Off the Cuff: March 2013

Why Philly needs a natural disaster to wake us up from our longstanding inbred, do-nothing political culture.

One recent Saturday while reading the Wall Street Journal over coffee, I came upon a couple of editorials that got me boiling. One was about the rebirth of New Orleans after Katrina; as disastrous as it was, that storm provided New Orleans with the chance to start over—and the city took full advantage of the opportunity. From an incompetent city hall to dysfunctional schools (sound familiar?) to a corrupt police department, New Orleans took a hard look at its messes and started rebuilding in myriad ways. The other editorial was a tribute to the late Ed Koch, citing how he turned New York around as mayor: “Koch was a liberal mugged by reality whose three terms began the New York turnaround that has never arrived in Detroit, Newark, Philadelphia, St. Louis or much of Los Angeles.”

While New Orleans is having a rebirth, Philadelphia is still known across the country as one of America’s worst cities. Maybe what we need is a natural disaster to wake us up.

I wish I were kidding. But as long as I’ve lived or worked in this city—some 60 years—I’ve watched as the inbred, do-nothing culture of Philadelphia takes a pass on tackling our many problems.

And when someone tries, he gets shown the door.

Last month, Philadelphia magazine profiled Jeremy Nowak, who recently left as head of the William Penn Foundation. Formed by the Haas family at the end of World War II to quietly give money away to worthy causes, the foundation brought Nowak in almost two years ago to use its $2 billion endowment to aggressively push for real change—or so he thought. Under his leadership, the foundation gave a whopping $15 million to the Philadelphia School Partnership, an organization that supports the charter-school movement.

But that meant a formerly below-the-radar philanthropic institution was sticking its neck out by actually trying to fix a long-standing problem. Jeremy Nowak lasted as the foundation’s head for all of 17 months.

Recently we talked to him again, asking what was wrong with Philadelphia’s culture. He cited two problems: Philadelphians have lost the “habits of accomplishment” because the city has been in decline for half a century, and in Philadelphia, “The past is well-organized compared to the future.” That’s a nice way of saying we’re afraid to depart from how we’ve always done things here, no matter how ineffective they might be.

And God forbid we try to raise the city’s profile. Back in the mid-’70s, I was on the board of the Bicentennial Commission. I remember a meeting at which we discussed what the celebration should be; a board member got up and said something like: “I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I have concerns about whether we should do this. A celebration will bring a lot of strangers into town.” I remember that comment 40 years later because it speaks to the fear and caution of the Philadelphia mind-set, which hasn’t changed.

Now, with Nowak gone from the William Penn Foundation, everything is back to normal: The foundation recently announced that it will give $1 million to the Children’s Literacy Initiative, to help poor kids in Philly schools read and write—nothing controversial there. As Meryl Levitz, president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, pointed out, “Everybody here is so interrelated in many ways, and you don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings and you don’t want to threaten other people’s jobs. But Jeremy raised the question: What price do we pay for that?”

Some 25 years ago, I wrote a column worrying that Philadelphia would become another Newark or Detroit. I’m beginning to come to a sad conclusion as to why we seem so stuck in our problems, and so determined not to change how we operate: We must like things just the way they are.