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.

Matt Ruben doesn’t need to be convinced.

Late on a mild August afternoon, in the quintessentially new-Philadelphian community of Northern Liberties, Ruben and I are sitting at a window table at Café La Maude, a new local favorite with impeccable Parisian-inspired interior decorating and a Franco-Lebanese menu. It’s an ideal example of the kind of establishment that didn’t exist in Philadelphia outside of Rittenhouse Square before the new Philadelphians came to town.

Let’s define our terms for a moment. The new Philadelphians are, to be sure, a diverse bunch. But as a class, they are whiter, wealthier, younger and far better educated than the rest of Philadelphia. And while immigrants are a critical part of the new Philadelphia, their experience isn’t the subject of this article, not least because the city’s Latino and Asian communities are becoming pretty effective at political organizing. So for the purposes of this story, “new Philadelphians” is shorthand for the majority white cohort of students, condo-dwelling retirees, young professionals, nonprofiteers and starving artists who arrive in this city each year.

At 43, Ruben is a bit older than the typical new Philadelphian, and far more politically plugged in. But he’s indisputably a member of the tribe. Indeed, Ruben—who teaches courses on poverty at Bryn Mawr—is probably NoLibs’s foremost community activist. He heads up the high-powered and competent neighbors’ association, and chairs a nonprofit that’s something of a super-civic organization for a long stretch of the Delaware waterfront.

When we meet, he’s wearing a brown v-neck t-shirt and coppered glasses, and his hair is a bit longer and wispier than when I saw him last, back in 2007. At that time, Ruben was on the ballot for an at-large seat on City Council. As a candidate, he was very green. But he was also smart, informed and qualified. And he wasn’t alone. That election featured a number of new Philadelphians, and one old one—Michael Nutter—who was a natural ally. Back then, there was even vague talk of recruiting activists and taking over the Democratic Party apparatus ward by ward.

Well, Nutter won. But the new-Philadelphian candidates were crushed. (Ruben came in 12th.) The dismal showing didn’t surprise veteran city pols. The newbies’ political base, considering its affluence, is flaky and cheap. New Philadelphians don’t necessarily vote in impressive numbers (some of the wards they dominate are in the middle or even b­ottom of the turnout pack), and their donations to local candidates are anemic. “I think for a lot of the new Philadelphians it’s a lot more attractive, and pleasant, and fashionable, and more tangibly fulfilling, to work alone or in small volunteer groups and to just avoid government as a dead letter,” Ruben tells me. He’s a classic liberal, with an enduring belief in government’s potential, so he says this with a touch of disdain. But he also understands why so many new Philadelphians are loath to invest time and effort in trying to take over a moldy party apparatus when “instead they could be out there building a new community garden.”

Or bike lanes. Now 40 years old, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia may not seem at first blush a creation of the new Philadelphians, but in all important respects, it is. In 2004, the coalition had one employee. Now the nonprofit (new Philadelphians positively love nonprofits) boasts a $1.2 million budget and employs 12 staff members.

Among them is Sarah Clark Stuart, a former environmental consultant who landed in Philly in 1995. A Logan Square resident, Stuart traces her new-Philadelphian activism back to 2003, when she and her now-deceased husband helped form a campaign to pressure CSX—the railroad giant—into keeping open grade-level crossings to the brand-new Schuylkill River Park. It took more than three years, but the campaign eventually worked. Now Stuart is the full-time policy director—
and political fixer—for a new-Philadelphian-dominated bicycle coalition that has
persuaded the city to increase the size of its bike-lane network to 200 miles. Stuart and the coalition made it happen by working sympathetic staffers within the Nutter administration and by winning over the city’s Planning Commission.