Homeless encampments are being erected in downtown Philadelphia, bringing unrest and unease to the city.
One problem in a democracy is that we are ruled by the people, but the people suffer from a mental defect: we are unable to learn from the mistakes of previous generations. That is not to say that none of us learn from history, but most people do not. The rise in supporters of socialism among the younger millennials and Gen Z kids is proof of this concept and baffling to those of us old enough to remember the Cold War and the millions who died under communism.
A smaller-scale lapse in historical memory is at work on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway right now. Philadelphia used to have areas in which the average citizen was afraid to travel. Homeless encampments in the 1980s typified a city that many saw as irretrievably broken, where law and order was fading fast and where fear for your safety was an everyday concern.
The worst of the homeless encampments was in the underground passageways that link skyscrapers and subways. A “cardboard city” arose in the South Broad concourse that even most homeless people feared to enter, a public space occupied by a collection of the homeless whose criminal behavior had gotten them tossed out of every shelter in the city. Writing for The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1989, reporter Tom Ferrick described the scene: “There are human feces on the stairway. An agglomeration of bodies and blankets on the concrete floor. And when the subway rumbles by, up wafts warm air thick with the odor of urine.”
The Wilson Goode administration attempted to oust the squatters from time to time, but it was not until Ed Rendell came to office that any serious attempt was made to make downtown less dangerous. Typically, the effort centered on making out-of-town visitors more comfortable, rather than concern for those of us who still lived or worked in the city. Again, the Inquirer captures the mood, with reporter Doreen Carvajal noting in a 1993 article that “[w]ith the opening of the Pennsylvania Convention Center scheduled for June, city officials and business leaders have become worried about the effect of the homeless on the city’s image.”
Whatever their reasoning, asserting the rule of law over the underground concourses (along with the rest of Center City) was the key to a successful effort to revitalize Philly’s downtown. People may talk about the property tax abatement, but our property taxes are already low. What reversed the decline was safety and the protection of the average citizen’s rights. People will not move to a place where they feel unsafe unless they have no other option.
What reversed the decline [in Philadelphia] was safety and the protection of the average citizen’s rights. People will not move to a place where they feel unsafe unless they have no other option.
For decades, Center City has not been a place where people had to look over their shoulders, even at night. Nor has it been a place where residents would expect their property to be damaged, let alone “occupied.” Homelessness exists in Philadelphia as it does in all major cities, and as it has throughout time immemorial, but people walking around downtown did not tend to have violent run-ins with the homeless there. They co-existed, helped by the expansion of shelters that was a part of Rendell’s 1993 effort.
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But as protests turned to riots in the summer of 2020, city officials seem to have forgotten — deliberately or by having their hands forced — the necessity of safety in keeping our revitalized city alive. The Parkway homeless encampments also began as a protest, but it has become an occupation, and a seemingly permanent one. At a time when indoor entertainment is nearly shut down, Philadelphians (especially those who live downtown) would normally flock to the ballfields along the Parkway. Those green spaces are part of what makes the Parkway the city’s premier boulevard. Instead of the parks that their taxes go towards maintaining and in which their children play, city residents look upon a lawless zone of squatters who have taken public lands and used them for private, political purposes.
Those purposes recreate the cardboard city of the 1980s, with a modern twist. Nylon tents are an improvement on refrigerator boxes, but the bigger change is in the radical-chic political gloss put on the lawlessness. The old homeless encampments were not politically powerful — how could they be, really? Perhaps that is why they were cleared out by the first mayoral administration willing to make an effort.
But this movement is different. To start with: it is a movement, not just the absence of law. Seizing public land in 2020 is considered political, which gives the new “residents” the veneer of activism. Politically connected radicals have fused the spirit of Occupy Wall Street with the inhabitants of the streets to write a new, old chapter in Philadelphia’s history: organized squatting.
Nylon tents are an improvement on refrigerator boxes, but the bigger change is in the radical-chic political gloss put on the lawlessness.
And what is the effect on the neighborhood? The members of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA) will tell you. It has made their lives hell. In an op-ed in the Inquirer on Sunday, Dennis J. Boylan, president of the LSNA, bent over backwards to sympathize with the plight of the homeless. And he is right to do so: homelessness is a travesty for those experiencing it. But Boylan is also right to note that “the current camp conditions and the environment it has created have had a considerable impact on the camp, neighborhood, and surrounding area. It is unsustainable and untenable for all.”
Or so you’d think. But the city has refused to clean it up, punting time after time over this summer of deep unrest.
The people of Logan Square and Fairmount have built their lives there based on the implicit promise that the city would enforce the law and keep order in the neighborhood. The value of their homes is a concern, but not the only one. Lawlessness multiplies if left unchecked. Squatting and rioting leave the impression that no one is in charge, no one’s rights are protected, and no one is safe.
Mayor Kenney has resorted to his typical tactic—inaction—but the situation will not resolve itself. A decision must be made, and the buck stops with the mayor. Will Kenney side with the city residents who have built homeless encampments in a downtown that many once shunned? Or with the activists who would return to those bad old days and have Philadelphia slide back into lawlessness and decay?