The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Tuesday, February 04, 2003  

Welcome to the Age of Unseriousness

There may be hope yet for Independence Hall.

A study commissioned by the Philadelphia civic group Coalition to Free Chestnut Street, to be presented today to Mayor John Street (D), says closing of the 500 block of Chestnut St. is “a well-intended but useless move to protect Independence National Park from terrorist attack,” that according to advance word in Ronnie Polaneczky’s column (“Study Backs ‘Free Chestnut’”) in the Philadelphia Daily News. (See also, “Free Chestnut Street” at |||trr|||.)

Polaneczky writes, “Insiders told me the report shows Chestnut could be opened immediately, with no additional threat to the park. Worse, the report says, closing Chestnut actually creates a false sense of security that distracts leaders from seeing a serious need for more sophisticated safety measures to protect the entire historic area from terrorist attack. . . . I hope and pray this report is the final push the mayor needs to open the dangerously blocked artery that Chestnut Street has become. Closing the block is killing a formerly vibrant, walkable[,] and lovely neighborhood.”

I agree.

After dinner one night last week I took a walk, alone, to the section of Philadelphia known as “Old City,” the neighborhood anchored by Independence Hall and Independence Park.

As I approached Old City, walking through Washington Square, it was dark, cloudy, cold but not bitter, and the air was pleasant, damp with mist. The streets were quiet and I encountered only scattered individuals and groups of people as I wandered aimlessly, enjoying the peace and tranquility of this remarkably beautiful and historic district.

Old City looks, sounds, and feels different at night than it does during the bustling daytime hours. It is a special place. And it is an urban place, where the modern coexists with the historic and the manifestations of different eras, despite their sometimes odd juxtaposition, speak with conviction and authority to each other, one era pointing to the vibrant future, the other harkening to the essential past.

Although this was not my first encounter with the Park Service’s post-September 11 “vision” of the historic district, my spirits sank yet again as I approached Independence Hall. My mood quickly slid to one of despair and disgust, for the National Park Service has turned one of America’s greatest urban spaces, this unique celebration and display of democracy, freedom, and progress, into a modern-day urban dump, a disgraceful eyesore, a hideous, even comical, affront to reason.

The only phrase to describe the ugliness of the scene at present is war zone. Ah, you say, but we are in a war, a war against terror that may, even will, some argue, strike us again, anywhere, anytime. We must be prepared for all contingencies. We must not let our guard down again.

Well, as the war continues and, worse yet, stands on the precipice of an unwarranted escalation, I offer you the view from the front lines at Chestnut St., Philadelphia: Rest easy tonight, America, knowing that Independence Hall, particularly its south side, is flanked by metal barriers no taller -- and far less sturdy -- than the typical bicycle rack, barriers that I, or anyone over the age of three for that matter, could easily scale -- actually, simply step over -- in order to pursue an agenda be it benign or nefarious.

Rest easy tonight, America, knowing that these barriers have been installed to protect a national treasure from the likes of those who managed not so long ago the far greater feat of hijacking not one, not two, not three, but four airplanes, simultaneously, and then crashed two of them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon, all within minutes of each other.

Rest easy, America. And welcome to the Age of Unseriousness.

[Post publication addendum (February 5): By the way, Independence National Park and Independence Hall do not belong to the city of Philadelphia. This is not just a local issue. These are national treasures that belong to all of us. Please call Mayor John Street and let him know what you think of the travesty being played out in the “Cradle of Liberty.” Mayor Street’s office can be reached at (215) 686-2181. Or send Mayor Street an e-mail.]

[Post publication addendum (February 5): The Philadelphia Inquirer has the latest on the report commissioned by the Coalition to Free Chestnut Street.]

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