It’s convention time, and as Philly gears up for the Democratic National Convention next week, we’re reminded of when the city hosted the Republicans in 2000. As someone who moved to Philadelphia halfway between these two conventions, I wondered to Penn’s Mark Alan Hughes (full disclosure: my boss) how the city had changed since 2000. In preparation for that year’s Republican National Convention, Hughes and Terry Gillen, then at the City’s Commerce Department, wrote a series of briefing papers on topics such as the local economy, crime and health, in an effort to inform the media who’d inevitably write about Philly while in town for the convention.
Rereading the papers on an archived website, I felt like I was unearthing a time capsule of the city’s vital signs, its preoccupations and its hopes. (You can read the papers and feed your nostalgia for Web 1.0 here.)
In 2000, the city was still hemorrhaging people and it would be yet another six years before the population started to increase again. Now, we gloat about the influx of millennials and immigrants who are diversifying our population. In 2000, bicycle lanes were just becoming trendy and PHL was adding a new terminal. Today, we have a bike share system and PHL is one of the world’s busiest airports. In 2000, developers were heading to the suburbs as prime land downtown sat vacant or minimally used as parking lots. By contrast, in the period of 2014 to 2018, 61 major developments will bring 6.7 billion of investment between Spring Garden and South Streets, river to river.
But for all the positive changes, there are an equal number of ways Philadelphia has stagnated. The city’s poverty rate has increased from 22.9 percent in 1999 to 26.7 percent at the most recent count. While the city wage tax and business privilege tax have decreased, we are still one of the most tax burdened cities in the country. Meanwhile, the municipal pension and liabilities problem has only gotten worse and is eating away at more of our city’s budget each year. While high school graduation rates have improved from roughly 50 percent in 2000 to 65 percent nowadays, that rate has remained flat, and enrollment rates in 2-year or 4-year colleges have barely budged.
We know that our failing schools and low educational attainment rates negatively affect crime, population, employment and poverty. But we can’t just invest in schools and hope everything else will take care of itself. Education in and of itself isn’t a strategy.
It is hard to harp on this bad news when we see improvements all around us—the vacant lot turned into townhouses, the new stores heralding the rebirth of a commercial corridor. Yet, Philadelphia’s progress has to be seen in context; the past 16 years have been a relative golden age for much of urban America. Cities from Miami to Denver have improved more rapidly if you count population growth, job growth, crime reduction and new amenities as metrics of success.
From 2010 to 2013, we grew by 1.8 percent while Boston and Washington, D.C. grew by 4.6 percent and 7.4 percent respectively. For our excitement over our job growth, much smaller legacy cities like Cincinnati and St. Louis still have more Fortune 500 companies than we do. While we have dramatically reduced crime, our per capita violent crime rates are still greater than those in Chicago or Houston, and nearly double those in New York and Los Angeles. And while we cherish the quarter-mile of Reading Viaduct that will become a park and get excited about capping parts of the Vine Street Expressway, our peers in Chicago and St. Louis have actually built miles of elevated parks, while cities from San Francisco to Dallas have put parks in the place of freeways.
This is not to demean the progress we have seen in Philadelphia, but to take advantage of this inflection point and suggest that rather than pat ourselves on the back for the city we have, we must remind ourselves to keep our heads down working for the city we could be.
Last year’s election was a referendum on education, and the city’s recent passage of the sugary drinks tax to support pre-K is an example of progress towards better education for all—and an opportunity to double down on creating impact. We know that our failing schools and low educational attainment rates negatively affect crime, population, employment and poverty. But we can’t just invest in schools and hope everything else will take care of itself. Education in and of itself isn’t a strategy.
Take New York City, for example: Its public schools have arguably improved since 2000, but poverty rates among the five boroughs remained essentially unchanged between 2000 (21.2 percent) and 2014 (20.9); the Bronx has retained the ignominious title of the country’s poorest urban county; and income disparities between the city’s rich and poor only grew in that period. Ironically, without a potent agenda to focus on improving life for our least economically mobile citizens, improving our public schools could result in more, not less, inequality.
In just 10 years, Philadelphia will again be in the spotlight as America celebrates the 250th anniversary of its independence. We might not be the country’s capital anymore, but we still have the chance to be America’s most revolutionary city.
But what if we viewed this focus on public schools as a platform for a host of new initiatives and policies that extend far beyond education? What if Philly developed a program, like the Detroit Promise and a similar program in Boston, that paid for two years of community college? What if we went one step further and placed those students in part-time jobs?
What if the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program were more widely marketed to neighborhood businesses and tweaked to focus its funding solely on entities that would benefit public schools?
What if we ended the universal tax abatement for new construction and replaced it with another incentive for development in places where schools performed at a certain level, thereby ensuring that developers had a stake in schools’ improvement in places like Fishtown or Point Breeze?
What if we acknowledged that part of our students’ failings have to do with their parents’ inability to spend “Goodnight Moon time” with their kids, and found innovative ways to support single parents and those working multiple jobs?
These are just a few ideas, albeit some far-fetched. But here’s the point: We need to integrate schools into solutions for the rest of the city’s challenges. Unless we do that, we risk wasting our chance to move the needle, for real. After all, in just 10 years, Philadelphia will again be in the spotlight as America celebrates the 250th anniversary of its independence. We might not be the country’s capital anymore, but we still have the chance to be America’s most revolutionary city.
Diana Lind is Managing Director of the Penn Fels Policy Research Initiative. Previously, she was Editor in Chief and Executive Director of Next City.Photo header: Flickr/Kevin Burkett