Is Philadelphia Going Black?

The new separatist movement has made a lot of people jumpy.

John Street might now have all the answers, but he certainly does have plants—walls, windowsills and desk tops covered with rangy vines, prickly cacti, wandering jews and any other form of greenery that can survive eight stories up in the uncertain glare of a fluorescent sun. His hands might be black but his thumbs are definitely green.

He also has on solitary red brick wall next to his desk that makes for an odd contrast with the rest of his institutionally downbeat law office in the tired One East Penn Square Building next door to City Hall Annex.

John Street is the younger, smarter, craftier brother of Milton Street—the mighty-mouth pratfaller at City Council hearings, the once-and-future boxing opponent of Frannie Rafferty, and the ex-food vendor from Temple University’s van-filled Ptomaine Row, who has become the most visible heavy in race politics in Philadelphia.

Milton talks and John thinks; Milton provokes and John plans; Milton blazes a trail in the wilderness of electoral politics as the State Representative from some godforsaken, poverty-ridden district in North Central Philadelphia, and John follows through by assuring himself election to the city’s important Fifth Councilmanic District—that ripe-for-recycling territory that the late Cecil Moore misrepresented for most of his political career.

The Street Brothers are one hell of an act. Milton is the Laurence Olivier of “Scare Whitey” street theater. John’s a busy, thoroughly professional attorney biding his time until he’s sworn in to that council seat in January.

Incumbent Councilman Frannie Rafferty had better start his road work right now. He’d better haul over to Champ’s Gym and begin pounding a medicine ball. Rafferty, the feisty champion of white rights from 28th and Tasker who challenged Milton Street to a fistfight last council session, may need Russell J. Peltz, the fight promoter, to keep track of all the council-manic battles he’s likely to find himself involved in next term.

When John Street begins agitating next year, or helping his brother, Milton, leap over that wooden railing that separates the spectators from their councilmen, or outflanking Inspector George Fencl’s beef trust of civil disobedience bulldogs, he’ll be playing to a We-Shall-Overcome chorus of black councilmanic colleagues like Lucien Blackwell (unless he’s elected mayor next month), John Anderson, Gussie Clark, Joe Coleman and … Dave Cohen. (Cohen might be a Caucasian, but his politics and council decisions are expected to coincide with John Street’s.)

In his office last month, John Street was dressed casually for a lawyer—especially a black lawyer—in sports shirt and jeans. It’s hard to imagine a Ben Johnson or a Cecil Moore or even a Charlie Bowser in a similar situation talking to a white reporter without the talismans of power—French cuffs, monogrammed shirt and three-piece suit.

But John Street could never conform to anybody’s category. He’s trim and compact with a modest Afro and just enough facial hair to make him appear uncommonly cerebral.

He doesn’t look or sound like a black politician from Philadelphia, at all; more like a humorless, painstakingly articulate foreign minister of a Third World power.

The fact that North Central Philadelphia—the jungle, to white people—nominated him as their councilman, devoid as he is of all the traditional political characteristics (one can’t imagine John Street kissing a baby, hosting a cookout in Fairmount Park, or keeping his committeemen in line with Thunderbird and greenbacks) probably says more about North Philadelphia’s impatient, ugly mood than it does about Street’s political clout.

His rhetoric is definitely class-struggle:

“We are not opposed to development and renovation of the inner city.” Recycling again—that visceral fear of the black politician who sees his segregated power base and his tightly-compacted votes evaporating before his eyes.

“We are opposed to poor blacks or Hispanics or even whites being put out when the rich people come back. We don’t like resources of the federal government coming in to facilitate this.”

Street’s Fifth Councilmanic District, which he is almost certain to win in November, includes not only North Philly and places like Strawberry Mansion, but stretches as far south as Lombard Street.

That takes in most of Fairmount, Spring Garden and Franklin Town—prime rehab areas where incoming young white professionals are snapping up the $40,000-$50,000 shells and $100,000-and-up row houses are suddenly blossoming on former slum blacks. The city’s using real estate tax income from all this activity doesn’t impress John Street.

He has declared war against the real estate developers and their bureaucratic allies like Housing and Community Development Director John Gallery.

“We are going to take care of them, of all the people. They are not going to be put out of their houses.

“Why should HUD money go to rehab neighborhoods for rich whites instead of building houses for poor blacks? That’s what I asked John Gallery, and that’s why Gallery is going to lose his job. He’s a hired gun who is in it for the money. He’s committed to his next paycheck and that’s all. We can’t have a man like that in charge of housing in this city.”

The future city councilman has already been busy touring his district, “You drive down 21st street, okay; you look around. You go past Green and Wallace. You see all sorts of site improvements—trees and sidewalks and curbs. Now, you can’t tell me that they’re putting that stuff in for no boy-niggers. That stuff’s going in for middle-class white folks.”

Nothing, however enrages John Street as much as the government’s policy, and the city’s, as well, of alleviating overcrowding in the inner city by scattered-site public housing: “I know what they’re trying to do. They want to break up the ghetto. They call it deconcentration. Just stick us all over the place. Put some of us out in the suburbs. Well, that has some serious political ramifications. If you’re gonna take black people and spread them out and take away their political power, then they can no longer vote for their best interests as a unified group.”

