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When the LOVE sculpture returned to LOVE Park last week after a year’s absence, Philly treated it like a Very Big Deal.

The city’s Office of Arts and Culture staged a mini parade to welcome it home, hundreds of fans swarmed the plaza at 16th and JFK to pose for pics with the iconic artwork, and thousands more paid tribute to the sculpture with homages and remembrances on social media.

On its second day back, the sculpture was still a big draw.

“I haven’t seen it in forever and I just wanted to see it,” said Cam, an Art Institute grad who purposely swung by the park after an appointment to City Hall.

Arthur, a staffer at Pennsylvania Hospital, echoed the same sentiment. “I work at Eighth and Spruce,” he said, “so that’s a long walk. When I heard it was back, I just had to see it.”

“It makes me happy!” sang a Philly resident named Robin, who came by to see the sculpture after completing an errand in Center City. Her days hanging out in the park when she was homeless, she said, had been brightened by the colorful piece.

But a handful Philadelphians were skeptical of the shared exuberance

After all, artist Robert Indiana has produced dozens of very similar LOVE sculptures. There are nearly 50 of them worldwide. Of the 19 others that exist across the U.S., one is even right here in Philly, on Penn’s campus.

So why do people think the one in LOVE Park is so special?

Part of the answer is a version of “because it’s there.” And in this case, “there” is a very prominent location, said Dr. Richard Hass, assistant professor of psychology at Jefferson.

Hass, an expert in creative cognition, attributed the strong affinity many Philadelphians feel to what he called “reminiscence bumps.”

Humans memories are more vivid for experiences that are personal and emotional, he explained. “The park itself is at the center of town. Many people skateboarded there; I proposed to my wife there,” he said. “So there are many personal associations that we have with that particular place, and the statue itself provides extra salience.”

Penny Balkin Bach, executive director of the Philly-based Association for Public Art, agrees with Hass that the setting of a central, dedicated public space is key.

“Most other locations are at colleges or museums,” Bach said, “where this one is situated at the head of the Parkway with the view of the entire city behind it.”

A couple asks a nearby bike cop to take their photo Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

This LOVE sculpture is also more elevated than many others around the globe; it’s the only one Bach knows of that’s atop a 7-foot base, making it visible from afar.

But the iconic work hasn’t always been on that pedestal at the park that absorbed its name, of course.

The LOVE sculpture was first placed at the location — officially called JFK Plaza — as a temporary installation for the 1976 Bicentennial celebration. It remained there on “extended loan” from Indiana for two years, but when the city didn’t move to purchase it, his gallery took it back.

“People were really upset,” Bach recalled. “So [former Art Commission Chairman] Eugene Dixon bought it and brought it back to the city.”

However, even before the sculpture landed at the spot near City Hall, there was already an association between Philadelphia and Indiana’s quadrantally-arranged letters, Bach noted.

In 1973, the U.S. Postal Service issued an 8-cent LOVE stamp. The location officials chose for the unveiling? Philly’s Art Museum.

“I was there,” Bach said. “Everyone recognized the connection with Philadelphia because of the meaning — the City of Brotherly Love. It’s not just local people who get that connection.”

Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

That was evidenced by a couple who came to visit the sculpture on its second day back. Jess, who lives in Philly, brought her friend from St. Louis specifically to see the work.

“Last time he visited me was New Year’s, and I tried to bring him to see it but it wasn’t here!” said Jess. “I saw it on the news and told him, ‘Oh, we gotta go this time.’”

News coverage of the sculpture’s return also brought Jean, mother of four, to LOVE Park last week.

“As the kids are growing up, I take pictures of them here every year,” she said, explaining that she uses it as a benchmark. “The last time we took it, they were much smaller. Now that it’s back, it’s the perfect time.”

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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...