What Will It Take for New Philadelphians to Clean Up City Hall?

As the city’s population grows, our corridors of power remain the same.

The new Philadelphians just keep coming. From too-big exurb mini-m­ansions and too-small Manhattan studios; from San Francisco and Shanghai; from the beat-up ’burbs of Delaware County and the dormitories of Penn, Drexel and Temple. They’re young professionals and empty nesters, Cambodian immigrants and Kensington-bound hipsters. And there are many more of them than you likely realize.

In 2007 alone, an estimated 56,000 new residents made Philadelphia their home. A year later, there were another 62,000. Then 64,000. In 2010, the tide reached 70,000. Somehow, someway, they’ve kept coming.

And thank God for that. It’s terrifying to think where Philadelphia might be were it not for these new residents, who have both reversed a 50-year pattern of population decline and breathed new life into a tired old post-industrial city. They are remaking neighborhoods, invigorating the arts and restaurant cultures, giving employers reason to again consider doing business here.

But where you don’t see much impact—at least, not in the traditional sense—is in the corridors of power. For all they’ve done to change the city, these new Philadelphians, as a class and voting bloc, are political also-rans—when they bother to run at all.

Six new City Council members took office this year. But not one of the new members is a new Philadelphian. Just one City Councilperson didn’t grow up in this town, and the vast majority of the 17 members have spent their entire lives in Philadelphia. The 2015 mayoral field could be one of the most crowded in city history, but all six of the most oft-mentioned contenders are native Philadelphians, or near enough to make no difference.

Indeed, with the huge exception of Mayor Nutter—a man whom new Philadelphians tend to like and support—the city’s political scene today looks much the same as it did before the new Philadelphians arrived en masse. A few of the players have changed (see Fumo, Vince). But old-fashioned political power is still pretty securely in the hands of a few big interests and institutions. Unions. The Democratic City Committee. Big business and the Chamber of Commerce. And long-established political factions, like the Dougherty and Fattah organizations.

So what is it with these new Philadelphians? They have time for night markets and guerrilla gardening, but direct participation in local politics is beneath them?

Well, yes and no. Both skeeved out by the nature of the city’s political culture and intimidated by its strength, the new Philadelphians have made an end run around the traditional political system, channeling their civic energy into nonprofits, neighborhood associations, and loose networks of like-minded activists. Consciously or not, the new Philadelphians have decided they don’t need to take over City Hall in order to remake Philadelphia in their image.

But there are limits to this apolitical brand of activism, and the new Philadelphians are starting to reach them. Sooner or later, they’ll be forced to realize it’s in their interest—and, I’d argue, the city’s as well—for them to spend a little less time organizing co-ops and a little more time building real political power.

Matt Ruben doesn’t need to be convinced.

Late on a mild August afternoon, in the quintessentially new-Philadelphian community of Northern Liberties, Ruben and I are sitting at a window table at Café La Maude, a new local favorite with impeccable Parisian-inspired interior decorating and a Franco-Lebanese menu. It’s an ideal example of the kind of establishment that didn’t exist in Philadelphia outside of Rittenhouse Square before the new Philadelphians came to town.

Let’s define our terms for a moment. The new Philadelphians are, to be sure, a diverse bunch. But as a class, they are whiter, wealthier, younger and far better educated than the rest of Philadelphia. And while immigrants are a critical part of the new Philadelphia, their experience isn’t the subject of this article, not least because the city’s Latino and Asian communities are becoming pretty effective at political organizing. So for the purposes of this story, “new Philadelphians” is shorthand for the majority white cohort of students, condo-dwelling retirees, young professionals, nonprofiteers and starving artists who arrive in this city each year.

At 43, Ruben is a bit older than the typical new Philadelphian, and far more politically plugged in. But he’s indisputably a member of the tribe. Indeed, Ruben—who teaches courses on poverty at Bryn Mawr—is probably NoLibs’s foremost community activist. He heads up the high-powered and competent neighbors’ association, and chairs a nonprofit that’s something of a super-civic organization for a long stretch of the Delaware waterfront.

When we meet, he’s wearing a brown v-neck t-shirt and coppered glasses, and his hair is a bit longer and wispier than when I saw him last, back in 2007. At that time, Ruben was on the ballot for an at-large seat on City Council. As a candidate, he was very green. But he was also smart, informed and qualified. And he wasn’t alone. That election featured a number of new Philadelphians, and one old one—Michael Nutter—who was a natural ally. Back then, there was even vague talk of recruiting activists and taking over the Democratic Party apparatus ward by ward.

