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2021's Citizens of the Year

These people gave the bird to the Philly shrug—and we are all better for it:

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What Mattered In 2021

2021 was another year of tragedy and hardship—and also hope and resilience. In other words: It was Philly.

What Mattered In 2021

2021 was another year of tragedy and hardship—and also hope and resilience. In other words: It was Philly.

On the South Philly block known as “The Miracle on 13th Street” this year, the spectacle of lights and inflatable characters and costumed visitors and fake snowfall and honking car horns is even more fantabulous and Christmas-y than usual. It is, as the kids say, “extra.”

That’s fitting, isn’t it, given the year we’ve had? It was extra in every way: scary, tragic, frustrating, rage-inducing, joyful, hopeful, important, fulfilling—scary again, and all the rest. We are in the midst of viral and gun violence pandemics, with constant threats to our democracy, and leaders who are middling at what we need most: Leading.

We are, also, Philadelphians. We have risen to meet our challenges and—even better—to engage with our city, our neighbors and our democracy. We keep going back for more, trying harder and—sometimes—even succeeding at making the kind of change we need. This year, perhaps, it was because of the challenges we overcame that we have worked so hard to demand more, and to create a better city—and that will carry that momentum forward into 2022.

There’s a mural at 46th Street and Lancaster Avenue by the artist Eric Okdeh, that expresses this beautifully: “We shouldn’t let our past define us. Nor should we shut the door on it. Our experience is what will allow us to be helpful. It is our testimony.”

Below, the issues our readers—you!—cared about most—and what that means for next year:

We (some of us, anyway) voted. Including for judges.

This was not what you could call a good year for voter turnout, with just 21 percent of registered voters casting a ballot in the November general election for (among other things) District Attorney, City Controller and judges. That number though? It was higher than in many of the most recent off-year elections. That’s…progress.

As one of the few states that elect judges up and down the courts, Pennsylvanians hold an unusual power in shaping laws and policy in the state. That’s why it’s so important to understand for whom we are voting—something remarkably hard to do. Jen Devor, of Better Civics, took to the task, and her Who’s Running for Judge guide helped tens of thousands of Philadelphians make an informed decision about the judiciary.

Who’s Running for Judge in PA?

 

In 2022: Same as ever—more voting. This time, the focus will be on the U.S. Senate, governor, state legislature and Pennsylvania Supreme Court. So, you know, a big deal. We don’t need to say this, do we: Check your voting status, sign up for mail-in ballots, tell your friends, be informed and vote, for the love of liberty, please vote.

We faced a crisis of gun violence…

Was there a sadder failure this year than the inaction on our raging gun violence epidemic? We heard a lot of talk, watched a lot of briefings and hearings, witnessed a lot of finger-pointing—but in the end, we saw more than 550 of our fellow Philadelphians killed this year, while another 2,200 were shot and survived. This is what Jo Piazza chronicled in her seven-part podcast, Philly Under Fire, a deep and emotional look at last year’s gun violence surge.

That series came out in April, and as the months went on, every day felt like another episode in the ongoing story of Philly’s violent despair. We offered some solutions—better policing, for one; a Mayoral declaration that enough is enough, for another—but in the end, we close the chapter on 2021 a poorer city for our inability to come to grips with the terror in so many neighborhoods.

Listen: Philly Under Fire Podcast

In 2022: When the clock strikes midnight on January 1, the tally of shootings will start over as well. But that doesn’t mean anything changes. Some efforts to fight the violence have been launched, including a Gun Violence Task Force involving the Attorney General, Philly Police and District Attorney’s office. And CBS3 last week reported that the police department plans to unveil a new, dedicated non-fatal shooting unit to complement the work of homicide detectives. Let 2022 be the year our leaders coalesce around proven methods of fighting gun violence—like focussed deterrence.

..so we questioned, rightly, those like D.A. Larry Krasner, who are supposed to be keeping us safe.

There are many theories as to why gun violence was at an all-time high this year. But one thing is clear: Our leaders failed us. Mayor Jim Kenney, D.A. Krasner, Council President Clarke sniped at each other, passed the buck and worked in silos rather than come together with a solid plan to stop the shootings. (Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, meanwhile, was MIA most of the year.) Philadelphians had a chance to weigh in on one of those leaders this year, when we went to the polls to elect a new (or same) District Attorney. That only a quarter of the electorate showed up to vote in the May primary, when incumbent D.A. Krasner ran against Carlos Vega, is itself a tragic sign of our times. Krasner, meanwhile, ended the year on a particularly low note, when he downplayed—then later apologized—the level of violent crime in the city, and when reports came out revealing the dysfunction of his office.

Is Larry Krasner Really a Reformer?

The Buck Stops Elsewhere

 

In 2022: We spent a lot of this year asking a question that reverberates from Philly across the country: Can a progressive prosecutor in the form of Larry Krasner reform a criminal justice system much in need of reform—and also keep citizens safe in their city? Next year that question will likely take on more urgency.

We worried over the unhoused.

