Imagined as a grand and verdant boulevard almost a century ago, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway eventually became less Champs-Élysées and more Le Mans. The "pleasure drive" toward the museum and East and West River Drives became a continuous drag race lined by a blur of trees - except, that is, for the weekends, when it shuts down for festivals, parades, races, and charity walks.
The Parkway has witnessed fantastic renewal during the last six years with the Philadelphia Museum of Art's expansion, the Rodin Museum's renovation, the Barnes Foundation's relocation, more trees, bike lanes, the idyllic Sister Cities Park, and a new road design to "complete traffic calming," a phrase I love.
Yet it's still a place of too many cars. For many Philadelphians, even local residents, the Parkway is an edenic swath populated by tourists but largely a place to pass through.
Earlier this year, the Parks and Recreation Department commissioned the PennPraxis report "More Park, Less Way," in which Commissioner Michael DiBerardinis asked, "Now that we've fixed the Parkway, what do want it to be?"
We didn't have to wait long for the answer. Beginning July 17 through Aug. 18, between the Welcome America and Made in America Festivals, Eakins Oval will be transformed into a beach, a blanket, a boardwalk. Cars will be prohibited from the site.
To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, they're going to paint the parking lot, and put up a pop-up park.
"There's been this historic tension, though I think we've turned the corner, where the Parkway isn't seen as being for the citizens," DiBerardinis said. "We really have to popularize the space for the people who live there."
Seventy-thousand people live within 10 minutes of the thoroughfare, and not always happily, especially when there's a monster event. I know residents who dread these moments - July Fourth, a day free of independence - that keep them hostage in their neighborhoods, and crossing the Parkway becomes as treacherous as the Amazon.
The goal is to "animate" Eakins Oval - largely a site for wedding and tourist photos - to be a center of fun, the first of four Parkway places targeted for enhanced recreation. Eventually, the area bordering Park Towne Place on the south side, and the perimeters of Von Colln Field and Mark di Suvero's giant red Iroquois sculpture on the north will also be developed.
The first new play space has been branded "The Oval," dropping the name of Philadelphia's greatest painter, and adopting the slogan "the new shape of fun." Not quite the misstep the science institute made five years ago when it briefly became "The Franklin," like some swank condo, but it's slick packaging for a city playground.
First Deputy Parks and Recreation Commissioner Mark Focht and concessions manager Marc Wilken have big thoughts for the seven-acre patch for the first of three planned years of the temporary summer park.
The park will be home to sandboxes, lifeguard chairs, oversize chess and checker boards, ping pong, Twister, and a chalk area. There will be four food trucks, 30 orange Adirondack chairs, fans blowing mist, lights and globes in the trees, wind chimes and painted buoys. Each day offers themed programming: wellness Tuesday, arts and culture Wednesday, environment Thursday (which somehow includes an evening beer garden), food and flicks Friday, music Saturday, and family fun Sunday. Mondays The Oval will rest.
Almost all events are free, with the exception of food, beer, and a bike safety class that includes a rental. The total price tag for The Oval, blessed by the mayor, is about $180,000. DiBerardinis is close to securing nonprofit funding to support the project.
Staff will be on hand to supervise play, though I worry about patrons crossing Le Mans, especially on Beer Garden Thursday. Still, it's easy to admire the scope yet simplicity of the project, putting a park in the middle of the Parkway and attempting to slow down life and embrace summer fun in the midst of the verdant blur.