Can Philadelphia Launch A Second American Revolution?

Some 225 years after the birth of our country, times are tougher than ever. But if history is any guide—and it is—a rebirth of America is coming. In fact, it may have already begun, right here in Philly

ANDREW DALZELL IS PSYCHED about the trash cans.

A long-limbed, bearded 26-year-old with a shaggy head of pale red hair, Dalzell is the programs coordinator for SOSNA—that’s the South of South Neighborhood Association, a robust little coven of residents who live in what most of us still know as Graduate Hospital. The nonprofit group benefits from the Philadelphia tax credit program in the form of a $100,000 annual grant, which pays for Dalzell (the lone paid staffer), the bulk of the group’s programs and its office. Dalzell’s job is to facilitate all the community projects that residents and businesses want to make happen.

And they’ve just made some of those futuristic garbage cans—the ones you see all over Center City—happen for their neighborhood.

“Litter is one of the biggest problems here,” Dalzell explains. He and the board saw at least a partial solution in the trash-compacting, solar-powered,­ more efficient Big Belly trash cans the Nutter administration installed throughout Center City—only “the city has told us that they don’t have the money to install more of them.” But the city added that if SOSNA raised funds for the cans, it would maintain them and pick up. So SOSNA bought one outright—$4,500 at the city’s discounted bulk rate—and has raised about $9,000 over the past year for another two. It will add four more in 2012. “People ask, ‘Hey, aren’t my tax dollars going to this?’” Dalzell says. “But the fact is, they’re not going to that. You can complain about it if you want, or you can understand that budgetary issues prevent that and move forward.”

The first rule of New Progressivism? Idealistic pragmatism.

If you haven’t been down to the Graduate Hospital neighborhood in a while, you’ll be amazed at what moving forward looks like: tree plantings, mailbox painting, street cleanup days, pop-up retail—and a bunch of stuff you don’t see, too, like the monthly meetings with police, and the economic development committee’s commercial inventory project so business owners can see potential spaces for retail. There are long-term plans for pedestrian triangles, reward programs for middle-schoolers who volunteer, block parties. It’s Mayberry in the middle of the city—a vibe that requires around 500 man-hours a month to keep it going.

“I always bring up the opening of a new park,” Dalzell says. “People will come across a vacant lot and say, ‘Why isn’t this a park?’ They think parks fall from the sky. But first, the community has to come together and say that it wants a park. And then they come up with the design. And then they show that they’ll fund it and maintain it. And then the government will say, ‘Okay, this can be a park.’ And then something happens.”

I think of Dalzell and crew as pioneers in the PNP movement—that’s Philadelphia New Progressives. On a national scale, even on a city scale, Project Big Belly is minuscule. But such ideal-driven movements are known to spur plenty of change-by-copycatting. Some years ago, I think as a school assignment, I read Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, a book expounding on the many ways America relies on social and civic engagement. In one memorable example, Putnam noted that not long after the 1875 founding of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, 55 more societies formed to prevent cruelty to children.

Putnam also pointed out that part of the Progressive Era’s success lay in the fact that many social and political reformers of the day came from small towns and “recalled the virtues of a community rooted in interpersonal ties.” It was only with the onset of the feeling of crisis that cooperative activism truly ignited, that people began experimenting with new ways to solve problems.

I suspect the average Philadelphian might not characterize our city as one bursting with cooperative activism. Aren’t we all a little more used to aligning ourselves with Rocky than Franklin? If that’s true, though, we’ve forgotten our heritage—that we’ve dealt, rather successfully, with issues far more vicious than ballooning city pension obligations. Those guys at Valley Forge fought with no shoes—in December—while Betsy Ross was technically committing treason by sewing that flag, just after Ben Franklin edited the Declaration of Independence by the light of a candle. Civic activism runs through the heart of this city; it’s the birthright of every Philadelphian.

I mention what seems like a recent rise in that Putnam-and-Dalzell­-type community involvement to my friend Ashley, always the first person I know to recognize a bubbling trend. She agrees, and wonders if the renewed chic of civic engagement is just one more part of the current cultural zeitgeist; of the fair-trading, charter­-school-starting, Etsy-buying, jam-canning, artisanal-cheese-loving, from-scratch-baking, organic-eating-locavore revolution. The idea being essentially this: Naturally, we’re going to return to Thomas Jefferson’s­ homespun ideal of active citizenship when we’re also quitting our jobs as financiers to become sheep farmers and forgoing sex-toy parties for stitch-and-bitches. But it strikes me that the idealistic trends of today are part of a much larger New Progressive­ Movement—corrective actions to a civic and social and gastronomic and economic disconnectedness­—and not the other way around.

