Protest on the Parkway

The ongoing Occupy PHA protest site at Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia. [Nathan Mollway]

This summer, Occupy Philadelphia Housing Authority, or Occupy PHA, set up camp on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Their proclaimed autonomous zone1A hand-sprayed cardboard sign declaring the “No Cop Zone” is prominently displayed at the corner of N. 22nd Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway, though a list of demands can also be found on @PhillySocialist’s Twitter feed, June 10, 2020, 11:52 AM. covers nearly two acres and has become home to a community of around 150 tents.2This count reflects personal observation from Tuesday, July 14th. Though the total number of participants has fluctuated through the summer; not even tropical storm Fay discouraged the encampment. In addition to single- and double-occupancy tents flanking the tree-lined parkway, larger tents operate as communal resources: a library, a mess hall, a first-aid station. Two black banners, raised among the national flags that flank the Parkway, read “Housing Now!” and “Black Lives Matter;” below, a sign asks: “Where else do we go?”3The display of international flags on the Parkway “began in 1976 as a part of the bicentennial celebration,” FAQs, Parkway Museums District Philadelphia.

An artifact of the City Beautiful movement, the monumental Parkway runs from City Hall to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Its construction, starting in 1917, displaced seventy acres of working-class neighborhoods.4Lynn Miller, “Benjamin Franklin Parkway,” Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, 2016; “History of the Parkway,” Parkway Museums District Philadelphia, Parkway Council Foundation. Though the mile-long boulevard was designed to host numerous civic institutions, the vision remains incomplete; many surrounding spaces remain unprogrammed to this day.5Harry Kyriakodis, “A Century Ago, A Series Of Skews And Slants For Streets,” Hidden City Philadelphia, July 10, 2014. Thus in its form and use, the Parkway stands in contrast to the gridiron of center city Philadelphia. But the open spaces have their moments; the Parkway has been the setting for such major public events as the 2015 visit by Pope Francis and the Made in America Festival that was organized by Jay-Z in 2012.

Now it is a stage for protest.

Occupy PHA aims to highlight the lack of city support for people experiencing homelessness, a crisis that has been amplified by the impacts of COVID-19, and the city’s deep-rooted racial inequities, brought to the fore by the Black Lives Matter movement and recent protests against the police killings of Black Americans.6A fairly comprehensive timeline can be found here: “George Floyd: Timeline of Black Deaths Caused by Police,” June 26, 2020. A list of demands by the PHA Occupation can be found here. At the same time, the occupation is a physical reminder of the urban displacement sanctioned and sponsored in the interests of real-estate development.

Lack of affordable housing has been a different kind of pandemic in Philadelphia for decades. Recent efforts to support unhoused people include vouchers. But, although Occupy PHA has identified a number of vacant PHA-owned homes across the city, local vouchers are all too often unavailable. Natasha, an unhoused mother in North Philadelphia, explained in a recent interview shared on Occupy PHA’s Facebook page that she was offered a housing voucher in Pittsburgh — 300 miles away, on the other side of Pennsylvania. “You’ve got all these families that need housing in their own city,” she explained, and there are “empty houses, just sitting here … rotting.”7Natasha, “in-home” interview,” June 25 2020 , posted first to the Unicorn Riot Facebook page, then to the Occupy PHA page. 

Lack of affordable housing has been a pandemic in Philadelphia for decades.

The issue has been further complicated by COVID-19. “When the pandemic hit … there was no safe place for people to go,” said Jennifer Bennetch, one of the organizers of the occupation.8Jennifer Bennetch, “in-home” interview,” June 25 2020, posted first to the Unicorn Riot Facebook page, then to the Occupy PHA page. Many of the vacant homes identified by Occupy PHA have since been occupied by unhoused people. When she was interviewed in June, Natasha was one of them. The challenge of being unhoused during the pandemic, she commented, is “a hidden side [to the crisis] that nobody even thinks about.”9Natasha, “in-home” interview,” June 25 2020.

Local advocates like the Bethesda Project, a nonprofit organization providing shelter and supportive services, have endeavored to maintain their shelter capacity while adhering to CDC guidelines during the pandemic.10This occupation movement highlights the affordable housing crisis as an urgent Black Lives Matter issue. In Philadelphia, a majority of men in the shelter system are Black and brown, and many have medical conditions that increase the risk of infection. The organization’s position was explained to me by Misty Sparks, Director of Entry-Level Programs, on the topic of The Coronavirus Pandemic, Homelessness, and the Bethesda Project Response, June 26, 2020. Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration has also offered hotel rooms and temporary shelter for occupants of the encampment who are particularly at-risk for coronavirus, but the response has not been sufficient to help all of the city’s unhoused citizens.11Mayor’s Office, “City Provides Update on Protest Camp,” City of Philadelphia (Department of Human Services and Intellectual disAbility Services, July 16, 2020). To make matters worse, the recent Black Lives Matter protests in Thomas Paine Plaza, adjacent to City Hall, have displaced the homeless Philadelphians who have long found shelter there. With nowhere else to go, many have migrated to the encampment on the Parkway.


