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

 

It took about four hours to make the pies: peeling and slicing the apples, rolling the dough, carving out little stars from the excess edges and affixing them to the top. Ina Garten does an egg wash, and so did I: It makes the crusts shine, and the cinnamon sticks better.

It was November 4, 2008—Election Day—and apple pie was my contribution to the America-themed dinner party that friends were throwing at their GradHo house. We would dine on broasted chicken, collard greens and mac-and-cheese in front of a television tuned in to election results; our hosts clanged a horseshoe every time a state went for Obama. Spirits were high: The previous year, the city had elected reformer Michael Nutter, and the Phils had just won the World Series. There was a sense that everything was, finally, starting to line up right, in the city and in the nation.

To all of the people in that living room, and to so many in my post-boomer generation, the election felt like a tipping point. It wasn’t just that we’d been rooting hard for Barack Obama, though of course we had. I’d rooted as far back as 2004, when I was a graduate student in Chicago and he was a young aspiring senator from Illinois delivering a brilliant speech at the Democratic National Convention.

No, it was that we came of voting age in the post-patriotic era of Monica Lewinsky and miscounted ballots in Florida: To us, patriotism was at best a quaint vestige of the Reagan era and, at its worst, the calling card of a certain type of aggressive country singer. September 11th devastated us, but we were, for the most part, neither indifferent nor impassioned afterward; we were sometimes engaged but rarely active. In 2004, we had no idea that we’d be volunteering for that would-be senator’s presidential campaign in four years’ time, and doing so in record numbers. We just knew, back then, that we felt the first flush of … something.

The “audacity of hope,” he called it, his voice cadenced and swelling like the last bars of a fanfare. We who were moved were all in: Sign us up for audaciousness! And if audacious didn’t work out, we also had passports and really liked the idea of Spain.

The epilogue to 2004 was a bit less inspiring—it was John Kerry who didn’t work out. We didn’t move to Spain. Instead, we got jobs. But we never really stopped rooting for Obama, for that feeling. A few years later, his team stamped a word on it: Change.

After I walked home from our America dinner, tin-foiled pieces of leftover dessert in my purse and strangers stopping for high fives, I sat in my apartment in the glow of the televised commentary—the biggest popular-vote majority win in 20 years—and called my old Chicago friends to celebrate Change We Believed In, as I nibbled cinnamon-spangled stars off my apple pie.


JANUARY 2012: BOY, DID WE GET CHANGE.

That’s a glib, reductionist way to characterize what’s happened over the past four years, but here’s the hard truth: About nine percent of Americans are unemployed. Polls show record levels of pessimism throughout the country. We’re in the midst of the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. More than 20 percent of us have regularly been unable to afford food throughout the past year. And a whole lot more of us—if not the entire 99 percent—are still suffering the aftereffects of Wall Street’s blatant abuse of capitalism. College tuition has risen at a terrifying 6.3 percent a year over the last three decades. The current approval rating for Congress is a record-low nine percent—slightly below the approval rating for hepatitis C, Jon Stewart joked.

Here in Philly, folks seem jazzed about the slight increase in the population of our city, but the poverty rate shot up to almost 27 percent in the past three years. That’s roughly 397,000 people living in poverty. The unemployment rate for Philly 20-somethings is around a dismal 50 percent. Fewer than 20 percent of us showed up to vote in the mayoral election in November—eight percent less than showed up in 2007.

In short: Everything has changed for the much, much worse.

Just as bad, though, is this feeling—shared by everyone from the talking heads on cable networks to my co-worker who thinks we’d better all learn Mandarin, and fast—that it’s only downhill from here. That there’s only one get-out-of-Depression card handed out per empire, per game. (Thanks for playing.)

But it seems to me that the knee-jerk reaction of the pundits and the politicians to all of this bad news—blaming the current president and/or crappy Congress for the way things are, railing against one party or the other—is so utterly beside the point. I would argue instead that what lies underneath these grim facts and our depressing reality is—yes—a great hope. Starry-eyed as it may sound, we have every reason to believe in that grand old American tradition of mobilizing when, and only when, things have really gone to hell.

