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Taking it sitting down: Outcry over Rittenhouse rule

Julia Terruso, Staff Writer

Updated: Saturday, January 14, 2017, 1:07 AM

Left panel: Mayor Jim Kenney. Right panel: Robin Truitt (left), 19, sits with Dori Markovitz, 18, on the three-foot-high concrete wall lining Rittenhouse Square Park next to a sign banning sitting on the wall on Thursday, Jan. 12.

Update, 8:30 p.m. Jan. 14: On Saturday evening, Mayor Kenney joined the fray, taking to his personal Twitter account to tell the public to sit where they want — but not to “smoke weed so obviously that you scare olds my age.”

The near-endorsement of marijuana smoking in the park was a much blunter statement than he had tweeted from the mayoral account Friday, when he asked the public to use the park “respectfully and lawfully.”

“Regarding Rittenhouse Square, I’m frustrated too. This government is very large and at times things just get by you,” Kenney tweeted around 8 p.m. Saturday. “Sit where you want,” he wrote, adding a peace-sign emoji.

Regarding Rittenhouse Square, I'm frustrated too. This government is very large and at times things just get by you. Sit where you want. ✌️

In a second tweet, the mayor said: “Along with my liberal view of park use, please don’t litter, or graffiti the walls or smoke weed so obviously that you scare olds my age.”

Along with my liberal view of park use, please don't litter, or graffiti the walls or smoke weed so obviously that you scare olds my age. ?

Original story: Sitting on the walls in Rittenhouse Square may be against the rules but those who perch in protest won't face jail time or fines.

That's good news for organizers of a sit-in planned for next week.

A representative from the city and another from the Police Department said Friday there are no fines or penalties for sitting on the walls.

Philadelphia has no ordinance forbidding such activity, so think of it like a "please keep off grass," sign.

The city also pushed back on the characterization that the no-sitting signs - installed alongside "no smoking," signs - had anything to do with pot usage.

"This had nothing to do with marijuana," city spokeswoman Ajeenah Amir said.

Residents in the area have said otherwise, calling widespread marijuana use, predominantly by people sitting on the walls, a problem in the park.

The city has said wall-sitting is banned to protect the structural integrity of the walls, which went through a $1 million renovation last year.

The Friends of Rittenhouse Square neighborhood group told a different story in a statement to the website BillyPenn.com on Thursday.

"Due to continuous vandalism and marijuana smoking, City Officials, Parks and Recreation, City Police, and the Friends determined it was in the Park's best interest to no longer allow people to sit on the balustrade," a spokeswoman from the group said.

And at a meeting four months ago, neighbors packed a church complaining about loitering, homeless people, and pot smoking. The walls were specifically cited as attracting large groups who engaged in drug use.

Friends of Rittenhouse Square did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

Police at that meeting said they would crack down on marijuana usage but on Friday said the city's relaxed marijuana rules are the same citywide: Get caught in possession and face a $25 fine.

"It's just like anywhere else in the city," said police spokesman Jeff Chrusch. "There's no standing order to target the Square."

Chris Goldstein, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the park is a cherished haven for cannabis users.

"Millions of joints have been smoked on those walls in an area long considered a sanctuary for cannabis consumers and medical marijuana patients. I hope the Friends [of Rittenhouse Square] can recognize this special affection our community has for the space," he said.

Goldstein suggested a portion of the square be "officially declared as Philadelphia's first cannabis safety zone."

Meanwhile, people are taking the new rule sitting down.

A "toke" back the wall "toke-in" is slated for Jan. 20 at 4 p.m.

A "Sittenhouse" lunchtime Sit-On is planned for Tuesday at noon. A Facebook event page was up to 200 attendees Friday afternoon.

Chris Bartlett, a South Philadelphia resident who manages the William Way Community Center but spoke on behalf of himself, noted William Penn created the square as part of his "green countrie towne" vision.

"These parks are for all the people, not just the local neighbors. If Friends of Rittenhouse Square were truly interested in protecting the balustrades, they wouldn't drill screws to affix them. It's clear what this is really about: privatizing the park," he said.

Mina Smith-Segal, 74, a retired teacher who has lived in Center City 54 years, lives four blocks from the park and goes there to paint. She said she thinks young people are being unfairly targeted.

"I usually paint watercolors and I paint people sitting on that wall. I've painted them break-dancing, I've painted them with the goat. And they add something," she said. What's a picture of the park without people?

Julia Terruso, Staff Writer

Read full story: Taking it sitting down: Outcry over Rittenhouse rule

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