As every Philadelphia schoolchild learns, William Penn designed the city around 5 public squares. Rittenhouse Square centers the richest section of the city so local residents donate money to preserve its beauty. The National Park Service manages Washington Square since it is adjacent to Independence Hall. Franklin Square, located in the gritty area between Vine Street and the Ben Franklin Bridge, was abandoned and fell into disrepair due to municipal budgetary constraints. A public-private partnership, Historic Philadelphia, miraculously rescued the former drug den in 2006.
Fast forward 10 years, Franklin Square is at the epicenter of life for the neighborhood including the immigrant residents of Chinatown. Seniors perform tai chi in the park during the day; children ride the carousel; families play miniature golf. There are regular movie screenings in the nice weather and a festival of lights spectacle every Christmas season. The non -profit Historic Philadelphia needs $850,000 annually to maintain the 7 and half acres of the park at the current activity level. The strapped city contributes nothing to the square's upkeep. Unlike Rittenhouse and Washington Squares, the people living in the neighborhood closest to Franklin Square can't afford to pay $500 tickets for a fancy gala.
Amy Needle, the CEO of Historic Philadelphia, greenlighted the Philadelphia Chinese Lantern Festival in Franklin Square, produced by Tianyu Arts and Culture Inc., for its first showing in the Northeastern section of the United States. The show, which is estimated to raise $200,000 for the square, necessitates closing the park to the public at 5 pm each night. There is a $17 admission to reenter the park at 7 pm to see the illuminated lanterns in all their glory and the 30 minute show.
20 artists came over from China and worked for 6 weeks before the show opened to create the lanterns. They are made from white silk stretched over metal frames and then lit with LED lights. In total, there are 28 figures illuminated with 15,000 LEDs. The highlights include a 4 story pagoda and a Chinese dragon longer than 3 school buses. Twice a night, there is a show of ancient Chinese arts such as face-changing and juggling. My 2 ½ hour stroll through the festival on a chilly May night was relaxing. I felt transported to a foreign land without the hassle of going through a TSA line.
The uniqueness of the show has appealed to locals and visitors alike. So far, 32,000 visitors from all 50 states and 7 countries have come to the show. Yet, the local media establishment has been vociferous in their criticism of the festival annexing the park even though the playground in Franklin Square is still accessible to the public.
As a long time city denizen, I was shocked by their singling out the 51 day Chinese Lantern Festival especially since the nearby Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp had signed off on the project. Private entities are always utilizing public space for profit. New York Fashion Week was held in Manhattan's Bryant Park until recently. Rittenhouse Square is the site of a biannual craft and arts shows and yearly flower mart and gala which limits its accessibility. The popular hipster trend of beer gardens and sidewalk cafes often requires utilization of public space.
The aforementioned usage of public space is applauded because it appeals to the coveted millennials. Or maybe it wasn't the takeover itself that the local media found objectionable but the problem was with who took it over. The hysteria over a Chinese festival reminded me of the popular 1960's movie, "The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming". My provincial city figuratively ran in fear instead of welcoming with outstretched arms something new and different that had a whiff of exoticism about it. Shame on us.