Philly Becomes the Land of the Logos

Increasingly, our public spaces are getting corporate branding. Is that simply the price of having nice things?

This space for rent?

This space for rent? Or every space for rent?

When I first moved to Philadelphia six years ago, one of its chief faults (in my view) appeared to be this: It wasn’t New York.

After living and working and starting to raise a kid here, though, I’ve come to a different opinion. One of the best things about Philadelphia? It’s not New York.

There are a lot of things I mean by that, but for our purposes today I mean this: If you’re awake and outside in Manhattan, it’s quite likely that all of your senses are being assaulted by advertising and corporate branding: Neon this, billboard that, handbills over there, posters over here. It’s big, it’s loud, it’s never-ending and sometimes you just need a break.

Yes, there is plenty of advertising in Philadelphia, but — like the city itself — it’s not quite so crammed in on top of itself. There are empty spaces on the sides of buildings! There is, occasionally, room to breathe! This is, on the whole, a pretty good thing.

But maybe that’s starting to change a little bit.

No, there’s not an influx of billboards and giant “Coca-Cola” neon signs headed our way. But three developments indicate our public lives in Philadelphia are going to be a bit more commercialized.

• On Thursday morning, SEPTA officials will announce a “change” to Market East Station — from all accounts available, the station will be named “Jefferson Station” for nearby Thomas Jefferson University, a privilege bought with a few million dollars that the transit agency will no doubt put to good use.

• At almost the exact same moment on Thursday, Mayor Nutter will cut the ribbon on the new Dilworth Park on the west side of City Hall. It’s going to be a beautiful space, jam-packed with lots of programming meant to draw families, daytime office workers, and tourists, and almost all of those activities will come with corporate sponsorship: The opening itself is sponsored by Comcast, American Express will sponsor the next day’s “Picnic in the Park,” and just about every evening after will have some event featuring a recognizable corporate sponsor.

• Beyond that, in hopefully the not-too-distant future, Philly will open a bike share program that, like New York’s, seems destined to carry the name of a big-time sponsor.

Now: On the one hand, I’m actually grateful. More money for SEPTA is a good thing. A vibrant and active Dilworth Park is a good thing. A vibrant bike share program, I’m convinced, will also be quite a good thing for Philadelphia. If corporate sponsorship is the price of having nice things in town, well, there are worse prices to be paid. (And hey, I work in media: It’s possible I’ve never earned a dollar in my adult life that wasn’t supported by advertising somehow.)

On the other hand, I’m not so certain that it’s a wonderful thing when we go down the road of branding all our public spaces and common goods with the names of our largest corporations.

Every brand is an ad, every ad an invitation to buy something, every item bought a contribution to a corporation’s ad budget to start the process again. It’s the circle of Free Market life, but there are limits to its usefulness.

Dilworth Park, for example, will be the front porch to City Hall — a building that belongs to all of the people of Philadelphia. If the entrance to the city’s leading democratic institution can mainly be approached by crossing a moat of corporate trademarks and subtle, tasteful ad placements, well, what does that tell us?

We need places in our public life, I think, whose very names are not sales pitches.

When Dilworth Park opens on Thursday, I will be there. My family will enjoy all the activities the new park has to offer this weekend. I’m happy to give my thanks to each and every corporate sponsor who has helped make our city a nicer place.

But after that, maybe, we’ll seek out out some sweet, logo-less place to rest our minds and souls. For now, at least, such places still exist.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.