Philadelphia’s $18 Million Boondoggle?

The new Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk is opened, and a backlash sets in.

Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk | Photograph by Laura Kicey

Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk | Photograph by Laura Kicey

When I moved to Philadelphia from Kansas six years ago, I noticed a couple of things. First, the distinction between economic classes here was far more apparent on a day-to-day basis than in the rural towns where I’d grown up. It’s true that there are a lot more millionaires here, but it’s also true there’s a lot more modesty back there — flaunting one’s wealth, outside of a somewhat nicer car and a somewhat bigger house, was considered, at the least, bad manners. That’s not really the case here.

The second thing I noticed was this: Rittenhouse Square, the public space placed smack dab in the middle of many of this city’s highest incomes, was still unapologetically a public space. Yeah, there’s a little sign that lets you know, quietly, that Ralph Lauren paid for one of the flower beds, but likely as not you’ll find a gutter punk or a busker or a college student sitting right next to it, getting some sun and relaxation during the better months of the year. That mix, and where it happens, is one of my favorite things about this city.

I mention this, because there appears to be a backlash brewing — somewhat belatedly — against the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk that opened Thursday.

Rebel blogger Joshua Scott Albert was at the ribbon-cutting, and offered the following judgment:

Another friend voiced his incredulity on Facebook. $18 million? We paid $18 million for this boardwalk that only a few people in the city will ever use? Meanwhile, of course, our city’s public schools can’t even afford toilet paper.

Those complaints, admittedly, gave me pause. I love a little class warfare as much as anybody else. Was I missing something?

I don’t think so. The Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk is a nice thing. And Philadelphia deserves to have nice things.

Don’t misunderstand: If the choice was between $18 million for a boardwalk and $18 million for Philly schools, I’d take the latter option every single time, no questions asked. But that wasn’t really the choice here, given the mix of federal, state, and local funding involved. The choice was more this: $18 million boardwalk here, or some other transit- or pedestrian-oriented project somewhere else. The failure to fund schools in this state and city isn’t really a failure of resources: It’s a failure of political will. That wouldn’t change even if we had an extra $18 million lying around.

Also: There aren’t many public spaces in this city that function exclusively as “playgrounds for the rich.” The boardwalk is an extension of the Schuylkill River Trail — which is a great jogging and biking path for Center City yuppies, to be sure, but it also serves as a transit footway for folks between the neighborhood and jobs in West Philly. To the extent I can eyeball the difference between rich and poor, the crowd usually appears to be a mix. That’s even more true of nearby Taney Playground and Fitler Square, where I live: They may exist in nice zip codes, but nobody’s checking I.D. at the door. Everybody’s welcome, and most days everybody can be found playing. I don’t think the Boardwalk will be much different.

This is a weird city: We mix extreme income inequality with a defiantly small-d democratic fighting spirit. That gives me hope. Let’s keep fighting for our schools, and to help the city’s poor find lifelines out of desperation. But let’s not abandon having the occasional nice thing.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.