Before I arrived in Philadelphia from Germany a few weeks ago, I did not know much about the city. As I've gotten settled, I've been so fascinated by the fact that there is history at every turn. Signs telling about the "first this" and the "oldest that" are everywhere. It is easy to breathe in the spirit of the past. Although, the city is not very old, compared with European standards, it has an immense importance as the cradle of liberty.
As I've explored, here's what I've learned: The historic landmarks of Independence National Historical Park are worth a visit: Independence Hall is impressive, Carpenters Hall and the First and Second Banks of the United States make for an engaging and educational stroll. The former house of Benjamin Franklin and the President's House are well-maintained. Washington Square is lovely, as is the park behind Independence Hall. There are little pathways, some made of cobblestone, with monuments alongside, and a lot of green connecting the historic sights and a lot of Georgian-style architecture. It is intricate and well-planned.
All of this makes it even harder to understand what you see when you stand with your back to Independence Hall: a disturbingly empty space in the very center of the city, right next to the most important sights that Philly has to offer. It feels as if something is missing. Like Pennsylvania Avenue without the White House or Liberty Island without its statue. I wondered: Had something recently been torn down here? Is this emptiness a temporarily situation?
Nothing against free areas. They can be great gathering places. I visited Independence Mall during the solar eclipse and the mall fulfilled a purpose. I saw pictures of the crowded space when the pope visited Philadelphia in 2015. But neither the pope nor an eclipse is a frequenter of Philly.
Independence Mall does not look like a park. It does not even look like a nice lawn. It is a wild meadow, and seems like someone forgot to take care of it. Weeds dominate the grass, with brown and gray holes throughout the area.
Maybe if there would be more trees here, maybe not just on one side of the Mall, but on both, like an avenue. Perhaps there should be more bushes and flower beds. Add benches along the pathways so people can spread around the space and fill the strange emptiness. People on Independence Mall could stop for a break or maybe even a picnic.
A cultivated lawn would be an easy thing to begin with. Then this important place in the center of Philadelphia would become so much more than it is right now.
Here is what a few more "out-of-towners" think of the park:
We asked tourists to share their thoughts on the visitor experience.
New York City
"I think it's really clean compared to New York. Signage could be bigger. Or maybe even people outside telling you where to go [and about] different tour things going on. Honestly, there's nowhere to get in. Everywhere you go they'll have a small sign that's like, 'Oh, you can only enter in one spot,' which is kind of annoying."
Roberta: "I like the buildings, the architecture. And the story, the symbols, the Liberty Bell."
Andrea: "It would be better to have less traffic. A lot of historical centers close off traffic to have more free movement."
Riya Sharma: "[I like that] it's really open. You can walk, there are open streets. Compared to New York, which is super-crowded, this is more chill and laid-back. It's nice. [I'd add] more flowers. You guys barely have any. You guys mostly have trees. Other than that, it's pretty nice."
"It's OK. It's small. It's nothing special. A lot of benches. It's not overcrowded, not a lot of noise. [If I could add anything, it would be] table tennis. Some kind of tiny free-time activity, something to do here. Maybe flowers. … It would look better with some color."
"[The park is] beautiful and everyone we've spoken to who's associated with the Park Service has given us excellent information. Very friendly and polite. I didn't know what to expect from people in Philadelphia, but I'm so impressed with how friendly the city is. It's a very walkable city.
Interviews and photos by Genevieve Glatsky.