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A Moment of Optimism

17 Jan

It’s been a while since I checked in, and during that time we’ve had some interesting developments here in Philadelphia. One is a refreshingly bold — though quite risky — new step for our major newspapers, the Inquirer and the Daily News. The papers’ billionaire owner, Gerry Lenfest, has donated them to a new institute being housed at a local community foundation.

Hourglass
Photo credit: Wellcome Images. Used by permission under a CC-BY license (via Wikipedia)

Get a board member’s take on the new initiative. Relevant excerpt:

The basics of the rather complex transaction are these: The umbrella company for the news organizations, Philadelphia Media Network, was donated to a new nonprofit entity called the Institute for Journalism in New Media. The institute is under the auspices of the Philadelphia Foundation. With [Gerry] Lenfest’s $20 million gift as a kick-start, the institute will raise money from foundations, corporations, and individuals to support investigative and other public-service journalism and – ultimately, more important – to be a catalyst for transformation in the digital age.

It’s a creative effort that may or may not work to sustain the newspapers in the long term. But in my opinion, Lenfest & co deserve huge credit for acknowledging that “more of the same” (layoff, decrease quality of coverage, lose subscribers, repeat) was not going to do it, and actively brainstorming a potential solution.

Both papers have been through cycle after cycle of demoralizing layoffs. Aside from the human cost to employees, there has been a terrible cost to civic power. Community-minded citizens, gadflies, and the general public can’t hold elites accountable if we don’t know what they’re up to. Journalists are one of the few occupations that are actually paid to find out what powerful are doing with their money and influence, and tell the rest of us.

Let’s hope this is the first page of a chapter that sees greater investment in high-quality journalism for our city — especially the investigative kind.

(I’m also cautiously optimistic that the newly-revamped Philly.com website [now visually tolerable for the first time in years] may yet give birth to an effectively utilized commenting community. But that’s a topic for another post.)
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People you should know: Solomon Jones (second in a series)

23 Jun
Solomon Jones headshot

Solomon Jones

Solomon Jones is a multimedia editor and writer for Axis Philly and WHYY’s NewsWorks site.

Learn more about Axis Philly and his work in this terrific Loraine Ballard Morrill radio interview.

I’ve posted links to Jones’s work here before. Most recently, he’s been doing projects for Axis Philly on the School District.

Below is a video he put together from their recent forum on the closing of Bok High School.

For NewsWorks, he writes a regular column that often focuses on people helping to build a better and more caring community. His latest column advises fathers to fight for the opportunity to be present in their children’s lives.

One of the things I most appreciate about Jones is that he hasn’t forgotten his roots. That could mean a lot of things, but in this case it means keeping in mind that many Philadelphians have pretty tough lives.Dead Man's Wife book cover

Jones himself survived tough times, including homelessness and addiction. You can read more about his remarkable personal story in this NPR interview.

Today, he teaches a creative writing class called Words on the Street for parents and teens. It’s offered through the Schoool District’s Parent University program.

He’s also a novelist. Interestingly, he created a video trailer for his latest mystery/thriller novel, The Dead Man’s Wife.

Watch the trailer:

Probably the easiest way to stay up-to-date with Jones’s myriad activities to make Philadelphia better is to follow him on Twitter. I recommend it.

Putting your mouth where the money is(n’t)

21 Jun

Four activists in Philadelphia are on Day Five of a hunger strike in support of funding for our public schools.

The mind boggles.

I hope they are getting good support and taking care of themselves, and that they stop when they need to.

(In case you haven’t been following the story, the city and state are currently in a massive showdown over hundreds of millions of dollars that’s being slashed from the district’s ~$3 billion budget. To call the situation catastrophic is probably not that far off. )

Can a tech fix help neighbors deal with abandoned property?

16 Jun

A post at Axis Philly describes how 8 lots in Kensington failed to sell at a recent sheriff’s sale. Absolutely no one bid on them.

The folks at PhilaDelinquency have a handy how-to guide for getting a property in your neighborhood put onto the sheriff’s sale list

There’s also this very hands-on overview from Naked Philly.Axis Philly logo

Of course, both of these are focused on how to get a nuisance property listed for sheriff’s sale. They don’t deal with how you can buy a property, clean it up, and make it not a nuisance.

It seems to me the Sheriff’s Office ought to let people sign up for e-mail or text message alerts that tell them when a property in their neighborhood is up for sale.

It stands to reason that some of the people interested in buying and fixing up vacant land or abandoned houses already live in those neighborhoods.