The most “serious ramification” that Street’s worried about is the erosion of his own political base. Street, like the new wave of black politicians all over the city, seems perfectly willing to let integration be damned if it means losing his own chock-full wards and divisions.

At the other end of the spectrum, far removed from the Street Brothers in North Philadelphia, the Dave Richardsons in the Northwest, the Fattah family in West Philadelphia and the Lucien Blackwells in the Southwest, are old pros like Mt. Airy’s Joe Coleman.

During the spring primary, Coleman was the only black of any stature in the city to stick with Bill Green. He did it, he says, because “Green has the contacts in Washington to get jobs for blacks, and he was the best qualified man to be mayor of all the people, not just the blacks.”

Coleman, an incumbent city councilman, with a solid track record was almost driven out of office for taking this position. Black leaders like Sam Evans blasted him mercilessly, and he squeaked to an election victory only by virtue of a handful of absentee ballots that had been cast in his favor. He talks about it bitterly:

“They hung Joe Coleman in effigy every morning on the black talk shows, and Sam Evans ‘excommunicated’ me—from what, I don’t know. He forbade people even to stand on the same platform with me.

“There was a lot of hysteria in that election and some of it has carried over. It wasn’t an intellectual choice at all for the black community to go with Bowser. It was all emotion.

“Poor blacks voted for him because he was black. But middle class blacks went for Bowser because they were black.”

The one thing that both John Street and Joseph Coleman think alike about is Lucien Blackwell’s mayoral campaign. Neither one gives it much of a chance.

Coleman is especially realistic:

“Blackwell’s running on the Consumer Party ticket. Now, that’s really on the fringe. What you see with him is the tail end of a movement that could have developed into something significant—that could have meant black unity.

“But Lucien Blackwell is just playing out the string. All that hysteria can’t help him now.”

While hardly anyone thinks that Lucien Blackwell can win in November as the Consumer Party candidate—as well as the candidate of the Black Political Convention and the whole black separatist movement—most agree that he has a good chance of coming in a strong second.

Bowser did it back in 1975 when, as a “Philadelphia Party” candidate, he edged out Tommy Foglietta, the Republican; and Lucien Blackwell might just overtake David Marston in 1979.

Blackwell’s handicap this time certainly isn’t color—but organization. He has the potential registered votes he needs to win it all, especially in this three-man race. What he lacks is the momentum and hand-slapping solidarity that almost did it for Bowser in the spring.

Money, of which Blackwell is also short, is becoming less significant a factor in black politics. Bill Green spent approximately $700,000 more than Bowser in the primary and it bought him only about 32,000 additional votes. Had the black turnout been a few percentage points higher, the margin would have been wiped out—$700,000 or not.

This is not to say that black politicians aren’t attempting to fill their own war chests, because they are. But they are used to making do with much less. Besides calling upon their fast-growing professional middle class of surgeons, attorneys and school principals to finance political operations, they’re turning more and more to black celebrities.

One of the biggest black businesses in the country, Philadelphia International Records, is becoming an increasingly important conduit for funds. One of its co-founders, Kenny Gamble, contributed very heavily to the Bowser coffers and provided some valuable behind-the-scenes advice, as well.

This music man is merely the most visible in a complicated network of blacks, associated, in one way or another, with the recording or communications industries who have committed their time and money generously to politics.

Another aspect of this growing black sophistication—associated this time with black-oriented radio—is the current ratings war between WHAT and WDAS. During morning drive time, it’s Georgie Woods vs. Mary Mason in a battle to be the spokesperson of the black community.

Both stations have substituted talk radio for music and the black political community has responded ferociously. During last spring’s primary and this summer’s black agitating, these two talk shows provided the crucial podium for people like Blackwell, Bowser and others to communicate with their constituents—who also happen to be the stations’ listeners.

This potent mixture of hard-sell politics, combined with hard-sound radio reached its ultimate conclusion one night outside the Bijou Cafe near Broad and Lombard.

Black concert promoters, like Georgie Woods (he has his finger in many pies in addition to his radio show chores) had been demanding that black artists and entertainers who used halls like the Spectrum, the Tower Theatre or even The Academy of Music, begin booking their tours through black promoters and hiring black limousine companies, guards and technicians.

Woods put it on a brittle, racial basis and eventually called for the sort of concessions that amounted to reparations from white music promoters in Philadelphia.

The whole situation got out of hand when Woods decided to picket the Bijou, where a black singer was in the midst of a white-promoted tour. He brought along State Representatives Milton Street and Dave Richardson for moral support and transformed what was essentially a dollars-and-cents squabble in the music business into a rallying point for black politics in Philadelphia. The ramifications of this marriage between black radio and the ballot are yet to be felt. But listening to WHAT and WDAS, it’s pretty hard not to get the feeling that black politicians in Philadelphia have inaugurated their own broadcast network.

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  • Stevens

    ” … $40,000-$50,000 shells and $100,000-and-up row houses are suddenly blossoming on former slum blacks.”

    Needs editing … I think you meant “slum blocks?”