What Will It Take for New Philadelphians to Clean Up City Hall?

As the city's population grows, our corridors of power remain the same.

The new Philadelphians just keep coming. From too-big exurb mini-m­ansions and too-small Manhattan studios; from San Francisco and Shanghai; from the beat-up ’burbs of Delaware County and the dormitories of Penn, Drexel and Temple. They’re young professionals and empty nesters, Cambodian immigrants and Kensington-bound hipsters. And there are many more of them than you likely realize.

In 2007 alone, an estimated 56,000 new residents made Philadelphia their home. A year later, there were another 62,000. Then 64,000. In 2010, the tide reached 70,000. Somehow, someway, they’ve kept coming.

And thank God for that. It’s terrifying to think where Philadelphia might be were it not for these new residents, who have both reversed a 50-year pattern of population decline and breathed new life into a tired old post-industrial city. They are remaking neighborhoods, invigorating the arts and restaurant cultures, giving employers reason to again consider doing business here.

But where you don’t see much impact—at least, not in the traditional sense—is in the corridors of power. For all they’ve done to change the city, these new Philadelphians, as a class and voting bloc, are political also-rans—when they bother to run at all.

Six new City Council members took office this year. But not one of the new members is a new Philadelphian. Just one City Councilperson didn’t grow up in this town, and the vast majority of the 17 members have spent their entire lives in Philadelphia. The 2015 mayoral field could be one of the most crowded in city history, but all six of the most oft-mentioned contenders are native Philadelphians, or near enough to make no difference.

Indeed, with the huge exception of Mayor Nutter—a man whom new Philadelphians tend to like and support—the city’s political scene today looks much the same as it did before the new Philadelphians arrived en masse. A few of the players have changed (see Fumo, Vince). But old-fashioned political power is still pretty securely in the hands of a few big interests and institutions. Unions. The Democratic City Committee. Big business and the Chamber of Commerce. And long-established political factions, like the Dougherty and Fattah organizations.

So what is it with these new Philadelphians? They have time for night markets and guerrilla gardening, but direct participation in local politics is beneath them?

Well, yes and no. Both skeeved out by the nature of the city’s political culture and intimidated by its strength, the new Philadelphians have made an end run around the traditional political system, channeling their civic energy into nonprofits, neighborhood associations, and loose networks of like-minded activists. Consciously or not, the new Philadelphians have decided they don’t need to take over City Hall in order to remake Philadelphia in their image.

But there are limits to this apolitical brand of activism, and the new Philadelphians are starting to reach them. Sooner or later, they’ll be forced to realize it’s in their interest—and, I’d argue, the city’s as well—for them to spend a little less time organizing co-ops and a little more time building real political power.