05/20/2007 - Where is Philadelphia headed? Is its civic spirit rising or on the decline? Are its leaders in both the private and public sectors actively engaged in shaping its future, or are they largely “weak, inadequate and disengaged,” stewards of a city that “settles for being just okay”?Those sobering quotes come from a 1999 Pew-supported study of Philadelphia by Basil J. Whiting with Tony Proscio, who clearly did not mince words. But was the situation beyond repair? Earlier this year, they sought to answer that question in a follow-up report, Philadelphia 2007: Prospects and Challenges.
The data on crime, poverty, local taxes and jobs remain grim, Whiting and Proscio found. But they also uncovered data that indicated a higher quality of local life. Even more, they found a new spirit among the city’s leaders. What they did not find, however, was much collaboration between public and civic leadership—an absence that could undermine the good that had emerged since 1999.
But it was a promising start. As they note in the report, “While leadership that is positive and engaged may not guarantee success and progress, leadership that is disengaged and negative almost certainly guarantees failure and decline.”
Philadelphia 2007 evaluates the city’s strengths and weaknesses relative to six comparable American cities: Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Detroit and Pittsburgh. It defines the factors that are working for and against these cities and identifies issues that most affect their future trajectories, and it compares today’s Philadelphia with that of eight years ago.
The authors split the cities between them, collected available studies and relevant news stories, and interviewed a wide range of observers and decisionmakers in each city about the major factors that seem to be governing their city’s economic and social health. Whiting covered Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston and Philadelphia; Proscio, Cleveland, Detroit and Pittsburgh. The authors also engaged the Urban Institute to collect and examine a wide array of data on the seven cities and their surrounding regions.
Whiting and Proscio were struck by two positive changes in Philadelphia—the surge in development in Center City and surrounding neighborhoods and a new sense of optimism in the city’s leadership. They note that, for the most part, the 39 civic and political leaders interviewed for the new report “reject the fatalism and negativism that we found so common eight years ago.”
At the same time, they call the leadership “bifurcated.” On one side of the divide are the administration of Mayor John Street and its allies, “feeling misunderstood and mistreated.” On the other is a decentralized civic and community leadership that is “positive and bustling with projects.”
Contact between those two realms is limited, the writers state: “To be sure, plenty of good things are happening in Philadelphia these days that can be attributed to the work of those marching on either sidewalk. This progress may well continue. But one wonders what will happen if they encounter a fork in the road, if one group wants to do something the other doesn’t want to see happen, or if something needs doing that both support but that would require both to work in close harmony.”
This finding is perhaps the most nuanced among others that are more clear-cut. For instance, Whiting and Proscio applaud the following:
- An expansion of Philadelphia’s tax abatement program has allowed Center City and surrounding neighborhoods to share in the nationwide housing boom of the first half of this decade, helping create an exciting, 24-hour environment downtown that has contributed to the city’s sense of forward momentum.
- Mayor Street’s five-year Neighborhood Transformation Initiative has had signal successes, including the speedy execution of an abandoned- car removal program and thousands of market-rate housing units built, planned or under construction. The initiative’s goal of demolishing 14,000 vacant buildings has been missed, however, with only 4,551 brought down.
- Philadelphia’s institutions of higher education, which have long made major economic contributions to the city, have “stepped up” further in recent years by working successfully to improve their surrounding communities.
- Tourism, the Navy Yard (a 1,200- acre site now dedicated to private development) and the airport have become important drivers of economic growth.
On the other hand, the writers identify problems that, they acknowledge, might not surprise locals:
- The high tax burden and cost of doing business in Philadelphia remain economic drags.
- School test scores, while improving, are still among the worst in the state with two-digit disparities between whites and African Americans. Since 2002, however, retention and graduation rates have increased, and more schools are meeting the standards of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation.
- Philadelphia is still losing both people and jobs. Between 2000 and 2005, the city’s population of 1.5 million declined by 55,000, and 37,000 jobs were lost.
- A quarter of the population lives in poverty, up by 2 percent since 2000.
- Recent data indicate that crime is rising again. 2006 was the city’s worst year for homicides since 1997, with 406 murders, up from 380 in 2005.
Whiting and Proscio place Philadelphia’s “prospects and challenges” in the context of similar American cities. For example, mayoral leadership has contributed to significant improvements in Atlanta and Baltimore in recent years. Although traditional business leadership is declining virtually everywhere, a more decentralized leadership structure is taking its place. Once-cloistered “eds and meds”—universities and hospitals— have emerged as major players in city after city. Philanthropies are playing an increased role in helping cities grapple with their biggest problems. And demographic problems or weak regional economies can undermine the efforts of even the most enlightened civic leaders.
“So,” the writers state in conclusion about Philadelphia, “how do all of these positive and negative factors balance out now and for the next several years? Is the optimism of the moment among many of those leaders we interviewed justified?” Polls of voters conducted last year, they say, were “strikingly negative” about the city’s prospects, while much of the euphoria came from “new leaders” and Center City residents. “People riding the crest of a wave they have helped create perhaps understandably think it is the wave of the future. Is it in this case?”
Much will depend, they say, on whether the positive factors continue and the damaging ones can be turned around, and especially on whether leaders in the public, private and civic realms “can make common cause when needed.” Currently, they note, “the optimists seem to hold the field.”