Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Philadelphia Story: 2008-2010

My personal Philadelphia story actually begins in August 2007, when my sister started graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. Since I was in the middle of summer break while attending the University of Michigan, I went and drove with Suzanne to her new place in the Graduate Hospital Neighborhood. I enjoyed Philly, but being a Midwesterner, I was a bit overwhelmed by the traffic, density, trash, and heat the only a sweltering Philadelphia summer can provide. I remember leaving on a Wednesday morning entering Walnut Street traffic near Rittenhouse Square and congratulating myself that I would never have to experience Philly traffic in my lifetime. Two hours later after sitting in rush hour traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway, I was on my way back to Ann Arbor.

On second thought, perhaps the Philadelphia story begins in the fall of 1993, when my dad had a sabbatical in Princeton, New Jersey. One of the great things about that year was we went somewhere every weekend, and I remember a weekend in early November going to Philadelphia for the first time. By chance, the week before I had come across a couple of books on urban planning in Philadelphia at the John Witherspoon Middle School library. The first was a book written by Edmund Bacon that was essentially a simplified version of his plan for Center City Philadelphia that was written in 1962, while the second was written ten years later comparing Philadelphia and Upper Darby, noting the serious racial and employment problems facing the former and the growing fortunes of the latter. During our trip to Philadelphia, I remember seeing Old City, clamoring for a drive through Society Hill, seeing my favorite revolutionary heroes at Independence Hall (for the record they are James Madison and John Adams, although John Marshall should have a big statue towering over dwarf-sized paintings of libertarians such as Jefferson and Charles Pickney). On the drive and walking around I also saw the woes facing a post-industrial city; homeless men begging in the shadow of Independence Hall, rundown and forgotten neighborhood in Kensington and Port Richmond from the heights of Interstate 95, and the sheer shabbiness of a worn and tired city.

To make a long story short, in July 2008 Susan and I moved to metropolitan Philadelphia for her Lilly Residency at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church. While reluctant to leave Ann Arbor, I did have fond memories of the region, especially from the two previously mentioned visits. While Susan thrived at her position at Bryn Mawr (which itself was undergoing a period of transition), the long time it took to find a job in Philadelphia made loving the region rather hard. While working for the Obama campaign was enjoyable, riches were made at the ballot box, not in the wallet. Spending hours networking for jobs and trolling employment boards was not life sustaining, although doing this from the comfort of a charming row house under the supervision of a lounging cat was enjoyable at times.

Yet it was through this miserable job hunt that I grew to love many things about the city. Temping in Center City exposed me to the joy of riding the trolley line and subways through parts of West Philadelphia kept me going through the early part of 2009. Working at the University City District in the second half of 2009 had me walking through almost all of West Philadelphia, seeing an array of housing stock and people that one rarely has the opportunity to view from a car. Doing consulting research for Bill Golderer at Broad Street Ministries led me to connect with Arch Street Presbyterian Church, a congregation in the heart of Center City that had once been a leading conservative stronghold in the Presbyterian Church that had been left for dead over the past twenty years. Becoming in a member there in October 2009 was a highlight from my time in Philadelphia.

Getting a job at the People’s Emergency Center (PEC) was another highpoint in my Philadelphia story. Working at a community development corporation which operated on the fringe of University City in neighborhoods that had seen the worst of disinvestment and urban blight over the past sixty years was a challenge, but also a great joy. How do you work in a community that is bordered on one side by the University of Pennsylvania, on the other side by Drexel University, and is surrounded by neighborhoods with rates of concentrated poverty (poverty rates over 40%)? PEC makes this happen, and I’m sure that it will continue to do so in the coming years under the new leadership of Farah Jimenez.

I am most thankful for PEC’s ability to help me flesh out some of the challenges and promises facing Philadelphia. Philadelphia has so many things going to its advantage, whether an affordable cost of living, a number of great neighborhoods, a host of colleges and universities that puts it in the second tier of global cities, great transportation networks (although the highway system is a nightmare) and a diverse mix of employers. At the same time, the city of Philadelphia is trapped under the weight of decades of demographic changes and poor choices. The city’s population has dropped from 2,071,605 in 1950 to a low of 1,517,550 in 2000 (although it has rebounded to 1,547,297 by 2009). Philadelphia’s poverty rate is 24.3%, while only 80% of residents had a high school degree in 2005, and 23% have a college degree.

