In a recent New Yorker piece headlined “Did Last Summer’s Black Lives Matter Protests Change Anything?” author Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor holds our beloved town up as the prime example of a city that, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, talked a good game about bridging the racial divide—but fell far short of matching its rhetoric in deed:
Philadelphia is not very different from the rest of the United States—caught between a recognition that racism is rooted in unfair and unequal conditions, created within public and private sectors, and reproduced over time and place, and a reluctance to take drastic action to cure it. Democrats on the federal and local levels have mastered the language of racial contrition, lamenting the conditions that nourish inequality, while doing the bare minimum to change them…In Philadelphia, [Mayor] Kenney’s office raced to take down a statue of the notorious police commissioner and mayor Frank Rizzo, as if to demonstrate that the city was moving away from its history of racism and police brutality.
Taylor contrasts the rush toward symbolic action with Kenney’s (“an unremarkable career politician”) Pathways to Reform, Transformation and Reconciliation commission report, ostensibly an effort to reform the city through a racial equity lens in post-George Floyd America.
“But the ‘change’ was so paltry that it was an affront to the traumas that it claimed to address,” Taylor concludes, noting of the city’s “Inclusive Economy” plan that, “beneath soaring rhetoric about ‘inspiring collaborative efforts,’ Philadelphia distributed a measly thirteen million dollars in grants and loans to two thousand business owners. Only sixty-six percent went to minority business owners—a category that included anyone who is not a white man.”
It’s a trend we’ve seen play out over and over again in the last year. Amid talk of systemic reform, we get the crumbs of symbolism. I wrote about it when the Rizzo statue came down —which helped precisely zero Black families—and when striking NBA players failed to gauge their leverage and demand their league do business with Black banks rather than the Spanish conglomerate that handles its billions.
As Richard Rothstein makes so clear in The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How our Government Segregated America, inequality is not a natural state. It is the product of specific policies embedded in law and culture over decades, even centuries. To truly meet a moment of newfound racial and economic consciousness, we need leaders willing to excavate those errant policies and propose new ones that grow the economy—for everyone, this time.
Take our highways, for example. Back in the car-centric boom of post-World War II America, well-meaning white liberals championing “urban renewal” literally created Black and brown ghettos by running expressways clear through bustling minority communities, essentially cutting them off from commerce and community. Effectively, inner-city loops and freeways became dividing lines of opportunity, haves on one side, have-nots on the other.
It wasn’t the Klan nationwide that, in their zeal to lay down highways, were actually creating ghettos. It was mostly well-intentioned liberals whose policies in this regard prove the adage “racism without racists.”
Here, legendary urban planner Ed Bacon justified the use of eminent domain to construct the Roosevelt Extension—connecting Roosevelt Boulevard to the Schuylkill Expressway—by observing that the displacement of some 400 families was the cost of “progress.” (Wonder if Footloose would have ever been made had some bureaucrat ordered him to pack up his and young son Kevin’s belongings and hightail it out of their pricey Center City abode?).
But now comes a movement for “mobility justice,” the stripping away of such economic and cultural dividing lines in favor of inclusive-growth oriented boulevards more amenable to Main Street-like development.
Freeways Without Futures 2021, a report from the Congress for the New Urbanism, zeroes in on 15 freeways nationwide that are being transformed from de facto moats into oases of equity, opportunity and connectivity. Included among the case studies is the still in-progress removal of Rochester, NY’s Inner Loop, which will reconnect a largely Black community to the city’s downtown and is projected to result in 534 housing units, more than half subsidized or below market rate, 152,000 square feet of new commercial space, and $229 million in economic development.
“There’s an increasing awareness that what we built in the past was not designed to serve everybody well, and in fact was built to divide on purpose,” says Shalini Vajjhala, founder and CEO of re:focus partners, a design firm dedicated to developing integrated resilient infrastructure solutions and innovative public-private partnerships for vulnerable communities around the world.
She wowed us at an event we hosted two months ago, and predicts that in the next few months we’ll see a lot of legislative activity around three main mobility justice pillars: Taking down structures that have long impeded equity; upgrading woefully neglected ones; and adding to or extending existing structures with an eye toward equity such that, she says, folks of lesser means would no longer “have to cobble together three or four bus routes just to get to a job.”
Enter Congressman Dwight Evans, whose Reconnecting Communities bill passed the House last month. The bill would provide $3 billion a year over five years for such smart inner-city transformation. The bipartisan infrastructure bill that just passed the Senate originally contained $20 billion for reconnecting communities, but that got whittled down to $1 billion in the bipartisan horse trading. So Evans has his sights set on the upcoming $3.5 trillion reconciliation “human infrastructure” proposal Democrats are crafting.
Maybe politics isn’t broken? Maybe, in the right hands, our politics can still get big things done? I dunno. But it’s lovely to think so.
Jesse Jackson used to observe that “there are tree shakers, and there are jelly makers,” and, as a wily veteran of the legislative game, Evans has long been one of Philly’s preeminent makers. When Biden nominated Pete Buttigieg as Secretary of Transportation, Evans saw an opening. “He’s not loyal to the traditional ways of doing things,” Evans told me when I caught up with him earlier this week.
