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Security Measures Around Independence Hall Draw Community Criticism - 2003-01-21

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Americans have gotten used to increased security around some of the nation's most famous and accessible landmarks. But a new plan for heightened security at Philadelphia's Independence Mall, home of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, is drawing fire from neighbors and local businesses.

Ever since September 11, Independence Hall, the birthplace of American democracy, has been surrounded by a maze of metal barricades and low concrete walls.

The National Park Service, which is responsible for the site, says it wants to build a two to 2.5-meter fence around the elegant Georgian style building, where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776.

Park service spokesman Phil Sheridan says the symbolic value of the Hall and the Liberty Bell, housed just across the street, makes the site a potential target for terrorism.

"We have law enforcement reports. Reports from intelligence agencies that talk that Al Qaida considers bombing places of symbolic value," he said. "And certainly no one could argue that Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell are not great symbols. Overlayed with that is our own security study that told us things we need to do to insure the safety of Independence Hall and our visitors."

The Park Service commissioned the security report last year, and then asked the city to permanently close a block of Chestnut Street that runs past the front of Independence Hall. Cars have been detoured around the block since September 11. And for eight months it's been closed to pedestrians as well.

In December, Philadelphia Mayor John Street agreed to the make the closing permanent. But now, he's reconsidering that decision ... after meeting with local business leaders, like Kenneth Kaiserman, who owns a nearby food court.

"Business has been down since September 11, and so it's just not really coming back," Mr. Kaiserman said. "People, I think this tells people that this area's dangerous. And I think people are a little fearful about coming here."

It's not just local businesses that are opposed to making the security measures permanent. George Thomas, a professor of Urban Studies at the nearby University of Pennsylvania, says a fence around the Bell and Independence Hall would undermine the meaning of the site.

"This isn't just preserving some artifact." he said. "This is intended as a symbol of our liberty, of our ability to mix and interact as we choose. In a sense, it just gives the victory to Osama. It says we are more concerned about these objects than the actual freedom that they connote."

Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell draw tourists from around the world, and across the country. And they have mixed reactions to the heightened security plan.

Tracy Eversoll of Kentucky says it seems appropriate.

"I would want to be safe. I would think this would be a big target area, so it wouldn't bother me," she said.

But Darci Mittouri, visiting from suburban Abbington, Pennsylvania, says the new measures are "over the top."

"We don't want people to be discouraged. If they see fences like that, they're gonna be discouraged, and not gonna want to wait in line or get into things," she said.

Park Service officials say they still hope to see Chestnut Street closed off permanently. Mayor John Street says he'll consult with the Park Service, the police and security experts, before making a final decision, probably next month.

All of which means the temporary barriers around Independence Hall may be around for some time to come.