Three Reasons to Oppose “Clear Cutting” Poor Philly Neighborhoods

In the Inquirer, economist Joel Naroff says getting rid of poor, underpopulated neighborhoods might save Philadelphia. He needs to make a better case.

The late, acerbic comedian Sam Kinison had a routine about the problem of world hunger. He’d start out quietly musing about commercials that showed starving children in Africa — “the film crew could’ve given him a sandwich,” he’d note quietly — before moving on to his solution to the problem.

“There wouldn’t be world hunger,” he said, launching into his trademark scream, “IF YOU PEOPLE WOULD LIVE WHERE THE FOOD IS!” It was a routine designed to shock and provoke — and let us remember that “you people” is never a phrase used by polite folks — but it was comedy, and nobody took it all that seriously as policy guidance.

I thought about Kinison when I read Joel Naroff’s piece in the Inquirer about how to solve Philadelphia’s economic problems. His solution? Get rid of the poor neighborhoods. We can solve our woes if the city’s poor would JUST LIVE WHERE THE WEALTH IS!

“What is needed is a ‘clear-cut’ approach to land use: Areas should be totally depopulated and the land banked,” wrote Naroff. “If large tracts of land can be amassed, commercial and industrial business can be attracted. To accumulate that space, properties may have to be sold to the city, development corporations, or private investors, or taken through eminent domain.”

Philadelphia benefits not just from having property ready for commercial developers, but also by taking some underpopulated neighborhoods out of service—money can be saved if City Hall doesn’t have to pay to have police and fire crews protecting them, maintain their streets, or keep their streetlights lit.

Now, Naroff is a serious person: He was named the nation’s top economic forecaster just two years ago. And the idea isn’t entirely new: Detroit has been downsizing its underpopulated neighborhoods for several years now. (And it’s something local officials have already actively considered.) But downsizing Philadelphia neighborhoods—at least, at the scale that Naroff apparently imagines—probably isn’t the right idea for the city at just this moment.

Three reasons why:

• It’s morally monstrous: Naroff, to his credit, acknowledges this. “Though “clear-cutting” increases density, most of those relocated will be poor, who have little other than their homes. And let’s face it – there is a racial component to this. This reminds people of urban renewal, which was nicknamed ‘black removal.’ That makes it difficult to even consider such a policy, let alone implement it.”

But Naroff waives those objections away by citing the economic benefits. He shouldn’t, though: Cities are more than the sum of their economic activities. A major redevelopment of the city, done so explicitly on the backs of Philadelphia’s poor and African-American communities, might create ill will that would take generations to undo. This city still wrestles with the legacies of the MOVE bombing and the Mumia Abu Jamal shootings, more than 30 years after each — and those incidents directly affected comparatively few people. Now imagine clearing hundreds, maybe thousands, of such people out of their homes and neighborhood communities. Philadelphia might never recover.

It’s expensive, and the benefits might be overstated. How expensive? Tough to say. It’s not easy to figure out how much it’s costing Detroit to downsize neighborhoods — one estimate suggested that city would use $20 million to tear down 10,000 homes there. But that money doesn’t cover buying the property from its owners, nor the cost of helping the remaining residents move to denser areas of the city. That’s a bill that gets much larger.

Naroff also promises cost savings created by a “denser” city — but check out this interactive map that accompanied his piece. The neighborhoods that seem to call for Naroff’s scalpel are mostly near the city core, mostly to the north, straddling West Montgomery Avenue. These are neighborhoods that have lost 10,000 residents each since 1950. But the biggest growth since then (unsurprisingly) in the Northeast. Unless Philadelphia spins that area off into its own municipality (unlikely) the city is going to continue to sprawl — and City Hall will still have to pay for police and fire crews covering all those miles.

It solves a problem we may not have. The basis of Naroff’s case is that Philadelphia is like Detroit — major industrial cities that lost their industries, and thus much of their population, since 1950.

But Philadelphia isn’t Detroit, even in population. Detroit has about a third the population it did in 1960; Philadelphia still has 75 percent. The rate of our relative declines, then, has been so different that the comparison doesn’t entirely make sense.

It makes even less sense when you consider this: Philadelphia actually gained (very little) population in the 2010 census — Detroit had lost half its population during the same decade—and, according to Census estimates, has probably been gaining population since then.

Maybe this is a small pause in the city’s long fall. But Naroff doesn’t even bother to mention this data or what it might mean for Philadelphia, its future, and appropriate policies — probably because it throws the Philly-Detroit comparisons off track. And getting City Hall to start “clear cutting” poor black neighborhoods probably won’t be politically possible without convincing our leaders that an epic, Detroit-like decline is this city’s inevitable fate.

“The alternative is to take the aspirin and ease the headache while you slowly die from the cancer,” Naroff concludes. “That is not an option that makes sense to me.” Maybe. But neither does it make sense to decide that one’s head is feeling better, then agree to a limb amputation “just in case.” Naroff offers an unconvincing diagnosis and an extreme remedy. If he weren’t serious, it would sound like a joke.

Update: The Inquirer’s Inga Saffron, who has forgotten more about Philly’s efforts at urban renewal than I’ll ever know, weighs in:

That’s right.

Additionally, Jeff Deeney—a social worker and writer who is probably the best chronicler of poverty in Philadelphia—points out that Naroff is a consultant to major area developers who conceivably could benefit from the “clear cutting” scheme. He’s been challenging the Inquirer to formally disclose that information: