Mark from West Philly is something of an expert on heat: He sells bottled water and “Rocky” T-shirts on the baking sidewalks near the Art Museum. And what’s the first thing he’d like to do after eight hours in the sun? “After a long, hot-ass day of work, it’d be nice to jump in that fountain — if the water was on, that is,” he says, gesturing at the stepped trenches that flank the world-famous staircase. But that won’t be possible.
Unbeknownst to most people, the Art Museum steps are a living monument to two illustrious Philly traditions: illegal swimming in public fountains, and City Hall clamping down on unregulated fun. The pair of cascading fountains that line the steps have been bone dry for nearly a decade. And even as the city tries to add glitz to the Parkway with a new pop-up park on Eakins Oval and pours funds into renovating long-neglected fountains by the Water Works, there’s not much hope for these cascades.
Why did the fountains fall out of favor? “People wouldn’t stay out of them,” says Mark Focht, first deputy commissioner of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. When the water was running, the stone got slippery, making cracked heads a near inevitability. “People’s misuse and abuse of the cascades have kept us from turning them on for others to enjoy the way they were intended — viewed, not swum in.” The city didn’t consider simply fencing off the fountains, says Focht, adding that “unsightly” barriers might not have passed muster with the Historic Commission. In any case, it’s too late now. Focht says the fountains have been shut off for so long, they probably need extensive repairs. There is “little likelihood they will be reactivated.”
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