Vital Signs for Philadelphia

Vital Signs for Philadelphia

Tom Ferrick Jr. is the principal author of the Pew Charitable Trusts' report Philadelphia 2009: The State of the City.

Larry Eichel is the project director of Pew's Philadelphia Research Initiative.

Oct. 31 was a glorious day for the city of Philadelphia. To celebrate the Phillies' victory in the World Series, a jubilant crowd, estimated as high as two million, lined Broad Street to cheer as the hometown heroes paraded by. There was an overwhelming sense of shared civic pride.

But life is not like baseball, where only two outcomes are possible: victory or defeat. Cities are complex organisms, where growth coexists with decay, prosperity brushes up against poverty, and there are enough conflicting signs and indicators to buttress the outlook of optimists and pessimists alike.

For the last 50 years, the Philadelphia story has been one of trying to remain vital while coping with decline. In this decade, the city has made encouraging, albeit modest, progress on a number of key fronts. And at least until the economic downturn arrived with a vengeance last fall, the pace of decline appeared to have slowed. But the fundamental forces of decay have not gone away. In some regards, those forces are as strong as ever.

The numbers tell the story. They depict an economy that boasts relative stability, but little dynamism; a public-education system making progress, but still struggling to get the basics right; a rich and vibrant cultural scene threatened by hard times; a population that is poorer and less healthy than that of most other cities; a crime rate that has declined, but not enough for residents to feel much more secure; and a recession-buffeted city government that must spend a growing proportion of its revenue on the criminal-justice system and benefits for city employees.

For any city, no single indicator is more important than the number of jobs, and Philadelphia is still losing them. But the losses are coming at a slower rate than in the last two decades. A similar pattern appears to be taking shape regarding the city's population, although confirmation awaits the 2010 census. There are signs that the overall head count finally is stabilizing after peaking in 1950 and falling precipitously through the 1970s and 1980s.

Major crime is down substantially compared with 2000, and the murder rate - a day-to-day civic obsession in 2007 - declined 15 percent in 2008. But that does not make Philadelphia a safe city, not when five police officers die in the line of duty in little more than nine months, and when crime is still the top concern in the minds of many residents.

The public schools continue to get low grades from parents, even though the school system in this decade has undergone the most sustained period of genuine change in its history. The charter-school movement alone has opened up new options for families. And a new superintendent, Arlene Ackerman, is talking of more sweeping changes yet to come.

City services get generally high marks, according to a recent poll commissioned by the Philadelphia Research Initiative. That is something of a surprise, considering how much Philadelphians seem to grumble about City Hall. At the same time, the growth in the cost of local government has consistently exceeded the rise in the cost of living over the last decade. Now, the recession is forcing city officials to spend less.

Arts and culture are a strong plus for the city. Millions pay to attend these events - more than go to the games of the four major sports teams. But many cultural organizations are surviving by the skin of their teeth. A further downturn in the economy, with an accompanying decline in charitable contributions, could cause some of them to go under.

Perhaps the most disturbing indicator of all is this: The number of poor people in Philadelphia rose in this decade, even during periods when the nation's economy was booming and the city's overall population was declining.

Philadelphia remains a city where the poor and the near-poor are in the majority. The median household income was $35,431 a year in 2007, less than half of the suburban number and about $15,000 less than the national average. Nearly one in five city families and one in four individuals live below the poverty line.

As for the public's health, Philadelphia is a majority-fat city, with 29 percent of residents describing themselves as obese and an additional 35 percent as overweight. Philadelphia also has higher percentages of smokers, diabetics, asthma sufferers, and adults with hypertension than does the country as a whole. While smoking continues to decline nationally, it appears to have risen slightly in the city during this decade.

For all of the challenges, most Philadelphians appear to be upbeat about the city and its prospects. In the Philadelphia Research Initiative's poll, taken several months after that glorious October day, most residents said they liked their city, their neighborhood, and their mayor, Michael Nutter. When asked whether the city would be a better place to live five years from now, optimists outnumbered pessimists by a ratio of nearly 5-1.

Nothing good comes easy in Philadelphia, but Philadelphians seem to accept that. Their attitude toward the city mirrors their attitude toward its sports teams - a mixture of exasperation and deep affection rooted in an understanding that the lean years make the good times feel that much better. Their hopefulness about the city's future is not naive; they know how deep-seated the problems are. The vitality of the city and the signs of renewal and growth have combined to convince them, at least for now, that tomorrow will be a better day.

They will need to hang on to all of that optimism in the coming year as the effects of the recession settle upon Philadelphia and the nation.