February 18, 2003

The travesty being wrought upon Independence Hall and Independence National Park by the National Park Service, joined, at least initially, by the administration of Mayor John F. Street (D), is beginning to draw attention beyond Philadelphia.

"Independence Behind Bars in Philly," by Robert Strauss, in Monday's edition of the Washington Post, is the first article I've seen about the controversy in that newspaper or in any major newspaper outside this city. (Unfortunately, the photo that accompanies the article barely hints at the mess the Park Service has made.)

A few excerpts:

"The shrine of liberty and freedom [Independence Hall], and it looks like Beirut in the Lebanese civil war," said Maria Butler, a retired history teacher from Indiana who returned to Philadelphia expressly to see the historic area. "What are they thinking?"

It is not only visitors to Independence Hall, but also neighbors and politicians in the crowded area surrounding it, who are upset by Mayor Street's decision last December to close the block of Chestnut Street between Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell Pavilion to all motor and foot traffic.

That decision came at the behest of the National Park Service, which administers Independence Hall and historic buildings around it as Independence National Historical Park. The Park Service said a security analysis had determined that a car bomb detonated on the street would cause "heavy to severe damage [and] significant loss of life."

But those protesting the move say that the mayor and Park Service may have slightly different agendas and that, at any rate, the metal and concrete barriers hardly enhance the security of the historic building where the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were debated and signed.

"Functionally, what they have done is shut down the most important symbol of freedom we have for no good reason," said Judge Edward R. Becker, chief of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, whose office a block away overlooks Independence Hall. "Tourists think it looks awful. Locals think it is scary. . . ."

Although Washingtonians may debate the closing of 16th Street N.W., at least the White House lies outside major commercial or residential neighborhoods and is near other wide avenues.

But Center City Philadelphia, where Independence National Historical Park lies, is a warren of narrow streets and narrower alleys. Thousands of people live and work in the area surrounding the park. The one-way traffic patterns and the streets that stop for a block and then pick up again are baffling enough for locals, let alone visitors, and the closing of that block of Chestnut Street has been a nightmare for business owners, residents and even the city transit system.

Ann Meredith, a local businesswoman interviewed by the Post, notes the ironies: Philadelphia recently spent $14 million to improve traffic on Chestnut Street, and both Fifth and Sixth Streets, on the east and west sides, respectively, of Independence Hall and only a few yards from the building, remain open to traffic, leaving the site equally vulnerable to an attack as it would be from the closed section of Chestnut Street.

Many Philadelphians wonder whether closing Chestnut Street is part of a larger agenda of the National Park Service, which has advocated closing all streets surrounding Independence Park. "But this isn't Yellowstone. It's a real city. That's what the charm of it is. I don't think the Park Service understands that," the Post quotes Kevin Meeker, a local restauranteur.

Mayor Street last week visited the neighborhood for the first time since September 11, 2001. (Yes, for the first time, and it's all of eight blocks from his office.) Some local residents and business owners who spoke with Mayor Street during his tour believe he was swayed by their arguments in favor of reopening Chestnut Street.

"It is the mayor's decision whether to close the street," the Post notes, "and he is being urged to overturn it by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who lives in the city, and Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D), a former Philadelphia mayor who said of the barriers: 'It looks like we are cowering in dread. It looks like al Qaeda has won.'"

Hell, the place looks so bad, I'd almost say it looks like Al Qaeda has come and gone.

Contact information:

Mayor John Street: (215) 686-2181; e-mail

Sen. Arlen Specter: (202) 224-4254; e-mail

Gov. Edward G. Rendell: (717) 787-5962; e-mail

[Thanks to Julia of Sisyphus Shrugged for bringing the Post article to my attention.]

[Note: This article was published earlier today at The Rittenhouse Review.]


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