As a new attraction opens on our Independence Mall to mixed reviews, some more hateful than others, the Mall's history, and the potential its real estate once had, has found its way under the critics' magnifying glasses.
One can't deny that the Mall separates Center City from Old City anymore than one can deny that Old City's relatively new Renaissance has yet to find a way to attach itself to the city's core. Whether you view the Mall as a mistake or a success, the 50 year old park is not solely responsible for dividing the urban landscape of the city.
The Gallery and a suburbanized Market East, the asphalt prairies and cold windowless government buildings between Chinatown and the Constitution Center, and the Vine Street Expressway all serve to sever the newly bustling streets of Old City from what is conventionally perceived to be Center City. Even if the Mall was a mistake, it was one of a number of mistakes inspired by a mid-century vision of suburbanization. It would be short sighted to blame all of Market East's civic woes and Old City's urban detachment on what was perhaps the most successful - or at least the most aesthetically pleasing - mistake.
Even throughout the Mall's various incarnations, it has been dealt with better than the concrete canyons that separate Center City from the waterfront and the blocks north of Vine Street.
The Mall is there and isn't going anywhere. How it progresses will depend on the surrounding cityscape, not on the patches of grass between 5th and 6th Streets.
Public parks are supplemental. Rittenhouse succeeds due to its proximity to shopping and resources, while apartment buildings fight for a view. The Mall is not Central Park and I don't think it ever should be. We have Washington and Rittenhouse squares to service the needs of our residents.
Independence Mall is our answer to the National Mall. People don't go to DC to visit the Mall. Even if they say they do, they go to visit the museums that line the Mall and the monuments on it.
A lot was torn down to create the Mall and a lot of potential was lost. But we can't move forward by getting people worked up over what could have been 50 years ago. In the last decade Independence Mall has become significantly more popular, with 3M visitors up from just over 600,000 in the 1990s, in large part due to attractions surrounding the mall and an improved cityscape in the neighborhoods surrounding the historic area.
Focusing on further improvements to the vicinity between City Hall and 6th Street, the bridge between our hotels and our tourist attractions, will enable our Mall to become even more popular. We're never going to see Philadelphians sunbathing on Independence Mall and that is fine. But as a tourist destination to supplement the surrounding attractions, it is beginning to thrive, and perhaps with an increased focus on what could be, instead of what could have been, we may see even more fanny packs and cameras dropping their Euros around our quaint Colonial Green.
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