Back to Basics at Logan Square

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Parkway from Bell Telephone Building – 17th and Arch Streets, February 7, 1919.

No matter how welcomed and honored they may be, guests just don’t get to call the shots. It’s a basic law of hospitality. About a century ago, when planners exercised “excellent ruthlessness” sacrificing an entire rowhouse neighborhood and leafy park at Logan Square to welcome the automobile into the city, folks hoped for the best in what would eventually become a difficult, if not doomed relationship.

OK, it’s true: driving the Benjamin Franklin Parkway makes for one heck of an entrance to a city, maybe any city anywhere.  Space collapses with a touch of the gas pedal.  City Hall rises up as the Art Museum fades in the rear-view mirror. Never before or since had a city and a machine found such amicable terms. Philadelphia embraced the automobile, as Ed Bacon used to say, as “an honored guest.”  But where is it written that the city also had to turn over naming rights to the petroleum philistine?

Logan Square has been victimized, again and again, by the automobile. To create a sweeping vista, an axis connecting City Hall and Fairmount, to enable a unique urban driving experience on it, Parkway designer Jacques Gréber expanded the Square westward to 20th Street, doing away with one street, West Logan Square, and demolishing a block of fifty-five houses.  Then, with a landscaper’s sleight-of-hand, Gréber carved out an off-center circle and created on it the illusion of centrality with a giant obelisk.

The obelisk gave way to the eye-catching Swann Memorial Fountain by architect Wilson Eyre and sculptor Alexander Stirling Calder. But not everyone was taken in. As Jane Jacobs put it in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the square “has been whittled to a small traffic island” adorned by a “great soaring fountain” that’s mostly “an elegant amenity for those speeding by.”  Pedestrian visitors knew as well, from both reality and name, they were the guests here, on a purpose-built traffic island, maybe the most glorified one in history.

And if a multi-lane traffic circle wasn’t harsh reality enough, in the third quarter of the 20th century, Logan Square’s entire northern side was given over to a sunken expressway.  Long before then, the name change from Logan Square to Logan Circle had driven home the fact that this place no longer existed in the spirit of its 17th-century designers. Logan Circle was now about its capacity to funnel automobiles into the city.

“Is all the asphalt around Logan Circle really necessary?” asks the Project for Public Spaces, which included Logan Circle in its Great Public Places “Hall of Shame.” PPS suggests how to fix the place, and folks have begun to pay attention.  But those changes will cost us.

Why wait?  We can take a first, important step in the journey to recognize and reclaim the authenticity at hand. We have here a great square, albeit one with a circle in it.  The place should be named for what it offers pedestrians, not how it yields to the automobile.   A name change, and the change of mind that will accompany it, will cost nothing.  It’s time, once again, to call a square a square.

2 replies on “Back to Basics at Logan Square”

Big squares should not be sacrificed for the sake of development. The city developers should take efforts to turn the square into a beautiful green spot where people can sit and relax. Big fountains add even more soothing effect on those who come for relaxation.

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