This sounds like a gross oversimplification based on an old cliché about hitting rock bottom—you know, the cold comfort that “there’s nowhere to go but up.” But in a historic sense, America has an excellent track record with rock bottoms. Our useless Congress and corrupted Wall Street are our forefathers’ King George III and tea tax, which were our great-grandfathers’ robber barons and child labor, which were our parents’ civil rights inequalities and Vietnam. If these are more times that try men’s souls, we have ample precedent to believe we’ll come out of them better than just okay.

Among my generation there’s an instinct, when we think about civil unrest, to veer straight to the 1960s. But in terms of great American movements, the modern moment we’re experiencing has been most widely compared to the turn of the 20th century—a time that history labeled the Progressive Era.

That era was born in the post-Civil War decades, when new technology literally changed American life. When super-wealthy industrialists and financiers like Carnegie and Rockefeller were maligned for the questionable business practices that made them rich, when an estimated one percent of the population owned about half the country’s wealth, when the level of hatred toward immigrants was at fever pitch, and when a lack of regulation left everything from the food industry to the streets to the waterways in vile condition. In 1893, when railroad overbuilding triggered a massive recession leading to a slew of bank failures, it seemed the nail in the coffin of the American Experiment.

Sound familiar?

But the resulting anger, fear, frustration and bad economy bred leaders and activists of all sorts, who pushed their way through a massive cleanup on just about every front imaginable. There was a renewed focus on the nation’s original ideals, and a revived commitment to egalitarianism and a functioning democracy. Political bosses were cut out; women’s suffrage blossomed; social activism shot up; entire school systems were built. Income taxes, the Federal Reserve, the FDA, the FTC, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, child labor laws, the FBI, workers’ comp, the national park system—all were products of the Progressive Era. The 20-year span was hardly all roses. But in lots of ways, American politics and AmericaIn life in general got a much-needed extreme makeover.

I think we’re on the cusp of a New Progressive Era.

I believe that the seeds of change were actually planted back in 2008, when the call for something different chipped through shells of bland complacency. Those seeds have grown. Fewer of us see Spain as an option. Driven by anger and frustration over corruption, the money that rules our politics, the power inequalities, and all the obstructions to our pursuit of happiness, we—like our Founding Fathers, like the Progressives, like Bob Dylan—are realizing that we might have to do some actual pursuing to get to the happy. I believe that given a choice between settling for sub-par circumstances and mobilizing to change those circumstances, we’re going to pick mobilizing. I believe that Philadelphia­—where it all began—is uniquely poised to lead the way in this New Progressive Movement.

And I’m not alone.

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.

“YOU SHOULD REALLY CALL IT THE ENOUGH IS E-FUCKING-NOUGH MOVEMENT.”

That’s my brother-in-law, a devourer of news and self-proclaimed­ Independent who—like everyone I know, from my cabbies to the chairman of my company­—is angry and talking nonstop about greed, and inept government, and income inequality, and what to do about them.

Seth, the brother-in-law, thinks that highlighting local progressivism—what I’ve come to call the SOSNA-and-soup-kitchen theory—is “nice and all, but I think people want much bigger change, more immediately.” He likes a more top-down approach, and proposes a 28th Amendment limiting special-interest involvement in politics.

“The Founding Fathers gave us a hell of a head start,” Seth says, “but the weaknesses of man have finally caught up with us. This time, we fight to free us from ourselves.” He sees salvation in the end of Super PAC contributions, in an equal application of laws to Congress and to ordinary citizens (“Did you know that Congress isn’t subject to insider- trading laws?” Seth writes. “Guess whose net worth rose 25 percent since 2008?”), in a no-gifts policy and term limits for Congress. He points out that Russell Simmons, the Def Jam/Phat Farm magnate, has a similar point of view. Everyone has an opinion.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that people’s opinions over the next step don’t all line up. Occupy Wall Street—and Occupy Philly—has been maligned for the messy, massive and sometimes absurd scope of issues being protested. (Signs like “Eff the PPA” and “Andrew Jackson, Get Off the $20 Bill Trail of Tears” tend to dilute the unified-front thing.) But then again, movements are big, and they are messy—as Occupy reminded a whole new generation, in tented, Magic-Markered, Tweeted, Technicolor real time. As Putnam himself wrote, “As a social movement, Progressivism was broad and variegated.”

