IN THE WEEKS AFTER CLARKE WAS ELEVATED to Council president, a collective “Who is this guy?” poured forth from the local media. Clarke hasn’t exactly dodged the press in his career, but he’s been careful and circumspect, and he just doesn’t have the temperament to grandstand, or to casually divulge much about his personal life. Some of his Council colleagues, for instance, were surprised to discover on Inauguration Day that Clarke, who’s 59, has a grandson (by way of his only child, a daughter who’s a doctor). Pretty quickly, a meme started to spread that Clarke was a cipher.
Not in North Philly. There, it couldn’t be clearer that the man has roots and is a known quantity. “Mr. President, Mr. President,” says Helen Brown, a longtime North Philadelphia community activist, as Clarke stops by her office for an unannounced visit. All of a sudden she bends down and pulls up his pant leg: “I want to see if he’s out here today with these people and his socks pulled down.” She’d recently spotted his socks riding low, and she was worried it was a habit. “Now that you are the prez, you got to look the part! Is that a new suit, too?” Everywhere Clarke takes me, this sort of thing happens: Older African-American women embrace him, their faces glowing with pride. It makes sense. Clarke has lived in the district his entire life. These women have witnessed his ascent firsthand. Clarke and his two brothers were raised in a two-story Strawberry Mansion rowhome. The block is in better shape today than some, but the neighborhood as a whole is one of the most stricken in Philadelphia, a wasted shadow of what it was when the Council president was growing up.
His mother was a government employee at Veterans Affairs. His dad worked at the long-gone Freihofer’s bakery when Clarke was little, then at Virnelson’s Bakery, where he was also a union officer. “Old-school, traditional parents,” says Clarke. “Mother nurtured you, father made sure you stayed in line.” Not that Clarke always walked the line. A recent Daily News profile of the new Council president included a recollection from an old friend who described him as the kind of boy who would sit on the steps and read a book while the other neighborhood kids were jumping out of windows. That sure would help explain how Clarke got to where he is today, but it’s “totally inaccurate,” Clarke says. “I’d like to think I was the kid sitting there reading the book, but that’s just not reality. Let me put it out there that I was the kid doing what every other kid at 30th and Norris did: Jumping through windows, off the roof, whatever, I was doing it.”
He was a gifted athlete, and a good enough defensive back for Strawberry Mansion and Edison Highs that he thought he had a shot at a football scholarship. That never materialized, though, and after his studies at Philadelphia Community College were aborted by two consecutive faculty strikes in the 1970s, Clarke attended a now-defunct technical institute. That was it for his formal education. But his informal education—in politics, in power, and in the intricacies of redevelopment—was just beginning.