Sidewalks, an Observational Essay

  • by Julianne Peters
     Sidewalks create an engaging environment that is important for cities like Philadelphia. Philadelphia’s sidewalks are vital veins running alongside the city's automotive arteries.   They transport many a passerby despite their varying sizes and sometimes harrowing locations.  Some sidewalks run wide while others are narrow and made of the city’s original crumbling brick.  Philadelphia’s sidewalks create an atmosphere in conjunction with the Philadelphians who make use of them for more than transportation.  In residential areas you can see children at play or neighbors chatting, in the business districts you will find suits and briefcases rushing by, and in historic areas there are colonial costumes and tourist groups.  Walk Score, an online and international index who aims to help people find urban communities that suit their lifestyles, rated Philadelphia the fifth most walk able major US city.  Multitasking sidewalks are defined by Jane Jacobs, a writer and activist focused on urban planning and decay, in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  I have confirmed the existence of these multitasking sidewalks in Philadelphia through my own observation in several areas of the city.   Further understanding of these sidewalks can teach us a lot about designing more utilitarian urban spaces and how to more effectively develop a growing metropolis with multipurpose areas.
    Jane Jacobs spoke about city sidewalks in Part One of her book titled “The Peculiar Nature of Cities”.  She immediately identified the streets and sidewalks as multitasking spaces that do not solely provide for the vehicle and pedestrian.    The major purpose of sidewalks in cities is to protect pedestrians from the vehicles in the streets.  Streets, in turn, keep vehicles from striking pedestrians and the like by giving them their own corridor.  Jacobs identified city streets more particularly as providing the space for the park, playground, small business platforms, and social scene for a block neighborhood.  In most cities, open space is hard to come by due to the demand and price of real estate, making parks and playgrounds often scarce in comparison to suburban parks.  Open spaces are seldom found outside of wealthy or historic areas.  Small businesses can suffer from the real estate pricing as well.  Many owners start out by peddling their goods on the streets, which is where their potential customers already are.  These multiple tasks are created by the atmosphere in which the sidewalks reside and can only be identified within that context.  In the city of Philadelphia this can be seen frequently, but most readily on the major streets such as the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, John F Kennedy Boulevard, Broad Street, Market, Chestnut, Front, and South Streets.  Each of these streets has a unique atmosphere dictated by their location.  People gather here, not just pass through, and this has been happening all throughout Philadelphia’s history.
    The progression of how city streets have been laid out has changed dramatically since the founding of Philadelphia.  Philadelphia at its original size was planned in great detail for its colonial inception by William Penn (Philadelphia City Planning Commission).  Then, the rectangular city block was the norm and cities of that time period, like Philadelphia and New York, were built on a large grid comprised of large, subdivided blocks(Southworth).  Philadelphia’s eastern areas of Society Hill, Washington Square, and Old City are some of the oldest planned neighborhoods of the city.  They were once full of historic townhouses, but now have a few added luxury condominium buildings.  You will find colonial cobblestone roads, some so narrow that residents park their cars up on the brick sidewalks.  Old City hosts exuberant First Fridays each month during the warmer part of the year.  I have seen hundreds crowd the free galleries and upscale restaurants; the sidewalks overflow into the streets on these warm summer nights.  Some of the patrons, unable to find room on the small sidewalks, can take a stroll through one of the parks surrounded by old brick walls.
    Nearby Market and Chestnut Streets are bustling all day long with shoppers, restaurant goers, and working people despite having similarly small streets.  The sidewalks here are congested with sidewalk markets, an assortment of pedestrians, and bikers weaving in and out of all the activity.  There are also panhandlers who are not truly homeless because they call these sidewalks their homes.  The skyscraper buildings that push up against the sidewalk make you feel closer to these other people than you would like.  Jane Jacobs mentioned that sidewalks like these can “bring together people who do not know each other in an intimate, private social fashion and in most cases do not care to know each other in that fashion”.  Penn’s Landing and South Street contain shorter buildings, usually less than three stories tall, and boast average sidewalks of average width also always brimming over with activity.  Penn’s Landing has many tourist attractions and events, despite being beneath the Interstate-95 overpass.  South Street is well known for its atmosphere.  It is lined with sidewalk cafes, funky shops, and street performers, making for a fun night out any weekend. The New Year’s Day Mummers Parade is a large, city-wide event each year that draws hundreds of people to Philadelphia’s sidewalks.  The parade route crosses over South Street and the outrageously dressed party goers often spill over into South Street.  Wild costumes pour from the sidewalks and into the streets filled with more people.  The sidewalks provide an area for all of them to gather and celebrate.
    Philadelphia’s plan deviated slightly from the then-typical city grid with Penn’s inclusion of several large diagonal parkways, reminiscent of Paris.  Napoleon III widened Paris’ medieval streets in the late 1800s creating a modern network of wider avenues and boulevards as a beautification of the city’s center.  Called the Haussmann Plan, it effectively sanitized the city and made it more efficient for them to mobilize their armies during future wars (Friendly Neighborhood Mappers).  The Benjamin Franklin Parkway is similar to the boulevards of Paris as it feeds into City Hall at the heart of Philadelphia and is lined with trees, museums, colleges, and the Free Library.  The Benjamin Franklin Parkway ends surrounded by large, looming office buildings surround historic City Hall.  The sometimes confusing streets, including the Parkway itself, contain multiple lanes of cars, busses, and bikes going in several different directions to and from this epicenter, just like around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.  Pedestrians are exceptionally careful when crossing these streets as it is sometimes unclear where car lanes are designated and in which direction they are supposed to be travelling.
