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Get caught up on Connor's Civic Season

Miss an installment of Connor Barwin’s Civic Season?  Don’t worry, we’re like the Netflix of civic engagement.  Get caught up on all things Connor Barwin here.

Connor Barwin’s Civic Season

A season of civic matchups proved Philly is on the upswing

One thing you should know about me: I’m a homer by nature. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the Detroit area, and my dad was a city manager right outside of the city, but it’s always meant a lot to me to be locally patriotic. That’s why, even though we had a disappointing season on the field, it felt great to compare our city from a civics standpoint against the cities we played all year. I was really proud of how Philly stacked up. We were competitive in almost every data category, and, even though we didn’t win every match up, we were always close.

Taken together, the conclusion of our season-long data journey was inescapable: We’re a city on the upswing.

My go-to expert all season long was Professor Richardson Dilworth of Drexel’s Center for Public Policy. He helped interpret the numbers and tease out the compelling points of comparison. Last week, we got together at Bud & Marilyn’s at 13th and Locust, for some great meatloaf and fried chicken, and to talk about the American city. We talked about next season—maybe there’s a way to look at our opposing cities more anecdotally, finding solutions that work in each one and take deep dives into them—and we compared notes on what we learned from our first civic season.

Here are some snippets of our conversation:

CB: What a fun way this was to learn about our city, and to start to understand what all of us can do to move the needle locally. Thanks for all your insight. I learned so much. Again and again, the theme seemed to come down to Rust Belt cities versus Sun Belt cities.

RD: Yeah, if a city is in the South, you’re going to have big population growth and the major players are going to be private companies. But teasing it out for more than that is the hard thing. For example, it’s meaningful who has a pro football team—it says something about a place that is something you don’t capture with just stats.

CB: Yeah, we missed some of the finer details of cities, but there were surprises. I knew there had been a lot of change in New Orleans post-Katrina, but the idea that it was gentrification on steroids —I was like, Wow. I didn’t think of Tampa at all. But the mayor there is doing good stuff, and and I recently listened to a TedTalks Radio Hour podcast that was about the difference a mayor can make locally, compared to state or federal politicians. Because a mayor is on the ground and has a more hands-on effect. And I was intrigued by how Miami is set up—it’s actually a geographically really small city.

RD: Yeah, it’s super weird. No other city wanted to consolidate with Miami to make a bigger city. Counties in the South are a big deal. There’s a reason the Dukes of Hazzard was set in Hazzard County, and it was about the sheriff, not the police chief. So Dade County in Florida was powerful enough that it took on extra services and just evolved. This happened a lot throughout the South. A lot of county officials realized they could go for broke and expand and get a really big tax base. Los Angeles County did the same thing. It has the largest municipal government in the country, a $25 billion budget. L.A. county officials are more powerful than L.A. city council members.

Philly could have easily gone the way of Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and St. Louis. But it didn’t, which is the weird thing about it. It’s the only Northeastern city that didn’t fall off a cliff.

CB: As the story of Sun Belt versus Rust Belt cities kept playing out, I started to wonder why, if the manufacturing base started to leave 40 or 50 years ago, these municipalities didn’t seem to plan for a transition to a more information-based economy. The only thing I could think of is that, at the municipal level, unlike at the state or federal level, it’s harder to think strategically long term. I mean, Detroit and Philly leaders had immediate problems they had to address. There were race relation issues going on in the ‘60s and ‘70s in every Rust Belt city, maybe that’s why they didn’t think, ‘Hold on, we’ve got to get a strategy for what happens next.’ They had other, more pressing things to worry about. Like keeping the peace and jobs and fighting crime.

RD: Absolutely, that’s right. And, increasingly, help from state and federal governments was slow in coming. The interesting thing is, if you look at population growth, which is a great barometer of a city’s health, that’s where we get to what you’ve described as your sense of pride in Philly. Because we actually stack up well. 1950 was our highest population ever—2.1 million residents.

CB: And we declined for 50 straight years after that?

RD: Yeah. The decline started in the ‘50s and then in the ‘70s we fell off a little cliff. And then there was steady decline in the ‘80s and ‘90s. We started to flatten out in the early 2000s. And then in 2010, we had a decent population gain, markedly more than Baltimore and nowhere near New York. But if you look at every census between 1790 and 2010, there are only two cities that have been top 10 in terms of population in every single one, and it’s Philly and New York. Of course, New York has such a critical mass, it couldn’t lose enough people to ever become irrelevant. But Philly could have easily gone the way of Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and St. Louis. But it didn’t, which is the weird thing about it. It’s the only Northeastern city that didn’t fall off a cliff.

CB: That’s fascinating. How much of that has to do with geography? When we played Buffalo, we talked about how that city’s decline was due to geography. I remember you saying that once the Erie Canal and the railroads became less important to the economy, Buffalo just became a city on a lake that gets a lot of snow. I thought that was really interesting, because ever since I moved to Philadelphia, I thought we were lucky just to be where we are, close to New York, Washington, D.C., the Jersey Shore.

RD: That definitely plays a crucial role. Also, there are so many medical institutions here. It’s insane how many med schools there are here.