That movement also spanned about 20 years, Jeffrey Sachs pointed out in the New York Times back in November. The lauded director of Columbia’s Earth Institute wrote an op-ed calling for a revival of public services, an end to the “climate of impunity that allowed every Wall Street firm to commit financial fraud,” and, like Seth and Russell Simmons, a reestablishment of “the supremacy of people votes over dollar votes in Washington.”

“See, the thing that’s fresh and exciting to me,” says a different Jeff, “is that right now it’s not yet tied to a particular legislative­ goal.” This is Jeff Green, an assistant professor in Penn’s poli-sci department.­ He studies political participation in a democracy, and thinks ours will continue to rise. “We have lived through a confusing time where bad things were happening­—inequality, torture—and people were getting away with it, and it just seemed like there was no limit, and it was like, did people care at all? But apparently there is a pulse. It’s exciting.”

Green buys into the idea that Philadelphia can be a big part of this. Beyond the fact that we have the greatest historical and symbolic connection anywhere in the country to the ideals we’re struggling to return to, beyond the fact that we can handle messy and gritty because we’re Philly, yo—beyond all that, he says, “It goes back to the way that small things are still very significant. In between fixing every single thing and being totally apathetic, there is the very serious issue of the middle ground, and small but meaningful transformation.”

IF THERE IS A FACE TO SMALL-BUT-MEANINGFUL TRANSFORMATION HERE, it’s Al Schmidt’s—a pretty good-looking face, framed with a subtle swoosh of dark hair and nerdy tortoise-shell glasses.

I’m sitting at Starbucks with Al and his face and his pumpkin spice latte about a week before he’ll win one of three spots in the election for the office of city commissioner. It’s not really a sexy post, but in the wonky world of city politics, Schmidt, a Republican, has gotten to be sort of a big deal. Aside from collecting endorsements from everyone from Rendell to the Ironworkers to the Pentecostal clergy, he and his Democratic counterpart, Stephanie Singer, both newcomers, ran separately as reform candidates for an office characterized by waste, ineffectiveness and lack of transparency—especially problematic qualities when that same office is responsible for educating voters.

Schmidt, who has a doctorate in history, says it was another Philadelphia reformer—Richardson Dilworth—who inspired his run.

If you’re a Philadelphian, you know the story of Dilworth, the wealthy and hyper-educated WWII vet who came home from the war high on victory, only to find that his corrupt and contented city was that much more corrupt and contented, run by an entitled Republican machine that had enjoyed a hundred-year rule. Dilworth ran for mayor in 1956 and proceeded to usher in the greatest era of Philadelphia change since Billy Penn, overhauling everything from trash collection to public transportation to the patronage system.

“There was another era of progress, too,” Schmidt tells me while sipping his coffee. “Rendell came after it had been so dismal in the ’70s and ’80s, and there was another period of unthinkable change.” It’s why Schmidt wants to help create something better—because he thinks he can, even as a Republican in a town where the Democrats control everything. “The thing about Philly is that nothing seems to happen for a long time,” he says. “And then it happens in a big way.”

The post of city commissioner is easy to miss or even dismiss. But by controlling the city commission, Schmidt and Singer will help engage voters and ensure that our elections are honest—not so small, really, in a city where elections aren’t always shining beacons of democracy. Small but meaningful is how big and meaningful gets rolling.

Schmidt is a leader. We obviously can’t all be leaders, as a movement by definition involves followers, too. I once YouTubed a TED talk in which the speaker made the profound point that a leader is only a leader when the first brave follower steps up to transform the “lone nut” into something more. Other people join once the first follower arrives. We all must have the courage, the speaker said, to follow when we see promise in the lone nut.

This strikes me as the hardest part of the New Progressive Movement—choosing­ which of the lone nuts to follow, at a time when the sea of voices both locally and nationally is loud and messy and big. The good news is Putnam’s premise that such movements are broad and variegated, which would mean that my brother-in-law can petition for the 28th Amendment (I’ll sign!), and Jeffrey Sachs can encourage his three-pronged national­ plan, and Andrew Dalzell can continue invigorating a neighborhood. They are all one movement, which has begun here (or, more precisely, has begun here again) and which will continue to grow throughout the country.

It is, after all, the American way.