(Image: Philadelphia City Planning Commission)
After a horrifying weekend of racist violence in Charlottesville, VA, in which white a supremacist demonstrator murdered counter-protestor Heather Heyer and injured dozens more, civil rights activists are more emboldened than ever to remove racist statues and symbols of white supremacy from public spaces in cities.
Philadelphia doesn't have any Confederate statues to tear down--although it does have street it might want to rename--but local advocates and elected officials have homed in on the statue of Mayor Frank Rizzo on the steps of the Municipal Services Building.
Councilmembers Helen Gym and Cindy Bass have come out in support of removing the statue, and Mayor Jim Kenney has said he's open to a conversation about removing it.
The remarkable thing about Frank Rizzo is how uncontested his legacy is: he was loved or hated, with a resume that doesn't leave much room for ambivalence. Despite this, there is a surprising level of disagreement--even among Rizzo detractors--around the prospect of removing the statue.
We'd argue that Rizzo is not representative the type of political leadership that represents the future of Philadelphia, and are principally concerned with the placement of the statue at the gateway of MSB, the hub of city services. The statue sends exactly the wrong message to citizens seeking to interact with their government.
Philadelphians needn't be greeted by a 9' statue of one of the city's most divisive figures when paying their water bills.
In this city, the conversation about Confederate monuments was always going to recenter on Rizzo. The statue undoubtedly demands this kind of interrogation. But a big part of that conversation must be about how our city government can make proactive choices to be more inclusive, more human-centered, and better at serving its citizens.
There is a place for the Rizzo statue--as part of an exhibit about race at the Atwater Kent, for example--but that place isn't at the intersection of the Municipal Services Building and City Hall.
This is ultimately Kenney and the Art Commission's call to make, as Billy Penn explains, and Kenney is in a very tough spot politically on this. His voting base is in South Philly, where a petition to keep the statue gathered over 15,000 signatures, and Rizzo fans are directing all kinds of vitriol and venom at the elected officials who came out in support of removing it.
There's probably no way to change the minds of the hard core Rizzo supporters, but to win over more moderate voters who may be on the fence about this, Kenney needs to pivot to a positive message about what the Municipal Services Building and Thomas Paine Plaza--two of the most frequently used public spaces--should be.
Thomas Paine Plaza is terrible, and it badly needs a design overhaul. It's the worst kind of Le Corbusier-style "towers in a park" planning. Dilworth Park looks amazing after its redesign, and the newly redesigned LOVE Park will soon be complete, and Thomas Paine should be next on deck. The city has stated their intentions to redo the space at some point, and there's a whole section devoted to this in the Central District Plan.
(Thomas Paine Plaza renderings | Images: Philadelphia City Planning Commission)
Pivoting from the narrow question of the Rizzo statue to a broader conversation about how to redesign the whole plaza for the future of Philadelphia gives Kenney some more political cover to move the statue.
It's not just about aeshetics either, but the functionality of MSB and the plaza as well.
With Dilworth redesigned as a less functional place for large public gatherings, and LOVE Park under construction, Thomas Paine Plaza has emerged as the main venue for mass civic events, and we're due for a discussion about how it can better play that role, while also becoming a more pleasant space for people that want to gather on a day-to-day basis.
Any reconsideration of that space should also address the fact that most residents use MSB as their main point of access to City services, and look for opportunities to improve that experience.
Next summer, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society will be turning the plaza into a 2,000 square foot urban garden as a temporary use for a few months, but other than that, there's been little talk or follow-up on the 2035 plan's suggestion for a permanent redesign of the space.
That's understandable, since LOVE Park has been taking up a lot of the city's bandwidth, but Thomas Paine Plaza should be the next big downtown public space project, and the imperative to move the Rizzo statue provides an ideal opening to start that conversation.
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