Off the Cuff: January 2008

A letter from the chairman about new Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter and the importance of optimism.

It dawned on me recently that for some time now I’ve been in a foul mood, as anyone who’s been reading this column knows. Of course, the world is always going to hell in a handbasket — history is littered with a lot more trouble than triumph — but becoming a full-time cynic is a fool’s game. Cynicism is dangerous, because new and better things — real solutions, actual triumphs — do come along. (No, I have not been dipping into the holiday liquor cabinet too much.) Anyway, it’s a new year, with a new mayor, and any chance that Michael Nutter has of regaining the momentum Philadelphia lost in the dying days of John Street’s woebegone administration requires our belief that he can get this city back on the upswing.

Those ovations Nutter was getting through the fall simply by walking into downtown restaurants reflect the goodwill we feel toward him, certainly, but also speak to how we want — desperately want — things to get better again in Philadelphia.

Everyone knows about the well-documented problems — the murder rate, the economy, tough union negotiations, not to mention all the day-to-day flare-ups that can have any big-city leader hopscotching from one crisis to the next. But that’s exactly what Michael Nutter can’t do.

The mayoralties of Ed Rendell and John Street are perfect cases in point. The relative merits of how well their policies worked are debatable, and could even lean toward Street; for example, a Philadelphia schools advocate I recently spoke to cited how Street, contrary to his reputation, has been a real champion of students, putting every dollar he could find behind various school programs. Rendell largely ignored schools, not to mention policing; when he left office, the city was still in woeful shape economically. Street also tried to clean up neighborhoods that Rendell ignored. But here’s the rub: Most people think — and I agree with them — that Rendell was a far better mayor, because in endlessly ballyhooing how great this city is, he sold the idea of Philadelphia both to itself and to the world. Rendell was a genius at the overriding stance a mayor should take. Street, especially after the City Hall pay-to-play scandal, was virtually invisible, or tone-deaf; spending a day waiting in line to buy a new iPhone as murder raged in his city sent a terrible message. Two very different ideas of this city emerged out of those opposite styles.

May that put Michael Nutter on notice: You have a bully pulpit, and you must use it. The most vexing problem we face is the murder rate: 400-plus people were killed here in 2007, mostly young black men, and we are now viewed as America’s murder capital. Hiring a new police commissioner, declaring emergency zones, aggressive stop-and-frisk policing — these are all good ideas. But they are Band-Aids on the fundamental problem, Mr. Mayor, and everyone knows this. The fundamental problem is an urban culture that is in disarray; the urban family is dead, with half of the children in this city living apart from their fathers. This is the root of the problem.

But how on earth can a mayor fix that? He can’t, not alone. And he can’t through policy, either. What Michael Nutter needs to do is stand before us and — like Ed Rendell repeatedly telling the world, a decade ago, what a wonderful city this is — tell us again and again and again that the city’s family culture needs to be fixed. That, I believe, is the most important thing he can do as mayor. His voice can be a clarion call until, slowly, others get on board, a mind-set changes, a culture begins to untie its own knot. Until that happens, the murder rate, and myriad other social problems, won’t change.

But, as I say, I’m not a cynic. Please send us a message, Mr. Mayor.