The Great Days of John Street

As his first public act of 2005, Mayor John F. Street decided to go to prison. Since he was inaugurated in 2000, Street has spent every New Year’s Day ministering to prisoners at the city’s penitentiary complex in Northeast Philadelphia. A few minutes past 9 a.m., he stood on the sidewalk outside a North Philadelphia shopping center one block west of his home. His glasses hung around his neck like a librarian’s, and a mess of hair that resembles a sagebrush shot in monochrome framed his angular face. A pencil-thin mustache hugged his upper lip, a soul patch sat below his lower one, sharp hairs protruded from his earlobes, and deep creases ran through his cheeks. “We are going to the prisons today to tell them there is a loving, kind and generous God that will help them through their problems if they only trust and obey,” Street told members of the clergy who were to join him. “I’m having a great day,” he added. “Every day is a great day.”

While philosophers and meteorologists may quibble about the universal accuracy of that statement, no one can dispute that every day, John Street says it’s a great day. Since his reelection a year and a half ago, the Mayor has trudged through a devastating political calendar. City Council, which Street dominated as its president, has become a gruesome arena for his agenda. The attention of the city’s political community seems fully fixed on who Street’s successor will be, with his friends, allies and employees already picking sides. Meanwhile, the U.S. Attorney is actively investigating corruption in the Mayor’s office, and two months ago kicked off a high-profile trial over which Street’s character — and the attendant question of whether his administration’s way of doing business is illegal or merely distasteful — hovered daily.

But the Mayor’s trademark greeting never disappeared, and he seems to take particular pleasure in delivering it on bad days. When he held a press conference immediately after Ron White, his friend and fund-raiser, was indicted along with city treasurer Corey Kemp and 10 others on corruption-related charges, Street said, “I’m having a great day.” He often begins with another lighthearted mantra — “I’ll be brief, no matter how long it takes” — but the “great day” line isn’t just a crowd-softener. Because Street is so personally guarded, “I’m having a great day” serves as a tease, a provocation — like the Afro and the thrown punches he brought to his early days on City Council. These days, for Street, simple optimism is an act of defiance.

Half an hour later, Street entered the Philadelphia House of Corrections in a bouncy, broad-shouldered stride. About 75 prisoners were gathered in a gym, seated in rows of foldout chairs, and the Mayor stood at the front of the room, with a microphone.

“Are you having a good day?” he asked, his voice echoing sepulchrally through the gym. The question was met with silence.

“All you have to do is turn on the television, look at what happened in Southeast Asia,” Street said, referring to the previous week’s tsunami. “You’re having a good day. Now say, ‘I’m having a good day.’ I saw a mother talking to a TV camera, had to make a decision which of her children she was gonna let go. You are having a good day. Don’t you tell me you’re not having a good day.”

Street’s voice lowered slightly. “Some of you are having a better day than you deserve. All of us are having a better day than we deserve,” he said. “Because we don’t deserve any of it.”

These are, oddly enough, great days for John Street. A second
term in which he is under assault from all sides — seemingly marginalized in nearly every way — has been not a death sentence, but liberation. As Street coasted through his first term politically, he seemed permanently uncomfortable. He enacted much of an ambitious agenda — to remap the city through his Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, to change the culture of policing with Safe Streets — with barely any opposition. He has been a politically negligible figure (he will leave behind no base, no faction, no Street machine, no Street ideology) and a cultural irrelevancy (it is nearly impossible to craft a narrative about life in Philadelphia today that gives him a starring role). Should the next mayor want to define himself in response to his predecessor, as Street has, it is unclear what he or she would do.
He is, to nearly everyone — including those in his Cabinet who say they don’t feel they know the man well — a seemingly unending pile of contradictions. He is a political agnostic who has become a defender of extremes; a patient, religious man with a reputation for vindictiveness; a champion of largely black neighborhoods who is attacked for being too cozy with the city’s white legal community; a stubborn man who has alienated his closest friends and won over his old enemies; an intensely private person with a penchant for vainglorious confession; a legendary belligerent with a new catchphrase that sounds plucked from self-help culture.

But since his first election to City Council, Street, 61, has perennially been a creature of government. When Street was a teenager, his father told him to get a government job, and for 25 years the son has latched onto his as a calling. He is a shut-in, with little interest outside municipal business: Friends and colleagues don’t remember ever having seen him read anything other than position papers, and classify his conversational topics as either family, sports, or city affairs. (Federal wiretaps have shown that in 2003, Street didn’t know Frank Sinatra was dead.) When he visited Israel in 1998 on a trip sponsored, in part, by parking mogul Joseph Zuritsky, Street, who rarely travels, expressed little curiosity about geopolitics, according to one observer. He instead appeared particularly engaged on two occasions: when visiting Christian religious sites, and when meeting with Israeli mayors, with whom he could identify as fellow municipal leaders. “The Mayor,” his aide George Burrell says, “is a local-government guy.”

