The Eccentricities and Normalcies of Rittenhouse Square

Philadelphia, PA


The teenagers of Rittenhouse Square act like they own the place. With a proximity to Starbucks, Urban Outfitters, and lots of corporate office buildings, the park both welcomes and repels teenagers, which makes it the perfect place for them to both admire and hate adults. They sit on top of the stone walls or on the arms of benches—rebellious—and giggle, gossip, smoke, and work on little crafts. They make people self-conscious. I respect them. When a group of them on a bench, none older than 17, offered me a sour beer from their 6-pack while I was walking through one Friday night this summer, I had to accept, although I did deliberate on it for a few seconds. (One of them was wearing a T-shirt that said NEVER DRINKING AGAIN. It's a relief to know irony is still in style.)  I asked them about their opinions on music, but I didn't really hear them because I was too busy indulging in my own memories of the time I spent in Rittenhouse Square as a teen, taking the PATCO train into the city from the South Jersey suburbs: being visibly sulky and wistful before a Kimya Dawson show at the Ethical Society that faces the park, going to the Urban Outfitters on Walnut Street when it felt brand new, walking through the park with my grandma, a retired Philadelphia tour guide, as she rattled off facts about the history of Rittenhouse Square and how it fit into William Penn's original plan for the city. I had to look up those facts because I can't remember them now. 


When William Penn planned out the grid of Philadelphia, he placed four parks at equal distance from City Hall, the city's centerpoint. He placed Rittenhouse Square to City Hall's Southwest, and then, going clockwise, Logan Circle, Franklin Square, and Washington Square. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs heralds Rittenhouse Square as the most successful of the four. The book was originally published in 1961, but if you glance at these parks on any given afternoon you'll notice that Rittenhouse Square is still the most vibrant. She calls Washington Square “pervert park” and Franklin Square “Skid Row park.” Neither name would be accurate (or politically correct) now, yet neither park, nor Logan Circle, lights up with human life on an everyday basis the way Rittenhouse Square does. She attributes the success of Rittenhouse Square to “functional physical diversity among adjacent uses, and hence diversity among users and their schedules,” by which she means that the park is vital because there are lots of different reasons for people to be in the buildings that surround it. She's wrong. It's because Rittenhouse Square has the most glamorous pets. 


As far as I can tell, Rittenhouse Square is the leashed cat capital of the world. Maybe I haven’t been looking closely at other parks, but the frequency at which I’ve witnessed cats being walked outdoors on leashes is the highest in Rittenhouse Square. I met a man named Travers that brings his cat, Theodore, to Rittenhouse Square so he can exercise his natural cat instinct by doing what I’ll refer to as ‘hunting edging:’ letting a cat chase after birds and squirrels but never enough to seal the deal. He says Theodore loves the park so much that he jumps into his backpack whenever he gets near the door. 


There aren’t any rom-coms set in Philadelphia but if there were, some kiss or occurrence of kismet would be set in Rittenhouse Square. Among the pink pansies, lolling crepe myrtles, and geometric shrubs, there’s a sense it’s a place where the ideal should be savored, if not created. So Philadelphians that have cast themselves in their own romantic fictions use it as a set for their first dates, proposals, and engagement photos; on any given weekend it’s impossible to walk more than a few meters without having to dodge someone photographing lovers wearing coordinated outfits and looking into each other’s eyes. To the tourist or the recent transplant that might be passing through, Rittenhouse Square might seem like the pinnacle of American normalcy.


Rittenhouse Square is named after David Rittenhouse. It's hard to tell what he's most famous for. He built the first telescope in the United States, served as treasurer of the state of Pennsylvania for a while, was appointed by George Washington as the first director of the United States Mint, and surveyed the establishment of a large part of the boundaries between Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York. He was also the first American to sight the planet Uranus, and the first person to observe that Venus has its own atmosphere. There's a crater on the far side of the moon named after him, too. 


What Rittenhouse Square's Michael Jackson imitator lacks in chutzpah he makes up for in dedication. He's consistent, and most regulars of the park respect his hustle. He does various combos of the most famous moves (crotch grab, moonwalk, toe stand) while the hits play from a boombox. If the hit playing is “Thriller,” he doesn't do the dance we all know from the music video. He seems fundamentally lonely. Among Rittenhouse Square's other buskers—the vibraphonist, the keyboardist, the guy that does Bruno Mars covers on jazz guitar—there seems to be an unspoken understanding between them that they're a part of the experience of the park, just like the trees and the statues, while I and all of the other plebians are just observers. Maybe the Michael Jackson imitator feels like he's not really a part of the park, either. Maybe he considers himself a watcher, too. 


In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs notes that people come to parks for “different reasons at different times; sometimes to sit tiredly, sometimes to play or to watch a game, sometimes to read or work, sometimes to show off, sometimes to fall in love, sometimes to keep an appointment, sometimes to savor the hustle of the city from a retreat, sometimes in the hope of finding acquaintances, sometimes to get closer to a bit of nature, sometimes to keep a child occupied, sometimes simply to see what offers, and almost always to be entertained by the sight of other people.”


According to the staff at one pet store in the neighborhood, the most common breeds of dog in the neighborhood are French bulldogs, Yorkies, and Shiba Inus. Most of them are puppies when they start coming into the pet store, which means they're not adopted. They'll never know they're status symbols. The staff also noted that a lot of the apartment buildings in the vicinity are cats-only. They don't sell cat leashes. 


Rittenhouse Square is a park but it's also the name of the neighborhood in which it's located. It's the wealthiest neighborhood in the city. I have a theory that Philadelphia has the most eccentric rich people of any American city. It's easy to conjure the image of a rich person in New York, L.A., Boston, Miami, and D.C., but it's not easy to conjure the image of a rich person in Philadelphia (the Main Line doesn't count). According to my theory, the rich people in Philadelphia aren't surveilling each other as closely as they do in other cities so there's more freedom for them to be weird. Some people say the defining feature of Philadelphia is that it's “gritty.” The real defining feature of Philadelphia is that it's a place where you can be recognized and anonymous at the same time. 


There actually is a rom-com set in Philadelphia. It's called In Her Shoes and it stars Cameron Diaz and Toni Colette. It's from 2005 and it's not very good. It's set during winter. All of the scenes set in Rittenhouse Square are meant to make the point that Toni Colette's character's life is pathetic. 


I should have checked the weather before setting out on a walk to Rittenhouse Square in early June. If I had, I would have known that a thunderstorm was coming. The rain started at the same time I approached the park. I started running to St. Patrick's Church on 20th street, the closest dry place, but I noticed a few couples and a few lone people sitting on the benches, looking at the sky and smiling. I thought, “what a perfect place to choose to not be normal.”

A guest post by
Kiki Volkert is a writer in Philadelphia.