The panoramic Benjamin Franklin Parkway may be splendid to behold for those looking to rationalize Philadelphia’s status as a world city.
But to the tens of thousands of tourists and local folks who gather each March to revel in what may be the nation’s oldest annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, the Parkway often feels more like the basin of the Grand Canyon, with its wide-open spaces and paucity of public amenities.
Even the port-o-potties can seem miles away.
This year, event organizers are striving for more of a cozy, old Dublin tone and have rerouted the festive mile-long march for the first time in more than two decades. The shops, pubs and restaurants of Market East, along with City Hall, Dilworth Park and Independence Hall, will be the new backdrop for a tradition that pre-dates the nation itself.
“We’re going to be on this route for the next two years, that’s for sure. And as a board we’d like to stay here for a long time,” said Bill Ivers, president of the St. Patrick’s Day Observance Association.
To help it meet the financial obligations of staging such an affair, the association is hosting a public fundraiser on Sunday, Feb. 19, at the Fraternal Order of Police hall, 11630 Caroline Road, in the Northeast from 3 to 7 p.m. The event will feature live Irish music and dance groups, a buffet and adult beverages. Admission costs $40.
The parade will be on Sunday, March 12, at noon. Although other cities, namely Boston and New York, lay claim to the oldest St. Patrick’s Day parades in the world, Ivers is convinced that Philadelphia is the rightful holder of that title. Philly’s public march began in 1771, whereas previous observances in other cities were generally private religious affairs befitting a feast day for Ireland’s patron saint.
By contrast, Philadelphia’s very public parade has grown to include about 200 marching groups ranging in size from a couple dozen to several hundred. And perhaps 80,000 spectators will line the route, which will begin at 16th Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard, circle the south side of City Hall and proceed eastward on Market Street to Fifth.
The performance area, grandstands, reviewing stand and Fox 29 TV booth will be set up on Independence Mall. The Independence Visitors Center will be open to the public and will also house restricted access hospitality areas, replacing the usual catering tents.
Reading Terminal Market, Chinatown, Independence Beer Garden, the National Constitutional Center, the Old City business district and the National Memorial to An Gorta Mor (Ireland’s Great Hunger of the 1840s and ’50s) are all in close walking distance of the parade route. Shuttles will run between Fourth Street and the SugarHouse Casino, which will be available for spectator and participant parking.
The march will follow essentially the same route as the city’s successful Veterans Day parade, held each November. The former St. Patrick’s Day route also began at 16th and JFK before proceeding north to the Parkway and northwest to Eakins Oval. While grandiose, the route was less than intimate due to the sheer width of the street with its 10 lanes of blacktop.
Ongoing construction on the Vine Street Expressway accelerated the effort to find an alternative route. Mayor Jim Kenney, Councilman Bobby Henon and state Rep. Mike Driscoll were key supporters of the change.
“The Parkway is all dug up. Bridges are being rebuilt,” Ivers said. “The Parkway is so wide and windy out there (anyway), so there’s no place for people to go into.”
In addition to revealing the new route recently via the parade’s official website, philadelphiastpatsparade.com, organizers announced this year’s grand marshal, honorees and theme, “Protect and Guide Our Police Officers.”
Barney Boyce of the Donegal Association will be grand marshal. The 2017 Ring of Honor includes Assistant District Attorney Jude Conroy, Philadelphia GAA Chairman Gerard Dillon, retired Family Court Officer John J. Dougherty Sr., IUOE Local 542 Business Manager Robert T. Heenan, Michael P. Meehan Esq., Thomas N. O’Donnell of AOH Division 39, Police Chief Inspector Joseph Sullivan, Police Capt. William Maye, Police Lt. Edward P. Monaghan, University of Pennsylvania Police Officer Edward Miller and retired Philadelphia police officers Patrick Boyle, Robert Hurst and James E. Lennox.
The Feb. 19 fundraiser will include performances by Ray Coleman and Luke Jardel, The Shantys, Ballina, the Emerald Pipe Band and Celtic Flame Dancers. Contact Joe Fox at 215-429-0193 or Ed Dougherty at 267-879-6107 for tickets. ••