Power: Manage This

What’s it really like to run Philadelphia? From snowstorms and stadium implosions to an FBI bug, Mayor Street’s former managing director tells all

And sure enough, he wasn’t. I agreed to become managing director. After all, it was the “mother” of all management jobs, and I love challenges.

There have now been 19 managing directors — six in the first 30 years of the position’s creation, and 13 in the next 25 years. The average tenure of the managing director has decreased from five years to two. That’s as good an indication as any of how difficult it has become to manage the city. Starting in the late 1970s, the federal government began to systematically bail on urban America. In 1975, for example, the streets department, supported by federal dollars, had 3,700 employees; today, with a sliver of federal funds, the department is half of what it was (though the city has no fewer streets).

Minorities now have a much more powerful voice in government. Long gone are the days when city services could be delivered to one section of the city but not another. In a city populated with a large segment of poor, elderly and non-English-speaking people, with an aging infrastructure, there is more to do with far less. Regardless of race, color, creed or income level, no one seems quite satisfied.

To really understand the challenges faced by a managing director and a mayor, it’s helpful to remember “Tip” O’Neill’s famous dictum: “All politics is local.” O’Neill could have been referring to Philadelphia’s 152 neighborhoods, where a mayor’s best intentions can be sabotaged by insurgents. Want to build more affordable housing, attract a developer or welcome a new business? They’re all worthwhile initiatives for the overall welfare of the city, but good luck finding a welcoming neighborhood.

While Philadelphia owes much of its rich character to the tapestry of its neighborhoods, their strength can make it difficult for a mayor to enact a larger vision for the city. A neighborhood’s muscle is often flexed by its district Council member, who can single-­handedly stop the best project from going forward. The run-down, 55-year-old Youth Study Center on the Ben Franklin Parkway is a good example. For years it was apparent a new center was needed, and when the decision was made to move the Barnes Foundation to Philadelphia, what better site than where the Youth Study Center sits now?

After months of consideration, a decision was made to move the center to 46th and Market streets in West Philadelphia. District Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell agreed, but then recanted. A win-win for the city — a progressive, modernized facility for troubled children, a home for a world-class museum — had been thwarted. While the roadblock has now been removed — thanks largely to the city agreeing to open a new community center in Jannie’s district and name it after her late husband Lucien — the delay will cost taxpayers somewhere around an additional $15 million.

Legislative bodies, whether in Philadelphia, Harrisburg or Washington, always have prickly relationships with the executive branch. It’s part of our separation of powers. Former Mayor Green once called City Council the worst legislative body in the free world. Street, who presided over Council and made life much easier for then-Mayor Rendell, complained about it, too.

Is it any wonder that the two architects of the casino legislation in Harrisburg, Ed Rendell and Vince Fumo, who both know a thing or two about neighborhood roadblocks, were careful to keep the city from having any say in where its casinos were built?