Together but separate

18 Jun

Earlier this year Philadelphia suffered an unnecessary punch to the gut when a local magazine decided to publish An Article About Race. Regardless of how well-intentioned some of the parties may have been,* the resulting piece set off a firestorm.

*Emphasize either the “some” or the “may” in this sentence, as you prefer.

I won’t use up your time recapping the events here; there is plenty written elsewhere. I mention it only because one of the outcomes was this: Several (well, at least two) African-American writers are now working as bloggers for the Philly Post.

Sandy Smith is one of those bloggers, and one of his recent columns caught my eye:

Recently, a white friend of mine who lives up my way wanted to bend my ear about personal stuff and invited me to meet him at a popular Mt. Airy bar.

When I walked into McMenamin’s, I recognized a scene that was very Mt. Airy: About half the patrons in the bar were black and half were white, and everyone was enjoying themselves.

My friend recognized something else. He pointed out to me that the two groups of patrons, while in the same space, weren’t really interacting with the other.

Rather, they were enjoying themselves separately together. Ours was the only interracial dialogue in the room….

And that’s a shame.

How much better would this city be, how much safer, how much more pleasant, if we regularly crossed those dividing lines with others around us?

I like that Smith includes safer. It always amazes me how fearful many Philadelphians are about traveling outside their comfort zones, either geographically or figuratively.

Of course, some people have good reason to be fearful: If they’ve been assaulted or harassed for being where they “don’t belong,” it can feel safer and easier to stay away from those spaces.

But for many people, the big fear seems simply to be — well, for lack of a better word, awkwardness. They don’t want to feel out of place; they don’t want to be noticeable.

And — especially among white people — they don’t want their race/ethnicity to be marked. They’re accustomed to the luxury of not having their race be noted, and they feel weird when it is.

Smith continues:

I’m particularly sensitive to this subject because I’ve straddled those dividing lines all my life as part of the first generation of African-Americans who could truly grow up integrated if they—or their families—so chose….

I’ve since learned that this sort of straddling, while perhaps common in the world of work, remains rare in the social sphere. And those who try, find it a challenge to achieve.

I suspect part of the reason it’s a challenge is that it takes more than a single person to do it. And our society can be pretty serious about policing the boundaries when anyone tries to step outside — even in as minimal a way as having a drink at your local watering hole.

Recording school history

17 Jun

Philadelphia-based photographer Zoe Strauss is nationally recognized for her work illuminating moments from everyday life.

Now she and a group of other photographers have stepped forward to help document the massive, unprecedented wave of school closings here in our city.

The Notebook reports:

She is calling her project the Philadelphia School Closings Photo Collective.

After the School Reform Commission took action, “it suddenly seemed as if everything was going to close without being properly documented, that a school would be closed and no one was going to have a photographic record of it,” said Strauss….

Strauss has put out the call for other photographers to each choose one of the 24 schools slated to be shuttered and document its final days….

Strauss realizes that people in the schools are stressed and that District staff is concerned about their sensibilities. So is she, Strauss said. She understands that school is a “safe place for students and staff and this is a traumatic moment.”

She wants her photographers to “have a sense of what it means to go into a school at a time like this.”

Bok High School in 1937

Bok Technical High School in 1937. Photo: PhillyHistory.org

Strauss herself will document Bok Technical High School, in her South Philadelphia neighborhood. She calls it a “great building,” one that has seen generations of students learn trades.

“Some of these buildings will become condos, some will be torn down,” she said. “This is about the importance of archiving the spaces before they go.”

Photographers interested in collaborating on the project can request to join the Philadelphia School Closings Photo Collective Facebook group.

I wish it wasn’t necessary to do this, but I’m very glad someone is. When I look at photos on PhillyHistory.org and similar archives, I am often struck by the unrecognizability of many familiar buildings and neighborhoods.

Iconic images stay more or less the same over the years — City Hall will always be City Hall. But people don’t live in City Hall. We live in neighborhoods, and neighborhoods can change radically even in a short space of time.

Schools live in neighborhoods too. Chronicling the death of 24 schools is a modest but powerful way of affirming their role in the life of our city.

Photo credit: PhillyHistory.org, a project of the Philadelphia Department of Records.

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.)

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.

Preaching it

13 Jun

A while back, I had the privilege of hearing Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor speak. At one point during her talk, she recalled her starting salary just out of law school — $17,000.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor (Photo credit: Wikipedia.)

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor (Photo credit: Wikipedia.)

She said, “That was more than my mother ever made.”

It seemed like a lot of money, she said. Then: “To some people, seventeen thousand dollars still IS a lot of money.”

It was a powerful moment. One of the nine most powerful judges in the world was acknowledging that poor people exist in the United States today — and that she actually understood what poverty could mean.

I thought of that today when I saw this video clip of State Senator Vincent Hughes’ recent speech in the state legislature on funding for education and healthcare.

Senator Vincent Hughes headshot

Pennsylvania Senator Vincent Hughes

Watch his passionate, informed speech now. Or take a look at the (long) excerpt below.

We have a solution in front of us that would help about a half a million people in Pennsylvania.

People who are working every day.  Many of them working two, three, and sometimes four jobs on a daily basis. They’re trying to make ends meet.

They’re not making a lot of money. They have drive, they have perseverance, they have faith — they have to have faith, because if they didn’t have faith, my best guess is they would not be able to make it through. They really wouldn’t.

They work every day. They’re cleaning bodies — of the infirm, the elderly, those who are sick, those who are disabled. They’re helping folks get to their job.

