Take Your Shoes Off at the Door

Public Space: The Key to Defeating Segregation

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Last week’s curator, Jane Golden, says, “Art ignites change.” When it comes to segregation can art conquer social exclusion and isolation?

Philadelphia is the fourth most segregated city in the nation. Living in Philadelphia this is an un-ignorable fact. We, as Philadelphians, create personal boundaries, restrictions for our living, working, and playing that keeps us from interacting with other groups of people. Whether class or race divides that group, segregation is a present part of Philadelphia. As an unfortunate adage to our city’s standing definitions, we are a city of neighborhoods, but you stay on your side of the neighborhood and I’ll stay on mine. But how do we collectively combat segregation? Beyond personal belief, organizational value, and political siding, how do we exercise integration?

Besides the Eagles and cheesesteaks, there are certain spaces that bridge racial tension and class divide. That which we dub “public” surpasses the proverbial cool kid stoop, and invites all to share the space. In Philadelphia most of our public spaces are neighborhood specific or geared towards tourists. We have our parks and recreation centers that serve a certain community, and monuments that draw outside visitors.

The recently renovated Dilworth Plaza is an excellent example of good public space in Philadelphia, but it is one of a kind. At the heart of Center City, Dilworth Plaza is a comfortable and useful space, and a space that attracts both residents and visitors alike. The plaza maintains its historic reputation, allowing itself to be a place of protest and demonstration, but it also hosts farmers markets and art exhibitions.

Public spaces could be the key to reducing segregation in Philadelphia. Public parks and plazas become spaces of debate and conversation. In his piece, The Sociology of Public Space, Stephane Tonnelat lays down the foundation for an argument that has been accepted both by urban planners and sociologists, stating, “The general opinion is that public spaces are an essential ingredient to the sustainability of cities for political, social, economic, public health and biodiversity reasons. However, the dominating trend observed by many is one of shrinkage rather than expansion of the public realm.” As public spaces become less available, segregation in urban spaces become more prevalent. Tonnelat adds, “according to global indicators of segregation (class, race and ethnicity, gender) seem to show a worldwide growing separateness of the different categories of populations. Today, for a number of planners public space thus appears as an important means to alleviate these ills while at the same time addressing emerging issues such as the imperative of sustainable development and social justice.”

Public spaces often fall victim to condominiums and shopping spaces, however we have been seeing a reestablishing of the public space in Philadelphia. Earlier this year a new design was announced for LOVE Park. The park has always had its architectural challenges. Inga Saffron, architect critic for the Inquirer, wrote in May, “There are many ways that the new design for LOVE Park could have gone wrong. The square at the gateway to the Parkway is an engineering nightmare, perched above a parking garage and a train tunnel. The $15 million budget is barely adequate.”

Saffron, like many Philadelphians, was happy with the news of a redesign that kept the integrity of the park’s vista views intact along with the iconic spaceship building. However, there was backlash from other communities, like Philadelphia’s skate scene. Despite the controversy, the new design brings aesthetic coherence to an otherwise awkward location, and mirrors the intentions of Dilworth Plaza. The park is meant to be a place that encourages spending quality time with friends and family, which the park does not do at the moment.

The area that houses Dilworth Plaza, LOVE Park, and Thomas Paine Plaza could be repurposed and perhaps become the first step in reprioritizing public space in Philadelphia. Currently the area is the most confused and clumsy survey of indecisive Percent for Art Program decisions, and metaphors that have gone terribly awry. Architectural wonders stand side by side next to what I can only assume someone’s whimsical rulings about awkward public art pieces. It’s a shame, but the area has all the potential. If the heart of Center City prioritized public space, it would be making a statement about integration, and hopefully the rest of the city would follow.



Amanda is an artist and writer living in Philadelphia. Her work has been displayed at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art, featured at festivals, and in events with Fait Du Vide Collective. Amanda has published with Philly.com, the Philadelphia Daily News, Art Attack, and VICE Media. In her spare time she likes to drink and draw naked ladies.

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