Buttigieg, who was pilloried on the political right for recently observing that “there is racism physically built into some of our highways,” was on board, and Evans had printed up thousands of bullet-pointed pocket-sized cards explaining the issue and his “Reconnecting Communities” legislation. (“Rep. Dwight Evans ardently supports Secretary Buttigieg’s plan to reverse the racist history of America’s highway system in the infrastructure package,” the card notes.) He’d make it a point to hand one to Biden every time he found himself in the president’s company; it got to the point that the president started to expect the big congressman from Philly to practically deposit a card into his suit pocket.
Meantime, Evans partnered with Delaware Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester—not coincidentally the president’s home congresswoman—and Maryland Congressmen Kweisi Mfume and Anthony Brown; together, they hopped on the rails and looked out the windows of Amtrak’s Baltimore-Wilmington-Philadelphia corridor train.
“All along the line you could see it,” he told me. “We’re talking about something really tangible here. You know me. I’m not about all that superficial stuff. I’m all about getting something real done for real people. It doesn’t get more real than this.”
Evans says that there are numerous local highways that are candidates for such reform, including the Vine Street Expressway, which cut off Chinatown from the economic lifeblood of the city, and the aforementioned Roosevelt Extension, which was Bacon’s idea back in 1949.
Bacon saw it as a way to connect Philadelphians one to another. Ah, but the law of unintended consequences. It actually turned Nicetown, a once-thriving working class enclave, into a distressed community. In a riveting 2019 report in Places Journal, author Elizabeth Greenspan provides some heartbreaking context:
It would be difficult to overstate the degree to which officials failed to grasp the harm that their ‘readjustments’ would soon inflict upon families and neighborhoods. [Historian Francesca Russello] Ammon describes this harm as the ‘enduring trauma of lost community’…Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, as part of the second wave of the Great Migration, thousands of black families had moved to Philadelphia, and many had moved to North Philly’s redlined neighborhoods—one of the few areas where they could obtain leases and mortgages. By the late ’60s, Nicetown was roughly 30 percent black—and it was this population that was disproportionately targeted by the eminent domain takings. This time around, blacks were twice as likely as whites to lose their homes, and comprised more than half of those forced to move.
It wasn’t the Klan nationwide that, in their zeal to lay down highways, were actually creating ghettos. It was mostly well-intentioned liberals whose policies in this regard prove the adage “racism without racists.” Evans says he’s been told that the effects of Bacon’s highway-mania—thankfully, Bacon’s Crosstown Expressway running from the Schuylkill to Delaware rivers along South Street couldn’t overcome citizen opposition—were a lasting regret of legendary reform Mayor Richardson Dilworth.
So what about now? As we mull over spending billions to remove or refurbish these antiquated transportation structures, what consequence might we not see coming?
Vajjhala says the devil is always in the details. “Liberals promise big things but aren’t always good at building big things,” she says, pointing out that we’re a long way from the technical expertise of FDR’s New Deal. (Indeed, a school official once told me that the school buildings that were built in the 1930s are fine; it’s the ones from the ‘70s that are falling apart.) “We no longer have institutional memory about how to do things at this scale.”
For his part, Evans gets not only the politics, but the policy implications of this moment. He’s always thought more like a mayor than the representative of a distinct district, and he understands the opportunity before us for real inclusive growth.
Inequality is not a natural state. It is the product of specific policies embedded in law and culture over decades, even centuries.
It can easily go astray, however. If billions of dollars are spent removing or repositioning city freeways without simultaneously embarking upon a smart regional cooperation strategy, peril likely awaits. A city with 25 percent poverty, anemic job growth and a dwindling tax base cannot make an island of itself. More than any other city rethinking its urban infrastructure, Philadelphia is dependent on its suburban neighbors. We need to reconnect neighborhoods as Evans prescribes without disconnecting from the region.
“It’s called thoughtfulness,” Evans says. “We need to be smart from a policy perspective.”
Vajjhala says a lot of the critical details around implementation will be worked out after all the congressional wrangling, at the Transportation Department level. Meantime, Evans is in the fray, trying to get his Reconnecting Communities bill across the legislative finish line and into law. He hasn’t even given up on getting bipartisan support; he spent a good part of our phone call singing the praises of Pennsylvania Republican Brian Fitzpatrick, who heads the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. “It probably doesn’t help him for me to say good things about him,” Evans says. “But he’s the most bipartisan guy in Congress. I haven’t given up on him. You know me. I don’t give up.”
And, with that, if just for a moment, Dwight Evans restores even a cynical journalist’s faith. I’ve long argued that politics is a discreet skill, and Evans is a classic politician. He puts coalitions together, he makes deals, he favors substance over style, and he thinks policy through. Maybe politics isn’t broken? Maybe, in the right hands, our politics can still get big things done? I dunno. But it’s lovely to think so.