They’re providing security for us. Which is even more important on a daily basis as the level of violence seems to rise….

They work in our neighborhoods, they work in our communities. They do the work that just about all of us would not know how to do if we were asked to do it ourselves.

But all of us depend on these individuals. They work in this building. They service this building. They work every day. They’re real people with real lives.

The thing that they’re missing — because they’ve got everything else, they’ve got the drive, they’ve got the determination, they show up early. Very early.

They work the late shift, the overnight shift. They work the early shift. They take the early bus. Some of you may understand what that means. They put it in.

The thing that they’re missing, the thing that’s absent in their lives…is health insurance. The ability to go to a doctor and to get a problem taken care of.

Healthcare! We all know about it. Every one of us in this building — or at least those of us who sit in these grand chairs in this chamber, the 49, the 50 senators, the 203 House members, the folks in this administration, we. all. have. health insurance. We understand the value of that!

There are folks who I know who have a problem — but they’ve got insurance. That’s the first question. They’re taken care of.

But these individuals — there’s over a million of them in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. They don’t have health insurance. But they work every day. They have a window of opportunity of a solution to their problem.

It’s right in front of us. It’s been provided to us. Plus the money to pay for it!

Four billion dollars a year, coming to Pennsylvania to provide health insurance to provide health insurance for about five hundred thousand working people in Pennsylvania.

And by the way, most of these working individuals are women. They’re heading families. They’re working every day. And they just need a little bit of help.

And the program is right there. It’s right within our grasp to take. It’s right there!

Three independent studies have said, “It is OK to do, Pennsylvania.” Over half the states in the nation have said, We’re going to take this program, we’re going to put it in place in our state, we’re going to make it work for our citizens.

And quite frankly it doesn’t just help those who don’t have insurance, it helps everyone, including those of us who have insurance, because it has the opportunity to lower our own personal rates, because everyone else is covered.

Right there in front of us. It’s like this glass of water. You’re thirsty — it’s right there in front of us.

It’s paid for. The water’s in the glass. The glass is sitting right there. It’s right there in front of us, but someone is pulling it away from us, not allowing us to have it.

The health insurance is there. The coverage is in place. Help is available for those who need the insurance.

But we keep getting stall tactics, day in and day out, from the front office, about why this cannot be done.

We got some smart people in Pennsylvania. Smart enough to know that if 25 other states could do it, surely we could do the same thing.

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.

In the trenches

10 Jun

Following up on my earlier post about the School District’s layoffs, I thought I’d excerpt this stunner of a letter from one of those 3,800 laid-off employees.

Students standing in formation to spell out "PEACE"

Photo credit: Alice Heller

Good Morning, Sir,

I received my notice Saturday. I got it early in the morning, so it could stick in the back of my brain all weekend like a splinter in a finger….

The letter mentions to let someone at the School District of Philadelphia know if you are a veteran. I served honorably for 21 years in the Pennsylvania National Guard and have deployed twice in service to my country. I am honorably discharged and hold the status of retiree from the army….

I successfully completed the Troops to Teachers Program and I have been teaching in the District since January of 2009….

Since coming to the District, I found equipment when there was none, I created curriculum when there was nothing, I did without when we needed supplies….

For the last four years, I have struggled, alongside the most courageous and honorable people I have ever worked with, to teach the students, feed the students, clothe the students, protect the students, and lead the students….

I realize that there are always forces beyond my control, but know that if you break up our team at Crossroads, you will damage one of the few systems in the School District of Philadelphia that is actually working. We are strong because of the integration of our curriculum, the dedication of our small but determined band of educators, and because we have the proper leadership to carry us through.

I understand that every school and employee will claim the same, but we are truly different. If you break us up now, you will lose one small program that is making a profound impact on the fabric of our city.

Sincerely and respectfully,

Harvey Scribner
Teacher
​Crossroads Accelerated Academy at Elverson

Read the whole thing, as they say. (Note: I am the one who added the link in Mr. Scribner’s letter above — it goes to a prior article published in The Notebook about Crossroads Accelerated Academy, where he teaches.)

Then check out Faces of the Layoffs, a new blog featuring stories of people who have been laid off.

I am all too intimately aware of the School District’s many failings. I could write a book about all of the screwups and idiocy I have witnessed.

But the solution to those problems is not to abandon our commitment to the very concept of public education.

Update: Per the comment below, the photo should be credited to Principal Alice Heller. Many thanks!

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.

Slow-motion catastrophe

9 Jun

I hate writing about a problem without a good idea for a solution. But to be honest, this one is too big to ignore.

The School District of Philadelphia has just sent layoff notices to 3,700 people. The mind boggles.

This is the latest chapter more than a half-century of more or less continual financial and political crisis for the district. The most recent round started with a state takeover of the district back in 2001.

The takeover move established the School Reform Commission as the body in charge of the district, including hiring and firing the superintendent (which we do pretty often here, although I understand the tenure for big-city superintendents averages 3-1/2 years nationwide. So maybe Philadelphia isn’t that unusual).

The SRC has three members appointed by the governor and two by the mayor. Unsurprisingly, this is a recipe for — well, you name it. Gridlock, patronage, incompetence, frustration…the list could go on and on.

There are a lot of people doing yeoman’s work on Phiadelphia education issues — too many to list here. But for starters, try searching #PhillyEducation on Twitter, and reading the Notebook.

Next time I write about this I’ll try to have something more constructive to say.