk the Parkway like a boulevard, moving easily from art to dinner to shopping and so forth. Which means we have to do something that’s typically been awfully tricky for us, in Philadelphia: come up with a coherent plan. The Barnes needs to be built close to the Parkway; the Family Court building next to the library needs to have a use apropos of a grand square, such as a grand hotel, like the Crillon in Paris. We need to push the state to cover the Vine Street Expressway near Logan Square. Parking needs to be added. We need, in other words, to think of the whole Parkway as one place, one grand invitation to come to Philadelphia.

This sounds like a terrific, and appropriate, opportunity for our next mayor. It would be just one of the myriad challenges that will face Michael Nutter, of course, but it seems to me that making the Parkway a cultural boulevard for the region — one that could draw millions of visitors a year from all over — is exactly in keeping with Mr. Nutter’s promise: that he really is the visionary to take Philadelphia forward.