By Yael Borofsky for PhillyHistory.org
Sister Cities park, reopened this May, is a beautiful homage to urban revitalization, combining the charming with the whimsical in a series of landmarks signifying Philadelphia’s ten sister cities: a cafe, a boat pond, and other small wonders that draw people to Ben Franklin Parkway where the park is situated.
But don’t let the newness or the cuteness distract from the fact that there are a couple of odd things behind Sister Cities park.
For one, no one seems to know exactly why Tel Aviv and Florence became Philadelphia’s first two sister cities — Florence in 1964 and Tel Aviv in 1967.
Nancy Gilboy, president of Sister Cities administrative body, the Philadelphia International Visitors Council (IVC), says that at the time, the induction of Sister Cities was all about relationships.
“It usually comes about when somebody of prominence in each city meets and they see there are synergies between the two cities,” Gilboy explained, adding that program was started in the 1950s by President Eisenhower in an effort to bridge cultural divides.
But Gilboy said she couldn’t be sure who was directly responsible for the relationship with both the Israeli and the Italian city, aside from Mayor James Tate who formally invited both cities to participate in the program.
This archived news article documenting the designation of Philadelphia and Tel Aviv as Sister Cities on April 24, 1967 suggests that one connection between the two cities is that both were sites of independence:
“The ceremonies were held after Philadelphia Mayor James Tate sent a message to Mordechai Namir, Mayor of Tel Aviv, noting that the declaration was being issued on the eve of Passover, “Feast of Freedom” and pointed out that both cities have been sites of declarations — the U.S. Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 in Philadelphia, and the Israeli declaration of independence on May 14, 1948 in Tel Aviv.”
One theory commonly put forward is that Philadelphia’s significant Italian and Jewish immigrant populations had something to do with the inter-city connections.
Other oddities about Sister Cities have more to do with the park, before the city had any sisters to honor.
Despite it’s relatively small size — it’s just one tiny chunk of Logan Square — the site has an rich history that includes serving as a grave site for various religious organizations and health institutions, a gallows, and a potter’s field. When Center City District began working to revamp the site, it knew that it and its partners would have to tread lightly, said Vice President of Planning at Center City District Nancy Goldenberg.
Still, when the early stages of park remodeling in 2010 revealed 60 orderly grave sites along the 18th Street border of the park, CCD had to revise many of its plans, including the placement of geothermal wells, in order to avoid disturbing them further.
Goldenburg said that research suggests the graves belonged to the First Reform Church in Old City, who apparently also used the land as burial grounds.
But if bones, hangings, and merchants seem a bizarre mix for a site that now attracts many small children, the location has even older less consistent roots in the Civil War. The spot was used to site the Great Sanitary Fair (or Great Central Fair) of 1864. The multi-week event was designed by the Sanitary Committee, a federal agency, to gather proceeds to fund care and supplies for the Union soldiers, said Goldenberg.
“The fair actually took up all of Logan Square but coincidentally, the fair had a children’s playground area and that was actually located where Sister Cities park is today,” Goldenberg said. “And of course we have a children’s garden in our park so that was really quite ironic.”
The Sanitary Committee, the precursor to the American Red Cross, traveled around the country holding these fairs to drum up wartime support, but Goldenberg says Philadelphia’s Fair was the only one honored by the attendance of President Abraham Lincoln. According to an archived Philadelphia Ledger article from July 1, 1864, the organizers culled about $7,000 in entrance fees, or about $102,000 by today’s standards.
Thanks to the remodeling, the park contains numerous reminders of its sordid past, but as you walk through the modernized form of Sister Cities park it’s worth remembering that things are rarely what they seem.