Saturday, April 23, 2005

The Worst Mayor in America, For a While

Pope? What Pope?

The buzz of the week in Philly was the honor Time bestowed upon Mayor John Street. In a sidebar to its cover story about the nation's five best mayors, it put Street on its shorter list of the three worst mayors in America.

This prompted much cluck-clucking in the local media, a wounded-pride response from Street, and a defense of his record from one of his better known non-fans, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Tom Ferrick.

Street's response and Ferrick's defense made roughly the same point, so I'll use Street's response to sum up: "Had it not been for the probe, I may have been among the candidates for the best mayor."

That is probably overstating the case a bit. But it's not too far off the mark.

Street's current situation is not that much different from where one of Time's best mayors, Richard M. Daley of Chicago, finds himself. Both Street and Daley have bit the bullet and taken dramatic steps to reform their cities' underperforming schools. Both have undertaken major initiatives to reclaim rundown and abandoned neighborhoods and redevelop them for a new urban era. Both are surrounded by investigations into corruption that have snared close associates but left them personally untouched.

So what accounts for the difference? Maybe attitude has something to do with it.

If, in 20 years or so, we see a North Central Philadelphia filled with decent working residents, new jobs and small businesses, the credit will belong to John Street, whose Neighborhood Transformation Initiative is laying the groundwork for that possibility. But it's quite likely that people around here will still be talking about the Center City renaissance and municipal ego boost that came with his predecessor, Ed Rendell.

Rendell did no more to dismantle the pay-to-play culture that has dominated municipal government for years than anyone before or after him. But through some highly visible actions, he communicated a things-are-gonna-change-around-here message. The image of the newly elected mayor on his hands and knees, scrubbing a City Hall bathroom, and his willingness to take a short strike to win some significant concessions from the municipal unions, spoke volumes.

So, unfortunately, did Street's comment early in his first term that he did intend to give preference to his supporters when it came to awarding city contracts. Did he do anything different from, say, what Frank Rizzo would have done in his situation? Quite likely not. But he was open about it, and that made all the difference.

The message Street sent early on was: I'm in favor of business as usual. His attempt to halt the gradual wage tax cuts Rendell initiated--which led to a major political defeat midway through his first term--reinforced that message.

Those two actions spoke much louder than 5,000 cops working overtime or new housing in North Central Philadelphia did to the people who pay attention to municipal affairs. And thus does Mayor Street find himself on Time's trash heap rather than its honor roll.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Open Letter to SEPTA Management

To whoever is in charge of ordering the next Regional Rail car fleet:

In case you aren't aware of this, coffee is a diuretic. That means that soon after you drink it, you will feel the urge to go.

Traveling from Center City to the furthest reaches of the Regional Rail network can take an hour or even more. That's a long time to wait if you have a small bladder.

Many stations have no restrooms, and the crew will not hold the train at those that do so passengers can take a bathroom break.

You should be able to tell where I'm headed with this. I hope you take these facts into consideration when you put out the interior specs for your new commuter cars.

Or do you plan to just hand out plastic sample cups or doses of Detrol to the passengers?

Wilmington Diary: A Concentrated Experience

One virtue of small older cities, it appears, is that you can take in their entire breadth and depth in a short time. At least that's the impression I get from walking around Wilmington at lunch hour.

In the span of about an hour and 15 minutes, I can walk from the center of downtown into one of the city's middle-class precincts, through a smallish entertainment district, over to Automobile Row and back into the downtown. Or I can head into Little Italy and then back via the barrio. And if I walk in the opposite direction from my office, I'm in the floodplain, home to factories and acres of housing projects.

One of the striking things about this small (just shy of 75,000 inhabitants) city is that it seems to have the full complement of big-city issues. The municipal budget is in the red, and the state is trying to come up with fixes, including expanded annexation powers for the city. Violent crime is a worry in some neighborhoods. And while there is no sign of the wholesale abandonment that hit Camden, a city of similar size, full force, it is clear that some older neighborhoods are in need of fixing up. And, of course, there is that dead-after-5 downtown.

Smaller may be more manageable, but it is not necessarily more beautiful.

Habemus Pit Bull

The College of Cardinals has, as the bookies predicted, named Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's chief theology cop, as the next successor to St. Peter. He has decided to style himself Pope Benedict XVI.

Am I surprised by this result? No. Am I pleased with it? Parts of me are, believe it or not. Yes, the man has made sure that the Church hierarchy toes the conservative line on personal morality, married priests, and female ordination put forth by his former superior, Pope John Paul II. And his brook-no-dissent style is very much out of step with the spirit of our times.

But that may be just the point. In an age when everything is open to question, it may be useful to have a symbol of certainty in our midst, if for no other reason than to have something solid to question, test and probe. The inside buzz on Ratzinger is that he is a dedicated listener, even to those with whom he disagrees sharply. That quality seems in short supply these days. Those of us who do not agree with the totality of the Church's teachings, whether on personal or socioeconomic morality, should at least engage them seriously in order to understand their basis and thus criticize them knowledgeably. In Pope Benedict XVI, we will have an intelligent and articulate advocate of those teachings--someone who will keep the rest of us mentally sharp.