It was Fidel Castro who famously proclaimed, “History will absolve me.” But will it be so kind to John Street?
After eight years on the job, John Street would probably like to be remembered for something besides an escalating homicide rate and a high-profile corruption scandal. We’d like $10 million deposited in a Swiss bank account, but that isn’t happening, either.
“I think, basically, Street’s legacy is Michael Nutter’s challenge,” says political consultant Larry Ceisler, adding that when scholars look back at the Street years (and won’t they?), the city’s murder spree will eclipse the FBI investigation. “The homicide rate is what people are talking about, and that’s what they will remember him for.”
“He’ll be viewed as the catalyst for reform,” says Zack Stalberg, president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy. “It’s not completely fair, because Street has done some good things in the neighborhoods. But in the end, he was viewed as so uncommunicative that the default position will be that people will remember him for provoking change.”
Others urge a more flattering view. “The good things that happened over the last eight years didn’t just happen on their own,” says Dan Fee, who led Street’s 2003 campaign. “Property values don’t go up as they did here unless people have faith in the future of the city.” Adds former Rendell chief of staff David L. Cohen, “I think history will take a considerably different view of his legacy than current events might indicate. He was an excellent mayor who did nothing less than transform the neighborhoods.”
Street’s first term was consistent with his Council career — a neighborhood-centered assault on the most visible effects of poverty, like abandoned autos and outdoor drug dealing. But Franklin & Marshall political analyst Terry Madonna says all of that was overwhelmed by what came next. “I think the [FBI] bug reinforced a natural inclination in Street toward privacy and not always cooperating with the media. So he was in a ‘Let me build a moat around my administration’ mode.”
The most enduring image of Street’s eight years may be of him waiting in line in Center City for an iPhone. “I think it became a symbol,” Madonna says, “of just how far removed he seemed from the city’s real problems.”