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Earlier this month I visited Franklin Square to check out the holiday lights and festivities. The 8 acre park is one of the original 5 public squares in Philadelphia. William Penn’s vision for a “Clean Country Towne” relied on these public spaces. The parks were to serve as a respite from the burdens of pre-industrialized urban living. I couldn’t remember the last time I had walked in Franklin Square. It’s more of a drive-by attraction–one sees it while merging onto 676, heading into China Town or hopping the Ben Franklin Bridge. Without much immediate supporting real estate, the park receives less pedestrian traffic than its counterparts.
The inviting scent of popcorn and chiming holiday music is persuasion enough to quicken my pace into the park. Thousands of lights strewn about illuminate the surprisingly sizable park with seasonal charm. The gleaming carousel, fountain, and miniature golf course has me wondering why I hadn’t visited sooner. My mind is made up; Franklin Square is a hidden gem. I start thinking a bit deeper about the similarities between Franklin Square and Philadelphia. I began to draw some parallels between the two.
The first parallel is the most obvious; Franklin Square and Philadelphia share an origin story. William Penn wanted to improve on the civic shortcomings of crowded European cities. He designed Philadelphia to be a dry, clean town and public squares were an essential element in his design.
The second parallel is the obligation to balance progress with the common good of the people. During the peak of industrial output in Philadelphia the water from the Delaware River was contaminated to the point that folks could not drink it. This led to the creation of Fairmont Park and and Wissahickon Valley in order to ensure a source of clean drinking water. Franklin Square also faced the challenges of an evolving city. The construction of the Ben Franklin bridge in the 1920s and the construction of 676 in the 1980s left Franklin Square in a pedestrian island. Where there used to be an upscale neighborhood now are busy highways. In fact, considerable effort was needed to save the very existence of the park. The balance between progress and public interest can yield some tough decisions.
The third common experience Philadelphia and Franklin Square share is a recent revitalization. Philadelphia neighborhoods, once blighted by post-industrial recession are bouncing back in tremendous fashion. Neighborhoods like Fishtown, Manayunk, Graduate Hospital and Queen Village are experiencing a resurgence in popularity. Center City gleams with new construction and soaring home values. Due to a confluence of factors including the lack of pedestrian access, Franklin Square deteriorated for years. However, in 2006, a private organization decided to take the initiative to revitalize the park. Since then, the square has become a family friendly attraction, boosted by traffic from Northern Liberties and Independence Mall. The square transforms into a winter wonderland during the holiday season.
The final parallel between Philadelphia and Franklin Square is that they are both sometimes over-looked. Sandwiched between Washington, D.C., and New York City, Philadelphia may appear as a younger-sibling city. After all, Philadelphia is not the political nor financial capital of the world. At the same time, Franklin Square can sometimes be overlooked in lieu of the more popular Rittenhouse, Washington, or Logan Squares. However, these two hidden gems are moving in the right direction thanks to the good will and determination of Philadelphians. The positive trend in the Philadelphia real-estate market reflects the direction the city is moving in.