It’s a Friday night in the Northeast, and hundreds of folks are pouring into Northeast High School’s massive auditorium. They’re even arriving early—word has spread that the event might attract a capacity crowd. After all, it’s not with any regularity that world-famous ballet programs visit regional high schools.
Tonight, the Pennsylvania Ballet’s PB2 program—think of it as their AAA minor league team, from which dancers are regularly plucked to join the main troupe—is giving a long show on a stage typically reserved for high school musicals, and the crowd is abuzz. The show, though, gets off to a pretty late start.
It can’t be said for certain that it’s because Representative Jared Solomon, a Democrat, is shaking hands with every single person in the crowd, but it sure seems to be the case. This event, after all, is Solomon’s baby, and it’s about as big a get as you’d expect an urban high school to pull in. After about 15 minutes of waiting, Solomon takes the stage, and feeling the positive vibes, begins to emcee.
“Good evening, Northeast!” he says to applause. “How we doing? So, how many of you were at the Night Market? Everyone should have their hand up. How many of you were at the Philadelphia Orchestra, right here at Northeast High School? And we know you’re here tonight!”
Solomon, with uncharacteristic verve, goes on to explain his whole modus operandi for organizing events, like ballet performances and orchestra visits.
“Let me explain what we’re trying to do with these events,” he says to the crowd. “Basically, I’m a matchmaker. I’m trying to take the great institutions throughout our city, the great cultural institutions, and bring them right to our vibrant, dynamic neighborhood, and all the great institutions like Northeast High School. Here’s what I’m gonna ask you. If you’re from the Northeast, which I know a lot of you are, I want you to take this energy and excitement with this great performance, and take it back to your neighborhoods, and if you know people who are not in the Northeast, you’ve gotta tell them what’s going on right here in our neighborhood. Get them to come here, to shop here, to explore our great restaurants on Cottman, Castor and Rising Sun!”
In a way, he’s redefining the nature of constituent service. To Solomon, it’s more than just helping voters navigate local government; by bringing center city cultural amenities to the too often forgotten Northeast, Solomon serves his constituents as a quality of life matchmaker and cheerleader.
The ensuing performance is amazing. It’s a real, honest-to-goodness ballet show, with Russian overtures and comically athletic dancers doing things that most of us can only, quite literally, dream about. Just as interesting as the ballerinas and ballerinos is the fact that dancers from Northeast High’s dance program serve as act breaks. Dozens of kids perform a wonderfully arranged salsa show at halftime, and the school’s hip hop troupe shows up in hoodies to throw down a Missy Elliott-style dance.
As Solomon says, that’s what this whole thing is about—bringing cultural institutions to the Northeast, and melding them together with local ones. In a way, he’s redefining the nature of constituent service. To Solomon, it’s more than just helping voters navigate local government; by bringing center city cultural amenities to the too often forgotten Northeast, Solomon serves his constituents as a quality of life matchmaker and cheerleader.
Solomon is a Northeast homeboy and a lawyer, who did his undergraduate work at Swarthmore and got his JD at Villanova. He’s almost cartoonishly Philadelphian, at least in his upbringing. In his rise to power, not so much. Solomon—though a pretty down-the-middle Democrat when it comes to policy issues—took on and defeated Mark Cohen, the very epitome of the “never had a real job in his life” legislator. Quite literally. Cohen had served as the state representative from Pennsylvania’s 202nd district since he was elected at age 24 in 1974, serving until 2016.
Cohen narrowly defeated Solomon in the 2014 primary, before Solomon ate his lunch in 2016 (Solomon, ever political, just says “I beat him by 14 points,” but for a 40-year politician, a 57 percent to 43 percent loss is a yard-stomping). And it wasn’t a matter of course that Solomon would defeat Cohen. According to Solomon, his victory was the result of the same kind of affirmative, in-your-face community service that caused him to bring the Pennsylvania Ballet to Northeast High, a commitment to the betterment of the people of his neighborhood that pervades his service.
“I think people are pleasantly surprised when they come here and see how really rich the neighborhood is, and how accepting they are of cultural institutions throughout the whole city,” says Solomon.
As a private citizen, Solomon led a popular Northeast-based community group called Take Back Your Neighborhood, which held local fundraisers, sponsored cleanup days and refurbished playgrounds.
“I just do what I think is the right thing to do, and work every single day, and I’m relentless in pursuing those efforts,” Solomon says. He admits that he can be a little over the top in his drive to give his neighborhood a platform, and to be its sounding board. Solomon says that his staff is always ready to field comments from constituents, except on Sundays—even though he tried to convince his staff to keep the office open on Sundays.
Solomon, generally, thinks that his colleagues are doing the best they can. But not everyone is working to change both the internal and external image of their neighborhood. Solomon has said that some longtime residents of the 202nd—which includes Oxford Circle and parts of Lawncrest—have seen their neighborhood lose some of its charm over the decades, and respond well to any attempt at image rehab, from trash pickup coalitions to, uh, major institutions performing at the high school. Solomon’s focus is rebuilding neighborhood pride, on both micro and macro levels.
It was no easy feat to get the orchestra and ballet events together for Solomon, and, at the moment, he doesn’t have any other events in the works for 2017 or the foreseeable future. But, Solomon says, it was always his intention to bring major events to his neighborhood as part of his revitalization and engagement efforts, and he’ll be doing so for as long as he can manage to.
“We’re a neighborhood that’s really diverse not only in our demographics, but also in our appreciation for cultures, history and sports. I think people are pleasantly surprised when they come here and see how really rich the neighborhood is, and how accepting they are of cultural institutions throughout the whole city,” says Solomon.Header photo: Wikimedia