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The Minister of Enthusiasm

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Mayor Michael Nutter.jpgIt wasn't billed as such, but Mayor Nutter's speech before the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce last week should be marked down as the kickoff of his re-election campaign.

The mayor gave a 4,500-word "State of the City" speech sounding themes and messages we will be hearing a lot this election year.  You can read the full text here; I would summarize it thusly:

The city has undergone some tough times, but thanks to my leadership -- and my willingness to make tough decisions -- we are poised for a comeback.  We will be better than ever!  We will be stronger than ever! (Especially if you re-elect me!)

To quote the ending:

"We are a Philadelphia on the way back. We are a resurgent Philadelphia. We are...a Philadelphia rising."

You catch the drift. He used the words rising or resurgent 10 times in the speech.

Thus, the mayor stakes his claim to be the city's Minister of Enthusiasm, which is not a bad thing.  We could use some enthusiasm around here and mayors often take the role of captain of the cheerleading team.

Along those lines, Nutter's speech was laced with verbal pompom shaking. Lots of sentences that could end in exclamation points.  The economy is improving! Crime is down! Government is running better than ever! Go, team, go!!!

On the other hand, there is reality.

The reality is that the city has lost 37,000 jobs in the last decade, unemployment stands at 10.7 percent, the poverty rate is up, average household income is down. If this is rising, I'd hate to see what falling looks like.

There's no reason to be gloomy. Philadelphia's condition has much improved from the 70's, 80's and into the 90's when we had the look of a city in a free fall. Those were scary times.

The city has crawled back. It has made the transitition from an industrial to a post-industrial economy. It has a strong and vibrant central business district. It has growing Hospitality/Tourism and Eds and Meds job sectors. The overall quality-of-life index has  risen over the last 15 years.

Even the recession -- though it kicked the hell out of home values and caused great pain among the unemployed -- was milder here than in many other American cities.

So, it's not that things aren't getting better -- they are -- it's the maldistribution of the better.

In some ways, it is a story in black and white.  Literally.  Look at this list of the city's neighborhoods ranked by median household income and it helps tell the tale.  Look at the top 20 or so neighborhoods and the lowest 20. White at the top, black at the bottom.

Look at a racial/ethnic breakdown of wealth: As of 2009, median household income among whites was $46,769 -- 60 percent higher than for blacks ($29,460). And black MHI was 30 percent higher than for Latinos ($22,972). Asian MHI was second highest, at $38,836, according to the latest U.S. Census survey data.

More evidence: look at the list of the 10 neighborhoods that grew and prospered during first decade of this century and compare it to the list of 10 that came under greatest stress.  The majority white areas did best; much of the stress is in neighborhoods populated by the black working and middle class.(See this week's Cover Stories for more details.)

You could write a book about what makes cities prosper or fail. There are lots of factors, but if I had to boil them down, it would come down to two words. wealth and work.

By wealth, I do not mean having a high number of millionaires. I mean the individual wealth of citizens -- the money they can earn to support their families, buy homes nad enjoy a good life. An occasional dinner out would be nice.

In the last decade, what has happened - writ large -- is that wealth in the city has stagnated. By stagnating, it actually declined, when compared to inflation.

Most of that stagnation has happened among black and Latino households, but it is too simplistic to attribute this to race. It really is more about class.

If you were middle class and had the education and job skills to take advanage of the post-industrial economy, you did well, regardless of race.

If you started the decade with an old economy job and a high school education, the odds are you did not do well.  Even if you are still working, your advancement is frozen in place. Your job may be in jeopardy.

That leads to the second word: work. You need jobs to make wealth and Philadelphia has been losng jobs for 40 years. It's a trend that continued under the Nutter administration, though the mayor wasn't the cause of this decline.  There were broader economic forces at work.

At let's be honest. For every Glaxo that stays, another firm leaves. For every Urban Outfitters than expands, another business shrinks or closes. Anecdotally, we can point to successes. Statistically, when it comes to work, we are still losing ground.

A city's economy is not like Tinkerbell. Wishing for it to grow and revive will not make it happen.  Michael Nutter knows that, but in an election year it is better not to pay too much attention to realities.

There are parts of Philadelphia that are rising -- in wealth, work and prosperity -- but most of Philadelphia is not. At best, it is stagnant. At worst, it continues a painful decline.

The reality is that most of Philadelphia is not rising. It is hurting.

 

-- Tom Ferrick 

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