    Each block along the Parkways is trimmed with more wide sidewalks feeding into wide crosswalks with ornate paint, making this the most walk able part of Philadelphia.  On the wide expanses of pedestrian walkways there are people walking with a purpose, leisurely chatting, or sitting on the edge of the fountain in Logan Square.  Above Logan Square lies the Fairmount neighborhood, which runs along the Parkway.  Its convenient location leaves it peppered with tourist attractions like Eastern State Penitentiary.  The Penitentiary is a stabilized ruin that acts as a museum most days of the year, but around Halloween it is turned into a very popular haunted house. The usually quiet sidewalks in Fairmount become very crowded during “Terror Behind the Walls” in October.  These sidewalks provide space for protesters, tourists, and native business people alike.
    Progressing into the 1900s, Philadelphia’s unique diagonal parkways had influential power on city planning.  By the 1930s and 40s, condensed residential areas in cities began to follow a less structured grid containing wrap around parallel streets and jutting oblique avenues, similar to Philadelphia’s diagonal parkways.  This plan could be seen as an attempt to slow traffic and protect the pedestrians and children at play by fragmenting and twisting the roads (Southworth).   Rittenhouse Square is one of the original planned sectors of the city and has similarly small sidewalks to Old City, yet quieter roads that do not follow an exact grid.  Some begin and end within one city block, restricting the traffic to only those who live there, not those trying to pass through.  Modest trees push out of the ground through small openings in the sidewalk.  Trimmed with expensive homes, quaint cafes, and small shops this area is an ideal neighborhood for a family.  By the 1950’s, however, this idea had fragmented even more and the safe and secluded suburban cul-de-sac became the ideal place to live and raise a family (Southworth).  The already established Philadelphia continued to have families inhabit its rectangular city blocks, however, and the city sidewalks play a major role in creating a hospitable environment for that family.
    As the city grew, those who wanted to remain in the city began to spread outside of Philadelphia’s center.  These moves created more city neighborhoods that are a very different scene than the tourist traps of Center City.  Once thriving in the industrial revolution of the United States, North Philadelphia is now comprised of blocks of run down row homes, brown fields, and many buildings occupied by squatters.  Schools are surrounded by fences topped with barbed wire, and streets have many abandoned corner stores.  The corner stores that do remain open in these times of blight act like book ends; they hold the neighborhood together, prevent it from collapsing and creating a domino effect around it.
    Crime is an issue in any area like this, but North Philadelphia has made a name for themselves over the years.  Philadelphia Weekly writer Steve Volk commented on these issues in 2007 when they bluntly discussed the almost constant recreation drug dealing in North Philadelphia and how it relates to the area’s poverty level.  He also ranked West Philadelphia, another crime ridden area, as #8 in the city’s top ten recreational drug “corners”.  Jane Jacobs says “when people say that a city, or part of it, is dangerous or is a jungle what they mean primarily is that they do not feel safe on the sidewalks.”  Yet, the multi-functioning sidewalks do not lose their usefulness.  Despite this sometimes dangerous environment, those who live in North Philadelphia still occasionally gather on the sidewalks and the children still play in the streets.  Many of the residents have grown up in these areas and chose to stay there.
    As Philadelphia has grown and the world around it has changed, its original sidewalks have remained useful.  Urban-life writer Nathaniel Popkin discussed the changing city in his book The Possible City – Exercises in Dreaming Philadelphia.  He says that “Philadelphia without revolution, industry or influence lives on by invention.”  Philadelphia’s culture and commercial focuses have changed, yet the city has still thrived in comparison to others in the same situation.  Detroit’s commercial focus has been in the automotive industry and as more and more automotive production has been pushed overseas, it has failed to stay strong. The city’s population is vanishing and the city is left with empty sidewalks (TIME NewsFeed).  Both cities exemplify the “defensive pride” Popkin talks about, yet Philadelphia handles the changing times much better and its sidewalks remain multitasking.
    But Philadelphia still has a lot to learn, according to Nathaniel Popkin.  He wrote an article titled “Look Up, Philly, 1 or 2 Lessons From Triumphant NY” for Hidden City Philadelphia just two years after he published The Possible City.  Popkin cites New York City’s growing population as the main reasoning behind it being called “triumphant”.  He mentions Detroit’s population loss (1.1 million between 1950 and 2010) along with Philadelphia’s: a loss of “almost 600,000” from 1950 to 2000.  He then goes on to speak to the importance of density in relation to public space.  “Can’t have great shopping streets, great cultural institutions, great transit, [and] great public spaces without it,” he writes.  He wants the city to build up along some of the major arteries like Broad Street – but would this sacrifice the utilitarian sidewalks?  Philadelphia has built many skyscrapers since the 1980s, breaking the old gentleman’s agreement about never building higher than the William Penn statue atop City Hall (Zoning Matters).  This has created concern for the residential neighborhoods in Philadelphia nearby the new skyscrapers regarding the impact they would have on the quality of life for those who already live there – especially on the sidewalks.  Popkin’s ideals seem to push Philadelphia toward a commercial gentrification, which would change the sidewalk’s tasks.
    Philadelphia’s delicate balance of residential and commercial is supported by its threading sidewalks.  Any changes could break or strengthen them.  Other cities in need of similar success, like Detroit, or looking for a good example to follow can take Philadelphia’s plans into consideration.  The must remember to evaluate the good with the bad and imagine its application to their specific setting, as a North Philadelphia sidewalk functions differently than its Chestnut Street counterpart.  Always consider the atmosphere you desire to have in the end, and the functions you wish to create.
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