Philadelphia Will Never Be A World-Class City (and That’s OK With Me)

Who wants the Olympics? Or worse traffic?

Last week, the Federal Reserve of Philadelphia announced a three-day conference on “Building Resilient Cities” planned for May, where academics and the like will come up with ways to make our cities better in the future. Also last week, the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia issued a new report as part of its multi-year effort to Philadelphia into a “World-Class City” by 2026. The organization spent about a half a million dollars so far on the project and has enlisted some big names to help move everything forward.

Why the Economy League’s focus on becoming “world-class”? According to one report: “ … the germ for it all emerged from the region’s short-lived effort in 2006 to bid on the 2016 Olympic Games. If you remember, the knock wasn’t that the city had a negative image—it had no image at all in the international Olympic community, an American city indistinguishable from so many others. That got board members of the Economy League thinking about why Philadelphia isn’t the type of region the spotlight seeks out on the world stage.”

(In a related story, that Flyers fan who mercilessly beat up the New York Rangers fan (and retired Iraqi War veteran) outside of Geno’s after the nationally televised Winter Classic will go on trial in March.)

I’ve lived in Philadelphia all my life, and I’ve seen plenty of attempts to turn our city into a “world-class” destination. Remember the lame bicentennial events back in 1976? (Who can forget those “tall ships,” right?) The rebuilding debacle on Penn’s Landing and “New Market”? The zillions of federal dollars sunk into historical buildings around the Liberty Bell that are still in full view of the traffic jams on I-95? I’ve watched our City Council brawl, our mayor blow up an entire neighborhood, and fans in a section near me at the Vet throw batteries at J.D. Drew.

So let’s save a little time. And money. The Economy League is a nice organization trying very hard to do the right thing, but here’s the cold, hard fact: Philadelphia will never be a world-class city.  In Philadelphia, when someone asks you what school you went to they mean what high school. That is not world class. In Philadelphia we elected John Street (John Street!) to be mayor … twice (psst … he was one of the guys in the middle of that City Council brawl). That is not world class. You know Charlie, Dennis and Mac from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia? Yup … that’s us!

Philadelphia will never be a world-class city, but that’s OK with me.

Because as a business owner, I don’t want to live in a world-class city. My wife’s family is from London. My grandparents were from New York. These are world-class cities. How many Londoners are staying in town for this summer’s Olympics? How many New Yorkers enjoy the threat of terrorism, high taxes and two-hour commutes to work? I don’t want a bunch of soccer idiots invading this town for the World Cup. I don’t want to be stuck in traffic every time some new dignitary is coming here to do business. I don’t want Jay-Z or J.Lo moving here and creating chaos. I just want to live and profit in a low-key, nice town.

The Economy League’s “Focus 2026” efforts focus on three main areas: education/talent development, business growth, and infrastructure. I can save them a lot of effort. If you want to turn Philadelphia into a great place to live and do business then all you have to do is focus on one area: education.

I grew up in Germantown. My closest school was Pickett Middle School. Trust me, if I attended that school as a skinny, white kid in 1975 I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this piece today. Or if I had, I’d be sitting in a wheelchair. I was fortunate that my parents could send me to the private Chestnut Hill Academy, where I worked hard to get grades good enough so I could go to both Masterman and Central. Those schools don’t discriminate on color or background, only performance. Ninety-nine percent of the kids who go to those schools land in college.

When I graduated college and (of course) moved back to Philadelphia, I lived in the city for a while. Then I got married and (of course) moved to the suburbs. Ultimately we moved to Lower Merion. My wife was determined to do that. The main reason: Lower Merion has one of the best public school systems in the country.

The secret to drawing business into the city? It’s the schools, stupid. The schools!

Everyone … everyone … wants what’s best for their kids. They want to send their kids to the best schools possible. They want their kids to do better than them, to go on to college, to be educated. Educated people succeed more in life than non-educated people.

