April 26, 2019
"If you think Philadelphia is bad today, you should've seen it decades ago!"
Oddly, this statement, meant as a compliment to tout the city's progress in response to any complaint about its unsatisfying state, captures the essential Philadelphia attytood that holds our city back. Listen to anyone moan about the filth that blows through neighborhoods like trash tumbleweeds, the potholes that turn trips through the city into bone-jarring roller-coaster rides, or the governmental and civic failures that greet us every day, and you'll likely find an apologist who will claim that it used to be worse – as if that is any consolation.
If Philadelphia is ever to move past being a city of permanent potential to become a city of opportunity and progress, we need to stop accepting slow and marginal improvements and we need to start demanding better.
I'm a lifelong Philadelphian and, as such, I share that combination chip-on-my-shoulder/inferiority complex with many natives when it comes to our city. If there is such a thing as a pair of bifocals that incorporates a rose-colored lens and another that is permanently shaded, Ben Franklin should have invented it for the way we see our city. But others, more new to Philadelphia, come here and see it clearly.
New arrivals and visitors see our wonderful, walkable, workable city as full of urban virtue, but they also clearly see how we hold this city back by accepting all that is wrong with it. They bristle when we defend the worst of life in our big city by promising that it used to be even worse.
When new neighbors mention the filth, we say it used to be dirtier instead of implementing citywide cleaning programs that can pick up the trash. When new residents say the Wage Tax is chasing away neighbors, we say the rate was once much higher instead of managing the process to reduce the levy so it is no longer a barrier to growth. When new Philadelphians say that casual City Hall corruption is appalling, we say that it was entrenched even more in ring-ruled Philadelphia instead of demanding an end to the way of the little fix.
This is election season and candidates are cross-crossing the city to tell voters about what they will do to improve life in our big city. When you see them, ask them about the trash and the potholes and the violence and the schools and the taxes and everything else. Any candidate who says we are making progress or that the problems were once much worse needs to go. Any candidate who cannot confront the facts that ours is a dirty city, a violent city, an over-taxed city, and a city afflicted by the ills of casual corruption is only making things worse by accepting Philadelphia's problems as intractable.
The only response that makes a candidate worthy of support is: "This is unacceptable — here are my plans to make change for the better…"
We don't need to worry about blame and we don't need to fret about excuses for how we got here. We need a commitment to make change and an impatience to make improvement. The candidates who tell you that it used to be worse, should never again set foot into City Hall. Those who say we deserve better, deserve a chance to make it happen.
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Brett Mandel is Democratic committee person in the 8th Ward/28th Division and former director of financial and policy analysis under former City Controller Jonathan Saidel. He is a lifelong Philadelphian.