Any number of horrific, man-made tragedies over the years have taken the lives of innocent Philadelphians and rattled the collective conscience of the city. The Pier 34 failure in 2000. The duck boat collision in 2010. And, of course, the mother of all civic catastrophes, the 1985 MOVE bombing, which left 11 people dead and destroyed an entire West Philadelphia neighborhood — not once, but twice. None are marked by formal memorials.
So why does the Salvation Army thrift store collapse merit one on a high-profile Center City corner when these other sites were allowed to quietly blend back into the city?
I confess that I was skeptical when the idea was proposed in September 2013 just three months after a wall of bricks tumbled onto the store, crushing six people to death and seriously injuring 13. We hardly had time to process the horror at 22nd and Market, never mind understand how the intersection of private greed and public incompetence contributed to the disaster. Back then, we didn’t know that the two men least responsible for the reckless demolition would end up doing jail time, while the white-collar masterminds would simply dust themselves off and return to their normal lives. Sure, it was an awful story, but what would happen if we started consecrating every piece of ground where someone died from negligence?
But now that the June 5 Memorial has taken its place on the land where the thrift store stood, it’s clear that it’s more than just a way to honor the victims of this one incident. The long, skinny park, which extends a full block along 22nd Street from Market to Ludlow, opens its arms to the whole city. In doing so, it becomes a place to contemplate all our losses from a decade-plus of go-go development.
Of course, immense benefits have come from that new construction. All cities need to evolve, and Philadelphia’s building boom has made the city a more vigorous and successful place. But that progress has not been without cost — in lost lives, yes, but also in lost memories, lost buildings, lost homes, lost neighborhood ties.
The Salvation Army collapse exposed serious deficiencies in Philadelphia’s construction oversight. A similarly passive, nothing-can-be-done stance still pervades the city’s culture. Nearly every day across our boom town, we continue to surrender our sidewalks to developers, forcing pedestrians to risk their lives by detouring into the street. We continue to sacrifice property taxes that would help fund our schools and educate the least fortunate, in the hope that developers will find it worthwhile to build houses. We give up cherished views and informal community gardens to make space for the city to grow.
Even though we may accept and enjoy the benefits of these trade-offs, we still feel a prick of loss. The memorial openly confronts this inherent conflict. After describing the specific events that led to the disaster, the words incised in the polished granite shift to the larger, more public theme that helps justify its existence: “The June 5 Memorial Park … challenges the residents and leaders of Philadelphia to remember what happened here and to always value human life above development.”
The memorial, which takes its name from the date of the tragedy, was the brainchild of Nancy Winkler, whose 24-year-old daughter, Anne Bryan, was crushed under the rubble and whose anger extends beyond her personal loss. The design, by artist Barbara Fox and architect Scott Aker, evolved after a lengthy review overseen by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The victims’ families were all involved in the planning, but it was Winkler who used her moral outrage to convince the Salvation Army to donate the site to the city’s park system.
The act of taking this strip of real estate out of the city’s portfolio is a statement in itself. The owner of the collapsed building, the late Richard Basciano, had ordered its demolition because he wanted to assemble a large development parcel that he could sell for a tidy sum. For years he had badgered his next-door neighbor, the Salvation Army, to sell him its one-story thrift store. It resisted, perhaps hoping to drive up the price and cash in on the boom. Now no one can ever develop this high-profile corner.
That larger scope put an extra burden on the designers, who had to make the memorial work at both a public and private scale. Naturally, the task of honoring the six victims had to remain the centerpiece. That tribute, designed by Fox, sits at the north end and consists of three slabs of polished black granite that have been inscribed with the names of the six victims. Above each name is a square window, each in a different color.
The staggered arrangement suggests the beginning of a circle. As you pass from the Market Street corner, into the interior of the memorial, you begin to understand why. The curve of the slabs shelters and protects colored glass dots that are embedded in the pavement and marked by a swirling pattern. The dots, which light up at night, are keyed to the colored windows and mark the exact spot where each victim died. (The visualization was so heartbreaking that the family of Kimberly Finnegan chose not to identify where she died.)
At the top of the central pillar is a seventh window that has been left uncolored. It’s the window that belongs to us all. If you look at the three pillars as a group, you’ll notice that together they form the outline of a Greek pediment with the top point lopped off. You might also think of it as a simple, peaked-roof house, the kind a child might draw. Either way, the slabs symbolize a broken building and a broken system.
Among my initial reservations about the memorial was the shape of the site. I wondered how a strip 25 feet wide and 125 feet long could possibly be used in any meaningful way. But the designers have thoroughly integrated the sliver park into the public realm. This busy intersection is both a transfer point for buses and trolleys, and the place where two Center City neighborhoods come together. Watching passersby on the day after last week’s dedication, I was struck by how often people detoured through the space. Sometimes they stopped to look at the memorial stones. Sometimes they simply enjoyed the extra elbow room the park offered.
Because the memorial is open at both ends, allowing easy access, it feels like an extension of the sidewalk. People waiting for the bus are welcomed and encouraged to sit on a long bench that runs along the eastern wall — a notable act of generosity that is absent from most of today’s construction projects. That seating, designed by Aker, also serves an important compositional purpose. The bench juts out in the main walkway, breaking up the long rectangle, and reducing the bowling-alley effect.
The memorial assumes a different tone at the southern end, where a row of trees promises future shade. Here, the granite of the eastern boundary wall gives way to a perforated bronze screen that allows you to see into the property next door, which Brandywine Realty Trust recently acquired from Basciano. The different treatments shape the space by creating two distinct outdoor rooms, one for public contemplation, one for private mourning. In her dedication remarks, Winkler repeatedly alluded to the memorial’s role as a place to think about how we conduct development in Philadelphia.
Ultimately, even the most shocking tragedies fade into memory. Someday soon, Brandywine will erect a tall building on the property next door, where Basciano once banked on a real estate triumph. It is good to know that this park will be there to offer at least a small refuge from the constant grind of change.