If Philadelphia were to have a world-class school system, what would happen? People would move into the city because they’d want their kids to go to those schools. Big companies would be drawn into town because their employees could live in a place where they could send their kids to a great school system. Small businesses, like restaurants, dry cleaners and clothing shops would pop up all around to serve this growing population. Real estate prices would go up. Construction would increase. Balloons and confetti would rain down from the sky! And tax revenues would increase too. So the city could then pay for its infrastructure and its “business growth” initiatives, whatever they may be. No need for the Economy League to be doing all that.

It’s the schools, stupid.

My wife teaches at a middle school in West Philadelphia. I’m an assistant coach for their baseball team. It’s a great school in a not-so-great area. This is where the Economy League should be doing its work. This is where the Philadelphia Fed should be holding its meetings. The academics and leaders who make up these organizations can solve this problem by admitting what’s really wrong in Philadelphia: We have incompetent managers running these systems.

We have bureaucrats and unions and waste and people who don’t care and superintendents who grab a million dollars away from a bankrupt system without regard to the consequences to its kids. School systems, like any business organization, can be fixed with the right people. But who in their right mind would want to be superintendent of the Philadelphia School District?

The Economy League can fix that problem. It can champion a new Philadelphia school system. One where top managers can be paid like top managers at any corporation, with money raised from both public and private sources. One where a board of both public and private CEOs oversee management. One where union contracts are torn up and re-negotiated so the managers have the ability to hire the right teachers and fire the bad ones. One that has the ability to raise private funds to reduce deficits and invest in the right tools and technologies for its students. One where a new system of magnet schools (like Central and Masterman) is formed to incentivise those students who study hard and get good grades wherever they live.

As a business owner, what do I get? A better skilled workforce coming right out of high school. A city that attracts higher-qualified professionals into the area. A place where more companies and people re-locate, which creates more opportunities for my services and products. A town where its two main universities can spend more of their resources reaching out to the community, rather than building fortresses to protect students from the blight of their surrounding neighborhoods.  Holding the World Cup in Philadelphia is about as effective as when we held the All-Star Game in 1976. Being a world-class city is meaningless to me. I don’t want more visitors to this city. I want more residents who become my customers.

Let New York host the Olympics and be world class. I can always visit there for a day. But create a world-class school system in this city, and I’ll have customers (and employees) for life. That’s what my small business needs.

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  • WOW…I just watched American History X again last night and this post could not come at a more appropriate time. I could not agree with you more. After reading the article on South Philly high school and the hatred, violence and incompetence that is evident, I was wondering why our mayor would allow this crap to happen. Why can’t we fix this? Thank you for posting this brilliant yet obvious perspective.

  • It’s hard to argue with any of this viewpoint, and I want to thank Gene for starting a conversation among some friends that is an important one. There is one sort of vital consideration here that is missing, however. Like you, Gene, I run a small business. But, mine is based in Philly, and my wife and I are raising our children in center city and we’re committed to sending them to public schools, largely because I went to a suburban Philly prep school and used to teach at a national prep school in DC. I remain convinced that kids who go to public schools have an advantage both with college admissions and what’s next. So, for someone who “could have gone” to Masterman or Central, and who could have based his business in Philly, and could be raising his kids in Philly – but who isn’t – to bear a view like yours feels sort of like sideline commentary from someone who should be in the game. A city, like a college or high school, is a collection, of course. Gene, you grew up here, but weren’t educated here, and as an adult, you chose to leave to raise your kids even though you know how great the magnet schools are in town, and you somehow still call yourself a lifelong Philadelphian. How can you live outside of Philadelphia today but still call yourself a lifelong Philadelphian? In all candor, I don’t blame you for the move, despite your cognitive dissonance. But, at the same time, with all your solid ideas, why aren’t you here, doing something about it? Walking the talk? Paying city taxes? Becoming involved with the public schools here? If our city made all the right moves to improve education here, it would take perhaps a generation for there to be the kind of change we all want, assuming that maybe 1/3 of the people who would have moved to the suburbs decided to stay in town. So, as someone who recognized what your decision meant, back when you went to Chestnut Hill Academy instead of Masterman, why don’t you become part of the solution instead of writing about the problem? You can, you know. And your kids might be better off for it too. A lot of people our age are doing it. There are great Charter Schools as a result, even better magnet schools, with more coming, and some of the newer private schools, such as The Philadelphia School, also got off the ground from folks putting a stake in the ground. Center City has been experiencing a baby boomlet. The recent census doesn’t lie – things are getting better here. Why don’t you join us? You’ve got some great ideas – Come on in, the water’s fine! By the way, if your kid is a solid B+ student at Masterman or Central, he or she has a far better chance of going to the college of their choice than if they go to any of the Lower Merion Schools. Ask any admissions officer from a top 50 college or University.

