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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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Cross your fingers

3 Jul

I feel scared to hope too much, but Philadelphia’s homicide numbers are down.

Like, really down:

Homicides in Philadelphia in 2013 are at the lowest midyear total in nearly half a century, police figures show, putting the city in reach of a modern-day low at year’s end.

As of Saturday, with two days left in the six-month period, police had recorded 115 homicides, a 38 percent drop from the same period last year.

This matters on so many levels, but most of all on the human level.

Because for every person who doesn’t die from gun violence, there is an entire family of people who don’t suffer.

That’s wonderful news on any day of the week. Let’s hope it continues.

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.

Anna Deavere Smith

26 May

Anna Deavere Smith headshot

A recent announcement:

Philadelphia Theatre Company will host a residency for Anna Deavere Smith leading to the creation of [a] new work, The Pipeline Project, thanks to a generous gift from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation….

The Pipeline Project will address the increasing numbers of American youngsters – especially African-American males – being “shuttled” from school into the criminal justice system.

During her 2013-2015 residency at PTC, Smith will use elements of the theatre process that she has refined over the past three decades to create a compelling theatre piece that is also an opportunity to spark city-wide dialogue and public engagement about our education system and our civic responsibilities to children.

Emphasis mine. My initial response: Extremely ambitious, but intriguing.

Smith explains, “In The Pipeline Project I plan to use not only what I know about creating a drama, but also what I know about creating conversation, to make the process as well as the product useful to the cause of increasing awareness about what is happening to our young people. I also intend to create new audiences and spur advocacy while doing so.”

I get nervous when people talk about things like “the cause of increasing awareness,” in part because I’m not at all sure that the problem of young people and incarceration is one of awareness.

“Create new audiences” also sounds pretty ambitious. If I’m reading it right, the focus is on getting people who haven’t attended PTC’s productions in the past to attend them.

Not totally clear what the mechanism for that would be, except that human beings in general like to see their stories represented. Maybe ADS’s new story (play) will bring in some people who traditionally have felt under-represented in American theater.

She continued: “I am delighted to be returning to work with [Philadelphia Theatre Company] both because of their track record, which is unquestionable, and because this is a theatre which at its very root has compassion. The project that I am about to create requires an environment that can support it artistically, but also, has, in its own DNA, true civic empathy.”

Emphasis mine, again.

I like her phrase “civic empathy.” I have been a fan of Smith’s since her book Talk to Me, and I really loved seeing a workshop production of her play “Let Me Down Easy.”

Unfortunately, when I saw the full production of the latter a year later, it had become disturbingly celebrity-focused and seemed to be staggering under the weight of Trying to Say Something About the American Healthcare System.

I sincerely hope this new production is let alone by its funders/minders — so that ADS can do what she does best, eliciting and dramatizing extraordinary stories.

Qualified kudos

7 May

When I first met a staffer from the GreenLight Fund, I was pretty skeptical of their stated approach. Assuming that there is no existing organization effectively solving your problem and parachuting in from out-of-town with a “replicable solution” sounds like a recipe for frustration to say the least.GreenLight Fund logo

This 2012 Generocity.org article articulates some of the skepticism.

In contrast, this Philadelphia Business Journal article summarizes GreenLight’s philosophy from their perspective:

 It focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families by taking the principles that VCs [venture capitalists] use to select companies to invest in and applying them to selecting nonprofits to fund.

Specifically, GreenLight works with people in a city to identify the city’s needs; does a national search to find the nonprofits that are best serving those needs in other places; makes grants to enable those nonprofits to bring their programs to the city; and provides them with support to help their programs succeed.

I was also bit put off by the tap-dancing response I got from their staffer to some very basic, nonthreatening questions, and even less delighted by their opaque website. Hard to trust someone’s agenda when you don’t know where they’re coming from.

(I’m glad to see they’ve now added a bit of info on their funders and their “Selection Advisory Council” — though there is a second, mostly similar list elsewhere on the site.)

I am even more pleased to say that their first two grants appear to be promising: $1.33 million to Year Up and $1 million to Single Stop  USA.

From the Business Journal article:

  • “Year Up is a Boston-based nonprofit helps disconnected, 18-to-24-year-old urban residents get the skills and experience necessary for professional careers.”
  • “Single Stop is a New York-based nonprofit that helps low-income community-college students stay in school by connecting them and their families with financial resources and other support.”

What I know of Year Up is very positive. (I don’t know anything about Single Stop, though it seems similar to the Benefit Bank here in Philadelphia. It is interesting that apparently it is the same program that GreenLight funded in Boston. What are the odds?)

Here’s hoping this project works out well for Philadelphia! I’ll be keeping an eye on it.

Philadelphia wins EPA grant to clean up Frankford Creek

6 May

This falls into the category: Things I don’t know much about, but sound intriguing.

Philadelphia 2035 logo

The city of Philadelphia has just won a $200,000 grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to cleanup an industrial brownfield in the Frankford Creek area.

From the announcement:

Gary Jastrzab, Executive Director of the City Planning Commission said, “The revitalization of this area was the focus of the recently adopted Philadelphia2035: Lower Northeast District Plan. This grant is the first step toward reusing formerly industrial properties along Frankford Creek in new and exciting ways.”

Emphasis is mine.

Learn more about Philadelphia2035 and how you can be involved in neighborhood planning.