Saturday, 18 December 2010

A Pen Pal Ruminates On Eastern State

What would I do with Eastern State Penitentiary in Fairmount?
I’d raze everything but John Haviland’s noble perimeter walls. At the ESP Task Force open house (held recently to culminate the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual convention), I learned from Dr. Norman Johnston’s excellent notes for prospective guides that the original interior has already been hopelessly compromised by additions, rehabs and transformations.
Mutter Museum director Gretchen Worden rhapsodized to the press about turning the hulk into a major tourist attraction, though her contention that Eastern has been a tourist attraction from the beginning is an egregious bit of logic-chopping.
Dickens visited it because he was obsessed all his life with the drubbing he and his family took in debtor’s prison and bitterly resented his experience as a child in the prison blacking factory. And DeTocqueville visited it because he came to America on a prison inspection mission.
Even if the tourist approach wouldn’t be prohibitively expensive, the location of the abandoned complex has three strikes against it. Open house visitors were visibly a little edgy about parking their cars out front. One sports car owner had to shush away a local boy who wanted to “borrow” his wheels for a whirl around the block. Fairmount gentrifiers have trouble enough with security several blocks away.
And Worden’s contention that on-the-spot studies of penology would have many times the impact of a mere “civics lesson” is unpersuasive. When you get right down to it, the Quaker theory of rehabilitation through solitary confinement is surely one of the silliest “good” ideas to emerge from the Enlightenment.
Add to that the later heritage of Marvin Wolfgang’s gang of Penn penologists who couldn’t think straight (for a generation his cadre of criminologists were aggressive rehabilitators—until they did a neat 180-degree turn to quick and predictable punishment), and turning Eastern into an adult theme park might even disillusion visitors over the mental fitness of our intelligentsia.
The Eastern State Task Force is tactically vague when you ask them what the bill might be for turning the derelict facility into an adult Disneyland. Councilman John Street says he thinks he could wangle $3-5 million out of City Council for “stabilizing” the facility. That’s Council talk for putting roofs on the decaying complex, presumably by affirmative-action contractors.
Eastern State talk inside the shambles introduced me to a new term—RFP, “request for proposal.” And that’s where the fiscal plot thickens.
It will take a couple of years (and presumably many, many Eastern State task forcers) to reconstruct the history of the prison’s deterioration. And just as much time and money to do an RFP for turning it into Penology Preserved: A Theme Park!
As a Ph.D. in American Civilization, I judge the “thinking” of the Eastern State task force criminally murky. As a taxpayer, I will resist to the death the fantasy that for a few millions we can create a self-supporting tourist destination. It would take ESP of another feather to make such a pipe dream materialize.
The task force did propose one practical notion—to sow grand golden flowers along the outside. Which brings me to my proposal: Turn the razed interior spaces into a greenery Peace Park for the beleaguered, amenities-starved inhabitants of North Philadelphia.
And if there’s money left over after the seeds, ask Jimmy Carter to make it a Habitat for Humanity entrepot, where tools and materials for rehabbing the houses of North Philly could be stored in a minimal facility for teaching jobless black kids how to use hammers and saws.
Talk about prisons. The people in Eastern State country are already prisoners of fear. Liberate them.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, November 15, 1989

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