At a holiday party last week, a guest posed a question to a group I was in that has stayed with me since: Do you think we are living in bad times?
It’s tempting to say “yes.” And, indeed, she got various answers that spoke to the anger and hate and depravity of the last 12 months in America (and much of the world); of the volatility of media (social and otherwise); of the despair that so often makes it feel like bad times for sure.
But, as always when the weight of the outside world seems unbearable, I turn inwards, towards Philly, where the answer is more complicated—both and neither.
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What was 2018 in the city of Philadelphia? It was a year of victories (hello, Eagles!) and losses (ugh, Amazon), of small delights (Wawa. More Wawa.) and great ones (Gritty!). We were underdogs, and we came together, not just for Super Bowl parades, but also to pitch the world’s most aggravating tech company, and to stand up for the disenfranchised. We witnessed the same frustrations all over again: Political shenanigans. Homicides (up). Poverty (stagnant). Hunger (up). And we rallied together to remember, to honor, to fight for change.
We lived. And we cared—sometimes, often, even about each other.
A look back at some of The Citizen’s most read stories of the year proves this is true: What you cared about a lot in 2018 are the things that power cities, and the people in them. Can we do the same again in 2019?
I think so.
Because no matter how bad the times, or how good the times, or how unsure you are of the times we live in, there is always, lurking beneath the gritty city, a hope that we can and will, do. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, most recently author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, has noted about humanity in general something that I think is fitting for these times in Philly, as well: “History tells us that attempts to make the world better tend to succeed. We’ll never achieve a utopia, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make things a little bit better.”
We’re Philly, after all.
In 2018, we cared about voting.
We voted in higher numbers in the May, 2018 primary than in the last several decades; then, we did it again in November, when we also sent to Congress a record number of women (five) and showed the power of civic engagement among young people, in particular.
In 2019, even more is at stake. The Mayor, all of City Council, Sheriff, City Commissioners are all running for office this year, putting the fate of our city in voters’ hands. Let’s do the right thing here, people. Vote. And then vote again (but not, please, in the same election).
In 2018, we cared about criminal justice and those who dole it out.
It wasn’t always pretty—gun violence is up, while the rate of solving murders is down—but for the first time in decades, there was a concerted citywide effort to confront the dual issues of mass incarceration and crime in the city of Philadelphia. Unfortunately, with all eyes on Philly this year, District Attorney Larry Krasner’s year one left people with more questions than answers.
Will 2019 be the year Krasner proves to Philly and the rest of the country that progressive policies towards charges, sentences and suspects can keep a city safe and communities intact? If 2018 was about restructuring the office, its policies and its image, here’s hoping 2019 is a year where Philadelphians—particularly in African American communities where violence has grown—can feel their District Attorney and police are on their side.
In 2018, we cared about how our growing city grows.
“Gentrification” means different things to different people—not all of them about, strictly speaking, the economics of neighborhood change. Sometimes, it’s about culture, race, community and neighborliness—the things that make a city a place worth living in. This year, the built environment, both public and private, was again the locus of debate and anger, and also innovation and coming together to create a living city we can all participate in.
In 2019, we need to do more to include everyone in the conversation and the planning of our city. That means not just where and how we build, but also how we keep the city clean, how we fight climate change, how we end bad practices like Councilmanic Prerogative, where we plant trees and put in street lights, how we shift our transportation priorities so everyone has access to what’s amazing about this city.
In 2018, we cared about how the city spends—or misspends—its money.
Despite Mayor Kenney’s attempts to deflect and play down the seriousness of the city’s years-long accounting errors, the case of the city’s missing $27 million was a story that kept on coming back—because much of the money never has. And that is even besides the millions of taxpayer dollars wasted on bad real estate deals or left on the table because of a lack of vision—especially galling since Kenney has also increased spending by 17 percent during his first term in office.
In 2019, we have a chance to tell Kenney we’re not satisfied. With the Mayor and City Council up for reelection, this is the time to show up and be heard. Thursday Council meetings are open to the public, with a chance for comment; the Mayor is available by email here. Let’s not let the Philly shrug ease everyone back into their seats—let’s demand they use our money wisely and—dare we say it?—transparently.
In 2018, we cared, and noticed, that our civic heroes left us.
First, in July, we lost Citizen chairman, Reinvestment Fund founder and civic giant Jeremy Nowak, whose belief in the power of cities inspired innovation across the country. Then, a few weeks later, we lost philanthropist Gerry Lenfest, whose mark on his city was boundless—from the newspapers to the Art Museum to the Curtis Institute to the environment and civics.
In 2019, let’s carry on in their images, urging Philadelphia to be its best self. You don’t have to be brilliant like Nowak, or wealthy and generous like Lenfest. You just have to do your part.