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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Philadelphia: Can the Nation's Poorest City also be a World Class City?

When I was in Montreal last month I read in the local newspapers there that there was no recession in Canada and that unemployment was low. “What a difference a border makes,” I thought, even if the view outside my hotel window told a different story.

Every morning I’d see a group of street beggars, all young adults in their twenties, congregate in front of a McDonald’s so that they could ask passerby for change. Some wore their bedding on their backs (heavy blankets), while others seemed to be part of the heady youth culture on Saint Catherine Street.

A closer look at the group revealed what they really were: drug addicts scoring either drugs or money to buy drugs. Indeed, the scene outside my hotel window every morning reminded me of the people (mostly men) I see begging outside the neighborhood Wawa or Thriftway in search of money to buy heroin. The local vagabonds have it tougher than their neighbors to the north. Sometimes they sleep on large flattened cardboard boxes behind the fence that runs along East Thompson Street. These sleeping enclaves were not there last year, but this year, as Philadelphia dips in status to the poorest city in the nation, the area has become a rustic bedroom community, home to users, alcoholics and the jobless.

Another “tent” city is located under I-95 near Cumberland Street and the Girard Street turn. It was a booming “It takes a village” operation during the warm summer months.

When the U.S. Census Bureau rated Philadelphia as the poorest city among the ten most populated cities in the nation, my first thought was what kind of impact the rating would have on Philadelphia’s desire to become a world class city.

Can a world class city also be the country’s poorest city?

Detroit suffered for years with the label, “America’s poorest city,” despite the recent transformation of that city’s waterfront area. Detroit’s chronic poverty caused it to suffer population loses until it was no longer even qualified to be included on the list of America’s top ten largest cities. Today, it is number 11, and poverty there hovers around 33%.

Will Philadelphia suffer a similar fate twenty, thirty years down the road? Will home owners here one day bolt, and head for the Pocono’s, Johnstown or Altoona?

“Philadelphia’s poverty rate has been growing for thirty years,” noted University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice Professor, Roberta Iversen. Iversen blames job losses in manufacturing, but she also points to the “relegation of minorities to dense neighborhoods of moderate to high levels of poverty and very little job creation.”

But does this explain the poverty in (mainly) non-minority populated Fishtown and Port Richmond? While I agree with Iversen that the poorest sections of the city are “isolated socially,” poverty today has become trans-racial. Indeed, as the U.S. Census notes, one out of four Philadelphians lives below the poverty line, compared with the national average of one in seven.

Ironically, the designation of Philadelphia as the nation’s poorest city is not the public relations nightmare it could be when one considers that the city’s main tourist attraction is Center City. Center City is its own tidy town, with its Friends of Rittenhouse Square Balls, its Old City horse and carriage rides, overcrowded sidewalk caf├ęs, transient students, and wealthy retirees. Slide into most of the neighborhoods surrounding Center City, however, and you see another city altogether. What you often see is a city that is hurting.

But there’s another factor here that is being overlooked. Philadelphia’s land mass is a relatively humble 135 square miles, while other cities in the top ten list have land masses of 300 square miles. As demographics experts have noted for quite a while now, if the land masses of the other cities were reduced to 135 square miles, their poverty rates would be as Philadelphia’s. Other major cities, such as Phoenix, Arizona, have extended their borders in order to incorporate the surrounding suburbs (where there’s a comfortable middle class). These municipal “swallow ups” can change a city’s “most populated” rating overnight.

Unfortunately, no suburb in Philadelphia’s multi- county region is likely to turn over its suburban keys for a city classification (this is a phenomenon common in the West), so it looks like Philly is stuck, for the time being anyway, in the 135 square mile bracket.

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