Drive a guest into Philadelphia from the airport, and the first question you’re likely to hear is not “What’s the best cheesesteak in town?” or “Where is the Rocky statue?” but “Why are all those cars parked in the middle of the street?”
It’s a South Philly signature that delegates and protesters at the Democratic National Convention never saw. Anticipating protests along the city’s main drag, officials gave ample warning that the longstanding practice of parking cars in the paved median of busy South Broad Street wouldn’t be tolerated during the convention.
Now, South Philadelphians have their overflow spaces back, to the consternation of a group pushing for a permanent ban, arguing it puts both drivers and pedestrians at risk as doors swing open into moving traffic and parked motorists jaywalk to reach the sidewalk.
“The median parking is dangerous and ugly, and yet no one has been willing to touch it for fear of political blowback,” says the petition by 5th Square, which describes itself as a nonpartisan political action committee that promotes the betterment of city infrastructure.
Parking in the middle of South Broad is, in fact, illegal, but enforcement is nonexistent. That may be a nod to the dearth of driveways and alleyways along the dense corridor; there’s simply no need to turn left off Broad unless you’re at a lighted intersection, where drivers generally leave the turning lane clear.
“I have no choice,” said 47-year-old Tom Ngo, a restaurant worker in Center City on his way home from work Saturday. “Every time I go home, no parking. There’s not a lot of parking around here.”
Or maybe politicians have learned from history. A 1961 Associated Press article noted: “An angry, jeering crowd of 2,000 persons hurled rocks and eggs and shouted profanity at Mayor Richardson Dilworth Monday night as he tried to defend his controversial $40 a year parking fee plan.”
Jennifer Childs, the producing artistic director for the South Philly-based 1812 Productions comedy theater company, has mined the area’s parking ethos with her character Patsy, a South Philly woman of indeterminate middle age with a strong accent and a penchant for pink Philadelphia Eagles (or “Iggles,” in Philadelphia parlance) sweatsuits.
“The Philadelphia Parking Authority is in every other neighborhood except for South Philadelphia. It is lawless down here,” Childs said.
In one of a video series called “The View From my Stoop,” Patsy tells of a neighbor who believes the Philadelphia Parking Authority must be “just an urban legend.” Another neighbor insists she can’t talk because “I’m parked in the turning lane on Broad Street.”
In hedged language usually reserved for greater issues of our time, mayoral spokesman Mike Dunn indicated city officials were so far unmoved by the petition.
“The mayor certainly understands the safety concerns expressed in the petition,” Dunn said in an email Friday. “But before any changes are made we’d need to have a dialogue with the people most affected by those concerns, which are the residents of the surrounding community in South Philly.”
By Sunday, Dunn said “such conversations are being initiated.”
At a news conference after convention’s end last week, Mayor Jim Kelley personally addressed the kerfuffle.
“I know it’s an anomaly for many of us to see that,” he said, but acknowledged that “it’s been that way” for many years, long before he was born.
It may indeed be a birthright. Dan McQuade, a reporter for Philadelphia magazine, noted in an article last year that a 1916 court case mentioned “several automobiles” parked in the center of Broad Street. McQuade also referenced an interview with journalist and historian Murray Dubin, who postulated the practice originated with mourners at nearby funeral homes who needed to park.
“It’s definitely unsafe. It’s unsafe for pedestrians, it’s unsafe for drivers. A lot of people don’t like it because they think it’s embarrassing to Philly,” McQuade told The Associated Press in an interview. “But anytime someone suggests taking away something, people freak out because they’re worried they’re going to have to circle for hours for a space.”
In character as Patsy, Childs did note the convenience of parking on South Broad during funerals. But then, referencing the event that just wrapped up in her backyard, allowed:
“Maybe it’s time for this tradition to change. A man in the White House for all these years, maybe that tradition’s got to change, too.”
Associated Press writer Megan Trimble contributed to this report.