News & Features » Miscellany

Cities can do all they want to pretty up their surfaces, but their real problems won't disappear until they address the decay beneath.

Cracks in the Fa‡ade

comment
The bridge that carries traffic from Philadelphia's 30th Street Station east toward City Hall is lined with a formidable, stately marble balustrade. For the past several weeks, city crews directing massive hoses mounted on medieval-looking machines have been hard at work on the marble, blasting away years of accumulated grit, silt and grime that had turned the marble from gleaming white into dullest gray.

This week, Philadelphia plays host to the Republican National Convention The marble facelift is part of a Herculean effort on the part of the city to beautify itself for the national stage. But events in the city lately have conspired against the party's elaborate choreography. Like the bridge workers, convention organizers and city officials have tried feverishly to spruce up the city's gray spots. But social ills can't be solved with a spray gun, and inner-city problems insist on bubbling up through red, white and blue bunting.

On July 12, Thomas Jones stole a car and led police on a reckless high-speed chase through city streets. Jones' car crashed. A gun battle with police ensued. Jones wounded a cop, was wounded himself five times, but somehow managed to carjack a police cruiser, causing another chase. When Jones crashed a second time, a mob of police officers dragged him from the car and beat and kicked him into submission, all in front of a video camera.

Less than a week later, on July 18, a mentally disturbed man named Robert Brown attacked an Amtrak policeman in 30th Street Station with a metal chair. The policeman shot and killed Brown.

Most recently, Logan Triangle, a troubled North Philadelphia neighborhood, was back in the news. The neighborhood's 957 homes were built over an unstable landfill and have been sinking into their foundations since 1986. Fifteen years and millions of dollars later, with the convention here, the city is finally getting around to razing the last of the houses and relocating the tenants.

The timing of these three events caused consternation among city officials and convention organizers. But they should hardly be surprised. Police brutality, mental illness, and decaying neighborhoods are not new problems. Every city of any size deals with them on a daily basis, with varying degrees of success. Petersburg is dealing with its own charges of police brutality; Richmond, where the Daily Planet issue seems far from resolved, continues to struggle with finding a place for its homeless and mentally ill; neighborhoods like Blackwell and Jackson Ward watch as the promise of revitalization has crumbled around them like so many bulldozed buildings.

Cities should not be caught unaware when these kinds of problems result in incidents that make national headlines.

In Philadelphia, in the Jones case, a cop had been shot, and two car chases put lots of lives at stake. But there is little doubt that police used excessive force. It happens. It's wrong. But as long as underpaid, understaffed and frequently underappreciated police officers struggle with a job that puts their lives at risk every day, it will continue to happen, despite the best intentions of police and the people among whom they patrol.

Robert Brown was mentally disturbed. He was a frequent, erratic visitor to the train station, where he often bothered patrons for money. In a city of any size, be it Richmond or Philadelphia, it's far too easy for mentally ill people to fall through cracks in the social-service system. Funds and staff to monitor and care for these people are scarce. And neither the average citizen nor the average police officer is equipped to deal with the unique problems the mentally ill present.

Brown's death is unquestionably a tragedy, and the police officer's use of force is under investigation. There is probably room for outrage at his death. But there is no room for surprise.

Logan Triangle is perhaps the most tragic, preventable and familiar story. Inner-city neighborhoods get the short end of the stick of city services in so many ways. But at least they usually stay put. In this case, the quality of life in Logan Triangle went down, literally, when broken underground pipes made the neighborhood's foundation soak and sink.

Give the Logan residents credit. Through successive mayoral campaigns, they were promised relief. It never came, so they played their trump card: publicity in the face of a national convention. They are finally being taken care of. But that leaves the rest of the country's decaying neighborhoods in need of assistance.

Philadelphia, temporary headquarters of the Republican Party, has never looked better. The streets and sidewalks are spotless. Buildings, decorated in patriotic bursts of color, shine. But the city, like nearly every city in America, is still deeply flawed. Over trash-free highways, the middle-class tax base flees to the suburbs, undermining services. Behind the bunting, the underpaid poor struggle to stay above the poverty level. And outside of the garish Convention Center, the streets most residents walk are still unsafe.

Philadelphia looks great, but it is a facade with cracks. Cities have been the big loser in the last half-decade of unprecedented prosperity. Until more wealth goes to urban renewal and social services, the cracks will grow deeper and graver. And cities will continue to decay.



Mark Stroh, a former Style Weekly reporter, is a staff writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

Add a comment