What’s really going on in Philly? It seems that whenever you look around, read the newspaper or turn on the TV, there is some bad news about Philadelphia, also known as the city of brotherly love and sisterly affection.
There is no question the city is in peril, but is this a Philly problem or part of a larger picture?
The birthplace of freedom and Philly soul and the home of cheesesteaks and hoagies received plenty of negative publicity when Kermit Gosnell, a rogue West Philadelphia abortion doctor, went on trial for murdering newborn babies after delivering them alive. Gosnell—who operated a squalid medical clinic that exploited poor immigrant women– was found guilty of three counts of first degree murder and was spared the death penalty in a deal that gave him two consecutive life sentences.
A city in crisis
Then there was the building collapse that left six people dead—including the daughter of the city treasurer— and 13 others injured. The backhoe operator, who had drugs in his system and faces criminal charges, turned himself in. Meanwhile, a lawsuit alleges the contractor on the demolition site failed to follow government requirements.
And just to add to the unwelcome news, the Philadelphia public school system is being picked apart like vultures on a dead carcass. The school district announced it is laying off nearly 3,800 school staff, including secretaries, counselors, assistant principals and others, and making deep cuts to art, music and sports programs. The education crisis has caused student walkouts in recent weeks. If you need further evidence that our children are being funneled into a school-to-prison pipeline, consider that as Philadelphia plans to close 23 schools, Pennsylvania is investing $400 million on two new prisons. This comes as the Republican-controlled state House of Representatives voted to give away $600-800 million in corporate tax breaks per year.
My adopted city of Philly is in crisis. I arrived here 13 years ago to attend the University of Pennsylvania Law School, making the trek from New York City 90 miles to the north. Over that period of time, there have been many positive developments on the come up in this city. For example, there is a bustling arts scene in this so-called “sixth borough” of New York City, lots of new construction—even during the Great Recession—world-class restaurants and a vibrant center city area.
Tea Party is in control
Amid the gentrification and visible signs of prosperity and success in Philly—this is the home of Comcast, parent company of NBC News—the city suffers from the worst poverty rate of America’s big cities at 25 percent.
And Philadelphia’s deep poverty rate of 12.9 percent, which is the percentage of people with incomes below half of the poverty line—outpaces the rest of the nation’s 10 largest cities. Not surprisingly, it is one of the least educated cities. But to make things worse, mayor Michael Nutter is moving ahead with a property tax overhaul that will leave the middle class vulnerable and make the city unaffordable for working families.
Philadelphia bears the burden of living in a peculiar blue state (Obama won Pennsylvania twice) where Tea Party Republicans control both houses of the state legislature and the governor’s office. If Pennsylvania is known as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and Alabama in the middle, well, Alabama is running things in Harrisburg, the state capital.
Unfortunately, Philly is held hostage to Tea Party politicians who want to gut public education in the urban centers, while slashing spending for social services and increasing corporate tax cuts. Further, these conservatives are perceived as insensitive if not openly hostile to Philadelphia and its majority black and brown population. Gov. Tom Corbett (R-PA) recently told the Spanish-language paper Al Día he was unaware of any Latinos working in his administration. “If you can find us one, please let me know,” he said.
Not an outlier but the norm
Yet, Philadelphia is not an outlier, as there are national problems impacting urban communities everywhere. Just look at Chicago, which is plagued by gun violence, and where a Democratic mayor named Rahm Emanuel is hollowing out the public education system with the planned closure of 53 schools.
At the same time, this nation is hollowing out its middle class, poor and working people. Over 15 percent of Americans are in poverty—46.2 million people—including 22 percent of children, 39 percent of black children and 34 percent of Latino children. The gap between rich and poor is increasing, with wealth gaps among whites, blacks and Latinos rising to record levels. The economic downturn and housing collapse of recent years cost blacks and Latinos the most in terms of wealth loss.
America is experiencing a crisis in the finding of public infrastructure, so much so that the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country a poor grade of D+. The price tag to rebuild the U.S. by 2020 is $3.6 trillion, yet there is a lack of will in Washington to make the necessary investments in society.
Looking at what is happening in Philadelphia and elsewhere, I cannot help but think of the immortal words of Philly native son Teddy Pendergrass:
“Wake up everybody, no more sleepin’ in bed
No more backward thinkin’ time for thinkin’ ahead…
The world won’t get no better
If we just let it be
The world won’t get no better
We gotta change it, yeah, just you and me”