Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Roll, Roll, Roll and Go

I just came out of what was really a quite good neighborhood group meeting, and I'm feeling charged. Now normally, neighborhood group meetings are now as they always have been -- awful. Even when they're productive, they're awful: people want to talk longer than they should, everyone has long-standing feuds, and they usually degenerate into incommensurate expectations. One person wants to talk about encouraging an increase property values while another is worried about increasing property taxes. One person wants to increase parking, and another wants to save every tree, shrub, and flower. If somebody wants to examine a copy of the group charter and apply for nonprofit status, the other complains that no one sent her neighbor a card while she was sick. And so it goes.

But there's a lot of excitement in our corner of Philadelphia -- home prices are going way, way up, homes are being renovated and kept or sold, younger people are moving in, including more white people and gay people than anyone's ever seen. At the same time, however, the older and established residents of our neighborhood, especially those who own their homes, are open, welcoming, and inclusive -- partly because it's long been an established middle-class neighborhood (if once but no longer an inexpensive one) and home values aren't shooting up so fast that they're creating vast inequalities in wealth and income, or radically changing the neighborhood's racial makeup -- as many middle-class black families are moving in as white ones. Also, the size and spacing of our houses is sufficient such that three houses turning over on a single block in the course of a year can make a big impact without being (as in some blocks of Center City Philadelphia) an unmanageable deluge. We seem to be pulling off a surge in development without full-fledged gentrification, which is kind of like economic growth without inflation -- as elusive as it is precious.

There's also political excitement in Philadelphia, too, with a full-blown mayoral race. Well, actually, it's not really full-blown. There's no Republican candidate in sight, and none of the Democratic candidates have officially declared their candidacy, due to an interpretation of Philly's new campaign finance reform bill that says its provisions only apply to "declared" candidates for mayor. Hence, the mayoral candidates are all "exploring" a mayoral run until the deadline to declare. Likewise, declared mayoral candidates have to resign from city council positions -- hence my favorite councilman Michael Nutter, who is obeying the donation limits set by the campaign law -- and is party to a lawsuit suing the other candidates to do the same -- isn't an officially declared candidate either. Welcome to Philadelphia.

There's been lots of political infighting, too. Essentially, there are three -- well, at least three -- Democratic parties in Philadelphia.

1) There are the labor guys, mostly white, who usually represent South Philadelphia and the Northeast. John Dougherty (aka "Johnny Doc") is the mayoral candidate from this group. Rick Mariano, a city council member who was recently convicted and jailed on corruption charges (he traded a plug for Erie Steel for a ~$25,000 loan to pay off credit card debts), was also big with the electrician's union and had close ties to Dougherty.

2) There's the established and mostly black political elite, mostly established in the Northwest part of the city where I live. It's all about committee members, ward bosses, relationships between state, local, and federal representatives, the city council's office, and the mayor -- everyone knows each other, and they run it very much like an old-fashioned political party, deciding on candidates, who will run, who will win -- at least until recently. Kia Gregory in a March issue of Philadelphia Weekly had a great write-up about Philly's Northwest Alliance and their feud with the third Democratic party in Philadelphia, which is...

3) The independent but increasingly powerful independent political operation in West Philadelphia run by U.S. Representative (and current Mayor John Street-anointed) Chaka Fattah. Fattah's people have their own networks, hire and support their own staffers, and increasingly compete with the Northwest Dems for turf. And there's probably a fourth Democratic party -- every once in a while the well-moneyed and well-educated white people in Chestnut Hill or Center City field a candidate independent of the major power bases of the party. Like Tom Knox, for instance. Although most of the people I know from this group support Nutter, who's reform-minded and pro-business; it's just that Nutter's scruples have both kept him from raising serious bank and alienated him from the political kingmakers whose support he'll ultimately need.

Anyways, that's what's happening around here. I remember in 2002 telling some friends that it was an exciting time to be living in Philadelphia, and an especially an exciting time to be on my South Philly street, which at the time was in the birth pangs of gentrification and is almost unrecognizable today. In 2003, Republican Sam Katz and John Street squared off, and Street ultimately swept to victory when it was determined that his office had been secretly wiretapped in he course of a federal corruption investigation. Anti-Republican paranoia and the feeling that someone was playing dirty politics -- hell, everyone already knew that Street was dirty -- turned turnout tumescent among the Dems, and we got John Street -- who really is the Democratic city equivalent of George W. Bush, a nice guy who's not very effective and doesn't always seem too bright, and who's up to his eyeballs in crooked shit that you can't ever really stick him with -- for four more years. Four years after I moved to Philly, going into 2007, the times have changed, and my street has changed, but I still feel just as excited to be living here.

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