The Chinese Lantern Festival at Franklin Square Is All Kinds of Wrong

It's expensive, unimpressive, and an unethical use of public space.

Photo via Historic Philadelphia

Photo via Historic Philadelphia

If you’re thinking of heading out to Franklin Square tonight for the debut of the much-ballyhooed Chinese Lantern Festival, I’ve got one word for you: Don’t. It’s expensive, unimpressive, and an unethical use of our open, public space.

Thursday night was the VIP preview party for the festival, and I was invited to bring a guest to check it out. (I was also allowed to bring my two children, ages 8 and 10, once I asked.) Before a switch was flipped to illuminate a series of colorful Chinese lantern inflatables, local important types like Ed Rendell, Meryl Levitz, and John Dougherty said a few words. And it was during this period that a man and woman from the neighborhood decided to shout their feelings toward the dais:

“Shame on you, shame on you,” they yelled. “This is our park. You should not close it at night! We live here.”

After a few minutes, they quieted down and walked away, and I followed after them to learn more about their grievances:

To sum it up, they believe that it’s wrong to have a restricted, private event in a park, a park that is owned by us, a park that people don’t normally have to pay money to enter. And I couldn’t agree with them more.

Normally an open space that people are free to walk into and out of with ease, Franklin Square is now surrounded by an ugly construction fence lined with black tarp material. It looks prohibitive and uninviting, something a truly public park should never be. And during the festival, which continues through June 12th, you have to pay admission after 6 p.m. It’s $17 for adults, $12 for children over the age of 2, and free for kids 2 and under. Before 6 p.m., you can access the park for free, though you cannot enter it as freely as you normally can, due to the fencing.

And that’s just wrong. A city park is a public park. It is an open space. And charging a family of four $58 to enter it — or charging them any amount, really — is an unethical use of such a space. How many Philadelphia residents have a spare $58 sitting around to allow them to walk into a public park?

But the folks behind Franklin Square don’t see it that way.

“Before Historic Philadelphia renovated Franklin Square in 2006, it was a homeless crack park,” offers Cari Bender, spokesperson for Historic Philadelphia, the organization that manages the park. “The day cares that brought the kids there had to clean the needles out before they let the kids play. If people can’t get in for a few weeks, I think that’s OK.”

(Historic Philadelphia is a nonprofit organization, but the festival is being produced by a for-profit company. The finances are complicated, as this Inquirer article illustrates.)

Bender further defends the restrictions by pointing out that the park is not normally “open” after 7 p.m. at this time of year. All city parks, including Rittenhouse Square, have a closing time, but this is generally a technicality. You can walk around Rittenhouse Square after it’s “closing” time of 1 a.m., and we’re pretty sure that you’re not going to get arrested if you decide to take a stroll through Franklin Square after 7 p.m. once the fences come down.

“The way I see it, we’re actually increasing access to the park,” insists Bender. “Not restricting it.”

Sure, increasing access for people who pay the admission fee. But not for everyone else. Not for the young woman who was walking by with her young daughter on Thursday night and wanted to have a look around. She was denied access, and the girl was understandably upset.

Beyond the restrictiveness, the lack of access, and the private use of public space, there’s also this: The Chinese Lantern Festival just isn’t impressive. Oh, there are some pretty inflatables. And there are also lots of tacky ones. But is it worth $58 (and that’s before you add in the price of milkshakes and burgers at the food stand and craft beers in the beer garden) for a night out for a family of four? Absolutely not.

Last December, my family visited the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., which had a much more impressive and dynamic outdoor light show than this one. And guess what? It was, like many things in D.C., entirely free.

As for the Chinese Lantern Festival at Franklin Square, I wasn’t the only one unimpressed. After a quick walk around, my entire family was ready to get the heck out. “That was lame,” said my daughter. “A ripoff,” said my son.

Follow @VictorFiorillo on Twitter.