January 17, 2017
They came (with lunch and signs). They saw (walls to sit upon in Rittenhouse Square). They conquered (neighborhood foes in a battle over a public space).
When the Church of the Holy Trinity’s bells struck noon on Tuesday, dozens of parkgoers copped a spot for the “Sittenhouse Lunch Time Sit-On Celebration” event that, until this weekend, would’ve been a protest.
Instead, thanks in part to a pair of tweets from Mayor Jim Kenney, the Friends of Rittenhouse group’s push to ban sitting atop the historic balustrades that underwent a $1 million upgrade a few years ago failed to take hold.
Angst was replaced by happiness, albeit a brand of happiness that came with the underlying message that public parks belong to everybody, not just the civic groups that have oversight and help fund upkeep.
All told, there were up to 100 people in the landmark Center City park.
Among them was sit-in organizer Erika L. Reinhard, who brought white bean quesadillas for lunch and a sign that said “Sit on it!” to display.
It was inspired by a South Philadelphia bar of the same name and a push to protect people’s rights to sit on the walls and ensure that the city’s parks remain inclusive.
But there was another meaning, she said.
“(It’s a way to say) screw you to the Friends of Rittenhouse,” she said of the group that orchestrated the ban with a short-lived prohibition. (The Friends' work in a public-private partnership with the city Parks & Recreation Department to fund and manage many programs and projects on the Square.
In fact, “don’t sit on the walls” signs were taken down by the city earlier Tuesday morning.
“They didn’t want people to be able to use public spaces, but the park is for everyone.” – Coryn Wolk
On the wall closest to the park’s 18th Street side, Coryn Wolk and Eva Roben proudly displayed signs that summarized their thoughts on the conflict.
Roben’s read “Public Parks for the Public” while Wolk’s maintained “Your Racism is an Eyesore,” complete with drawings of police cars and signs stating “No Sitting” and “No Youth.”
Wolk explained that she’d been coming to the park to eat lunch regularly since her youth. The arrival of police cars and prohibitive signs spoke to locals trying to control who can comfortably spend time there, and that it lined up along racial and class lines.
Translation: The park group wasn’t all that comfortable with people who don’t fit the neighborhood’s demographics spending time in their park.
“They didn’t want people to be able to use public spaces,” she said, “but the park is for everyone.”
For her part, Mina Smith-Segal donned a sandwich board backing “wall sitting,” “music, art performance” and “improved comfort for chess players” but decrying “’friends’ who use Rittenhouse Square for dog toilet.”
She said she lives three blocks from the park but noticed better conditions for chess players in New York City’s Bryant Park.
Clearly supportive of the wall sitters, Smith-Segal also decried the park’s “No Smoking” rule.
“My boyfriend of 14 years – he’s my best friend, too – smokes, but he won’t even come here because of the rules,” she said. “I don’t like smoke but have special friends in my life who do.”
For the most part, it was a low-key, anti-climactic celebration, what with the battle having already been won.
Still, the Philadelphia Parks Alliance saw it as a chance to connect with a demographic that might be apt to help them protect such facilities and recreation centers across the city.
Clipboards in hands, they approached attendees in an effort to get contact information for mailing lists and the like.
George Matysik, the alliance’s executive director, said it was the perfect situation to build support.
“There are 300-plus parks and rec centers that don’t get this kind of attention,” he said. “So many people are paying attention to this and other landmark (locations) but others don’t get one-hundredth of the resources that these do, but those are what most Philadelphians use on a regular basis.”
Rittenhouse Square will be back in the news later this week, though. While the ban on wall sitting has been lifted, marijuana activists will go forward with their “Toke Back the Wall” event at 4 p.m. Friday.