By Tom Ferrick Jr.
Outsiders like to oversimplify Philadelphia. They tend to see it as two cities - a glittering Center City that is akin to Boston and everywhere else a Detroit, an urban basket case.
That is a false dichotomy.
Philadelphians tend to over-complicate Philadelphia. They see nuances in neighborhoods that escape everyone else, certainly outsiders. Natives see shades of difference between Hawthorne at 11th Street and Hawthorne at 13th Street that elude anyone from outside a five-block radius of Hawthorne.
As Mike Newall reminds us in his recent series in Metropolis about Frankford, neighborhoods are diverse organisms that can be classified by the sum total of their strengths and weaknesses. Using these barometers, Frankford clearly is a basket case.
Population loss? Check. Rise in crime? Check. Thriving street drug trade? Check. Failing central shopping district? Check. Stagnant real estate values? Check. Fewer homeowners and more renters? Check.
It is a reminder - if we needed one - that the health of the city writ large is really nothing more than the sum of its parts -its neighborhoods.
It also shows us how decay is viral. It can spread from neighborhood to neighborhood, always with the potential to bloom into an epidemic. The crime and drug problems in Frankford today did not begin in Frankford. It migrated north from other neighborhoods. The Badlands, as it turns out, isn't a specific geographic location, it is a moveable plague.
We know a lot about how neighborhoods fail in Philadelphia because we have had so many go through the process. What you learn is that failure is not a permanent state of being. Neighborhoods have the power to reincarnate into something new and improved.
In the 19th century, the city's worse slum was a place called Southwark, which now includes stable and prosperous Bella Vista and Queen Village. In the 1950's, before its reincarnation, Society Hill was considered a rundown neighborhood whose best days were behind it.
In the long run
While it is comforting to know that in the long run all will be well, most of us won't be here in the long run. We have to live with the Frankford of 2010, not the Frankford of 2070.
The great challenge Philadelphia faces today is to find someway to change the traditional trajectory of neighborhood decline - a downhill course of depopulation, disinvestment and decay that can take 50 years or more before it hits bottom. This clearly will be the path of some neighborhoods - Mantua comes to mind - but what about those who are new to decay, who are closer to the beginning point on that arc? There are a dozen or more of these neighborhoods scattered around the city. They can go either way.
What can we do?
First, we need a sense of realism. Philadelphia is a city where one in four households lives in poverty - and poverty manufactures slums. Our future as a city depends on whether that poverty number rises or falls.
We must also realize our leaders do not possess magical powers, even though they sometimes insist they do. They cannot cure ailing neighborhoods. That sounds obvious but it wasn't always so. Post-war America was possessed by the belief that with enough planning, enough money and enough wrecking balls we could create a New City out of the dust of the old. Post-Modern America doesn't have enough money to afford hubris -- at least domestically. There are no billions to rescue Frankford and, even if it was spent, no assurance it would do the trick.
Without the luxury of money to waste, we have to use our wits. Though no one likes to use this word, we have to do triage and concentrate resources and effort on neighborhoods that can be stabilized and sustained, not on the ones that are too far gone. We have the tools to identify the current conditions of neighborhoods and decide which ones can be sustained. Then we need to develop a set of policies tailored to those neighborhoods.
Finally, let us not forget the power of doing small things right. Twelve years ago, for instance, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society undertook a project to green up Frankford Avenue in Lower Kensington. It planted trees by the hundreds and created green pocket parks. How much effect did that greening have on the nascent revival in that area? It is hard to measure precisely, but my bet is was significant.
On the other side, how much damage was done to Frankford by the closing last year of the Frankford YMCA? Again, hard to measure, but my bet is that the damage extended well beyond that institution's four walls. The wound was deeper than we can imagine.
Today, we know a lot about what makes neighborhoods work and the trick is to come together and apply them in a coherent way. That last part requires leadership from the top - something lacking in Frankford, where tribal infighting seems to rule.
But let us hope we have the will and the vision to do it at the next level A step up the political ladder - in City Hall.
Otherwise, Philadelphia will continue to die in pieces.
Tom Ferrick Jr. is senior editor of Metropolis