The other night, I had dinner at Fitler Club and strolled around Rittenhouse Square. People were out, enjoying all that cities have to offer: They lined the streets, eating, drinking, laughing. I ran into friends I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic. It was a reminder of the happy accident that cities can be. There is, after all, nothing inevitable about a city; in fact, it’s actually quite irrational: Let’s take all these people of different backgrounds and interests, and have ‘em live right on top of each other! What could go wrong, right?
But history shows us that there is something in the human spirit that strives for the type of human connection, in all its messiness, that only urban life can offer. That’s why the brilliant urbanist Richard Florida argues that all the pundits (once again) predicting the death of cities in the aftermath of the pandemic have gotten it wrong.
“In the wake of every pandemic in history, back to the Middle Ages, from the plagues to cholera to the Spanish Flu,” he told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, “young and ambitious people have flocked to cities even in the wake of pandemics that were far deadlier…Urbanization is a wonderful thing. It’s the thing that we have created as human beings when we cluster together, when we increase density, when we become more diverse, we increase our innovativeness and our creativity and productivity. We don’t do this as individuals, we do this as groups in urban areas.”
We don’t do this as individuals. As I bounced around from outdoor dining room to outdoor dining room on 18th Street, backslapping old friends and acquaintances, that Communitarian ethos resonated. We really are in all of this together. But, at the very moment I was basking in the ostensible proof of Florida’s thesis, a woman got on the El in Philadelphia heading out to Upper Darby. And a man sat next to her on that train. And he started groping her. And, while other passengers looked on, with apparently two capturing the assault on their phones, he is alleged to have raped her. And no one intervened.
Remember the old slogan of former Upper Darby police commissioner Mike Chitwood, the most decorated cop in Philly history? Not In My Town, Scumbag! On that train, no one channeled that sentiment by standing up and saying, “Not in my city.” Instead, they played mere bystander—rather than stakeholder—in the fragile experiment of community.
The story made national news, another pock mark on Philly’s reputation. Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer, saying he wanted to “calm the community down,” called some of the reporting “misinformation,” though he confirmed that at least one witness did take cell phone footage and that no one called 911. Whatever Stollsteimer’s quibbles, and they do seem like quibbles, it is a terrible story, as bad as anything we’ve had of late, which is saying something.
And that’s because of what it says about us and our commitment to our common project. The city isn’t just ours when we’re drinking and laughing at a Rittenhouse Square café. It’s also ours when we see someone breaking the social contract. It’s ours when the driver in front of us hurls a Big Gulp out of his window at full speed. It’s ours when a City Councilmember allegedly activates a city agency to punish a private concern in a labor dispute, out of fealty to his labor leader patron. It’s ours when our elected government can’t even reliably pick up our trash.
What happens if we give up on citizenship?
Turns out, that stroll of mine through Rittenhouse Square last week was a master class in both the promise and the peril of the city. The flip side to Florida’s uplifting vision for the future of cities is this: What happens if we, as citizens, give up on citizenship itself?
It’s not a new question. Nearly 60 years ago, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was famously brutally murdered on the streets of New York; despite her screams, it was reported at the time that some 38 neighbors did nothing to help her. When her killer was apprehended, he was asked by police how he dared to commit such a brazen act in front of so many witnesses. “I knew they wouldn’t do anything,” he said. “People never do.”
Behavioral scientists went on to call it “The Bystander Effect,” which held that the greater number of witnesses, the less likely it would be that any one of them would intervene. Though new reporting has complicated the simplistic narrative of Genovese’s murder (turns out there might have been six witnesses, not 38, and that at least one person—her neighbor—rushed to her aid) there is a long list of examples ever since wherein victims are hurt or killed right in front of witnesses who refrain from getting involved, like the drowning death of 50-year-old Raymond Zack in Alameda, California, which took place in front of 75 eyewitnesses, none of whom deigned to help the man, because no one saw it as their job.
So what can be done? Well, an engaged and outraged mayor would help.
The outrage over Genovese’s murder led to substantial reforms, everything from the establishment of a national 9-1-1 phone system to victim services, rape prevention programs, and even, ultimately, the birth of the Guardian Angels, an unarmed, uniformed citizens group dedicated to keeping the peace. Will there be any type of thoughtful civic response to the rape on the El?
Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer has already said he’ll be prosecuting the perpetrator, not the witnesses. A few states, like Massachusetts, have a “Duty to Aid” law, which mandates helping someone that you have a “special relationship” with—your own child, for example—but, generally speaking, it is not illegal to refrain from coming to the aid of someone who is in danger.
That’s probably a good thing. I’m not sure you can mandate citizenship, any more than you can legislate moral character. The real problem resides within the citizenry itself. The inaction of those on that train is a metaphor for how we’ve chosen to be bystanders in our own democracy. You see it in our pathetic voter turnout numbers—we celebrate on those rare occasions when six out of 10 Philadelphians show up to make their voices heard. You saw it in the looting that took place last summer, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. You see it in our revolving-door justice system and record shootings and unsolved murders and the petty sniping between our incredibly shrinking mayor and district attorney.
So what can be done?
When disorder reigns, and there are seemingly no consequences for conduct that violates the social contract, is it any wonder that weary and wary citizens on a train late at night might say to their civic obligation: See ya, wouldn’t want to be ya?
So what can be done? Well, an engaged and outraged mayor would help. In 2011, when youths of Philadelphians were sweeping the city in “flash mobs,” then-Mayor Michael Nutter declared a state of emergency and gave a stirring, emotional speech in his church, lambasting the kids who were wreaking havoc on the streets. It was an example of moral leadership that made the average citizen, Black or white, feel like someone was on the job.
That’s not who our mayor is, however. Jim Kenney means well, but he’s just not the right man for the moral leadership we need in times of multiple crises. He’s Barney Fife when what we need is Jack Bauer.
But what Kenney could pull off is shaping everything he does and says through the lens of underscoring our obligations to one another. That’s something Ed Koch, the legendary mayor of New York in the ’70s and ’80s, mastered. He was, like Kenney, no soaring orator, but he very consciously made damn near every mayoral utterance remind residents that they shared his city with other folks—and that there would be consequences for failing the test of neighborliness.
I’m not sure you can mandate citizenship, any more than you can legislate moral character. The real problem resides within the citizenry itself. The inaction of those on that train is a metaphor for how we’ve chosen to be bystanders in our own democracy.
I learned this firsthand in grad school at New York University, when, at 6am every Tuesday, a fleet of 95 sanitation department trucks throughout the city would play thunderous recordings of Koch’s nasal whine when a parked car blocked access to trash pickup. “This is Ed Koch, your mayor,” boomed a speaker. “The Sanitation Department has to clean this street. We can’t because of your illegally parked car. Please—get it outta here!”
In Jerusalem, trash cans equipped with sensors are talking. Deposit a piece of trash and a child’s voice will thank you for not littering. Imagine throwing away that Big Gulp and hearing the mayor thanking you for keeping your city clean.
Mind you, this isn’t all on Jim Kenney. But the fact is, the stakes are high. I just started reading the new book, Survival Of The City: Living and Thriving in an Age of Isolation, by Edward Glaeser and David Cutler, and it’s as if they knew all about what is fast becoming our state of disorder, whether measured by our escalating murder rate or tales of rapes passively witnessed. They write:
If people decide that cities are too unsafe, either because of disease or crime or declining public services, we will move to a world not of cities, but of enclaves.
The rich will live in their own luxurious retreats, keeping their exposure to the poor to a bare minimum. Middle-income people will form their own havens of stolid respectability, and the poor will inhabit what remains. Whatever mixing can be done remotely will.
With less connection between rich and poor, economic opportunity will diminish. As the urban tax base declines, disadvantaged areas will have even fewer public services: schools will educate less well; police forces will be smaller, which may lead to more brutality and more crime. As violence increases, crime will particularly terrorize poor, minority neighborhoods as it has in the past.
A world in which enclaves replace cities is a world impoverished.
That’s a bleak vision, but they go on to lay out strategies for bringing cities back from the brink. In the end, though, it begins and ends with us. You either believe in common things, or not. One of the reasons I’m partial to Florida’s optimistic view is that, every day, I see radical signs of fellowship in the mundane of daily life. Try entering a Wawa and not taking part in a Kabuki dance of door-holding for complete strangers. I see you, we seem to be saying to one another. I serve you.
There’s a reason that, in criminal court, cases are brought on behalf of “The People.” Because what that asshole did to that woman on that train? That was also an attack on you and me. It should offend and outrage. If we don’t feel that, then why bother holding that Wawa door on our rush to grab that morning mocha latte?
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Header photo courtesy of The City of Philadelphia