Sam Katz Takes on Frank Rizzo (Again)

A new episode of Philadelphia: The Great Experiment covers Philly's Rizzo years.

The next installment of your 12-part history of Philly airs on 6 ABC this month [7:30 p.m., June 20]. Why focus on 1965 to 1978—a.k.a. the Rizzo years?
We’re working on a trilogy, if you will, of episodes that when put together will cover 50 years of contemporary history—from 1944 to 1994. It just felt right to connect the dots of contemporary history on issues that really explain how Philadelphia arrived at the place it finds itself today.

The disappearance of jobs is a big theme.
The most overarching issue that confronts Philadelphia in these three episodes is its deindustrialization—the erosion and, eventually, virtual collapse of the industrial economy that had been created in Philadelphia in the 19th century and sustained it for about 100 years. There are a lot of factors at work there. What I’ve tried to inculcate in this project is that nothing is inevitable.

Really? So the city could have prevented it?
People tend to say, well, the loss of manufacturing jobs was inevitable because it was cheaper to produce things in the South, and land was more plentiful in the suburbs in the ’60s and ’70s. But the plants that existed in Philadelphia were really run-down. The families that owned these companies in many instances were resting on their laurels. The war masked the erosion of Philadelphia’s industrial infrastructure. Persuading the decision-makers of Philadelphia that something needed to be done was late in coming.

The other big issue is race.
Philadelphia was always seen as a good place for African-Americans to come, and they came en masse to find these industrial jobs. Of course, they began competing with white ethnics for them just as those jobs were disappearing. So white ethnic Philadelphia was up against it, and that white community was really looking for someone to protect it. And that person came in the form of Frank Rizzo.

Does Rizzo look different to you now, 40 years after he became mayor?
Rizzo as the mayor was the same mayor I thought he was when I was against him as a young political operative in the ’70s. I think his fiscal policies were bad for Philadelphia, and he did not seem to be the mayor of all the people. The Rizzo I ran against for mayor in 1991 was a much more sensitive guy, less bombastic. I don’t think his core values were different, but I think he was wiser and older. He didn’t need to be quite as bombastic, because when he walked into the room, he was “Rizzo,” and he never stopped being the guy who drew all the attention. Everybody who talked to us on camera about him used the same words: larger than life.

The series has gotten very good ratings on TV.
I think Philadelphians want to know more about their history. I’ve always said that Philadelphians are too 1776-centric. There’s a real sense of pride about the city; there’s just not a lot of knowledge about the city.

Has the project made you more optimistic or pessimistic about Philadelphia?
I’ve always had a very strongly grounded view of the city—about what its possibilities were. So I think this project has reinforced my belief that Philadelphia has the opportunity to be among the great cities. I don’t necessarily mean it’s going to compete with Paris or New York, but that it’s going to be all that it can be. While I think we have a lot of problems, I’ve always believed it’s had this opportunity to be great. The challenge is how to be great for everybody, not just for a few people.