Maria Butler surveyed the scene with anger. The street in front of Independence Hall was strewn with metal barriers that looked like bicycle racks. The building, which she hadn't seen since she was a child 50 years ago, appeared ready for a siege.
"The shrine of liberty and freedom, and it looks like Beirut in the Lebanese civil war," said Butler, a retired history teacher from Indiana who returned to Philadelphia expressly to see the historic area. "What are they thinking?"
It is not only visitors to Independence Hall, but also neighbors and politicians in the crowded area surrounding it, who are upset by Mayor John F. Street's decision last December to close the block of Chestnut Street between Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell Pavilion to all motor and foot traffic.
That decision came at the behest of the National Park Service, which administers Independence Hall and historic buildings around it as Independence National Historical Park. The Park Service said a security analysis had determined that a car bomb detonated on the street would cause "heavy to severe damage [and] significant loss of life."
But those protesting the move say that the mayor and Park Service may have slightly different agendas and that, at any rate, the metal and concrete barriers hardly enhance the security of the historic building where the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were debated and signed.
"Functionally, what they have done is shut down the most important symbol of freedom we have for no good reason," said Judge Edward R. Becker, chief of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, whose office a block away overlooks Independence Hall. "Tourists think it looks awful. Locals think it is scary. And if you did have that Oklahoma City-sized bomb they are talking about, you could blow things up on Market Street two blocks away, anyway."
Although Washingtonians may debate the closing of 16th Street NW, at least the White House lies outside major commercial or residential neighborhoods and is near other wide avenues.
But Center City Philadelphia, where Independence National Historical Park lies, is a warren of narrow streets and narrower alleys. Thousands of people live and work in the area surrounding the park. The one-way traffic patterns and the streets that stop for a block and then pick up again are baffling enough for locals, let alone visitors, and the closing of that block of Chestnut Street has been a nightmare for business owners, residents and even the city transit system.
"I am an attorney in the city and live here. It used to be nice to hop a bus and, in five minutes, be in the historic area for lunch with clients," said Carter R. Buller, former president of the Society Hill Neighborhood Association, whose members live between the Delaware River and Fifth Street, east of Independence Hall.
His office, though, is on the west side of the hall. Closing the street, rerouting pedestrians a block and buses as many as five blocks, has effectively divided Buller's part of the city. "The inconvenience to locals and the impact on tourism is far out of proportion to whatever security measures they think they have made," he said.
Soon after the mayor ordered the street closed last Dec. 9, Ann Meredith, president and executive director of Lights of Liberty, a sound-and-light show at Independence Park, started mobilizing her troops. It didn't take much effort to find protesters, she said, because businesses and residents already felt betrayed.
"After September 11th, they put up this crime-scene tape," she said. "Then the bicycle racks and some cement barriers came in. But then there was this report and the street closure, and that was it."
One irony, she said, is that Philadelphia had recently spent a $14 million grant to improve traffic on Chestnut Street. Another is that Fifth and Sixth streets, which flank Independence Hall and are only a few yards from the building, are still open to traffic. A car bomb planted on either street could damage the building as easily as one on Chestnut Street.
The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, or SEPTA, the agency that runs the region's mass transit, said it would cost an additional $500,000 a year in fuel, time and lost passenger revenue to reroute its buses. Becker cited federal figures for the Liberty Bell Pavilion that showed 1.58 million people visited in 2000 and only 921,000 in 2002.
"I'm not saying a lot of it isn't September 11th-related, but I can't believe making it even more inaccessible will help," he said. Before the attacks, visitors merely stood in line to see the Liberty Bell in its glassed pavilion or to take a guided tour of Independence Hall. Now there is airport-like screening, and escorts take visitors to the buildings. Becker says he believes a lot of people are skipping the whole process and going to other historical buildings nearby, such as Carpenters' Hall, the Second Bank of the United States or the homes of Benjamin Franklin or Betsy Ross, where there is no security hassle.
Kevin Meeker, who owns Philadelphia Fish & Company, a restaurant near Third and Chestnut streets, two blocks from Independence Hall, said his business has suffered dramatically.
"People from Rohm and Haas, a big business on Sixth Street, used to come over for lunch all the time," he said. "Now, bam -- they can't walk through, so it's too much of a hassle for them to come. Tourists can't drive to this side of the building easily, so unless they are already over here, I've lost them."
Meeker believes, as do others in the neighborhood, that the alleged security concerns merely fit into the Park Service's long-term agenda to close all streets around Independence Park.
"But this isn't Yellowstone. It's a real city. That's what the charm of it is. I don't think the Park Service understands that," he said.
"It's true, we originally wanted to close other streets around Independence Hall, but we believe what we did here is prudent and judicious," said Donald W. Murphy, deputy director of the National Park Service. "The argument that just because we can't protect against every eventuality, that we shouldn't protect against any, isn't sensible."
Murphy acknowledged that the Park Service had long wanted to close Chestnut Street in front of Independence Hall to vehicular traffic. It wasn't because of terrorism, he said, but pedestrians: Their safety was the main concern.
Meanwhile, Meredith's ad hoc committee, the Coalition to Free Chestnut Street, which includes Becker and Buller, has started handing out "Free Chestnut Street" buttons and has obtained its own security report, prepared by Washington-based Chadwick Associates Inc.
"The protection afforded by closing Chestnut Street is essentially meaningless to prevent a successful attack by a determined terrorist. When weighed against symbolic, economic, historical, cultural and safety factors, it is simply not worth the cost," reads the report. In any case, the report says, terrorists of late have tended to want "mass civilian casualties," and because so few people are in Independence Hall at one time -- no more than a few hundred -- its value as a target is not as great as the Park Service may believe.
The mayor's office and the Park Service say they are reevaluating the security measures, but the Park Service is adamant about keeping the street closed. It is the mayor's decision whether to close the street, however, and he is being urged to overturn it by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who lives in the city, and Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D), a former Philadelphia mayor who said of the barriers: "It looks like we are cowering in dread. It looks like al Qaeda has won."
Becker is less vitriolic.
"To me, when I look out my window and see Independence Hall, it reminds me that liberty is the fundamental value of the republic, and seeing it in shackles doesn't do anyone any good," he said.