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Guns and Caramel Sauce

In Philadelphia, who will prevail: gangsters or gourmets?


Alan Ehrenhalt

Alan is a Governing senior editor.

Two notable events took place in Philadelphia in late February this year. They have nothing to do with each other. But together, they offer a clue to why Philadelphia is, at this point in history, the most enigmatic big city in America.

One of the events was the opening of a spectacular new Cézanne exhibit at the city's major art museum. In honor of the exhibit, three gourmet restaurants in or near Center City announced that they were creating special menus that featured dishes from the artist's native Provence. One of the restaurants, Zinc, offers squid flash-seared with Pernod, and apple pastry in lavender caramel sauce for dessert.

On the night those dishes were being introduced at Zinc, a somber ritual was being enacted eight miles north on Broad Street. Some 300 police were marching in columns four abreast from Archbishop Ryan High School to the Givnish Funeral Home. They were marching to honor fellow-policeman John Pawlowski, murdered six days earlier by a thief who had accosted a taxi driver. Pawlowski was the fifth police officer in the city to be killed in the line of duty in just one year.

It is hard to know exactly what to make of such a place. There are cities in America, such as Boston, Chicago and New York, that are glamorous and exciting and a magnet for tourists from all over the world. There are others, such as Detroit, that are so badly blighted it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to visit them. Somehow, Philadelphia manages to be both those things at once.

Philadelphia's downtown is not only an interesting place to visit, it is a place where increasing numbers of affluent people want to live. The exact figures are hard to come by, but the best guess is that Center City now has a full-time residential population of close to 100,000. In a recent poll by the Pew Charitable Trusts, 86 percent of Philadelphians praised their hometown as a good or excellent place to enjoy food, culture and entertainment.

But while affluence and gentrification in Chicago and Boston have spread far beyond the heart of town in recent years, Center City Philadelphia might as well have a medieval wall around it. Venture just a few blocks north or west of the cafés and hotels and well-lighted streets, and you are in a dangerous place.

A very dangerous place. Virtually every year in this decade, Philadelphia has suffered from more violent crime per capita than any of the other 10-largest cities in America. In 2006, it recorded 406 homicides. New York City, with a population more than five times as large, recorded fewer than 600. In 2008, with a new administration focused intensely on crime, Philly managed to reduce the homicide count significantly, to 333. At the same time, however, San Diego, with nearly the same population, came in at 55.

The vast majority of killings in Philadelphia aren't random attacks on innocent people. They involve drug dealers shooting each other in lawless neighborhoods, not assaults on tourists or middle-class residents of Center City. Still, the sheer number of crimes has given the whole community an unshakeable nervousness.

What is it, exactly, that makes Philadelphia so dangerous? I don't think there's any one overriding answer to that question. But there are some plausible partial answers.

It can't be anything in the water. But what about something in the culture, some form of social pathology that causes people in Philadelphia to shoot each other more often than people in similar circumstances in New York or Chicago? Philly Police Chief Charles Ramsey has been known to speculate about this. Last fall, after yet another policeman was murdered, Ramsey responded to a reporter's question with a question of his own. "Is it just a violent subculture that we have here that's deeply ingrained?" he asked. "I don't know if there's a contempt for law enforcement but [the perpetrators] do not fear the system."

A violent streak that sets Philadelphia apart from other big cities? If you've ever sat in the cheap seats at a Phillies game, you may be inclined to believe it. But as an explanation, it doesn't get us very far. It essentially says people are violent because they are violent.

An economic explanation seems more promising. In the past generation, the city has suffered from a hemorrhage of the blue-collar jobs that used to be the basis of its economic vitality. In the two decades between 1967 and 1987, Philadelphia lost 64 percent of its industrial jobs. Neighborhoods such as Kensington, which was once lined with block after block of tidy row houses owned by workers at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, are now crime-plagued wastelands.

But if industrial decline were everything, New York and Chicago couldn't possibly have enjoyed the comeback they have staged in recent years. Or, if you want an example closer to home, try Pittsburgh. It lost the one industry it was utterly dependent on -- steel -- and while the city continues to have problems, it has largely succeeded in reinventing itself as a health care and education center. At any rate, Pittsburgh has nowhere near the level of violent crime that Philadelphia has.

If you want to single out one distinction separating the cities that have made big strides in the past 20 years from those that have not, the one to look at might be abandoned housing. A burden that Philadelphia, Baltimore and Detroit face that New York and Chicago do not is the problem of neighborhoods that have become all but empty. Early in this decade, there were an estimated 60,000 vacant properties scattered around Philadelphia. They were breeding grounds for drug dealing, robbery and murder. It was commonly agreed among local leaders that Philadelphia could never achieve a real citywide renaissance until the unsalvageable buildings were demolished and private developers permitted to create new neighborhoods attractive enough to lure new residents.

Solving this problem was the primary goal, if not the obsession, of Mayor John Street, who held office from 1999 to 2007. Street's Neighborhood Transformation Initiative promised to start the process by tearing down 14,000 abandoned buildings, and creating 16,000 new homes to replace them. His administration floated nearly $300 million in bonds as a means of doing the job.

But little of it was accomplished. By the time of Street's departure, 21,000 new housing units had been created in Philadelphia, but many of these were condos in Center City and had nothing to do with the slum-clearance program. Only about 5,000 abandoned buildings were cleared away. Most of the bond money was spent on previously existing housing programs, largely to replace federal funding that had dried up.

What the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative was really good at was removing cars. By 2007, the Street administration reported that it had taken 289,000 abandoned automobiles off Philadelphia's streets. How any city, even one of Philadelphia's size, could possibly have that many junkheap cars on the street is beyond my imagination, but I'm willing to take Street's word for it. The bottom line, however, is that Philadelphia has nearly as many uninhabitable neighborhoods today as it did a decade ago. This seems to me the most important reason, although surely not the only reason, why the city still has a crisis of violent crime.

Crime has been the central issue of Mayor Michael Nutter's 15 months in office, just as it was in his successful 2007 campaign. Even with the local economy and city budget ravaged by recession, residents of Philadelphia -- unlike those of most other big cities -- still list crime as their most serious concern. Nutter ran on a platform of "stop, question and frisk," hired an aggressive new police chief in Ramsey and vowed to cut the number of murders by one-quarter over the course of his first year.

He didn't achieve that, but he did make a dent in the problem. The number of homicides fell by more than 15 percent. On the other hand, there were 9 percent more rapes and 16 percent more burglaries in 2008 than in the year before. So Philadelphia is a long way from getting its violence problem under control.

Just as there is no one explanation for Philadelphia's curse of violence, there almost certainly is no one solution to it. Nutter's crackdown does seem to be showing some results. Street's plan to clear away the blighted neighborhoods, had it been fully implemented, probably would have shown more.

My own feeling is that someday, something will work. Philadelphia, unlike many large corporations these days, can't be described as too big to fail. But it is entirely too interesting to fail.

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