WAYS & MEANS: Inscribing the Portals to City Hall

WAYS & MEANS: Inscribing the Portals to City Hall

Credit: Context Travel

Ways & Means is a weekly column by Mark Alan Hughes on economics, politics and sustainability in Philadelphia.

To fill my brief back-to-school hiatus, I offer something from the archives. Ten summers ago, I wrote a column in the Philadelphia Daily News that began:

IT’S TOO hot to argue. So, let’s discuss a topic suitable for summer reading.

Have you ever noticed the inscription above the City Hall portal facing South Broad? It says, carved in stone, “Justice.” The other three portals are blank. If we had the confidence of our forebears, what words would we carve in stone to record our principles for generations to come?

I admit it wasn’t a particularly consequential column, and the three portals continue their blank stare into the eyes of citizens and visitors. But its question remains one of my favorites, and one I’d like to share with this readership and invite your answers. It also gives me the chance to see if my own answers have changed.

First, let me say that, if I had four blank spaces and could only fill in one, I’d also choose “Justice.” It is a principle that, if honored, gets us pretty close to the promised land.

But in the real world of compromised principles, we need more than a single virtue to guard against the greed and violence and want that herd us into forming governments.

Although it’s a bit hard to discern after a century of bureaucratic occupancy, each side of City Hall was intended for a different set of users. The South Broad portal is the judicial entrance to City Hall. The head on the keystone above the portal is Moses the lawgiver.

Back in the day, the grand exterior staircase in the south portal, now locked on the ground level, but unlocked from the second floor and above, was used to handle the throngs coming to observe trials in the courtrooms upstairs. In a design innovation still used today, separate staircases, hidden in the turrets overlooking the courtyard were how prisoners were moved up to the courtrooms.

But what of the other three portals with their blank scrolls?

The North Broad portal is the Council entrance to City Hall with William Penn gazing down from the keystone . Penn is a great choice, because his commitment to tolerance and self-government in his “Holy Experiment” created the most diverse and capable settlement in the British colonies.

Tolerance and diversity have become cloudy ideas, miring cranks of all kinds in pointless chatter about political correctness. Tolerance often masks patronizing attitudes, while diversity can descend into nothing but arithmetic.

A better word to capture Penn’s virtue and one that rings truer to our time is “Respect.” It’s the virtue that reminds us that all citizens and communities have a dignity worth representing in the deliberations of City Council.

The Market East portal is the executive entrance to City Hall. Fittingly, the enlightened statesman adorning the keystone of the east portal is Ben Franklin.

Above this portal, I’d carve “Wisdom” as the guiding virtue of our ideal mayor. Above all, a mayor is a decision maker in charge of thousands of workers with jobs to do on our behalf .
When balanced by justice and respect, “Wisdom” is the highest mayoral virtue.

The Market West portal is the most interesting. This was designed as the prisoners entrance to City Hall. Judicial, legislative, executive, and prisoners — that’s quite a design statement on the separation of powers!

The face of Sympathy looks down from the keystone, under representations of Repentance and Admonition. Maybe all the members of our current city government should be required to use the entrance.

With the modern development of the office district west of City Hall and the construction of Dilworth Plaza and the Parkway, the west portal is probably the most used and prominent of the gateways to City Hall.

And here’s where I’d venture a bit from the original design. Discarding the idea of a prisoners entrance, my fourth virtue would be “Prosperity.” It’s the value we seek in the city under the protection of justice, wisdom, and respect. The pursuit of prosperity binds us together. And Sympathy becomes a reminder to assist those left behind by general prosperity — or those who placed bad bets in the stock market.

Justice, Wisdom, Respect, and Prosperity are the four values that capture our ultimate concerns as a city. I’d be willing to carve them in stone for future generations to know what we held dearest.

It is a good thing that I no longer fantasize about marching every member of City government through the prisoner’s portal under the face of Sympathy. I’m down to only a couple members of City Council and a judge or two; that’s real progress.

But a decade years later, I would change one of my proposed public virtues. I would carve “Learning” rather than “Wisdom” above Ben’s very wise face on the executive branch portal. Wisdom is too suggestive of an end state, as if there’s some wise place that a Mayor gets to and then governs from. It also sets up the fallacy that the challenges we face are puzzles to solve rather than judgments to make.

Learning, on the other hand, properly focuses our civic virtue on a never-ending process of confronting new and old challenges with imperfect solutions, always leaving room for improvement by others and ourselves.

Like Respect, Justice and Prosperity, Learning is a collective enterprise that is both a cause and effect of city life. What do you think?

Mark Alan Hughes is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at PennDesign and a Faculty Fellow of Penn’s Institute for Urban Research.

Mark Alan Hughes is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at PennDesign and an Investigator at the US Department Of Energy’s Energy Efficient Buildings Hub at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. He is a Faculty Fellow of the Penn Institute for Urban Research, a Senior Fellow of the Wharton School’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership, and a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Penn’s Fox Leadership Program. He has been a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Urban Institute, and a senior adviser at the Ford Foundation. He was the Chief Policy Adviser to Mayor Michael Nutter and the founding Director of Sustainability for the City of Philadelphia, where he led the creation of the Greenworks plan. Hughes holds a B.A. from Swarthmore and a Ph.D. from Penn, joined the Princeton faculty in 1986 at the age of 25, has taught at Penn since 1999, and is widely published in the leading academic journals of several disciplines, including Economic Geography, Urban Economics, Policy Analysis and Management, and the Journal of the American Planning Association, for which he won the National Planning Award in 1992.

Tags: philadelphiaculturegovernancepublic space

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