Too Late for the Streetscape
24 February 2008 |
When it was opened in 1906, the library at 6th and Lehigh — a neo-Classical temple of white marble — was, according to the Free Library’s website, the largest library in Pennsylvania. Neighborhood children mobbed the place immediately; they still do today. The Lillian Marrero Branch, named for the Puerto Rican immigrant whose vision made this a gem of the Free Library system, is a cacophonous bi-lingual forum with banks of computers and a generous space for little children and their parents. Joseph Shemtov, a tri-lingual branch librarian, says it’s always busy but very expensive to maintain.
Peter Siskind and I visited the branch one warm and rainy Friday this past January. Peter’s idea is to visit every branch — just to see the city from a new perspective, I suppose, but also to understand the role these old-school institutions play in the contemporary city. For me the pleasure in tagging along is the travel itself — by bus, foot, and subway that Friday — as way of learning how the parts of the vast city connect.
So we left the convenience of the 54 bus at Lillian Marrero and hoofed it to the Kensington Branch at Norris Square. But first, we stood at the top of the staircase of the neo-Classical temple and looked out across the seven lanes of Lehigh Avenue. As civil and appealing as the library is, the view — of the corner Dunkin’ Donuts surrounded on the three sides by ample macadam, a few lonely row houses, a suburban bunker that’s either a family compound or a transitional house for the mentally-ill, empty lots, and the landscaped parking lot of a low-density subsidized housing project — is defensive, grim, and anti-urban. It’s a disaster in city planning that reduces the power of the library — and leaves it the odd man out.
7th District Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez told me a couple of weeks ago that she’d like to see Lehigh and Allegheny Avenues become gateways to Kensington and Harrowgate. But for that to happen in a meaningful way, fifty years of inappropriate architecture will have to be reversed. Mayor Nutter, of course, agrees. He — and the zoning reform commission — will institute new rules (based on old ideas) that promote density, mixed-uses, transit-oriented development, and pedestrian amenities.
But what to do about 6th and Lehigh — and the hundreds of other places in Philadelphia where the traditional urban streetscape has already been abdicated to the automobile? (Most of the intersections with Broad Street come quickly to mind.) You can’t just tell Rite Aid to move itself 25 feet to the corner, sprout a few stories, and strap on something besides Drive-it. We know these parking lots are all but unnecessary and basically unused, but you can’t wave the wand and unpave Paradise. It’s done — and only the crush of some unfathomable wave of immigration could force landowners to make the most of their precious real estate.
To make matters even more complex, there are places — a few blocks away at Lehigh and American, for example — where the color and exuberance of Las Vegas architecture is welcomed. Who doesn’t like the Cousin’s market, the bold post-Modern Congreso sign, the packed — I mean packed — McDonald’s? This is the life of the city!
And yet we know better. America’s green city is going to have to find a mechanism to undo, ameliorate, overcome, and banish this garbage. We’ve been sickened long enough.