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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.)

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Mapping crime

14 Jun

Inquirer crime mapper tool screenshot

I’ve hesitated to post this, because I’m not totally sure I endorse the frame it imposes.

But here it is: The Philadelphia Inquirer website now has a crime mapping tool, which is slightly less useful than it sounds.

Basically, you can look at the rate of crime by neighborhood, calculated as a rate of X crimes per 1,000 residents. (They break out the property crime rate and the violent crime rate separately.)

I’m not sure how they are defining neighborhood boundaries, although I suspect it might be by police district.¬† Regardless, it’s a somewhat weird — some “neighborhoods” have 10,000 people and others have close to 60,000. That’s a big range.

You can search by address, sort of. If you type in an address it will take you to the crime data for that neighborhood, with a list of specific incidents by block number (e.g., “Robbery — 3900 block of Chestnut St.”)

An important caveat: The tool includes only data from the last 30 days. So seasonal variation or passing trends could really mess with the numbers.

I haven’t quite figured out how this tool connects to a better Philadelphia. Would like to hear your thoughts in comments.

Note: I suspect this will go behind a paywall soon, but will leave this post up regardless.

A market opportunity for journalism

11 Jun

Dave Davies at WHYY makes an interesting point regarding Philadelphia’s recent horrible building collapse:English bulldog

I want those responsible for this atrocity held accountable too, but I wonder if a year from now, all the furor over slipshod demolition and shady contractors will have changed anything.

  • In 1996 a massive fire of discarded tires shut down a section of I-95, and for a weeks politicians and TV crews were all over the issue of tire disposal.
  • In 2000, a nightclub on a pier in the Delaware River collapsed and killed three people. City inspectors were immediately dispatched to examine every pier on the river.
  • And last year, the tragic Kensington fire that killed two firefighters led to a new focus on large, abandoned properties.

Davies says some kind things about the city’s most recent efforts to improve oversight, and continues:

The question is whether the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections can really do all this stuff in addition to the other burdens they carry, many of them heavier because of past disasters….

I’ve seen a lot of people in city government over the past 25 years. Plenty of them occupy the corner office while things in their departments go on as they always have.

Then once in a while, but you see somebody who has the vision, guts and managerial skill to make change. It’s not easy in the public sector, but it does happen.

It means getting better technology and putting it to good use. It means understanding the arcane civil service system and making it work. It means listening to union leaders and joining them in common purpose. It means holding supervisors accountable for getting the job done. I’ve seen it happen, and it can be inspiring.

You know what else can be inspiring? When a journalist takes hold of a story like a bulldog and hangs on for years, wringing every drop from it.

C’mon, WHYY, I’m looking at you. Make a topic page and stay on this. Check back in six months, in seven months, in eight months. Track the incremental progress/lack of progress, not just the big anniversaries or the inevitable court case. Be journalists.

Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Open up a universe

10 Jun

Ta-Nehisi Coates on what he says to young people who live in tough (or not-so-tough) neighborhoods:

What I have come to believe is that children are more than what their circumstance put upon them. So my goal is to get kids to own their education.

I don’t think I can hector them into doing this. I don’t think I can shame them into doing it. I do think that might be able to affect some sort of internal motivation.

So I try to get them to see that every subject they study has the potential to open up a universe. I really mean this….

I try to get them to think of education not as something that pleases their teachers, but as a ticket out into a world so grand and stunning that it defies their imagination.

Solomon Jones headshot

Solomon Jones

Here in Philadelphia, writer Solomon Jones put Coates’ ideas into practice when he brought a group of high school students on a Cook’s Tour of journalism.

From his article:

I wanted the students at Bok [High School] to see what that life could look like, so I took them on a tour of the places where I work and write.

In doing so, I hope I allowed them to tour more than a few media outlets. I hope I allowed them to tour their own futures.

At WHYY, they met Executive Producer for Audio Elisabeth Perez-Luna, and NewsWorks Community Media Editor Jeanette Woods.

They also heard from Morning Edition host JoAnn Allen

At the Philadelphia Daily News, they met with cartoonist Signe Wilkinson, who used their ideas as the basis for a cartoon.

They also sat in on a news meeting with Editor Michael Days, Editorial Page Editor Sandra Shea and every other editor on the staff.

Finally, I took the students to Axis Philly, where they helped to edit a video based on their media tour.

.

Jones continues:

But the day was about more than pep talks and videos.

It was about possibilities.

It was about seeing beyond the walls of Bok High School, beyond the challenges of South Philadelphia High School, and beyond the specter of uncertainty.

For one day in Center City Philadelphia, I wanted them to dream. I wanted them to see themselves as more than students. I wanted them to see themselves as the future. If we accomplished that much together, I’ve done my job. The rest is up to them.

Here’s TNC again. Seriously, this guy is awesome (even if he is from Baltimore rather than Phila):

I think we all get frustrated with the state of our community. I think it is easy to turn that frustration into a kind of catharsis by denigrating the dreams of children.

I believe in taking the dreams of children seriously, and then challenging them to take their own dreams seriously.

Amen.

Photo credit: Solomon Jones.