Franklin Square Park celebrates decadelong resurgence

 Officials raise a cake shake to toast Franklin Square's 10th re-birthday party. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Officials raise a cake shake to toast Franklin Square's 10th re-birthday party. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia’s Franklin Square reopened its facilities for 2016 Tuesday, the 10th anniversary of the rebirth of the once-derelict Old City park. It has become an example of carefully managed urban renewal.

“This is a great example of how do this not only in Franklin Square, but throughout Philadelphia,” said city Councilman Mark Squilla, in whose district the park lies. “This has raised hopes in Chinatown, Old City, Northern Liberties to have an open space they can go to with their kids, or have seniors come out here and read a book under a tree.”

Squilla grew up in Philadelphia but avoided Franklin Square and its homeless denizens. There were few legal reasons to visit the park, known for decades as “bum park” or “skid row park.”

“Unlike today, there were no walkways, the fountain was broken. It hadn’t worked in 30 years,” said Amy Needle, who in 2003 was working to build the National Constitution Center across the street. “No lights. No attractions. Restrooms hadn’t worked in 30 years. Needed a ton of work.”

Needle is now the CEO of Historic Philadelphia, an organization that interprets historic landmarks in Old City. In 2006, it was the city’s partner organization in the $6.5 million transformation of the park.

Making that initial capital investment is one thing, but it’s something else entirely to keep it going for 10 years. Franklin Square is programmed 10 months of the year with a carousel, mini golf course, a food concession (formerly operated by Stephen Starr, now run by Cooperage), a summer beer garden, seasonal festivals, and — new this year — a fountain show.

This year the park will host an international Chinese lantern festival. Tianyu Arts and Culture, Inc, a company based in Zigong, Sichuan province, is right now setting up gigantic Chinese lanterns for the opening April 22, including a 150-foot dragon, a four-story pagoda, a jungle of oversized flowers, and a sleuth of pandas.

For a month, Tianyu will take over a large swath of the east end of the park to assemble hundreds of lanterns made of steel and wrapped in silk, illuminated from within by thousands of LED lights.

“We have really big-scale lanterns. Too big to fit in ocean containers,” said Ain Luo, of Tianyu. “Everything is shipped from China. We have to make them on site.”

The Chinese Lantern Festival will run April 22 through June 12.

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