Should the Building Collapse Site Become a Memorial Park?

The event was devastating, but a memorial isn't the appropriate response.

Before and after? Photograph by Claudia Gavin

A conceptual rendering of the park demonstrates how it might look. Photograph by Claudia Gavin

Let me come right out and say it: I think the memorial park planned for the site of last year’s building collapse at 22nd and Market is misguided. This isn’t a position that will endear me to anyone related to the seven people who lost their lives as a result of the disaster, or to the 13 injured or their families. But I think it’s important to evaluate the decision from a dispassionate point of view. As Ed Bacon might have said, “There’s no crying in planning.”

The truth is, today’s Philadelphians are temporary custodians of a city defined by its longevity. We take care to maintain the city as a historical record — not only of itself, but of the nation since its founding. And when we create something new, we act as the city’s interpreters. Future generations of tourists will flock to sites we deem significant, so we must be judicious.

My primary objection to the memorial park is within this long-lensed context. I can’t help but feel that from a historical point of view — whether in terms of lives lost, destruction of property, or larger sociopolitical implications — the park is a disproportionate response to last year’s devastating event.

Is there a memorial park at the site of the MOVE bombing? Is there a leafy glen where seven died in the Lex Street Massacre? What about memorial parks for the firefighters who perished in the Gulf Oil refinery fire? Or those lost in the Pier 34 collapse?

There’s not even a park to commemorate the Nativist Riots in 1844, during which 15 people died, hundreds were injured and several churches were burnt to the ground. Those riots resulted in profound changes for the city, but all they have is a few sentences on a historical marker.

In some ways, building a memorial park is easier than securing one of those prized markers, because the former is often just a real estate proposition. Which brings me to my next concern.

Central business districts thrive through density. In 2012, Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron wrote that the lack of development on Market Street between 21st and 23rd was keeping “Center City from completing the last, crucial step in its revival: the fusing of downtown with West Philadelphia’s universities.” Prior to the collapse, those blocks were finally exhibiting signs of life, from the addition of the Murano to the opening of Trader Joe’s. In a very literal way, a memorial park could interrupt that momentum. We need dynamism on that corner, not solemnity.

And would we get solemnity anyway? I’m picturing cigarette butts, pigeon crap, and the post-lunch detritus of french-fry crumbles and balled-up foil. Is it even the best way to pay tribute in this case? There are other, more meaningful ways to memorialize such tragedies.

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society presented design concepts with plenty of trees for the park in April. I hope the space will be vital rather than somber. But as long as we’re talking, how about a memorial park near 62nd and Osage? There’s lots of tree cover out that way already.