Add to these woes Philadelphia’s governmental structure that is fifty years out of date. The city’s workforce has not significantly declined over the past fifty years. In 1960 the city had 27,500 employees for a population of 2 million, while in 2009 it had 24,585 workers for 1.5 million, meaning that 14% of the population works in the public sector (a percentage that is comparable to the national average of 15%). Adjusted for inflation, the city’s budget has increased from $2 billion in 1960 to $4 billion today. Why the enormous difference in spending? If you said libraries, pools, and parks, you are wrong; these three departments have seen their numbers decline significantly over the past twenty years. As noted in the Pew Center’s Philadelphia’s Quiet Crisis, $800 million of this money goes to pay for benefits for governmental employees. While the pay for public sector employees in Philadelphia is comparable to the national average, Philadelphia offers extremely generous benefits that require very little in terms of employee and retiree contributions. At the same time, adjusted for inflation, the per capita cost for this government spending has increased significantly over the past fifty years; in 1960 the cost of city government per person was $942, while in 2010 it is $2,600.

To pay for this increased spending over the past fifty years, the city has had to work with a smaller tax base in which poorer people compose a greater percentage of the population, doubly increasing the city’s tax burden. While much of the burden has been passed on to city workers (both residents and non residents) who pay a wage tax that brings in 46% of the city’s revenue, increases in property and sales taxes are much more apparent.

How can the city get a handle on increased taxes to pay salaries and benefits? By right-sizing the municipal workforce to eliminate useless departments and redirect the workforce towards public safety and amenities that will provide dividends down the road. By requiring existing city workers to pay a larger share of their health care benefits and pensions similar to the national average of 9% of their salary to ensure the long-term financial viability of the pension fund, while increasing the retirement age and switching to a defined benefit system for new hires. By reforming the property tax collection and reassessing properties to ensure a fair and equitable property tax system. By eliminating the business privilege tax to increase the competitiveness of the city as a place to do business and remain a center of economic growth. By making the State of Pennsylvania comply with the PA Supreme Court’s ruling to fund the county court system, a cost of $100 million a year that the Republicans in Harrisburg are unwilling to deal with, despite their love of local government.

Whatever woes befall the city of Philadelphia, the suburbs are not immune to these troubles. Already in eastern part of Delaware County and pockets of Montgomery and Chester Counties there are areas of growing poverty that challenge this region’s bright economic and social future. Having lived in Lower Merion Township, I know that the fortunes of even one of the wealthiest townships in the Philadelphia region are forever tied with the communities that surround it, whether it is Haverford Township or Philadelphia.

Part of Philadelphia’s governmental malaise lies in its history of one party rule. Since the 1830s, the city has enjoyed extended periods of one party rule, whether by the Jacksonian Democrats (1832-1860s), the Republican machine that governed a city that was “corrupt and contented” (1871-1951), and the Democratic reform coalition (1951-present) that has gradually evolved into a regime that preserves the status quo in an era of economic and demographic transformation. While a partisan Democrat, I firmly believe in the two-party system that requires a careful check on both the role of government and destiny of a community. This is a problem not only in Philadelphia, but in the central part of Pennsylvania.

On November 4, due to a fire on an R5 line that I rode from Bryn Mawr during the SEPTA strike (instead of my normal commute of taking the Norristown line to the Market-Frankfort Subway Line), I walked on Lancaster Avenue from City Line to Center City, a walk of about 5 miles. In a sense, Lancaster Avenue displays the racial divisions within the metropolitan region as shown in the map above. You can also see the economic fortunes of the region as one walks through west Philadelphia, from the areas of growing poverty in Overbrook, the sheer amount of abandonment between 59th and 48th Streets, the slowly revitalizing portions from 44th Street to 38th, to the Drexel University area south of 38th Street. While one can easily see the challenges that face the City of Philadelphia, one can easily see the potential for the 21st century city.

As I take leave of Philadelphia for the big sky of Dallas, Texas, I will fondly remember my time in Philadelphia. The city of William Penn and Edmund Bacon, of Benjamin Franklin and Jon Wanamaker, of Richard Allen and Wilson Goode, of Pattie LaBelle and Wilt Chamberlain, and of Ed Rendell and James Logan continues to inspire and point to a more perfect union of hope and reality. And for this I am ever thankful.

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