The Meaning of MOVE

A quarter-century ago, we bombed our own city. In many ways, it’s been 1985 ever since

All those good vibes changed a few hours after the first shovel was plunged into the earth on the Liberty Place site. Goode’s image, like his city’s, became a shambles. On the day of the bombing, he watched from his office, on a grainy TV, not in constant contact with his lieutenants and never coming to ground zero because, he later wrote, he’d been told that “unknown members of my own police force had targeted me for death.” Days after the bombing, he said he didn’t consider the explosive device a bomb or know anything about any helicopter.

The bombing eroded any faith Philadelphians had in government, and ushered in an era of widespread municipal incompetence. It was as if we came to expect the worst from our leaders, and said leaders decided they could, in fact, barely reach our low bar. Case in point: The city couldn’t even rebuild the homes it had destroyed. The developer of the new Osage Avenue houses was jailed for stealing money from the project. Once replacements were built, the plumbing, roofing and insulation were all faulty. Fifteen years after the bombing, when the homes still hadn’t been properly repaired, then-Mayor Rendell told residents he was committed to getting it right and that future mayors would honor his pledge. His successor, however, decided to demolish the homes. John Street arbitrarily offered each homeowner $151,000. Twenty-four homeowners sued Street for breach of contract, winning a $13 million federal jury verdict (later reduced).

In the 25 years since MOVE, the more our leaders have avoided, the more numb we’ve become. Oh sure, Rendell took on the unions in his first term and had a winning personality, but by and large, the city’s political leadership has played small ball the past quarter-century, avoiding the big issues. Rendell had the political capital to reform the schools in his second term, for example, but he hoarded it in order to run for governor. Such timidity stood in stark contrast to the less likeable but more transformational mayor up the Turnpike. When Rudy Giuliani took office in 1994, New York was deemed to be ungovernable. He cut the size of government, privatized city services, introduced innovative policing techniques, cut taxes in order to attract jobs during a recession, and took on entrenched interests by opposing school tenure and fighting for merit pay for teachers. 

Say what you will about Giuliani’s grating personal style, but note the distinction: Precisely when was the last time our leadership creatively challenged our political shibboleths? Instead of real economic development that invests in goods and/or services people want, we build slot parlors. Instead of tackling real school reform (how about starting with taking back control of our schools from the state?), Mayor Nutter opens an office in City Hall called “phillygoes2college” — little more than a glorified guidance-counselor office, at a time when a scant 18 percent of city residents hold college degrees. Speaking of Nutter, wasn’t political reform his big, bold idea? Newsflash: It never happened. It was, instead, relegated to a task force, something politicians do when they don’t want to tackle a weighty issue.