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.

Kensington’s Christopher Sawyer represents an entirely different brand of new-Philadelphia activist: the foul-mouthed muckraker, the nonstop outrage machine who cannot-believe-all-the-shit-that’s-out-there. By day, this San Antonio native is an industrial software engineer. By night, he trawls public databases and the Web, looking for scandals to expose, either on his blog, Philadelinquency, or by passing along tips to more mainstream reporters. Carl Greene’s demise, Sawyer tells me, began with a tip he passed along to the Inquirer that the now-ousted chief of the Philadelphia Housing Authority was about to lose his own house to mortgage foreclosure. “And that,” he splutters, “is just a soupçon out of the buckets of carte-blanche depravity in this town.”

But don’t dismiss Sawyer as a frothing conspiracy nut. He unearths shady deals and sleazy landlords at an impressive clip. And on his blog, he’s assembled online research tools to help users dig through public information, the better to arm them in their battles against slumlords and speculators.

“So we have this highly corrupt political machine,” he says, in between bites of a chicken sandwich at a restaurant at the Piazza in Northern Liberties. “Maybe I could try to get in there and fix it, but I don’t think it can be fixed. So I’ll throw monkey wrenches at the machine instead, see if I can’t get parts of it to collapse faster.”

Sawyer’s fusion of geek and gadfly is surprisingly common among activist new Philadelphians. Granted, most are far more earnest and considerably less profane than Sawyer, but their vision of political engagement is the same: Work alone, or in small groups, and liberate information to dispel the mystery that surrounds city government.

Which is great. Unfortunately, there’s no database that tracks deals cut in political backrooms. And it’s the rare research paper that proves more persuasive to veteran Philadelphia pols than the whispered words of a ward leader or faction boss.

The Bicycle Coalition discovered this in June, when City Council unanimously granted itself veto power over all future bike corridors that take out a lane of vehicle traffic. Stuart thinks that was just another proxy for Council’s ongoing power struggle with Mayor Nutter, and she’s probably right. But if new Philadelphians had old-fashioned political juice, might not Council have chosen to whack Nutter with a different bat?

New Philadelphians are likely to learn this lesson more broadly after Mayor Nutter leaves office. His administration is fairly responsive to their needs and generally in sync with their priorities. Whom will new Philadelphians petition once he’s gone? How effective will their nonprofits be if the next administration is less enamored with such DIY activism?

Then there’s the property-tax overhaul known as the Actual Value Initiative, which is likely to be adopted next year. The reforms are entirely justified, but they’ll bludgeon those neighborhoods where new Philadelphians cluster. Old Philadelphians in City Council have lobbied to include provisions like “gentrification protection” that will cushion longtime residents at the expense of newcomers. Will new Philadelphians just absorb those costs without complaint?

Back at Café La Maude, Ruben recounts another recent defeat. For more than six years, the neighborhoods along the Delaware labored to create a new civic vision for the waterfront. One of the core principles was an undeveloped buffer, or greenway, along the river’s edge, both for the sake of the environment and recreational uses. But big developers saw a potentially aggravating regulation. And so they helped City Council gut a citywide setback requirement, putting a key element of the Delaware plan at risk.

Six years of heartfelt civic engagement, quietly trumped in a matter of weeks by long-established powers. “Part of the problem with new Philadelphia is that it’s all about transparency, and the political system is not transparent,” Ruben says. “Sometimes I try and talk to activists, the younger ones, about the way it works. I remember, one of them looked at me and said, ‘You’re evil.’ They’re that unaware of the reality, and they’re so appalled when they find out.”