Every Spring, our beloved carnies travel the country in camper vans, hauling complete amusement parks to grocery store parking lots, and our nation's cities and towns come alive with the smell of cotton candy and funnel cake, brightly lit roller coasters and carnival rides. More rural areas open up county fairgrounds for mud slinging monster truck shows and demolition derbies, rodeos, and greased hog sacking contests (yes, that exists, and yes, I've seen it).
Philadelphia enjoys spring in its own way. The Schuylkill Banks hosts its Schuylkill Soiree, Fairmount Park has its Cherry Blossom Festival, and thanks to popular demand, the Channel 6 Zoo Balloon is back.
But where's my Tilt-a-Whirl? My Mirror Maze? Where are the stuffed animals behind the impossible-to-win Ring Toss?
Perhaps Philadelphia resists the urge to host a cast of transient carnies in front of the Art Museum out of some historic sense of civility. I'm sure you can come across the occasional carnival in the Northeast or the suburbs, but they're small, poorly advertised, and only locally known.
Well, we do have one venue perfectly suited for bright lights and candy apples, a venue begging for attention. Every year as part of Portland's Rose Festival, CityFair is held at Governor Tom McCall Waterfront Park, Portland's much more successful answer to Philadelphia's Penn's Landing. Visitors enjoy local beer, exotic animals, carnival rides, and all the fried fare you would expect.
So where's ours?
Penn's Landing attracts thousands of ice skaters during the city's coldest months, but Festival Pier will be vacant for the rest of April and most of May. Architects have been focused on the ongoing effort to redesign the concrete park and cap the interstate, but despite the fact that even the most hopeful visionaries are looking at a few years of construction that won't begin this summer, plans for the space in the interim seem focused on maintaining the status quo.
Why are Philadelphians always waiting for the next pie in the sky proposal, many which will only be replaced by another proposal the following year? We're in civic second gear, promised a better Gallery or a better Festival Pier, then anxiously wait for a decade only to find ourselves faced with another money pit like the Convention Center.
All carnie jokes aside, the industry is far more than a Simpsons plotline or the traveling caravans of stagecoaches they were a century ago. They're legitimate corporations operated by businessmen and women. More often than not they rent spaces from municipalities or private parking lots because they make money from the events. In some instances they even provide their own security.
While we anxiously await a new Penn's Landing that may or may not come, let's put the space to use. We don't even need to stop short at a weekend carnival. The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation could work out a long term contract with an amusement service to provide rides and carnival games for the entire summer season. And there's a giant, almost always empty parking lot already available. That contract would be too delicious for a reputable carnival service to ignore, it would cost the city nothing, and it would put thousands of visitors - local and tourists - on Penn's Landing every weekend. Most importantly, it would give the waterfront the purpose it needs for a realistic investment in its revitalization.