Well, Nutter won. But the new-Philadelphian candidates were crushed. (Ruben came in 12th.) The dismal showing didn’t surprise veteran city pols. The newbies’ political base, considering its affluence, is flaky and cheap. New Philadelphians don’t necessarily vote in impressive numbers (some of the wards they dominate are in the middle or even b­ottom of the turnout pack), and their donations to local candidates are anemic. “I think for a lot of the new Philadelphians it’s a lot more attractive, and pleasant, and fashionable, and more tangibly fulfilling, to work alone or in small volunteer groups and to just avoid government as a dead letter,” Ruben tells me. He’s a classic liberal, with an enduring belief in government’s potential, so he says this with a touch of disdain. But he also understands why so many new Philadelphians are loath to invest time and effort in trying to take over a moldy party apparatus when “instead they could be out there building a new community garden.”

Or bike lanes. Now 40 years old, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia may not seem at first blush a creation of the new Philadelphians, but in all important respects, it is. In 2004, the coalition had one employee. Now the nonprofit (new Philadelphians positively love nonprofits) boasts a $1.2 million budget and employs 12 staff members.

Among them is Sarah Clark Stuart, a former environmental consultant who landed in Philly in 1995. A Logan Square resident, Stuart traces her new-Philadelphian activism back to 2003, when she and her now-deceased husband helped form a campaign to pressure CSX—the railroad giant—into keeping open grade-level crossings to the brand-new Schuylkill River Park. It took more than three years, but the campaign eventually worked. Now Stuart is the full-time policy director—
and political fixer—for a new-Philadelphian-dominated bicycle coalition that has
persuaded the city to increase the size of its bike-lane network to 200 miles. Stuart and the coalition made it happen by working sympathetic staffers within the Nutter administration and by winning over the city’s Planning Commission.

Kensington’s Christopher Sawyer represents an entirely different brand of new-Philadelphia activist: the foul-mouthed muckraker, the nonstop outrage machine who cannot-believe-all-the-shit-that’s-out-there. By day, this San Antonio native is an industrial software engineer. By night, he trawls public databases and the Web, looking for scandals to expose, either on his blog, Philadelinquency, or by passing along tips to more mainstream reporters. Carl Greene’s demise, Sawyer tells me, began with a tip he passed along to the Inquirer that the now-ousted chief of the Philadelphia Housing Authority was about to lose his own house to mortgage foreclosure. “And that,” he splutters, “is just a soupçon out of the buckets of carte-blanche depravity in this town.”

But don’t dismiss Sawyer as a frothing conspiracy nut. He unearths shady deals and sleazy landlords at an impressive clip. And on his blog, he’s assembled online research tools to help users dig through public information, the better to arm them in their battles against slumlords and speculators.

“So we have this highly corrupt political machine,” he says, in between bites of a chicken sandwich at a restaurant at the Piazza in Northern Liberties. “Maybe I could try to get in there and fix it, but I don’t think it can be fixed. So I’ll throw monkey wrenches at the machine instead, see if I can’t get parts of it to collapse faster.”

Sawyer’s fusion of geek and gadfly is surprisingly common among activist new Philadelphians. Granted, most are far more earnest and considerably less profane than Sawyer, but their vision of political engagement is the same: Work alone, or in small groups, and liberate information to dispel the mystery that surrounds city government.

Which is great. Unfortunately, there’s no database that tracks deals cut in political backrooms. And it’s the rare research paper that proves more persuasive to veteran Philadelphia pols than the whispered words of a ward leader or faction boss.

The Bicycle Coalition discovered this in June, when City Council unanimously granted itself veto power over all future bike corridors that take out a lane of vehicle traffic. Stuart thinks that was just another proxy for Council’s ongoing power struggle with Mayor Nutter, and she’s probably right. But if new Philadelphians had old-fashioned political juice, might not Council have chosen to whack Nutter with a different bat?

New Philadelphians are likely to learn this lesson more broadly after Mayor Nutter leaves office. His administration is fairly responsive to their needs and generally in sync with their priorities. Whom will new Philadelphians petition once he’s gone? How effective will their nonprofits be if the next administration is less enamored with such DIY activism?

Then there’s the property-tax overhaul known as the Actual Value Initiative, which is likely to be adopted next year. The reforms are entirely justified, but they’ll bludgeon those neighborhoods where new Philadelphians cluster. Old Philadelphians in City Council have lobbied to include provisions like “gentrification protection” that will cushion longtime residents at the expense of newcomers. Will new Philadelphians just absorb those costs without complaint?

