Last month, we broke from our standard fare and put a gun on our cover, in an effort to jar all of us awake in the face of a murder epidemic that threatens to stall our region’s considerable momentum. Immersed in the issue of violent crime, I had a “eureka” moment: I figured out how to turn around our skyrocketing murder rate.
We need a tourist to be killed in Rittenhouse Square.
This epiphany came after a conversation with former police commissioner John Timoney, who is now making significant inroads in the crime rate in Miami, as he did here from 1998 until 2001. I asked how he, William Bratton and Rudy Giuliani turned New York from a crime-and-murder-infested laughingstock to one of America’s safest cities. “We didn’t turn it around,” he said. “The media did. A tourist was killed, and the Post and Daily News grabbed hold of that and made crime and murder a front-page story every day. That made the public officials act.”
Timoney was referring to the 1990 murder of 22-year-old Brian Watkins. The Utah resident was visiting the Big Apple with his parents to watch the U.S. Open tennis tournament. A bunch of dirtballs mugged the Watkins family at a subway stop; when Brian tried to defend his mother, he was knifed to death. The murder happened in midtown, and suddenly, reality hit home for New Yorkers. Violent crime was no longer something that happened to “them” — some vague other in some other New York. The political will for change was born.
Clearly, Philadelphia is still in need of that type of catalyzing event, something to jump-start a demand for action. Last month, when our cover story came out, it was met with some eye-opening examples of civic denial. The Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association accused us of sensationalism because we didn’t say on our cover that “the murder problem exists primarily in North Philadelphia.” I responded by pointing out that we’re one city, one Philadelphia, and great cities tackle their problems head-on. Moreover, history has proven that you can’t flourish in the long run by perpetuating your own tale-of-two-cities narrative; you can’t maintain a soul while pretending that five-year-olds getting caught in the crossfire a mile to the north aren’t your problem. You do that, and you can say goodbye to the upsurge in tourism, dining and the arts. You do that, and you become Detroit.
We also heard another typical sort of Philadelphia denial: Yes, things are bad, but they’re bad all over. That’s what U.S. Representative Bob Brady announced after his recent summit on gun violence, and that’s what police commissioner Sylvester Johnson keeps maintaining: “This is a national problem.” Well, not quite. Yes, there are other cities, like Milwaukee, with an increase in gun violence. But let’s look at the cities we’re most comparable to — and the ones that have turned things around. New York’s murder rate was 8.36 per every 100,000 people in 2001; it’s now 6.64. Los Angeles was at 15.62 in 2001; under Bratton, the police chief who engineered the New York turnaround in the early ’90s, it’s down to 12.63. Chicago was losing 22.88 of every 100,000 citizens to murder in 2001; under superintendent of police Philip J. Cline, it’s down to 15.59. Under Timoney, Miami is now at 13.91, down from 19.93 before his arrival in 2002. Here in Philadelphia, we’re trending the wrong way. When Timoney left, our murder rate was 18.89 per 100,000. It now stands at 25.6, and it is rapidly rising.
Timoney, Bratton and Cline have shown that proactive policing works. In last month’s cover story, writer Gregory Gilderman revealed a reactive Philadelphia police force still wedded to chasing 911 calls — despite the fact that only 2.9 percent end in arrests.
Please join us to discuss this crisis at our next Philadelphia Talks event, on December 4th at the National Constitution Center. Panelists will include Lynne Abraham, Sylvester Johnson and Gilderman. (Call 215-409-6700 for details.) If we don’t treat this as the crisis it is, the body bags and chalk outlines on our evening news will be Mayor John Street’s tragic legacy, and Philadelphia will be right back where it was before the Center City renaissance of the 1990s.
When Rocky Balboa debuts on December 22nd, it will mark the culmination of this city’s epic relationship with a quintessentially Philly character.
I have to admit, there was a time when I was sick of the Rocky-fication of my hometown. At some point, probably around Rocky III or IV, the Rocky/Philly nexus had become self-parody. Last year, when the group that tried to bring the Olympics here concluded that more Europeans associated us with Rocky than with the Liberty Bell, I was more than a little sheepish.
But our terrific cover story (page 104) by Andrew Corsello — a former staffer here who, for the past decade, has been turning out literary masterpieces for GQ magazine — made me realize it’s okay to love Rocky again. We can be both a world-class city and home to this often dunce-like character who stands for grit, determination, and getting punched in the nose. Loving Rocky now is kind of like embracing that crazy uncle who comes up from the basement at Thanksgiving. (Only in this case, the uncle has been beating the crap out of some raw meat down there.) It’s okay, Philly. If you stick around long enough, you eventually become cool again. Rocky, the big lug with the big heart, is cool again.
In the aftermath of the Amish school shootings in October, we dispatched writer Matt Teague to Lancaster County with no instructions other than to basically live there for four weeks — and come back and write about what he found. Teague outlasted all the news vans and curiosity-seekers, who soon moved on to the next breaking tragedy or cultural oddity. And he came back with precisely the story no one else had gotten, a story only a magazine can capture. In effect, the media horde rushed to Nickel Mines to do what it does: give us the who, what and when. Our newspapers, in particular, did a magnificent job of covering the tragedy.
Teague, however, unfurls a deeper mystery: that of the Amish themselves. How could they have forgiven the man who slaughtered their children — before the victims had even been buried? It’s a thoughtful and moving piece; most important, Teague’s must-read helps us understand how this very private sect relies on its own long history and deep faith to accept such tragic violence and carry on.