  • amarikah1

    Management in the Philadelphia School District is a problem but I don’t think bringing in more business people is the solution as children are not widgets.

    That said, businesses are welcome to utilize the PA Education Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and donate money to a public school in lieu of paying taxes:

    More public schools in Philly should take advantage of this program and perhaps some business people familiar with the tax code could help guide HSAs through the application process.

  • Responding to Mark – not sure I understand your points? I didn’t go to CHA instead of Masterman. I went to CHA and THEN Masterman. And then I went to Central.

    When you say I wasn’t educated here…I went to Philly public schools from grade 6-12. And yes, I live outside of the city, but really just walking distance from the city line. And my wife works at a SW phila charter school where I also assistant coach their team…..I think I’m pretty involved. I agree. The water’s fine. I’m already in.

    Sorry….not sure if I wasn’t clear in my original post.

  • Responding to Amarkiah1 – we can debate the merits of seasoned managers running any organization, be it a school system or a for profit. I think EITC is nice but I’m still not sure that more money is going to solve the issue and create a better educational system. I really think that it’s a management issue and one that can be addressed via a partnership between the public and private sector.

  • As someone who grew up in the ‘burbs, went to school in Miami and then came back, I like to think I can offer a unique perspective. Philadelphia’s crime and poverty are holding it back. Whether that’s a direct consequence of a lackluster school system is up for debate. Can schools alone help turn around generations of poverty — and everything that comes along with it, such as crime, incarceration, derelict neighborhoods, etc.?

    I’m not terribly concerned with Philadelphia being deemed “world-class” either. For instance, I don’t believe Seattle or San Francisco are “world-class” cities, though they are popular vacation destinations. Thing is, they both have thriving economies thanks to being vested in technology, which is one of the fastest-growing segments of the economy today.

    Simply put, Philadelphia needs to move past its industrial past and begin embracing industries that will provide jobs and lure educated young professionals into the city. Can we do that without focusing on our home-grown problems as well? Is it possible to attract tech industries to the city while ignoring our public school systems?

    I don’t claim to have any answers. I’m just voicing my opinion.

  • amarikah1

    I love it when people who live in Lower Merion “for the schools” and locate their businesses outside the city tell people WHO ACTUALLY LIVE AND WORK IN PHILADELPHIA that throwing money at the problem in Philly won’t help. Take your privatization and shove it.

  • bill k

    Please don’t refer to soccer (football) fans as idiots. A good Philadelphia education
    and yet you remain provincial and small-minded. I love baseball too; they’re my 2
    favorite sports. I think it would be a blast to have a couple World Cup games in Philly.
    Cheese steaks, soft pretzels, murder and Rocky- I don’t think you have to worry about
    the world class thing.

  • To Amrikah1: I appreciate your passion even though I know you don’t agree with alot of things I write. I think we both do share a desire to make the city better though.

  • To Bill K – I was joking. We went to almost every Union home game last year and my son’s a big travel soccer kid. I was just thinking of him! ;) BTW – can you believe they stripped Terry of his captainship?