Independence Park plans draw public scrutiny

Park Service faces demonstrations, petitions, meetings, lobbying

April 27, 2003|By Stephan Salisbury | Stephan Salisbury,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA -- A funny thing happened to Independence Park this past year -- people decided they cared about it.

They cared enough to demonstrate in the streets, draw up petitions, write politicians and attend lengthy meetings -- whether about reopening Chestnut Street or acknowledging George Washington as a slaveholder.

The message to the National Park Service in all cases has been simple: Let us in and listen.

Apparently, that has not been an easy task for officials at Independence National Historical Park. Faced with a surging interest in park affairs, they have sometimes seemed more comfortable hunkering down than inviting company in.

But the public appears unwilling to stop banging on the door, and now many around town and at the Park Service itself are pondering what the park needs to do to turn controversy into opportunity.

`Important meaning'

"To me, the controversy over the Liberty Bell and even Chestnut Street is testimony to the fact that these places have an important meaning to people," said David Hollenberg, associate regional director at the Park Service. "People would not be passionate if they didn't care about what it means."

Many historians and civic and cultural leaders say yes, the symbols around Independence Mall have tremendous power. But the events of the last year, they say, show that people are not engaged by these symbols in the traditional fashion.

Meanings have changed.

The Liberty Bell, long portrayed by the Park Service as an unblemished icon of American unity and freedom, has emerged as a symbol of a society deeply flawed by slavery, servitude and racism.

Independence Mall, conceived as an open landscape scrubbed clean and devoted to celebrating the deeds of the Founding Fathers, has taken on the quality of a dreamscape haunted by bulldozers, barricades and the spirits of enslaved Africans.

Those Africans once lived on every single park block and in the home of the most venerated Founding Father of them all, George Washington -- a fact that many nowadays find both sobering and important.

In fact, the 18th-century Philadelphians who have now captured the public imagination are not the great men -- but the forgotten men and women. And that means that Independence Park is taking on a new breadth of symbolic meaning, not only as the birthplace of the American government but as the birthplace of American society in all its diversity and contradiction.

"There is no question about that," said Randall Miller, professor of history at St. Joseph's University. "It is the most unique piece of real estate in America. In the broad sense, it is not just the birthplace but the heartbeat of the America that has evolved."

Response so far

So far, the park has responded to this emerging identity by designating the area north of the new Liberty Bell pavilion for memorialization of the first presidential residence and those who lived there -- in particular, Washington's enslaved Africans.

But serious reservations about this plan are being voiced. Some are concerned that the site could become a segregated black "ghetto" -- the only spot where the park acknowledges the African presence.

"Symbolically, that's the last thing you want," Miller said. "This is an opportunity, but it could easily be mishandled so that that section becomes known as the `black spot.' That's a danger."

In the black community, there is a growing belief that park officials failed to consult the broader citizenry before presenting a design concept -- produced by firms led by whites -- for a slavery commemoration.

A new group, Generations Unlimited, has formed to press the Park Service to start all over with the design process and to bring in African-American design and interpretive firms.

Mary Bomar, new superintendent at the park, has said she will talk with representatives of the group but will "not commit" to beginning all over.

Harry Harrison, head of the African American Museum, a block off the mall, says telling the story of the birth of African America, Irish America, German America, laboring America -- the whole of America -- requires the Park Service and area cultural institutions to work together.

Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, founded in 1794, for instance, is a few blocks from the mall, on Richard Allen Avenue. The church just opened its renovated basement museum and is launching a $20 million funding drive for a new endowed museum building.

Hidden ties

The ties between the park and the church are hidden in the landscape everywhere. Richard Allen, founder of the church, was a founder of the Free African Society. James Dexter, a former slave whose North Fifth Street homesite was recently excavated by the National Constitution Center, was also a founder of the society.

"Mother Bethel and the Constitution Center are gateways to the historic district," said the Rev. Jeffrey M. Leath, pastor of Mother Bethel. "While the Park Service has acknowledged Mother Bethel, we haven't been included in the functioning of the park."

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