When the pope came to Philly last year and Center City’s streets were barricaded and closed to traffic, a funny thing happened: Some people loved it. They walked and biked wherever they wanted, with young people and families enjoying the open space so much that a group called Open Streets PHL started with the goal of closing down Philly’s streets again.
Now, almost exactly a year after the pope, Philadelphia will be getting a similar dose of open streets. Clarena Tolson, deputy manager for transportation and infrastructure, announced at a Bella Vista Neighbors Association meeting Philadelphia would host an event called Philly Free Streets on September 24. The likely route appears to stretch from Front Street near the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, down to South Street, from South Street to the Schuylkill River Trail, up MLK Drive to Fairmount Park, based on comments from Tolson, who offered only a vague description. Details of the event will be available as early as next week, she said.
Tolson expects Philadelphia to become a national model for this type of event because of the anticipated size and how quickly they were able to plan it.
“We think ultimately this is going to be the coolest, hippest event in the country,” she said.
Philly Free Streets won’t be just like the pope. Obviously there won’t be the National Guard, a Pope Fence, a Traffic Box or the Secret Service. In fact, Open Streets PHL is trying to separate this event and any possible future events from what people experienced during the papal visit.
Tolson said it would be a route with some streets closed to vehicles and others allowing light traffic. Jon Geeting, Open Streets PHL’s internal communications officer, said the total distance covered would be nine miles.
Tolson told the meeting’s attendees to imagine a path around Front Street where the restaurant owners and business owners can set up shop, to a bridge. People could then listen to tour guides talk about the architecture of the bridge before hopping onto a trail at the other end and crossing to a street “named after a civil rights leader” while listening to talks about sustainability or exercising, then winding up at Belmont Plateau where there would be open microphones and other entertainment.
“Some people might remember what happened during the pope shutdown,” said Nate Hommel, external communications officer for Open Streets PHL. “This is not that.”
Open Streets PHL initially reached out to Jim Kenney’s administration in October, before he had taken office, and the group’s following grew so large that Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration started working with Open Streets PHL during the last months of his tenure. LeeAnne Mullins, the group’s chair, said they have been meeting with Tolson or others from her department biweekly since February, working on the details for the event.
Tolson described Kenney as having a firm commitment to use Philadelphia’s streets in a different way. Geeting said Kenney went to New York City’s Summer Streets event, which opens up seven miles worth of city streets for recreation, and was blown away.
“He gets it,” Geeting said.
For now, the September event is the only open streets event planned. But more could be coming in the future. Tolson said they might try for another next year, and Open Streets PHL hopes the city can organize these types of events on a regular basis.