As Philadelphians, we love our city. At the same time, we are angry. We are heartbroken and livid as we try to live and grow here. As we enter 2022 and look ahead to city elections in 2023, we have an opportunity to come together, to raise our voices, and to demand better.
Fewer than one in three residents rated the quality of city services “good” or “excellent” on the 2019-20 Philadelphia Resident Survey. An even smaller percentage said their neighborhood had improved or that they were satisfied with their neighborhood schools. These ratings represented a decline from the previous 2016-17 survey — and likely would be worse if the city were to conduct a new survey. Two years into the pandemic, the losses have been profound, including a homicide total that has exceeded 1,000 lives and traumatized thousands more.
Residents are especially agitated by city officials who say they share our anger and heartbreak — but who aren’t doing anything all that different or bold or ambitious. Why, we wonder, does City Council continue to meet on Zoom rather than return to its chambers and hear from community members face-to-face? Why is there such a wave of so many honorific and non-urgent resolutions on Council’s agenda, while the city struggles with high unemployment, record homicides and numerous infrastructure woes? In the most recent full session of Council, nearly half the bills and resolutions passed were honorific or ceremonial in nature, which clearly doesn’t reflect a city in crisis or need. Why the absence of innovative legislation that grapples with and attempts to fix the myriad problems plaguing Philadelphia?
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When local members of Congress held a press conference recently on gun violence at the site of a teenage victim’s unsolved murder in North Philadelphia and failed to invite the victim’s mother, she showed up anyway and said: “The photo ops. This is what the city does … Cameras. No action.”
At a Board of Education meeting the next day, there was more frustration. “In the absence of a plan, families and school staff members deal with confusion and chaos on a daily basis,” Mallika Bender said.
The lack of plans is a root problem. As has been clear for several years, there really is no unified response to the crushing violent crime wave that overtakes much of the city. There is little coordination, for example, between the Police Department, the City and the District Attorney’s office in addressing horrific levels of gun violence. Neither the Board of Education nor the Public Health Department has clearly identified what specific goals are guiding Covid policies in schools. City leaders bemoan decades of high poverty, lagging job creation, and low and inequitable wages, yet few propose meaningful changes in tax, regulatory or economic development policies. In spring 2021, Council spent much of its budgetary debate on a small change in the parking-lot tax—a tax that generates less than 0.2% of city revenue.
Among the biggest U.S. cities (Philadelphia is the sixth largest), ours ranks worst or second worst on education, job creation, homicides, and income inequality. And this has been mostly true for decades. We saw increases in jobs and a decline in murders between 2007 and 2017, but then the city abandoned some of the strategies that made those improvements possible. The pandemic has challenged all cities, of course, but again Philadelphia trails its peers. As Pew Charitable Trusts notes: “Since the arrival of Covid-19 … the city has underperformed the national economy, recovering more slowly than many other cities have. Philadelphia is experiencing lingering job losses, particularly in the low-wage sectors, with black workers and female workers hit the hardest.”
The problem with decades of failure is that the failures obscure the possibility of success. We have become accustomed to the shortcomings: The uncollected garbage. The alarmingly high rate of pedestrian fatalities. Being the overdose capital of the nation. Watching a 20-year difference in life expectancy unfold between neighborhoods no more than a mile or two apart. Philadelphia comes in last in too many categories.
Yet: Other cities pick up their garbage — on time and equally, regardless of zip code. Other cities, as close as Chester, Pa., and Camden, N.J., have actually halved their murder rates. Other cities have shown that economic growth is a better, more equitable way to increase city revenues than continually raising and inventing new taxes. Other cities have found ways to create jobs and improve schools—without pitting neighborhoods and public-school parents against one another.
Are our leaders responsible for the lack of vision that has contributed to decades of failure? Yes, of course. But so are we.
It’s our responsibility as Philadelphians to raise our voices and move our city forward in the face of failed leadership. That’s why we have formed A Greater Philadelphia. It’s time to build a movement of citizens from across the city who love Philadelphia but know it can be so much more than it is. We know you’re out there, and we want to hear from you — and to advocate with you. We’re coming to a neighborhood near you this spring — to every neighborhood, we intend. Watch for free events: town halls, stoop sessions, and more. We’ll conduct resident polls and share the results. We’ll organize speakers to raise their voices at City Council and Board of Education meetings.
It’s our responsibility as Philadelphians to raise our voices and move our city forward in the face of failed leadership.
A Greater Philadelphia is nonprofit and nonpartisan. We are not about any one issue or constituency. We are about moving beyond the “Philly shrug.” We are about reaching for a new era of higher expectations and more effective leadership and governance.
Think it can’t happen? Recall last month’s San Francisco Board of Education recall election. Appalled by the board’s focus on symbolic issues rather than getting students back into well-functioning schools, 36% of that city’s voters turned out and overwhelmingly voted to recall three school board members. (In Philly, we only mustered 21% percent turnout for the District Attorney election last year, despite a record surge in homicides.) Two frustrated parents, talking over a plate of brownies about what could be done, decided to start the recall petition. They had no money and no political stature, but they had motivation.
Fellow residents: we have no choice but to raise our expectations. We have to say enough is enough. We need to get constructively angry and enthusiastically active. It’s time to demand better. It’s time for Philadelphia to have a plan, and that plan starts with articulating the specific and measurable goals we have for our city.
Mark Gleason is a partner in The Drexel Fund, an education nonprofit, and led the Philadelphia School Partnership from 2011-2021. He is a co-founder of A Greater Philadelphia at greaterphila.org.