Of course, one neighborhood association­ does not a trend make. But there’s also Ivy Olesh, 28, co-founder of the Friends of Chester Arthur, a volunteer group in Dalzell’s SOSNA district. Chester Arthur is the local elementary school, and Ivy and her husband, Matt, decided almost two years ago that they’d like to be involved with it in some way. “We did it,” Ivy says, “because we love our block, and we love the kids on our block. We carve pumpkins with them, do tree planting with them. We said, ‘Listen, our son deserves a great education, but so does everybody’s kid, whether the parents can be involved or not.’”

Friends of Chester Arthur has grown from a small klatch of area residents who were connected through SOSNA into an independent group about 70 strong, with involvement ranging from cooking for the kids’ multicultural day to initiating a $500,000 capital campaign for a new playground. “All of the Arlene Ackerman coverage of public schools made it seem like it was such a losing battle,” Olesh sighs. “We never felt like it was.” Other groups, she says, have made similar inroads at schools across the city.

In October, Mayor Nutter and Ed Rendell accepted invitations to speak at the launch of the Friends’ new after-school tutoring program. Nutter remarked he thought the program could be worth replicating; Rendell made a $1,000 contribution to the playground fund and pledged to raise more.

Rule Number 2 of the New Progressive Movement: Some level of political buy-in of grassroots initiatives helps with major change (a.k.a. the “Come Senators, Congressmen” Rule). Rule Number 3: Good ideas will eventually resonate with the right people.

When local activist Yael Lehmann’s Food Trust—a nonprofit that has worked in tandem with public schools and city departments—increased the availability of fresh food to low-income families in our city while also lowering the obesity rate amongst our school kids, none other than the First Lady noticed and held it up as a new national ideal. Progress, writ large.

“Of course, I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future,” Jack Nagel says, a note of disclaimer in his voice, as we sit in his office in the heart of Penn’s political science department. He looks like a professor: thin, bespectacled, with peppery silver hair.

He asks me if I’ve read any Samuel P. Huntington. (I have, but lie and say no, because it’s been a decade and I don’t remember much.) Huntington was an esteemed Harvard political theorist who argued that there have been eras in American history that could only be explained by what he calls “creedal passion”—an awareness of a major gap between our creeds (liberalism, democracy, equality) and our reality.­ Movements, he said, arise when things simply get unacceptably unequal or unstable, and they arise out of the desire to close the gap.

The Cliff’s Notes version of Huntington revolves around the notion that America is a nation that identifies itself with ideals, as opposed to, say, ethnicity. (“To be an American is an ideal; while to be a Frenchman is a fact,” Huntington quotes Carl Friedrich.) And whenever we’ve come to realize that we’re falling short of our ideals, we begin to behave in different-than-usual ways to bridge the gap—revolutions, sit-ins, rallies. This, Huntington insists, explains not just the Progressive Era, but also the very first defense of those creeds in the American Revolution, as well as the era of Jacksonian democracy, on to the 1960s and ’70s.

I run down some of Huntingdon’s list of creedal-passion-era characteristics like it’s a Cosmo quiz. (Are You in the Midst of an Era of Creedal Passion?!)

First, an atmosphere of discontent, in which we lose faith in authority, experience “pervasive unhappiness” with things as they are, feel distant from our government, and question “prevailing institutions.”

Check!

Second, the concept of political ideas and moral passion: During the American Revolution, Huntington writes, everyone was talking about liberty, equality and democracy and how to realize them. Even if “great systematic political theories” were never actually articulated, talk was pervasive.

Sounds like our Congress, and the recent national Republican debates, and pretty much every cable news show ever, and your local deli, right? Check, check.

Third: An attack on power and hierarchy (especially bureaucracy) that emphasizes liberty, equality, individualism and popular control of government.

The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street both share this trait, and it also applies to the union protests in Wisconsin and the recent grassroots Move Your Money project.

Fourth: Political participation and organization, with people getting mobilized in new ways.

Well, the 2008 election saw a bigger voter turnout than we’d had in almost four decades (the seeds, planted!); then the Tea Party organized around a simple idea (less government) and actually got members elected to Congress. Then came the Occupy movement, which spread nationwide.

I left Nagel’s office buoyed by the idea that progressivism and a return to our ideals­—or, okay, our creeds—has happened not just once, but with regularity, almost as a part of our nation’s DNA.

A few days later, I took a minute to look up that old speech of Obama’s, the one from the 2004 Democratic Convention. Remember how it felt somehow … right? I was curious whether what he’d said that night could still move me. Here’s what I read:

“Our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over 200 years ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. … This year … we are called to reaffirm those values, to hold them against a hard reality, to really see how we’re measuring up to the legacy of our forebears, and the promise of future generations. And fellow Americans, Democrats, Republicans, Independents: I say to you tonight, we have more work to do.”

Huh.

Creedal Passion, 5.0.

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