Remember That Time John Street Confused Count von Count on Dilworth Plaza?
No one’s sure how William Penn and Thomas Holme came up with the plan for Philadelphia. Philadelphia: A 300-Year History surmises inspiration from garrison towns in Ireland and the rebuilding of London after the 1666 fire.
Holme laid the city out with four squares inbetween the rivers, with Centre Square intended to be the central meeting place for Penn’s fledgling Philadelphia. A Quaker meetinghouse was built on Center Square in 1685.
Four hundred and fifteen years later, I was standing on Center Square—now the location of Philadelphia’s City Hall and Dilworth Plaza—with a few hundred other Philadelphians, listening to the Count from Sesame Street get ready to count down the lighting of the city’s Christmas tree. If William Penn’s vision hadn’t been achieved before, it was that night.
My memory of that night includes a float of mascots—everyone from the Phillie Phanatic to the United Way’s creepy logo-with-eyes—so it might not be 100 percent accurate. Some characters from Sesame Place were on hand for the tree-lighting festivities, and the Count naturally had the honor of the final countdown.
Mayor Street was there, too, and had to hand off to the Count. He was on script; the characters’ voices had been recorded, since (spoiler alert!) the people in the suits obviously weren’t the voice actors of the Muppets. I have to gather Street was supposed to say, “Are you ready to count?”
Instead, what we heard in the crowd was: “Do you like to count, Count?”
The reply came from the Count: “Yes I am, Mayor Street!”
We erupted, along with the people around us. I remember doing a lot of laughing in Dilworth Plaza that night. It was just the same tree lighting the city does every year. It wasn’t the first or last time strangers gathered in Philadelphia to laugh. It’s a weird memory, but it’s something I think of almost every time I walk through the plaza.
The current configuration of Dilworth Plaza is soon to be a memory. The redesign will replace the muti-level concrete plaza with a large lawn next to a fountain, a design more in tune with modern sensibilities. (Don’t worry, concrete plaza lovers! You’ll still have all of Penn Center to, um, stand around in awkwardly and smoke, which is all I ever see anyone doing there.)
The new Dilworth Plaza looks like it should be fantastic. The fountain will double as an ice rink, an open-air farmers’ market and a plaza for concert seating. There’s a café. A grass lawn is a bit more inviting place to sit than the concrete jungle it currently is. There should be more people. The entrance to public transit looks great in the rendering.
There’s no “but” here. Count me completely behind the Dilworth Plaza renovation. But there is something about the current design—a somewhat uninviting 112,178 square feet of impermeable paving—that makes it interesting. At all hours of the day kids skateboard on the plaza, even though the city long ago installed metal brackets on benches and ledges (not to mention fines) to discourage it. The city relented a little, at least; In 2001, Dilworth Plaza hosted a street skateboard competition in the X Games, with local skating legend Kerry Getz winning one for the hometown crowd.
The final memories of Dilworth Plaza, of course, will be the Occupy Philly protesters, evicted early this morning after a decline in numbers, cleverly outflanked by a mayor and city that once seemed kind of welcoming. The Occupy protesters have a little bit in common with the skateboarders. Sure, the protesters sat outside City Hall because that’s where the government is. But the plaza was also always empty, an inviting space for outsiders who want to change the system. Camping out (along with the homeless already sleeping there) makes perfect sense.
I don’t think it matters if you dislike both skateboarders and the Occupy protesters. (I don’t even know how to skateboard!) The unexpected use of public spaces is a thing that makes city living interesting. Dilworth Plaza has served us in unexpected ways.
The fences are about to go up. The renovation will begin soon. Good. But I’ll miss the old Dilworth Plaza. It’s the same reason I got up at 5 a.m. to head down to South Philly to see the implosion of the Vet. It may not have meant anything to you, but it did to some. Things happened there. Without the space, memories will dim even faster. Change is inevitable and change is good, but that doesn’t mean you can’t accept it begrudgingly.
I mean, the weird fountain that looks like Officer Big Mac on the south side? What the hell is that? Now I’m never going to figure it out!