To the extent he has political instincts, they are oppositional; Street has always defined himself by those he’s against. Even when he is driving events, Street invents straw men — “naysayers,” he calls them — to debate. Circumstances have now given him a bevy of opponents: overzealous federal prosecutors, self-interested City Council critics, snarky newspaper columnists, shortsighted tax-cut advocates. Unlike Ed Rendell, Street actually enjoys saying no, and relishes being a voice of restraint. Now that he is done selling his agenda and himself — an entrepreneurial challenge he assumed awkwardly — Street doesn’t have to do anything but play defense. John Street was born to be a lame duck.

The “mellowing of John Street” has been a journalistic trope for as long as he has been a citywide political force. But now, even when it comes to the trials that have made his ethics page-one news, Street plays the sanguine one — for no legal purpose. “There will be a time when I will be at liberty, for all sorts of reasons, to tell people how I feel about this,” he says. “One day, I will be free to talk about all my feelings and all that. This time isn’t now.”

Everyone around Street describes a man totally at peace. “There’s not many folks happy with their lot in life,” says Christopher Booth, a lawyer close to the administration. “He loves being Mayor. He wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. This is the pinnacle of his life. Every day he wakes up as Mayor, he’s having a great day.”

Street stands astride an administration built to suit his personal preferences: It is an affable, leisurely orgy of deliberation. The first obvious break the new mayor made from his predecessor was in organizing his office: Where Rendell deputized chief of staff David L. Cohen to act with his full authority, Street, who has never made clear whom he really trusts, spreads responsibility thin. Tuesday-morning Cabinet sessions drag on for hours, thanks to a legislation-by-storytelling method in which every new bill invites the Mayor to revisit similar, decades-old experiences. “He gives you a meeting for a half-hour and you end up with a meeting for an hour and a half,” says Nelson Diaz, city solicitor during Street’s first term. “He’ll make you listen to testimony, and more and more testimony. He has the capacity of a legislator — a hell of a lot of patience.”

Street’s affection for process comes out of his background, says his former managing director Phil Goldsmith. “Legislators don’t get involved in the implementation. They can muck around, but they are more on the policy end. I think he very much enjoys policy. It’s a whole different thing to implement it and get it done,” Goldsmith said, after announcing he would leave his post in April. “I’ve been in meetings where people haven’t come in prepared. He sort of sits there and we go through the motions. It’s not infrequent for him to say something in a Cabinet meeting. But it’s to no one in particular, so you don’t know then who has responsibility.” Goldsmith cites the recent example of Street suggesting that the city host a youth-violence summit. “I remember sitting in that room and thinking there were four people who have some of the portfolio to do that, and we probably all sat around saying, ‘Great idea.’ But who’s going to do it? There’s a lack of clarity along those lines, and as a result you start to diffuse accountability and responsibility.”

With more focus on talking than doing, Goldsmith says, Street’s administration has been nearly crippled by its leader’s preternatural sense of patience. “He’s more passive than active,” Goldsmith says of his former boss. “The thing that has surprised me the most is he never demands what he should be demanding. He doesn’t demand a quality, timeliness or thoroughness I would have thought he would, and I don’t think he delegated that to anyone around him.” As a result, Goldsmith says, “Things cannot get done, or there can be confusion about who should be doing certain things, and you can feel like you’re a little bit adrift at sea.”

Street’s radicalism isn’t ideological, but grounded in his unyielding faith in government — namely, the one he controls — to do things that people had stopped trusting government to do. For a generation, slum-clearance schemes had fallen out of vogue: Entire urban-studies curricula have been given over to showing how brutally insensitive and inefficient past efforts have been. Street’s $270 million Neighborhood Transformation Initiative is basically old-school urban renewal — Frank Rizzo ran for mayor in 1971 with a plan to demolish the city’s abandoned houses — with a smile and a mayor’s unbounded self-confidence. Last summer, Street unveiled a “Wireless Philadelphia” plan — to create a citywide wi-fi network with an as-yet-undetermined combination of free and highly discounted broadband access — that is similarly revolutionary. After a generation of mayors, including Rendell, who were lauded for privatizing city services, Street is trying to compete on private-sector terrain. He is likely to marshal an expansion of City Hall’s scope unparalleled since municipalities started laying pipes and running gas lines into houses.

