HE LOVED THE city when it took an act of profound imagination to love it, when it was grimy, when it stank, when you could walk along a row of trinities and see a line of desperate people sharing a single cold-water faucet and a single toilet, when the city’s public officials were so corrupt they were committing suicide rather than answer questions about where the money had gone, when the dumps along the river burned morning noon and night, when banana-boat captains were afraid to bring their vessels into the city’s port because its polluted river would turn their beautiful white hulls to gray. This wasn’t the 19th century. This was 1947. But Richardson Dilworth was an optimist. He loved the failed and failing city. He believed he could fix it. He was a former U.S. Marine, a war hero twice over, a slick libel lawyer (See Footnote 1), a tough district attorney who had taken on the Mob; these experiences had whittled his tolerance for bullshit down to zero, unless the bullshit was his own. He drove into the neighborhoods of the city’s enemies and stood atop a panel truck and screamed into a microphone that if they dared debate him, if they dared emerge from their hiding places, he would destroy them.
“Yes, I am an emotional man, but I am a fighter,” he once shouted at an opponent who had questioned whether he was “emotionally and psychiatrically fit to be mayor.” Dilworth continued, “Where would the cities of this country be if it were not for men like me who fought for them? ”
So he fought. He took on the corrupt and contented Republicans who had ruled the city since 1871 — and beat them. He became the mayor, our mayor. He governed for one and a half terms, from 1956 to 1962. In that short time, he penciled in the outlines of our modern city: Society Hill, Independence Mall, SEPTA, the recreation centers, the trash-collection regime, the park system, public housing. Then he resigned and left the city in the hands of a string of unbearable hacks.
This time, Democratic hacks.
Which is why today, 50 years after his ascension and more than 30 years after his death — today, with a new reform-minded mayor in City Hall, re-fighting the same battles that he once fought — we’re still struggling with the legacy of Richardson Dilworth. Back then, he was a passionate, flawed, buffoonish man. Now he’s the gold standard, our pivotal civic ghost. We’re still trying to figure out how his love transformed the city, and how he could have stood to love it better. Against our better judgment, we’re still wondering: What Would Dilworth Do?
1. One of Dilworth’s favorite clients was Moses Annenberg, the gangster, tax cheat, and onetime owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Dilworth was in court with the old man on the day of his sentencing for tax evasion; when the judge asked Annenberg if he had anything to say, Annenberg told the judge, “I will live to piss on your grave.” Dilworth loved to tell this story. He admitted that Annenberg was “crude and rough and vicious, and he would double-cross anybody,” but said that at his heart, “There was very little hypocrisy about the old man.”