A Permanent Slice of Piazza on South Street?

Grays Ferry Avenue at South Street Looking Southwest, May 22, 1936. Wenzel J. Hess, photographer. (
Grays Ferry Avenue at South Street [and 23rd Street] Looking Southwest, May 22, 1936. Wenzel J. Hess, photographer. (
South Street’s civic temperature – and Philadelphia’s by degree – can be measured by checking in at the triangular intersection at South Street, 23rd Street and Grays Ferry Avenue. This pizza-shaped- piazza continues to change with the times, proving, once again, that what goes around comes around.

About a century ago, Christopher Morley (who resided nearby on too-quiet Pine Street) enviously noted the “uproarious and naïve humours” a few blocks away. “On South Street,” Morley wrote, “the veins of life run close to the surface.” By the 1970s, things had settled down, though not necessarily in a good way. “The street lay like a snake sleeping; dull-dusty, gray-black in the dingy darkness,” wrote David Bradley. “At the three-way intersection of Twenty-Third Street, Grays Ferry Avenue, and South Street a fountain, erected once-upon-a year by a ladies guild in remembrance of some dear departed altruist, stood cracked and dry, full of dead leaves and cigarette butts and bent beer cans, forgotten by the city and the ladies’ guide a minor memorial to how They Won’t Take Care of Nice Things.”

Ah, but given time they will care. If given half a chance.

In 2014, we’ve witnessed a waking up, a coming around to this very “nice thing” along the western end of South Street. Not exactly “uproarious,” and hardly “naïve,” the movement began three years ago with a celebration of the diagonal in a city made up of right angles. And it’s more than saving one of the city’s rare, vintage horse troughs. The Grays Ferry Triangle effort has been a grass-roots project since 2011, one bolstered by arguments that spaces are better, often far better, when reclaimed by and for community. To demonstrate and consolidate support, there’s been an annual Plazapalooza, a spate of social media and a poll showing 98% of near-neighbor support for promoting pedestrianism and banning the can on at least one tiny but potent stretch of Philly byway.

Last Spring, a six month trial street closure started and “an underused South of South space” got a “pedestrian-friendly makeover.” Will this experiment in participatory urban design come to an end? Will South Street once again revert to a place that “Won’t Take Care of Nice Things”? Or has Philadelphia made yet one more turn toward becoming a post-petroleum city, a city whose veins not only “run close to the surface” but pulse with something more organic than gasoline?

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