Philadelphia may be more commonly known for its grit than its grandeur, but in the 100 years since it was paved, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway—the stately boulevard that connects LOVE Park to the Philadelphia Museum of Art—has earned its place as a bona fide Philadelphia cultural icon. To celebrate its centennial, the parkway Council is pulling out all the stops, with dozens of events, discussions and art installations planned for the next year and a half.
Starting this weekend, many of the major cultural institutions lining the mile-long roadway are hosting collections and exhibitions marking the parkway’s history and development. On weekend nights in late September and early October, 900 lanterns and 27 pedicabs will light up the parkway as part of an experience choreographed by Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang. In December, artist Jennifer Steinkamp debuts “Winter Fountains,” a series of video installations set up along the drive designed to complement the parkway’s water fountains and botanical features. And next year, art historian David Brownlee rereleases his book Building the City Beautiful: The Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “The parkway is an emblem of a city that survives change and leads the way forward,” says Brownlee.
While Philadelphians had been talking about connecting Center City to Fairmount Park since the early 19th century, a plan for the parkway wasn’t approved until the 1890s. It took another decade—and the demolition of 1,300 homes—before work began. The whole process was both helped and hindered by corrupt politicians, but in the end, Brownlee says, the parkway owes its existence to the simplicity of its design.
“How do you get from the park to the city and the city to the park?” he asks. “We’re just going to draw a straight line between them. We’re going to connect this city of commerce and industry to the natural world.”
That same simplicity has allowed the parkway to evolve. Brownlee hopes the centennial inspires builders to place a few more permanent cafés or restaurants on the strip, encouraging Philadelphians to see the Parkway as a destination as much as a thoroughfare. “We need to pinch ourselves and tell ourselves, ‘This is a city that does big things,’ ” says Brownlee. “This is a city that knows how to change itself.”
For more on the Parkway events taking place today through late 2018, go here.