3. DIY Government
Ostentatious, imposing, and at the center of everything: City Hall—the building itself—is the perfect symbol of the all-powerful role municipal government has played in this town.
Scrubbed clean on the outside, its edifice is as grand as ever. Dilworth Plaza, at City Hall’s western edge, is undergoing a $50 million conversion from an inhospitable sunken concrete pit into an open, green public square, with groves of trees, a cafe and, in winter months, an ice-skating rink. It’s as high-profile as a public-works project gets in this town. But here’s the twist: City Hall actually has had very little to do with Dilworth’s makeover.
The entire project is the brainchild of Paul Levy and the Center City District, the mighty organization that provides an array of public services that City Hall seemingly can’t afford or execute on its own: streetlight installation, sidewalk cleaning and pedestrian signage, the sprucing of the Parkway, and so on. Levy—whom many consider the de facto mayor of Center City—has blazed a trail that organizations across Philadelphia are now following, in effect taking custody of public space as City Hall retrenches. “If you want something done, the city is often now telling us we’ve got to step up and do it ourselves,” says Andrew Dalzell, programs coordinator for the South of South Neighborhood Association (SOSNA).
In sections of the city with the right resources—affluence, say, or an unusually competent community group—this emerging arrangement is proving empowering. Dalzell’s neighborhood—Southwest Center City, where property values have risen a staggering 500-plus percent over the past 12 years—is an example. When word got out that the city was planning on selling a bedraggled lot at 22nd and Catharine to a developer, residents rallied to stop the transaction, deciding they wanted the lot to be public space. SOSNA ponied up $15,000, PECO gave a grant, and neighbors raised nearly $25,000 amongst themselves. This fall, Catharine Park opened, with the city’s blessing, if not its financial support.
For communities with the capacity to manage these sorts of projects, City Hall’s decline as Philadelphia’s dominant power is no tragedy. But what about the sections of the city with fewer landscape architects and fewer residents who can write $200 checks? The answer is simple: Those communities fall even further behind.