Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Beaux's Arts come and gone, and come again...

By Ariel
The following is an unabridged version of an article that is scheduled to appear in Context Magazine, the AIA Philadelphia's journal of record.

While Philadelphians await the arrival of the Barnes Museum, they have been eagerly attending the Academy of Natural Sciences Urban Sustainability Forums. Though they have been mourning the loss of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s (PMA) free Sundays, they have also embraced its new Perelman Building and its more than 150,000 square feet of exhibition space that display costumes, textiles, prints, drawings, and photographs collection and are waiting for the expanded new underground galleries designed by Frank Gehry. As advocates push for a skate board park along the Schuylkill River Park and Philadelphians continuing to flock to the annual Welcome America festival it is worth reconsidering the role of the Parkway in Philadelphia’s life. And as Philadelphians its worth asking if this ever evolving public works project is worth the money we continually pour into it generation after generation. Will the vision of the Parkway as a grand boulevard first imagined in the mid 19th century and itself conceived as a work of art ever be complete?

The first proposal to create a parkway was floated in 1858, when what was wanted was a connector between the center of the city and the soon to be created Fairmount Park. The idea, however, did not gain momentum until the 1890’s and the beginning of the City Beautiful movement. Inspired by the sense of grandeur, order and civilization they saw in the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, civic boosters across the United States advocated large scale transformation of their cities that included the creation of boulevards, the erection of grand libraries, and the making of impressive civic spaces.

The City Beautiful movement was founded on aesthetics but filled with moral and capitalist ideas. Industrial and corporate leaders claimed that beauty was an investment in middle class values and culture, and that it also was good for business. Finally in 1907 construction began on the Parkway, designed by Jacques Greber and Paul Cret, and was capped in 1924, by the instillation of the still popular Swann Fountain. The making of the Parkway required the destruction of an entire industrial neighborhood, its factories, and homes replaced by museums, parks, and boulevards. But mourning the loss of that old urban fabric only gets you so far, after all Philadelphia is no longer the workshop of the world. However one of Philadelphia’s biggest businesses is tourism and the Parkway, whose institutions draw upwards of 3 million visitors a year and contribute more than $385 million dollar a year to the city economy. And it is still the heart of thriving neighborhoods, Logan Square, Spring Garden, and Fairmount. The last census counted 6,922 living in the row houses to the south and north of the Parkway, interspersed among the apartments and condos that flank it; and that was before the neighborhood experienced significant growth starting in 2003.

Yet users of the Parkway are in conflict. On an average day the Parkway sees nearly 5,000 average cars per lane, and Eakins Oval in front of the Art Museum sees almost twice that. At 21st street, one has to walk over 250 feet to cross from one side of the Parkway to another. However, making the area more walkable is not
simply a matter of changing road width, it’s a matter of making the area more interesting to walk through. Andy Toy of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association thinks that the area “need[s] more density” and that with “more people moving into our neighborhood” retail opportunities, activities and foot traffic will grow.

Since its inception, the Parkway has been the focus numerous studies, projects, and interventions, many aimed to bring more pedestrians to in an attempt to make it look more like the famous Champs Elysees, its Parisian model. This “dream” of the parkway as some sort of arena for the display and inculcation of culture lives on. This Parkway ideal, with people strolling up and down its sidewalks, visiting the museums and other institutions, is limited by the design of the Parkway itself and by Philadelphians’ habits relating to where and how often they choose to expose themselves to the arts.

Since the mid 1990’s planners have been trying to tame the Parkway, conquer its notorious traffic volumes and make it easier to walk along. In 1999 the CCD produced a plan that would have consolidated traffic lanes and create a raised plaza between Eakins Oval and the Art Museum. Though that plan never saw fruition, other work spear headed by the CCD has transformed the Parkway. The CCD built the new Cret Café on 16th Street and is planning a “discovery garden,” community center and café in front of the Cathedral. For over nine years, the CCD has also managed the Phlash, a short shuttle loop bringing tourists to institutions’ front doors. Its recent expansion to the Please Touch Museum in Fairmount and Franklin Square has extended its reach bringing Philadelphians and tourists all the way from Old City directly to the Parkway and beyond.

In 2004 new crosswalks were placed along the Parkway’s diagonal, making it easier to reach the restored Swann Fountain in Logan Square, and two years ago the CCD installed significant informational signage and just last summer, a consortium of foundations and non-profits such as the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society joined the state and the city in announcing $19 million to enhance lighting and green space along the Parkway.

Getting people into the museums themselves and “exposing them to culture” takes much more than simply building new buildings or galleries or sidewalks leading to them. It means making the art itself far more accessible to modern audiences. This July’s suspension of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s “pay what you will” Sundays (due to fiscal constraints), is an unfortunate step in the wrong direction, but initiatives at a variety of institutions might pick up the slack. The Moore College of Art has seen as 264% increase in gallery visits in the past two years (it doesn’t hurt that they are free) with such innovative exhibits as Bicycle: people +
ideas in motion on display now. Additionally, the Fairmount Park Art Association will be debuting the Museum Without Walls, a project that the FPAA’s executive Director Penny Bach describes as making “Information about the sculptures along the Parkway… accessible by cell phone, and the stories behind the sculptures will be told by people with direct connections to the sculptures.” Such a project is critical for helping people have a better understanding of the over 35 statues already lining the Parkway, without the need of a sheltering museum.

However as Dr. Happy Fernandez, former city councilwoman and current president of the Moore College of Art notes, to truly connect Philadelphians to the art along the parkway “you need to build the audience,” and that requires significant outreach to schools and community groups, not only by the institutions themselves but through arts education in our schools. It does not necessarily matter how many works of art are now more readily accessible if there is not a market and appreciation for the art in Philadelphia in this and the next generation.

Bach notes that the FPAA was founded in 1872 by people who were spurred by the thought that “art could be an antidote [for] industrialization.” The Parkway, built by people who felt similarly and who thought that architecture and grand urban vistas could do the like, remains a grand turn of the century monument to the City Beautiful movement. Built to express a specific sense of grandeur, it easily turned into an auto-dominated concourse that injects people straight from the Northwest straight into Center City. However, it is also the site for huge public gatherings, from Live8 to the 4th of July celebrations. The Parkway is built for capacity, be it for museums or festivals, and its actually something uniquely suited for the 21st century and the new over-riding imperative of “economic development.” In the 19th Century cities were racing to create grand, sweeping vistas; in the 21st century they are racing to capture tourist dollars.

But is it worth it, and will it ever be “finished? Yes and no, respectively. Judi Rogers, the Executive Director of the Parkway Council Foundation argues that “The Parkway is the iconic vista that many people think of when they think of Philadelphia.” Having the Rocky steps and Swann fountain indelibly imprinted on both Philadelphians and our visitors’ minds is no small thing: such symbols have civic and economic value for our collective imagination and wallets.

This is not to say that this continuation of a 19th century ideal is not problematic. Some of the Parkways most visible visitors, its homeless, are an affront to our idealized notion of what the Parkway should be and a threat to its marketability. However they are also a reminder that the Parkway not only belongs to all Philadelphians, but that our efforts to improve the lives of all Philadelphians extends beyond simple landscaping.

The problems that bedevil the Parkway are likely to stay, and our attempts to correct or mitigate them are as much part of the character of the Parkway as the flags that line it are.

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