In 1979, Chicago’s streets weren’t adequately plowed after a snowstorm. As a result, Mayor Michael Bilandic lost his bid for re-election. After similar snowstorms in Philadelphia, where the streets were deplorable for days, almost 80 percent of voters said "job well done" to then-Mayor Michael Nutter, and rewarded him with another term.
That type of passive neglect has been pervasive in Philadelphia for decades, cementing the city’s reputation as one with virtually no promise of a renaissance-like turnaround. And the numbers bear that out.
A study by the Pew Charitable Trust found that many with the means to leave the city do, as almost 300,000 white residents (one-third of that population) have fled over the last 25 years. Another Pew study showed that, by a large margin, more families with children are leaving the city than coming in. Those who can’t flee get further crushed by an incompetent government.
This is Philadelphia, birthplace of America. It doesn’t, and shouldn’t, have to be this way.
An acquaintance from London recently arrived in Philadelphia for the first time. Like any good tour guide, this author whisked him off for cheesesteaks at both Pat’s and Geno’s in South Philadelphia. They did not disappoint.
But so much else did.
Since it’s human nature to gloss over that which has become all too familiar, it often takes someone else’s perspective to "see" what’s really there. And after driving around the city, what’s "there" was, on the whole, undesirable. Graffiti. Homelessness. Unkempt houses. A dearth of green space. Malfunctioning parking meters. Trash. Poverty. Incompetence. And trash.
It’s downright embarrassing. And quite frankly, people should be sick of it.
Try talking about how "great" Philadelphia is, and truth be told, it feels more like we’re convincing ourselves rather than impressing guests. This isn’t a new phenomenon, but one that has plagued us for years.
We should have boldly emerged from the shadow of our big brother to the north and the nation’s capital to the south to become a unique destination in our own right, not an also-ran town that serves merely as a pit stop on the way to "better" places.
We should be a world-class city. But we’re not.
Will things ever change? Can people jettison their inferiority complex born of perpetual malaise, and replace it with bona fide pride? Hopefully, but not likely, because Philadelphia has, for so long, been victimized by a toxic disease that destroys the very essence of its people: Impotent leadership.
Since London is in a class by itself, let’s look at Boston – another older, East Coast city – to see why it’s a thriving, vibrant metropolis, while Philly remains stagnant. And for the record, you know things are bad when you’re getting whipped by a city that happens to be in the most liberal state in the country.
Above all, Philadelphia kills itself by being the highest-taxed city in America (cumulatively), levying taxes on sales (2 percent higher than the rest of Pennsylvania), amusements, parking, business income and receipts, hotel rooms, cigarettes, liquor, use and occupancy, net profits, vehicle rental, outdoor advertising, trash, real estate, and, of course, the city wage tax. And let’s not forget the new soda tax. It’s already cost hundreds of jobs, with thousands more to follow, because people are now shopping outside the city – not just for soda, but for all their food needs, decimating the city’s mom-and-pop grocery stores.
Higher taxes result in fewer residents, businesses, and jobs, and, therefore, produce less revenue. In turn, that leads to diminished city services, including an underfunded fire department – which, we just learned, was the primary reason why a firefighter tragically died.
Philadelphia owns the highest or near-highest rates of poverty, homelessness, violence and murder; its education system produces abysmal results; its city pension is catastrophically underfunded; and opening a business is fraught with bureaucracy, and, some say, extortion – both "legal" and otherwise.
Philadelphia doesn’t have the luxury of being Washington or New York, where being downtown is a necessity, so the margin of error for Philly’s leaders is extremely small. And for those empty nesters and white-collar types who enjoy living in Center City, they are one mugging away from packing it up and moving back to the suburbs.
But rather than embarking on a course that would revive the city, Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council have done what the politicians always do: Put the screws to the residents who can’t afford to vote with their feet.
Compare that to Beantown. Sure, it has its share of taxes, but it educational product is significantly better, and its crime rate lower. Granted, it’s a smaller city, but comparatively, the rates are light years apart.
Boston has made huge strides in preserving green space and cleaning up pollution (such as the now-pristine Boston Harbor), with parks throughout the city. Its public transportation is top notch, and its infrastructure is being improved at an aggressive pace. And the entire downtown area is remarkably clean.
Knowing that quality of life is critical to maintaining a productive workforce, Boston has made its waterfronts safe meccas for entertainment, dining, shopping, and a host of outdoor activities. Contrast that to Fairmount Park, which while beautiful, is shady in many parts – and not from the trees. And for decades, we’ve heard nothing but empty promises from Philadelphia’s leaders about how both the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers – Penn’s Landing in particular – would be fully developed. The failure to do this has resulted in a colossal waste of prime space. And the bike/walking path that was finally constructed along a stretch of the Schuylkill? Plagued by muggings and violence.
So how is it that so many other cities successfully develop much smaller waterways, making them fantastic tourist magnets, such as in Cincinnati and San Antonio, yet Philadelphia, with not one but two major river systems, hasn’t done squat with either one?
Philadelphia obviously isn’t going to bulldoze skyscrapers to make way for green space and riverwalks. But in areas where its leaders could have exercised bold vision, they failed. One of their biggest blunders was ignoring the immensely successful model of "neighborhood" ballparks, where fans stream into local pubs and shops before and after games, creating a lucrative spinoff effect – such as Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, and newer ones in Baltimore, Cincinnati and Denver. Instead, Philly’s leaders chose to build in the middle of nowhere. As a result, the majority of fans never spend a dime outside the ballpark. A new baseball stadium near 30th Street should have been the goose that laid the golden egg, but leaders were too chicken to do the right thing.
Same for the Navy Yard, which, with its vast acreage, could be developed into a world-class entertainment facility, connected to Center City by monorail or ferry. Yet it sits unused, just another dream floating away while the competition gets it right.
Another missed opportunity is the brimming-with-potential S.S. United States – once the fastest ocean liner in the world. Other cities’ leaders would have done whatever was necessary to make her a first-class attraction, such as the Queen Mary in Long Beach, Calif. She could be a mega casino hotel, or filled with museums, shops and restaurants. But instead, she rusts away on the Delaware, seemingly destined for the junkyard while political leaders do nothing.
It is beyond frustrating to visit other cities that have their act together, knowing that Philadelphia’s potential outranks damn near all of them. But potential doesn’t get the job done. Rolling up the sleeves and putting in the hard work does. Contrary to the fairy-tale fluff spewed at press conferences, Philadelphia is not on a path to prosperity. And because of its failed leadership – and a population that no longer demands greatness – more folks will leave, and Philadelphia will continue its sad decline.
Philadelphia is better than that, and Philadelphians deserve more. It’s time to demand backbone from our leaders so that Philly can be the world-class city it was born to be.
As Benjamin Franklin so presciently said: "Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning."
Hey City Hall – anyone listening?
Chris Freind is an independent columnist and commentator. His print column usually appears every Wednesday. He can be reached at [email protected].