Maybe they’re bothered by eyesore properties, or motivated by the hope that their own property values will increase if they clean up a dump. Whatever motivates them, we should capitalize on their energy — not squash it in a sea of confusing, opaque municipal processes.

It shouldn’t be too hard to set up the alerts. You can already get a Google News alert for a specific phrase and a Ready.gov alert for your municipality or county. This is a solvable problem.

Unfortunately, the technology part is the easy part.

As other reporting by Axis Philly reveals, the Sheriff’s Office apparently doesn’t have a functioning accounting system (?!?!)  and the city refuses to disclose how it sets the price of properties for sale.

So there are definitely municipal culture factors at work that go far beyond a simple technical fix.

Bad neighbors

14 Jun
Inga Saffron headshot

Inga Saffron (photo credit: Philadelphia Inquirer)

Philadelphia Inquirer architecture columnist Inga Saffron has quite a story. I’d call this aggressive negligence.

Once upon a time it was a stately Philadelphia townhouse…. Today the 19th Century building is a weed-choked wreck with bricks popping out of the facade.

Upper windows hang slack-jawed, like a drunk who just passed out. Graffiti dances across a side wall. A family of possums has colonized the interior.

It has been like this, neighbors say, for a good 15 years, perhaps longer. They’ve called building inspectors, signed petitions and corresponded with city officials – with little results.

Neighbors have even offered to buy the house from its owner, who currently owes $31,772 in back taxes.

Such tales of neglect and lax enforcement could be told about any number of blighted, vacant houses that litter the hardscrabble corners of Philadelphia. What distinguishes this one is that the property is located two blocks off Rittenhouse Square.

Read the whole thing.

This kind of neglect has consequences — not just for the neighbors who live on that block, but in promoting civic apathy.

If even rich, well-connected people can’t get an eyesore like this taken care of, what chance do the rest of us have?

(As an aside, kudos to Saffron for re-imagining her role as an architecture critic and practicing actual journalism. I don’t always agree with her, but I’m grateful for her legwork and effort.)

Row by row

8 Jun
Did you know that Philadelphia’s Chinatown has the greatest amount of paved-over surface area in the city? I didn’t.

Now a group of young activists from Asian Americans United is working to transform a small triangle of land in Chinatown into a green space. (See photo for its current appearance.)
AAU garden lot

From AAU’s recent announcement:

In 2008, when youth in AAU’s Community Action Class surveyed the area around their school in Chinatown North, they found neglected vacant lots, illegal dumping, and little green space.

After succeeding in getting a lot next to the school cleaned up, permission to use the lot, and the fence fixed by the absentee land owner, AAU youth (with the indispensable help of adults) are now working to transform this vacant lot into a garden.

Every year, children and youth in our AAU Summer Program help build the garden – little by little, inch by inch. Last summer they built raised beds, planted butterfly habitat, made bird feeders, and grew and cooked with herbs.

I’ve recently been listening to some lectures on environmental psychology, and the research on greening is pretty interesting. One study found that hospital patients who had a view of something green (such as a tree) healed more quickly than those whose windows just looked out onto other buildings.

The AAU announcement continues:

In the words of our garden theme song: “Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow.”

Through AAU’s Summer Program and our Inch by Inch Garden, we teach children that making positive change takes persistence and hard work. But, together, we can make a difference in the world.

That’s a pretty good message, I think. (Emphasis mine.)

You can make a donation to support AAU’s garden work.

Here are some options:

___ $12 buys a dozen spring bulbs

___ $60 buys one fig tree

___ $100 buys four blueberry bushes

___ $200 buys lumber and supplies for four more raised beds

Listen to AAU member Dao Tran talk about her experience of being taken seriously as a 12-year-old activist back in 1987.

People you should know (First in a series)

4 Jun
W. Rockland Street photo

W. Rockland Street

I think this will end up being a long series. Although the posts themselves will not end up being long, necessarily.

Here are two people to know: Emaleigh and Ainé Doley. I mentioned Emaleigh before in the context of her anti-litter work for Axis Philly.

These sisters are the driving force behind the W. Rockland Street blog, which chronicles neighborly connections and neighborhood beautification on one block in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.

(For you locals, W. Rockland is between Greene Street and the 4800-4900 block of Germantown Ave. And if you’re not local, here’s a little info on Germantown.)

I have a soft spot for people who are working for a better Philadelphia, as may be obvious. Ainé and Emaleigh definitely fall into that category.

Some people call what they are doing “tactical urbanism.” For my money, it’s less important what you call it than that you do it. They certainly are.

Photo credit: W. Rockland Street blog.