The visible failings of Street’s mayoralty have come in execution, where his ability to chaperone government hasn’t lived up to his intrepidity. NTI has had fewer demolitions at greater cost than the administration originally projected. Safe Streets, the -broken–windows-inspired technique of installing police officers on drug corners, ate $38 million out of the surplus in its first eight months — in police overtime that it seems the administration never fully priced out. “There never was a pronouncement that it will cost so much money. You can ask — was the proper homework done internally?” says Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, a Street loyalist.

Street announced his plan to offer free wi-fi service in late August, with great pride that it would make Philadelphia the first city to be so wired. But for months, the actual proposal seems to have sat in the Mayor’s office awaiting action. For an initiative whose purpose, Street has suggested, is largely about convincing the world that Philadelphia is a modern, progressive place, months-long lags in moving the plan along — when technology supplants itself every year and a half — lay waste to the goal. The gap between vision and action, says Goldsmith, is “the difference between what is and what could be. I think the administration has accomplished an awful lot, but I think there’s more that could be done.”

Last fall, to focus on teamwork, the Cabinet went on a multi-day retreat. Now, based on a facilitator’s recommendation, meetings start with participants taking turns recounting a joyful experience unrelated to work, like spending time with family or preparing a home-cooked meal. Cabinet members call this “good news.”

The old scrapper won’t allow combat to mar his great days; disregard is his new weapon of choice. “The worst thing you can do to someone is ignore them. Even fighting with people is a way of paying people attention,” Goldsmith explains. “I think there’s a bit of Zen about it.”

After his reelection, Street began to reach out to the estranged. He hosted breakfasts to meet local business executives with whom he had never established working relationships, and he has warmed to the press. As a district councilman, Street wasn’t forced to interact much with reporters. He filled the walls of his Council office with critical newspaper clips — a yellowing collage of negative reinforcement. By the time he came to the second floor, Street had ditched the paper; his election showed him he could succeed without favorable press. “The Mayor’s attitude, or perceptions, about the media in general has changed. Before it was: I don’t think I’m going to get a fair account about what I do, no matter what, so let’s go on and do our work,” his aide Shawn Fordham says. Reporters complained throughout the first term that the Mayor was inaccessible, and during his reelection campaign, staffers had to force Street to meet with reporters. After some trying moments — he lashed out at a newspaper photographer for trying to snap “crazy shots” — Street took up the challenge, and liked the results. “It’s very interesting, because the editorials were not that favorable,” says Fordham. “The columnists and reporters were giving a more balanced view.”

Street began 2004 by trotting out on a weekly basis to meet with the City Hall press corps. Somewhere on the road to a second term, Street traded a physical discomfort in front of cameras for a ham’s ease. His press availabilities (or “avails”) are long, unfocused and self-indulgent, with forays into prop comedy (Street once took out his wallet to show off a union membership card), shaggy-dog stories (a pointless anecdote about receiving an MRI), shopping advice (post–holiday bargains were few, the inveterate shopper reported early in the new year), amateur gastroenterology (he can’t digest black beans or apples anymore), and a surfeit of nostalgia masked as legislative cautionary tales. The day after he returned in the family R.V. from the Super Bowl in Jacksonville, Street called a press conference to talk about his trip. He discussed how he underestimated the length of the drive to Florida, the accommodations at the “EconoLounge,” his first taste of fried green tomato. When a reporter asked about the city’s library budget, Street waved him off, saying this wasn’t the time.

Street has become so comfortable with the routine of meeting the press that he schedules his own avails, overriding advisers who think they’re unnecessary. But the regular curtain-raising of this new City Hall one-man show doesn’t reflect a savvier media strategy. “It’s a Lone Ranger type of approach to press avails,” Goldsmith says. “Most people, when they have press avails, they start off with a message they want to get out. If you implement a policy and you don’t amplify it with publicity, you haven’t really done the job. I don’t think he sees that as part of the art of government. It’s what leadership is all about. He’s missed that.”

Wireless Philadelphia is the type of sexy, innovative, tangible proposal that makes mayors into stars. But hometown papers have appeared nonplussed by the news, in large part because the administration never signaled its importance. Consequently, the wireless proposal that was covered by Indian newspapers and put the Mayor live on CNBC has never appeared on page one of the Inquirer.

Fordham concedes that Street has failed to communicate his successes. “I bet if you took one person who says they’re not a fan of John Street and sat down with them, got them to tell you why, the majority of what they said would be incorrect,” Fordham says, days after his boss was booed by Eagles fans at a Super Bowl pep rally in Jacksonville. Fordham starts ticking off Street’s successes: abandoned cars removed from streets, lower car-insurance rates, negotiating deals for new sports stadia. “How do you boo that?” he asks, shaking his head. “They don’t know, they have no idea. I can’t blame them for not knowing.” When Street was asked about the boos, he said he didn’t care.