Back at Café La Maude, Ruben recounts another recent defeat. For more than six years, the neighborhoods along the Delaware labored to create a new civic vision for the waterfront. One of the core principles was an undeveloped buffer, or greenway, along the river’s edge, both for the sake of the environment and recreational uses. But big developers saw a potentially aggravating regulation. And so they helped City Council gut a citywide setback requirement, putting a key element of the Delaware plan at risk.

Six years of heartfelt civic engagement, quietly trumped in a matter of weeks by long-established powers. “Part of the problem with new Philadelphia is that it’s all about transparency, and the political system is not transparent,” Ruben says. “Sometimes I try and talk to activists, the younger ones, about the way it works. I remember, one of them looked at me and said, ‘You’re evil.’ They’re that unaware of the reality, and they’re so appalled when they find out.”

The new Philadelphians of Point Breeze are particularly appalled.

Chief among them is the precocious and controversial Ori Feibush. Raised in Upper Dublin, Feibush, just 28, has already built himself a small real estate empire called OCF Realty. Feibush has had a hand in constructing at least 150 homes. He owns a pair of coffee shops and a popular real estate blog called Naked Philly, and his real estate agents are active in every cranny of the city that appeals to new Philadelphians.

But Feibush is different from most of them in a key respect. He is blunt and confrontational, and he has no qualms about getting into scrums with the sort of traditional po­wers—city agencies, Council members, long-established community groups—that more discreet developers avoid.

This helps explain why Feibush has become the face of gentrification in Point Breeze, opening him up for some nasty treatment. At some of his construction sites, windows have been shot out. One night he came home to find a dead pit bull on his doorstep.

This sort of gentrification tension isn’t exactly new, of course, but it hasn’t been as common in Philadelphia as in some other cities that are further along in the redevelopment arc. That makes Point Breeze, which sits south of Washington and west of Broad, an instructive preview of a conflict we can expect more of if Center City continues to expand: the old-fashioned political power of longtime residents matched against the economic might of the new Philadelphians.

Leaders of the old Point Breeze have played tough from the moment they smelled the gentrification coming. They fear higher rents and taxes, and, worse, becoming strangers in their own neighborhood. So some sought a moratorium against new three-story homes. Others abruptly called an end to community meetings when it looked like the vote was going against them. And I witnessed one incident—in the aftermath of a racially charged meeting at the end of January—that looked an awful lot like vote tampering.

All of this has come as something of a shock to the new Philadelphians of Point Breeze, who were convinced they were uplifting the community, nobly converting it from an urban wasteland into a neighborhood with gastropubs and $300,000 townhomes topped with roof decks. They’ve responded to the hostility as they always do: with new community groups and park cleanups.

I ask Feibush: Will that be enough? I expect him, of all people, to believe that new Philadelphians need to get engaged in the political system. But even Feibush doesn’t see the point. “What else would you have us do? New Philadelphians and sane people aren’t programmed to deal with a system this corrupt,” he says, in his typically unrestrained way. “The reality in Philadelphia is that if the political system wants something, they’re going to figure out how to get it.”

Frank DiCicco is an old Philadelphian who is still trying to figure out what, exactly, the new ones want. For 16 years, DiCicco represented the First Council District, which eats up a big chunk of Center City and the Delaware waterfront, neighborhoods where new Philadelphians have flocked.

DiCicco still lives within a block of his childhood home at 11th and Federal, but his grip on this neighborhood is all but gone. And he knows it. In his earlier days, DiCicco could personally guarantee candidates as many as 150 of the 500 or so votes in his division. “And that was just friends and family,” he says. Today, he doesn’t think he can deliver more than 30 votes at best. “When I started in this business, people wanted help with parking tickets, with moving violations, they wanted a job for their kids.”

Not anymore. “These people, most of them don’t even drive,” DiCicco says of the new Philadelphians. “And if they get tickets, they just pay them.” He finds this incomprehensible. The amazing thing is, DiCicco was more sensitive to the priorities of new Philadelphians than perhaps anyone else in City Council. He proposed the 10-year property tax abatement, which helped enable the condo boom. He resisted the casinos. And still, he doesn’t seem to get them.

That’s because what new Philadelphians want from their city government is entirely alien to the long-established powers that pull the strings. They want a government that doesn’t do favors, one that operates entirely in the open, one that responds not to the plugged-in but to the public at large. And, critically, they want a government that knows when to get out of the way, so the new Philadelphians can do their thing.

Of course, the best way to ensure they get all of that is to elect a few Frank DiCiccos of their own.

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