From the Editor September 2006
I challenge you to read senior writer Matt Teague’s narrative of life on the front lines of our city’s murder epidemic and not feel your heart break. Teague immersed himself in one North Philadelphia neighborhood, where the bodies have piled up and the witnesses have been scared into silence. At the same time that Teague was chronicling the courage of neighborhood women like Dorothy Wright and Diane Wells, touched by violence but determined to helm “an army of snitches,” our Mayor went on TV to speak to the city about the skyrocketing murder rate. He told kids—why he thinks they’d be watching a prime-time mayoral address instead of playing craps on the street corner is beyond me—that “this is our house,” and he reiterated that more cops on our streets wouldn’t make a difference.
If only the Mayor and police commissioner had the courage of Wright and Wells. If they did, they’d admit that cutting the police force by some 700 officers since 2003 is directly related to the murder surge, as is getting away from proven policing techniques like Comstat (computer-generated crime data used to deploy manpower) and paying attention to small “quality of life” crimes. Don’t take my word for it; hear what law enforcement experts say, including our former commissioner, John Timoney (now police chief in Miami, where murder is down 22 percent since he took the job), in the sidebar to Teague’s story on page 125.
Commissioner Sylvester Johnson is no doubt right when he says that police alone can’t stem the tide. But pointing that out—over and over again—seems like excuse-making and is certainly not leadership. (Imagine that when Ed Rendell took over the city’s messy finances in 1992, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “There’s not much a mayor can do.” Instead, he said, in effect: “Follow me. We’ll turn this around.”) Which is why I renew my call for the commissioner to step down, which I first made in May, some 120 chalk outlines ago. And it’s why Mayor Street’s stubborn insistence that more cops won’t help is so distressing. Leaders act.
If your heart isn’t broken by Teague’s story, perhaps you’ll be moved to outrage out of self-interest. Philadelphia is basking in a newfound national reputation; people are coming here for the restaurants, the condos, the arts. The murders on our nightly news might seem like mere television programming to some of us—something that happens to other people, in another Philadelphia. But all that good stuff, all the momentum generated by national magazine articles anointing us the “next great American city,” will be imperiled if a national perception takes hold that Philadelphia is once again unsafe.
The question I’m asked most often is, “How do you come up with your stories?” Sometimes it’s talking to sources and old-fashioned digging; other times, it’s more a process of osmosis. In this issue, there’s a concrete example. We asked staff writer Jessica Pressler to delve into the quirkiness and mysteriousness of Rouge after executive editor Tom McGrath and I spent a six-hour liquid lunch at the Rittenhouse Square bistro last May. We couldn’t leave our table, so bewitched were we by the show Pressler brilliantly deconstructs. (Okay, we also couldn’t leave because the normally straitlaced McGrath, after six Dewar’s on the rocks pushed by a James Joyce-quoting waitress named Deena, seemed a bit wobbly.) So that’s one example of how we do things here: We play hooky, we get wasted, we flirt with Joyce-quoting waitresses, and what we see ends up in the magazine on your coffee table. Hey, it’s a living. And it beats heavy lifting.