It has been a hard couple years for many in our community, because of Covid, because of gun violence, because of the usual struggles of poverty and race, because of inequities in our systems. For many Philadelphians, that struggle was manifest in the encampments that settled on the Ben Franklin Parkway through much of 2020. A deal to shutter the encampment and find homes for those living there included a plan for a pilot project involving tiny homes. Our writer, Josh Kruger—a former city official who was formerly homeless himself—called b.s. on the popular trend of tiny homes for those in need when, he said, we have better, cheaper and more respectful solutions already.

Guest Commentary: Tiny Houses Have a Big Problem

Even more complicated: The encampments in Kensington, which draw people from all over the region because of that neighborhood’s unfortunate status as the center of the opioid trade. As one astute neighborhood advocate put it, many of the people living in cars, tents or sidewalks in Kensington are not actually homeless; they have homes, but instead stay close to where they can buy drugs. It’s a disaster that the City has failed to do anything about—despite, again, having a model that could work.

Kensington’s Recovery Plan

In 2022: Philadelphia launched a nationally-lauded mediation program that has kept renters in their homes and also kept small landlords from losing out; one of City Council’s last acts of the year was to extend that program through 2022. Still, that will not solve the problem of homelessness from continuing and growing; and it will not solve the problem of opioid addiction-related encampments. That requires better and stronger policy from City Hall, police headquarters and the state. Meanwhile, here are some ways to help the homeless in Philly.

We supported our local businesses and restaurants.

Covid-19 reset everything about how we engage with local restaurants—from embracing streateries, to binging on takeout, to seeking out those places that have tried to make strides towards better pay for their employees, and a more equitable dining scene. Josh Middleton and Katherine Rapin have continuously kept up with the best places to eat for each season, as well as with how to support Black-owned and women-owned eateries. And Philadelphians responded by helping to keep more restaurants afloat than many expected 18 months ago.

Outdoor Dining in Philly This Winter

In 2022: Streateries are here to stay—at least, in some neighborhoods. And vaccine mandates will hopefully help keep diners and workers safe as they keep their doors open throughout the winter. We can all do our part to help by supporting local restaurants, food purveyors and other small businesses throughout the city.

19 Black-Owned Businesses in Philly That Give Back

We had rats on the Parkway—ew!—and other messes continuously plaguing our streets.

Because it wasn’t enough to be dealing with Covid and all the other concerns of the last year, we also had the gift of rats—in broad daylight!—scuttling around the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. How many is anyone’s guess—probably more than in 2019, definitely fewer than in New York City—but thanks to Christine Speer Lejeune’s dogged efforts, Philly’s Vector Services was on the job. (That it took a month to get any city action on this is…well, is the story, really.)

Rats on the Parkway!

But it’s not just rats that stopped us in our tracks. It was also the perennial issue that seems never to go away: The trash. Everywhere. On the Parkway, in the parks, probably right outside your house today. The City included more street sweeping into its budget this year, but as Jon Geeting pointed out, Mayor Kenney also launched yet another aimless litter task force to answer the question we already have an answer to: How can we clean up the trash? Litter plans! Nope: Citywide street sweeping, which Kenney promised to reinstate in 2015.

Yet Another Aimless Litter Task Force

 

In 2022: How about this? Don’t litter, don’t let litter fester, don’t let the City get away with not sweeping the streets. Here, some other ideas.

We supported Black artists—and urban cowboys.

For the second time this year, Mural Arts Project rolled out its Fellowship for Black Artists program to fund, foster and elevate the work of 20 Black artists who reside in Philly. They comprised artists in a range of media, including painters, photographers and filmmakers. “After the uprisings happened last year we, like other organizations around Philadelphia and the country, took stock,” MAP Executive Director Jane Golden said. “This is no time to be complacent; it’s time to do our work with greater intentionality and rigor. ” This year also saw the launch of Art Works, a partnership between Forman Arts Initiative and Drexel University, which gave out $3 million in grants for community-based organizations and emerging artists, primarily those of color and from other underrepresented communities; and about $3 million in funding for underrepresented artists through City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas’s Illuminate the Arts.

20 Black Artists to Watch

In a year of great portrayals of Philly on screen, we got some long-needed attention on the city’s urban cowboys from the Fletcher Street Stables, through Concrete Cowboys, a film written and directed by Neighborhood Film Company’s Ricky Staub, produced by Philly native Lee Daniels and starring Idris Elba (with a sweet co-starring appearance by local activist OG Law).

“Black Future Matters”

 

In 2022: The surge of new and incredible artists every year in Philadelphia is astonishing. Expect more of them next year, including more supported by Art Works and Mural Arts. But we could do even better, if we took a lesson from Chicago, which has incorporated thinking about arts throughout city government and into every neighborhood of the city.

We cared about each other.

Philadelphians stepped up when asked—and even when not asked—time and again this year. There were the business leaders who partnered to find ways to share the wealth; moms who hunted down their childrens’ killers, and supported each other; doctors who doctored, yes, but also found time to start health clinics, and hang basketball hoops, and launch vaccine campaigns. There were regular Philadelphians who helped to launch and fill community fridges, fight for democracy, support students and schools, vote, lead their neighborhoods and raise money for those in need. We are awesome, full stop.

2021 Citizens of the Year

In 2022: The need, even without Covid, never stops. And neither, it’s clear, will Philadelphians. Let’s keep doing what we do, for and with each other.

Happy New Year, Philadelphia!

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