When I interviewed for this job, PW’s managing editor asked me what was one thing I would change about Philadelphia if I could. It’s not an easy question, but what I came up with was: I would get people to care more about their city, to believe it could change for the better. Not caring isn’t our biggest problem in the immediate sense, but caring and working for change would lead to many of those larger problems being solved.
I still think that’s the right answer, but it still, at times, seems as unlikely now as it did then.
Philadelphians act like we are passionate, and in some ways we truly are. When it comes to our sports teams, we take a backseat to no one in the intensity of support we give and how much we care about their success. And that is a good thing — sports are one of the few remaining things that cut across race, class, and local geography. Even that pitiful wild card game on Sunday brought folks together in cheering on the Eagles.
In food and culture, too, we sometimes show that we care. Is there any publication in Philly that does not publish a “best cheesesteak” piece annually?
These things are not unimportant; food, sports, art, and culture make our lives better when they are good and bring us together as a community. But when it comes to our government — especially our city government — we give up the fight before it begins.
We call it the Philly Shrug, and if you’ve lived here a while, you’re intimately familiar with it.
Bring up the failures of city government, the convicted criminal who sits on City Council, the federally indicted member who sits there with him, the bid-rigging scandal of the early pandemic, the crumbling streets, the high taxes, the failing schools, the soaring crime, the general and persistent ineptitude, and the response is a shrug. “What are ya gonna do?” we ask. “You can’t fight City Hall.”
The thing is: you can.
We act as though there is a powerful Democratic machine that delivers services to its friends and freezes out its enemies. That was once the case; from the time of Mayor James Tate in the 1960s through even the Ed Rendell and John Street administrations, the Democratic City Committee was the government. Go through the machine, and you might get the city to take care of its responsibilities. Go around it, and you’re bound to run into a brick wall of non-compliance and indifference.
That machine still exists, but it is on life support, like party organizations across the country. Political outsiders can run and win against the wishes of the machine, something that never used to be true.
Rebecca Rhynhart’s 2017 primary win over incumbent City Controller Alan Butkovitz is a perfect example of this: An outsider with dreams of changing the city ousted an incumbent who was elected by the machine and endorsed by them. Since taking office, Rhynhart has been a rare voice for honest government in City Hall.
Fighting City Hall is easier when even the well-connected find city services to be a shadow of their former selves. The city was never run efficiently, as such, but it used to be that if you worked the system, things would eventually get done. It doesn’t make a lot of sense that you would talk to a Democratic committeeman to get a pothole filled instead of, say, contacting the Streets Department, but if the work got done, who’s going to complain?
The problem now is that the work doesn’t get done.
Things are falling apart, crime is skyrocketing, and all Philadelphians do is shrug and re-elect the same bums that presided over years of decay and neglect. Some Democratic big-shots have finally begun to turn on the District Attorney — right after he won a second four-year term in office. It’s too little and too late, but we all shrugged our way through the election season, even as murder reached a record high. 526 dead? What are ya gonna do?
People care about our city, but feel helpless. Change is possible. All it takes is the desire to give a damn and the energy to turn those cares into action.