IT WILL BE A SHAME IF CLARKE is content to make Council’s trains run on time. He’s got the ability, the experience and the perspective to be a player of citywide significance. The rambling Fifth Councilmanic District, where he has lived his whole life, contains a big slice of dynamic Center City, a host of neighborhoods on the rebound, and mile after mile of modern-day slums. In other words, it’s a great place to see both Philadelphia’s incredible potential and its intractable problems.
About a month after Inauguration Day, Clarke took me on a tour of the changing North Philadelphia landscape in his city-issued Crown Victoria. As he pulled out of City Hall and headed north on Broad Street into his district, we passed the expanded Convention Center and the school district headquarters that opened in 2005. We drove by the Inquirer building, now owned by Bart Blatstein. A half-block further north, we passed the old State Office Building at Broad and Spring Garden—another Blatstein overhaul-in-progress. Further north are Marc Vetri’s Osteria, on the ground floor of a loft complex, and the shuttered Wilkie Chevrolet Buick dealership, now the site of another new Vetri restaurant and one from Stephen Starr. We pass all of that and more before the Crown Victoria even reaches Temple University, ground zero of North Philly’s redevelopment boom.
But these headline-worthy projects aren’t what Clarke wants to show me. He turns off Broad and begins pointing out a host of smaller-scale housing and retail developments—ones constructed largely by public agencies or community nonprofits that Clarke has nurtured for years. We poke our heads into classrooms at Project H.O.M.E.’s magnificent Honickman Learning Center for low-income residents. We drive past handsome publicly funded low-cost twins in Strawberry Mansion, blocks from where Clarke grew up.
But just as I begin to suspect that Clarke’s vision for redeveloping North Philadelphia is limited to taxpayer subsidies and charity, he sketches out his broader strategy. These nonprofits and government agencies, Clarke contends, have done just enough to make North Philadelphia an inviting environment for private investment.
Clarke isn’t an unreformed New Deal liberal. He has resisted tax hikes in the city, and he knows perfectly well there isn’t enough public money to rebuild his entire district. But he contends that targeted public funds, spent wisely, can improve a blighted neighborhood enough for a Blatstein to see the value in investing, or for a Temple to consider expanding.
“My premise is, you take these distressed areas and infuse some government subsidy so that the private market starts to perceive them as viable communities,” Clarke says. That might well mean gentrification down the road, the Council president acknowledges, which is why he has no qualms about asking developers and well-funded institutions that want to do business in North Philadelphia to also provide some sort of consideration for long-term residents.
In the case of a $147 million mixed-use Temple project at Broad and Cecil B. Moore, the community bonus (or community payoff, depending on your perspective) was 250 four-year scholarships, reserved exclusively for North Philadelphia residents. It’s the sort of arrangement that makes good-government types cringe: Shouldn’t a development proceed or not on its own merits? But Clarke is proud of the deal he negotiated, seeing it as an arrangement that benefits both his longtime residents and the institution powering so much of North Philadelphia’s revitalization.
All of which suggests Clarke is a hybrid: a pol who excels at old-school deal-making even as he embraces cutting-edge redevelopment strategies. He is, in other words, a streetwise wonk.