“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
― Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of American Cities
So, I’ve never been a big birthday guy. But when it dawned on us—a small, diverse group of local patriots, all trying to wean ourselves off snide cynicism—that The Citizen was about to turn two years old, we thought: Let’s throw a party.
But then we thought: Does anyone care? The whole ethos of the (some would say) far-fetched experiment of The Citizen has been that it’s about more than us, that what corrodes our city—in fact, our country—is too much I and not enough We in our shared story. By focusing on solutions, by highlighting local disruptors, and by issuing bold calls for civic action, what we’re really trying to do is put forth a new Philadelphia story—a counter-narrative, if you will—characterized by a sense of shared adventure, common purpose, and possibility.
This idea—that we need more We—was driven home for us recently by State Treasurer Joe Torsella, who delivered the keynote address to the new class of high school Fellows at last month’s Germination Project Gala at the Union League. (Full disclosure: The Germination Project is the brainchild of Citizen co-founder and Dilworth, Paxson Chairman Ajay Raju).
“The idea behind the words ‘We The People’—that we are one community, that we are all in this together, that our fates are intertwined with fellow citizens we may never meet and with whom we have barely anything in common,” Torsella said, “That’s the core idea and promise of America…I’m not saying all of you should go into politics. In fact, there are days when I’m not sure I should tell any of you to go into politics. But I am telling all of you to go into citizenship. Not necessarily the big, headline acts of the few. But the small unsung acts of the many that have always been what really drives the American story: standing up and speaking out, paying attention, innovating, taking on and pushing forward—in other words, leading.”
Torsella’s comments got us thinking. What if we threw a party that didn’t pat ourselves on the back so much as, in keeping with our founding ethos, shined a spotlight on those among us who are seeking to move our city forward? And made it just a little bit easier for you to become one of them?
Let’s come together next Wednesday night and toast the miracle of the city, let’s acknowledge some of those among us who make it vibrant and ever-evolving, and let’s say en masse to the keepers of the status quo: This is our city.
So that’s what we’re doing next Wednesday night, and I hope you’ll join us. We’ll be partying, yes, but we’ll also be honoring a handful of the Disruptors and Citizens of the Week we’ve written about over the last two years, all of whom have refused to outsource leadership in their city. People like Justine Haemmerli, who, after November 8 last year, founded Make It Right PHL, an online compendium of ways average citizens can take local civic action; Sylvester Mobley, the Iraqi war vet and founder of Coded By Kids, on a mission to provide tech education to inner-city youth; and Nick Bayer, the founder and CEO of Saxbys, whose headquarters is hosting our shindig and who is as committed to having a social impact as he is to turning a profit. (For a fuller list of those we’ve chosen to single out, click here).
We’ll also have a “Wall Of Action,” upon which you can sign up to make Philadelphia better in a handful of discreet areas; Jordan Schwartz, our Director of Civic Impact and Programming, will play civic matchmaker for you.
We believe media ought to be more than a dispensary of information, ought to provide more than the stenography of who yelled at whom yesterday. Media ought to bring citizens together and make it a little easier for them to be part of a greater whole.
After all, that’s the miracle of the American city, isn’t it? Last month, Jane Golden and I led a group on a civic heroes Mural Arts trolley tour. We saw a rendering of Herman Wrice, an average citizen who stared down Philly crack dealers in the ‘80s and ‘90s; we bowed before Dr. J, who confirmed for a generation of Philly kids, black and white, that man can fly; and we stood before The Peace Wall in the historically racially-charged Grays Ferry neighborhood—hands upon hands, all colors—that reminds us both how fraught, and how littered with possibility, cities are.
“The American city is kind of illogical,” I remarked to Jane, who knew of what I spoke. If someone proposed this to you, you’d think it didn’t have a shot in hell: Let’s throw all these different people together—they look different, they believe in different things, they come from vastly different places—and let’s have them all live in close proximity to one another…in some cases, right up against each other. And let’s see what happens!
What happens is a messy, often frightening, process of bringing some unum out of the pluribus; leaders, saying “This is my city,” emerge. Jane Jacobs to Robert Moses? This is my city. Herman Wrice to crack dealers? This is my city. It has ever been thus. Cities give birth to citizens who push them to a state of perpetual becoming and, out of the chaos, common identity takes shape. “When the Stranger says: ‘What is the meaning of this city? Do you huddle close together because you love each other?’” wrote T.S. Eliot. “What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together to make money from each other’? Or ‘This is a community’?”
Jane Jacobs to Robert Moses? This is my city. Herman Wrice to crack dealers? This is my city. It has ever been thus. Cities give birth to citizens who push them to a state of perpetual becoming and, out of the chaos, common identity takes shape.
So, screw The Citizen turning two. Let’s instead come together next Wednesday night and toast the miracle of the city, let’s acknowledge some of those among us who make it vibrant and ever-evolving, and let’s say en masse to the keepers of the status quo: This is our city.
The Citizen Civic Impact Birthday Party, Wednesday October 11th, 5:30 p.m. – 8 p.m., free but please RSVP, Saxbys, 2300 Chestnut Street, 3rd floor.Header Photo: Flickr