At the Women’s Detention Facility, Street walked into another gymnasium, and this time — cheered by an ecstatic response from the women — bounded into the rows of chairs, shaking hands with a gusto he rarely showed as a candidate. After some introductory remarks, he began a long story based on his childhood experience placing traps along the Schuylkill to catch rodents. “The muskrats do not die because of the trap. The muskrats die because when the cold steel hits them, they jump around, they fall over into the water, and they drown. That’s why they die.” Street waited, to emphasize the moral. “There are some people out there who deny the fact that there is a devil out there trying to trap you.”

Then he started talking about catching monkeys by putting peanuts in a cage. “All the monkey has to do to escape is to let go,” he said. “All he has to do is let go. Because the monkey is trapped, and doesn’t know that he is trapped. The muskrat knows he’s trapped. There are some of us in such a state of denial — you know what denial means? — that you say to yourself, I do not have to let go. And there are other people who say, ‘I can’t let go, I can’t change my life.’” Street shifted his weight, and went on. “We’re not saying letting go is easy; letting go is hard. But the reason we are here today is because these men and women of the clergy will tell you a story about a living God that will help you let go.”

Today, Street is a master of letting go, a power he has derived from a loftier text than the City Charter. At age 12, he took a year to read the Bible straight through. When he was a child, the Streets would trek in from their farm to Ebenezer Seventh-Day Adventist Church in South Philadelphia. The Adventist Church was founded out of a failed millennial movement based on the prophecy of William Miller. When the date he had set for judgment — October 22nd, 1844 — passed, his followers splintered. Those who became -Seventh-Day Adventists were among the most devout, the patient ones who confronted the “Disappointment” (as the non–Coming was known) but whose disenchantment with society left them to stick, indelibly, to the notion that Christ would nonetheless arrive soon.

“Faith has given him a pretty good sense of security and comfort with himself,” Burrell says. “His style,” explains Street fund-raiser David Hyman, “isn’t doing the superficially polite thing, but when he considers it more deep and profound, he goes further than the average person would.” Hyman recounts that Street showed up unannounced at synagogue on a morning when Hyman read from the Torah. “It was meaningful for him to participate in something that was important for my religious life. That’s where he thinks the most important and authentic place between us is — where we build our relationships with God.”

Street’s religion is founded on deep discipline. As a young man, he weighed 260 pounds and found himself unable to fit into a size 54 suit. “I thought I was eating my way into an early grave,” he says. Now, for religious and lifestyle reasons, he doesn’t drink alcohol or eat meat or shellfish. He consumes prodigious amounts of water, snacks on fresh fruit, and on special occasions indulges in steamed salmon. He has approached tax cuts and museum subsidies, similarly, as indulgences. Street comes from a religious tradition that finds integrity in denial, and for him, abstemiousness has become an aesthetic, as well as a path to heaven. From the virtues of his everyday life, Street has discovered not only calm, but the closest thing he has to an ideology.

As circumstances become more chaotic, Street gets more stable. “He’s the coolest cucumber I’ve ever seen,” Goldsmith says. “I can only think of the pressures he’s under. To pick up the paper every day and see what people are saying — I can’t imagine how you endure that. It’s mind-boggling. If you didn’t know that there were all these trials going on, all this investigation going on, you wouldn’t be able to tell from [his] mannerisms.” But recent events, Goldsmith says, have made scandal harder to ignore. “It’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room. The probe had been somewhat of a non-issue. Since the trials and stuff like that, you know something else is going on. I think now it obviously takes up more time.”

Street gets that, particularly given the circumstances, “I’m having a great day” has become a bit of a joke, so much so that he started writing corollary remarks. He would say, “I have a surprise announcement to make,” and then pause dramatically: “I’m having a great day.” That was funny for a while, and then he started saying, “I have my usual surprise announcement to make. … ” He, it turned out, was having a great day.

“I’ve known him for 30 years, and it wasn’t until he became Mayor that he started saying that. After a while, you’re saying, ‘So you’re having a great day?’” Diaz says, giving his shoulders a shrug. “I asked him, and he says, ‘Nelson, where would you and I be? We are very lucky and very blessed’ — he used the word ‘blessed’ — ‘for me to be the Mayor and you to be City Solicitor. Where we came from — you came from Harlem and I came from a farm — and nobody would think we could be in these positions.’ He’s appreciative of where he came from and where he is: No matter how bad things get, they could be worse. I understand him. But for the circumstances, we would be on the other side of a prison fence.”