Dogs of Philadelphia! The park at Second and Market is the place to hang. There’s a huge uninterrupted lawn where we can scratch, sniff, and do our business in a luxurious private setting, with the beautifully crafted, Georgian-style Christ Church as our backdrop. It’s true you must keep your handler on a leash, but you’re unlikely to be bothered by small humans grabbing at your just-groomed tail since we’ve thoroughly mined the grass with stink bombs. Anyway, the lawn’s faux, colonial-style fence and high brick walls keep most of them out. The two-legged types who do manage to find the hidden entrance usually keep to the edges, where they lap from bottles in brown paper bags. So, enjoy! Thanks to the National Park Service, this prime piece of Old City parkland belongs to the four-legged.
You should be aware, however, that forces are now conspiring to take our land from us. The Old City District, the business improvement group for the neighborhood, has hired a bunch of consultants to study ways to make our territory — which the Park Service calls Wilson Park — easier for humans to enter and use. Because the park is at the epicenter of Old City, near restaurants and shops, and next to the Market-Frankford train entrance, they think it should function more like a town square, rather than a cloistered club for canines.
These consultants — Jonas Maciunas’ JVM Studio, Ground Reconsidered landscape architects, and Think.Urban anthropologists — are holding meetings and will be sending out survey-takers out on Wednesday, Aug. 8, between 2 and 7 p.m., to talk to people at the weekly farmers market in front of Christ Church. There have been whispers about removing the fence around Wilson Park, which would utterly destroy our privacy. They want an entrance at Second and Market, so any two-legged person who happens to wander by can find his way in. They’re also demanding chairs and benches for the lawn, too. Our lawn! Next thing you know, they’ll try to confine us to an enclosure, or get rid of us entirely.
Fortunately, the Park Service people who run Independence National Historic Park are completely on our side. They’re preparing to get the fence and lawn listed on the National Historic Register. That would mean that Wilson Park, which was designed in 1951 by Charles E. Peterson and opened in 1963, could never, ever be changed. Like us dogs, they think it’s fine just the way it is: weedy, run-down, inaccessible, with generous patches of dirt just right for digging. Our interests align.
The park service, which controls 55 acres in Old City, has always been good at discouraging two-legged folk from using its archipelago of green spaces. Although some of these parks are very pretty and provide a quiet refuge from the noisy city, none offers anything that humans might recognize as an amenity, other than the occasional bench and tree. Most have enclosures that get locked at night. And since the Park Service is perennially underfunded, the parks have become scruffy places.
As Doris Fanelli, who has been running the Division of Cultural Resources Management since 1973 — three years before the Bicentennial — told Inquirer reporter Inga Saffron, the park is meant to be passive. Despite being fenced in, often by brick walls, “we think these parks are very welcoming and accessible,” she says. Maciunas, who has conducted extensive user surveys at Wilson Park, disagrees: “It’s become the Dog Park at Christ Church.”
Major Green Spaces at Independence National Historic Park
You might not know how our beloved lawn at Wilson Park came to be. In the ’50s and ’60s, Philadelphia went on a massive urban renewal spree, demolishing whole blocks of 19th- and 20th-century buildings in Old City to create a national park celebrating America’s founding. Only 18th-century buildings were spared. The parks were laid out to serve as forecourts for colonial monuments like Carpenters Hall and the Second Bank. This created lots of open space for us.
It’s true that the original vision for the national park called for leveling only a block or two near Independence Hall to protect that hallowed building from fire. But the urban renewalists kept going. Independence Mall expanded from one block to three. The buildings in front of Christ Church, Old St. Joseph’s and St. George’s United Methodist were all leveled for small parks that gave passersby picturesque views of the structures. (Dogs, be sure to check out Old St. Joseph’s park. Absolutely no humans ever step inside the fence, and there is a big abandoned vegetable bed that is just right for excavation.)
Because the parks were really about the views, the landscaping was minimal, basically just a plot of green ringed with a colonial-style fence and outfitted with brick paths. Such blank expanses of lawn were very popular in the 1950s, when America was falling in love with low-density suburbs. People were convinced they were realizing William Penn’s vision of a “greene country town” and creating a more authentic version of Colonial Williamsburg.
In fact, this collection of freestanding colonial buildings surrounded by lawn was always a big fiction. By the mid-1700s, colonial Philadelphia had become a dense jumble of townhouses, warehouses, small factories, shops, bars, and churches. Today, a typical tourist would never that know that Independence Park was once the bustling heart of Philadelphia’s original downtown.
One reason the national park was able to gobble up so much real estate is that Old City had pretty much emptied out by the ’50s, when planning for Independence Park began. As recently as 1980, only 854 people were living there (and very few dogs). But that has changed, which is why the humans are now gunning for control of Wilson Park.
So many old warehouses have been converted to apartments that the human population now stands at 5,224. Over a thousand new apartments are under construction, according to Job Itzkowitz, head of Old City District. Initially, Old City was seen as a nightlife district. But after conducting a planning study in 2016, the district realized Old City had evolved into a living, breathing residential neighborhood again. Yet, because it had been abandoned for so long, “there’s no playground, no rec center, and very little green space,” Itzkowitz said.
The humans think that Wilson Park has the potential to become the Fitler Square or Cianfrani Park of Old City, a neighborhood park where kids play after school, and residents gather for Christmas tree lightings and movie nights. It’s almost identical in size to those two examples. Old City District would raise the money to upgrade the landscape design and maintain the grounds.
The dogs don’t like that, and neither does the Park Service. Even though the design of Wilson Park is just 55 years old, and a colonial pastiche, Fanelli argues that it is historic because it reflects the ideas that led to Independence Park’s creation. “We would consider it an adverse effect if it were modified,” she said.
In other words, she wants the park to remain a monument to the misguided ideas of urban renewal.
This is what an architecture critic would say: Cities have clawed their way back since the ’60s, partly by transforming their precious public spaces into outdoor living rooms where residents can socialize and enjoy themselves. Wilson Park is a legacy of a time when parks were intended as static stage sets for architectural monuments.
Even Christ Church’s pastor, the Rev. Timothy Safford, is keen on seeing a redesign to serve the neighborhood. But right now, he says, the Park Service is so devoted to maintaining the purity of the current landscape that it forbids the church’s farmers market from straying onto its sidewalk.
So, here’s an idea that might help the Park Service get used to a changing city: Do a trial run. Scatter some colorful tables and chairs that will be visible to people on Market Street. Let them bring a snack or beer from the farmers market into the park. To help them find the entrance, hang a big sign pointing to the gates.
If the Park Service thinks these changes are too radical, include a picture of Benjamin Franklin, who was a member of Christ Church. If he were around, he would surely be telling them that parks are by the people, for the people.