The political problem of Philadelphia

Today’s post isn’t directly transportation-focused. It’s about the politics that comprises the backdrop our struggles take place against. I’m sure others have said what I have to say with more eloquence and sobriety, but this is my version, and if I’m going to have to refer to it in the future, I ought to spell it all out at least once.

The big problem with being Philadelphia is being Philadelphia. Unlike New York City, which is nearly half of New York State, we are not nearly enough of Pennsylvania to sway the legislature; even in concert with our suburbs (whose interests are not always aligned with the city’s), we are only about a quarter of the Commonwealth. We are, of course, big enough to be resented as Gomorrah-on-the-Delaware by our nominal friends in Central PA. We can’t put together a coalition of pro-urban interests in Harrisburg, either, because we can’t convince Pittsburgh or Allentown or Erie to trust us enough to work together on any project other than the delivery of our 20 electoral votes every four years. And why should they? Our city council lurches back and forth on a spectrum between haplessly ineffective and intolerably corrupt, occasionally ring-led to doing the right thing either by the Mayor or a court order. Meanwhile, Philadelphia and Harrisburg escalate their malign neglect of each other, while the smaller, more fragile cities continue to flail against an overwhelming tide of problems they have no hope of solving on their own. Reading is among the ten poorest cities in America, with figures comparable to Camden, Gary, or Flint.

Nor can we exercise power in the halls of Congress. With the primary divide between the two national parties being most properly understood as a cultural conflict between urban and rural visions of America, the party of rural cultural interests has no incentive to help us and every incentive to take cheap shots at our expense. (That the Republican Party seems to have abdicated any interest in governance at all just intensifies this incentive structure.) Meanwhile, the Democratic Party cares about us, but cares about everybody else a whole lot more: we have neither the big-money success of New York, San Francisco, or Washington; nor do we have the headline-grabbing level of failure of a Detroit, St. Louis, or Las Vegas; nor do we have the political realignment potential of a Raleigh, Denver, or Norfolk. We face the same problems getting support from the rest of the Pennsylvania delegation as we do the Legislature in Harrisburg. In the wider Northeast region, we are Trainover Country, a bleak vision of North Philadelphia scrapyards and despair in between the power centers in DC and New York.

In other words, we operate at a permanent disadvantage. Our collective mythos reflects this as a recurring underdog spirit. Think of the Phillies and their 10,000 franchise losses, or (to be more cliched about it) Rocky. We have it in us to overcome our obstacles through lots of hard work, and the occasional stroke of luck. But Philadelphians, especially New Philadelphians, need to roll up their sleeves and wade into the muck in Harrisburg and in City Hall, demanding real results from their leaders. Innovation should be encouraged and improvements to the status quo should be praised. Corruption and waste cannot be tolerated, and “That’s the way things are done here” should never be an acceptable excuse for anything. Bring the suburbs in and make sure they have a seat at the table, because if we keep treating each other like we’re on different planets, we’re all going nowhere. Learn to co-ordinate effectively with Pittsburgh and the smaller cities, because our problems are also their problems. Shoot for the moon and take no prisoners.

Because we are Philadelphia. We’re #5, so we (have to) try harder. We have no friends on this earth but ourselves, and we need to start showing up and playing like we mean it.

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