Their displacement is not the only change in Thomas Paine Plaza. Until recently, the plaza was home to a statue of the controversial former Mayor Frank Rizzo. The 10-foot-tall figure was removed in early July after being sprayed with paint and set aflame during the protests. Rizzo’s legacy of social and racial injustice has long been a source of unrest in the city. In 1971, after four unruly years as Police Commissioner, Rizzo famously told Philadelphians to “vote white” as he campaigned for mayor — and they did. In 1979, the U.S. Justice Department filed a civil suit against the city of Philadelphia, Mayor Rizzo, and top police officials, condemning “an entire system [that] violated the civil and constitutional rights of its citizens.”12Charles R. Babcock, “Justice Accuses Philadelphia of Police Abuses,” Washington Post (August 14, 1979). Sharing a photo of the statue’s removal on Instagram, Mayor Kenney put it this way: “The Frank Rizzo statue represented bigotry, hatred, and oppression for too many people, for too long. It is finally gone.”

While the statue has been removed, legacies of Rizzo’s policies continue to shape the city. For instance, his office championed the construction of a Crosstown Expressway in 1976, in anticipation of the U.S. Bicentennial celebration and events around Independence Hall. The City Planning Commission determined that the South Street District — which it described as “incompatible land usage” in Center City — was the ideal route.13695 Crossroad Expressway Unbuilt,” Phillyroads.com. The planned expressway would have required eighty acres of Black- and Jewish-owned neighborhoods between Lombard and Bainbridge Streets, including what some called “America’s Finest Colored Photoplay House,” the Royal Theatre, to be demolished.14Faye Anderson, “Essay: 7 ‘Green Book’ Sites to Discover in Philly,” WHYY.org, September 12, 2019.

Left: Royal Theatre in the late 1960s. [Courtesy of Temple University Library under License CC Attribution 2.0] Right: Royal Theatre in July 2020. [Nathan Mollway]

Neighborhood residents organized coalitions and successfully blocked the expressway construction — though not in time to relieve the disinvestment and flight caused by Rizzo’s vision, which ultimately devastated the community. Once a national icon of Black American culture, the Royal Theatre stood abandoned for decades; today all that remains is a façade. The building will soon be redeveloped into high-end apartments, where residents can live atop the “African-American roots” of Philadelphia’s most gentrified neighborhood.15Faye Anderson, “Essay: 7 ‘Green Book’ Sites to Discover in Philly,” WHYY.org, September 12, 2019; Emily Dowdall et al., Philadelphia’s Changing Neighborhoods: Gentrification and other shifts since 2000, Pew Charitable Trusts, May 2016.


Following the first weeks of protest, the PHA responded in June with a Cease and Desist order.16Photographs of the official letter appeared on the Occupy PHA Facebook page on July 15, though the letter is dated June 29, 2020. Talks continued between the city and protest organizers throughout July, but officials ordered protestors to leave on August 18. The deadline was subsequently extended, but on August 25, a judge ruled in favor of the city’s push to remove the encampment.17Alfred Lubrano, Jeremy Roebuck, and Oona Goodin-Smith, “Federal Judge Allows City to Clear out Homeless Encampments on Benjamin Franklin Parkway and in N. Philly,” Philadelphia Inquirer (August 26, 2020); Susan Phillips, “City Backs Down From Evicting Homeless Camp; Kenney to Meet Directly With Protestors,” WHYY.org (July 16, 2020); Ryan Briggs, Susan Phillips, “Federal judge clears city to remove homeless encampments on Ben Franklin Parkway, Ridge Ave,” WHYY.org (August 25, 2020). The mayor’s support for evicting the encampment — which seems to contradict CDC guidelines — presents an uncomfortable parallel with the displacements associated with the Rizzo administration.18Interim Guidance on Unsheltered Homelessness and Coronavirus Disease 2019 (CDC, May 13, 2020).

The occupation of the Parkway is clearly not a long-term solution to the housing crisis in Philadelphia, or to the inequality spotlighted by the BLM movement. But it is is a defiant stand in the face of a city that continues to fail its most vulnerable citizens. Occupy PHA has drawn new attention to the functional shortcomings of the historic city in conflict with its contemporary urban identity. When the tents are removed, the land that is now occupied — and serving a much-needed use — will again become an expanse of empty lawn, another absent monument on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Notes

  1. A hand-sprayed cardboard sign declaring the “No Cop Zone” is prominently displayed at the corner of N. 22nd Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway. A list of demands can be found on @PhillySocialist’s Twitter feed, June 10, 2020, 11:52 AM.
  2. This count reflects personal observation from July 14. Not even tropical storm Fay the week prior could displace the encampment, though the number of participants has fluctuated through the summer. In addition to single- and double- occupancy tents flanking the tree-lined parkway, larger tents at the encampment operate as communal resources: a library, a mess hall, and first aid.
  3. The display of international flags on the Parkway “began in 1976 as a part of the bicentennial celebration,” FAQs, Parkway Museums District Philadelphia.
  4. Lynn Miller, “Benjamin Franklin Parkway,” Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia (Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, 2016).
  5. History of the Parkway,” Parkway Museums District Philadelphia (Parkway Council Foundation).
  6. Harry Kyriakodis, “A Century Ago, A Series Of Skews And Slants For Streets,” Hidden City Philadelphia, July 10, 2014.
  7. A fairly comprehensive timeline can be found here: “George Floyd: Timeline of Black Deaths Caused by Police,” June 26, 2020,  A list of demands of the PHA Occupation can be found here: https://bit.ly/34LPZ2q.
  8. Natasha, “in-home” interview,” June 25 2020 , posted to the Unicorn Riot Facebook page, then on Occupy PHA page
  9. Jennifer Bennetch, “in-home” interview,” June 25 2020 , posted first to the Unicorn Riot Facebook page, then to the Occupy PHA page.
  10. Natasha, “in-home” interview,” June 25 2020, posted first to the Unicorn Riot Facebook page, then to the Occupy PHA page.
  11. This occupation movement highlights the affordable-housing crisis as an urgent Black Lives Matter issue. In Philadelphia, a majority of men in the shelter system are Black and brown, and many live with underlying health conditions that increase the risk of infection. The organization’s position was provided by Misty Sparks, Director of Entry-Level Programs, on the topic of The Coronavirus Pandemic, Homelessness, and the Bethesda Project Response. June 26, 2020.
  12. Mayor’s Office, “City Provides Update on Protest Camp,” City of Philadelphia (Department of Human Services and Intellectual disAbility Services, July 16, 2020).
  13. Charles R. Babcock, “Justice Accuses Philadelphia of Police Abuses,” Washington Post (August 14, 1979).
  14. 695 Crossroad Expressway Unbuilt,” Phillyroads.com.
  15. Faye Anderson, “Essay: 7 ‘Green Book’ Sites to Discover in Philly,” WHYY.org, September 12, 2019.
  16. Emily Dowdall et al., Philadelphia’s Changing Neighborhoods: Gentrification and other shifts since 2000, Pew Charitable Trusts, May 2016.
  17. Faye Anderson, “Essay: 7 ‘Green Book’ Sites to Discover in Philly,” WHYY.org, (September 12, 2019).
  18. Photographs of the official letter appear on the Occupy PHA Facebook page July 15, though the letter is dated June 29.
  19. Alfred Lubrano, Jeremy Roebuck, and Oona Goodin-Smith, “Federal Judge Allows City to Clear out Homeless Encampments on Benjamin Franklin Parkway and in N. Philly,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 26, 2020.
  20. Interim Guidance on Unsheltered Homelessness and Coronavirus Disease 2019, CDC (May 13, 2020).
  21. Susan Phillips, “City Backs Down From Evicting Homeless Camp; Kenney to Meet Directly With Protestors,” WHYY.org (July 16, 2020).
  22. Ryan Briggs, Susan Phillips, “Federal judge clears city to remove homeless encampments on Ben Franklin Parkway, Ridge Ave,” WHYY.org (August 25, 2020).

About the Author

Nathan Mollway

Nathan Mollway is a Master’s candidate in architecture at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design at University of Pennsylvania. His work was exhibited in the 2017 Chicago Biennial; he has also participated in a project to rehabilitate a Chicago homeless shelter that had not received tax-increment financing from the city. Nate’s pursuit of equitable design has guided him to numerous interdisciplinary internships and community engagements through the national non-profit Design for America.