CB: The nation’s first operating room was on Pine Street!

RD: Right. So many were founded in the 19th Century, prior to the Civil War. When there’s a critical mass of education, you tend to be more flexible when transitioning from one economy to the next. We’ve done that much better than Detroit, for example, which was a hugely mechanical economy dependent on one industry. When that goes down, it’s much harder to transition to something else.

The last time Philadelphia annexed an outlying community it was 170 years ago. We were a 2-square mile city that annexed all the land in a 130-square mile county. It was of total national significance. Can you imagine the press if Philadelphia annexed Montgomery, Delaware or Bucks counties? That would be a national story.

CB: But don’t you think that with all the universities here, Philly could be more innovative and further along than we are? I’m thinking of when we played Phoenix and we talked about Arizona State University. They not only have the greenest campus in the country, but the school is actually leading the way in terms of making local government and the city more sustainable. I wish we could ask Penn, Drexel, Temple and a handful of others to show us how to innovate on certain issues. Use your faculty and students to come up with some real solutions. Ask them to figure it out.

RD: The relationship between cities and universities is a real interesting thing. Until 50 or 60 years ago, Philly never had to depend on its education institutions as economic anchors, because we were such a manufacturing hub. After WWII you had this influx of African Americans, and in the ‘60s you open up immigration and you have a whole bunch of poor people from other nations. At the same time, middle and upper middle class white people were leaving for a whole variety of reasons. And of course the manufacturing is leaving for the South and Southwest, where the tax climate is far better. Fast forward a few decades and, all of a sudden, you’re a city with a very high percentage of poor people and a disproportionately high percentage of nonprofits, who don’t pay the taxes.

CB: Wow, I never thought of it that way.

RD: All of a sudden, it’s like a quarter of our land is nonprofits. And schools like Penn, Temple and Drexel have become quasi-governmental organizations. Many have their own deputized police forces, their own sanitation systems, and huge physical plants.

CB: And that’s the story that played out in our season series, right? So many of the biggest employers in the Rust Belt cities were government and nonprofits, and in the Sun Belt, it was private industry. Which begs the question: What should Rust Belt cities be doing right now in order to comeback?

RD: There are two answers. One is the boring but right answer, and the other is the not boring but totally fantastical answer. The great thought experiment for a Rust Belt city would be to say, all our administrative agencies were created a long time ago. What if we imagined that none of them existed and we create a city government to deal with our problems today. Would the departments look the same? Would we still have a police department? A fire department? What would we do? Would we have an independent library system separate from the school district? Like, what would it look like?

CB: Is that the fantastical answer, or the boring but right one?

RD: [Laughs] No here’s the fantastical answer. Sun Belt cities just happen to be located in places that have good economies right now because that’s where the population growth has been. But the thing that Sun Belt cities have is they are huge geographically, because they expanded at a point when they had much lower population density and they grabbed all this land. So they have the potential for a much greater tax base.

So the fantastical answer would be for a city to imagine itself being involved in foreign affairs, like a nation. Ask, how can we strategically capture outlying resources? Philly already does that in a small way  because of the wage tax, which it depends on for most of its budget. If you live in the suburbs but work in the city, you pay that.

But what if you took that regionalism further? Have an office that says, Look, Darby is not doing so well right now, but in part that’s because it has such a poor tax base. So what if you target the suburban towns where you can still see they’re good investments, they haven’t totally fallen off a cliff, but they’re amenable to an annexation vote. That’s a full time job, someone who’s putting together marketing campaigns out in the suburbs, who is beginning to build a social movement around it, who is making the argument for property values. What you’re doing is you’re adding to the city portfolio in a way the city doesn’t now.

CB: That would certainly widen the labor pool and tax base.

RD: The last time Philadelphia annexed an outlying community it was 170 years ago. We were a 2-square mile city that annexed all the land in a 130-square mile county. It was of total national significance. Can you imagine the press if Philadelphia annexed Montgomery, Delaware or Bucks counties? That would be a national story.

CB: It would be a game-changing narrative. Suddenly, we’d be known as the nation’s growing city. But let’s get serious here, can something like this really get done?

RD: You’d have to have a mayor who says I’m going to devote significant resources to this. I’m going to pull people out of, say, Workforce Development and Sustainability, and everyone would say it’s insane because it’s not on anyone’s agenda. Everyone would be against it and it would probably singlehandedly resuscitate the Republican party.

CB: So you’d have to get it done in one term. Spend that political capital early. You don’t have six years to do it.

RD: Look, if I’m Putin and I’m suffering major domestic problems at home, what do I do? I act all muscular toward Syria and Ukraine to build up support at home. That strategy doesn’t just apply to nations. If I’m mayor and I want to build up domestic support, I successfully conquer Upper Darby.

CB: [Laughs] That is fantastical.

RD: Obviously, this isn’t going to happen. But the point is, almost more important than what should be done, is this exercise of thinking imaginatively about the city.

CB: That’s right. Cities are having a global moment right now as laboratories of experimentation, and that’s why I’m so psyched to continue kicking around ideas with you. Thanks, Richard. And I can’t wait till next season.

Header Photo: Brian Garfinkel/Philadelphia Eagles

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