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In the Rendell Era, City's Image Rose, But Key Problems Remained


In the Rendell Era, City's Image Rose, But Key Problems Remained

December 30, 1999

At the end of the Ed Rendell era, Philadelphia is a city that has solved its age-old image problem but has hardly begun to address its reality problem. Its national reputation stands high. Center City looks great. The upgraded airport sparkles, and new jobs are starting to sprout after a slow start following the last recession. The city finally seems free of the self-denigrating spirit.


But while Center City and citizen self-esteem are flourishing, Philadelphia remains a crime- and tax-ridden city of collapsing schools and continued middle-class flight, still suffering from economic decline. Much of the last decade's new urban thinking, which has put the bloom back on cities from coast to coast, has yet to reach the City of Brotherly Love.


One lesson of the Rendell era is that to revive a city, a mayor must draw on the full array of urban policy reforms - and if he's unwilling to force change on almost every front, he will at best preside over managed decline.


Rendell at first seemed a Hercules of a mayor, able to tame mighty unions and bring a dying city back to life. He was, proclaimed Vice President Al Gore shortly after Rendell's legendary success in municipal contract negotiations, "America's Mayor." But Rendell turned out not to be the visionary and heroic reformer he first appeared to be.


Aside from his genuine commitment to budget balancing and his energetic boosterism, he has proved to be an old-style big-city mayor, who has fought welfare reform, despite its successes in so many other cities, and has looked to Washington subsidies to solve local problems instead of fixing his own faltering economy. The few real reforms he has accomplished since his battle with the unions have come late, in response to outside pressures.


When Ed Rendell took office in 1992, Philadelphia was on the verge of total collapse. It had lost 400,000 people and 200,000 jobs in the previous 30 years. Crime had jumped 16 percent the year before; the Center City sidewalks reeked of human waste.


It didn't take Rendell long to realize the magnitude of the problem he had inherited. Philadelphia was facing a cumulative deficit of nearly $1.25 billion over the next five years and an immediate deficit that had grown to $230 million. The city had raised taxes 19 times in 11 years, so Rendell knew such an approach was no longer an option; if the city did any more to drive out its middle class, he said, it would become "Detroit without automobiles."

And the national political climate of the 1990s precluded government aid. Stop looking to Washington and Harrisburg, Rendell announced in a speech on the looming budget disaster: "The only resources that we can rely on to solve our problem is ourselves." And he meant it - at least for the time being.


Rendell's finest hour came in the summer of 1992, in his victorious contract negotiations with the four primary municipal unions. He not only reversed out-of-control spending and entitlements but also introduced what seemed to be a new model of urban management. By the fall of 1993, without raising taxes and through a host of cost-cutting measures, including renegotiating city vendor contracts, his administration had eliminated the structural deficit it had inherited when he first took office.


But a weary chant still haunts Philadelphia: schools, crime and taxes; schools, crime and taxes. It is not a chant to which Rendell was able to respond. Caught up in conventional assumptions, the mayor, after his budgetary triumph, was ultimately unwilling to grapple with the deeper structural problems that virtually guarantee Philadelphia's continuing decline.


Rendell has made job creation a top goal, yet in response to what he himself calls Philadelphia's "oppressive tax structure," he has managed only a fractional reduction of both the wage and gross-receipts tax.


Once he had successfully balanced the budget, he failed to seek other ways of saving the city money - such as further privatization or shrinking the city's workforce. The result: During his entire tenure, city expenditures have risen faster than inflation, and taxes are nowhere near the level that would make Philly attractive to business.


Nowhere are the limitations of Ed Rendell's public-subsidy, deal-making approach to job creation clearer than in his agenda for impoverished North Philadelphia. In truth, North Philadelphia has probably the worst American slums of the last half century, more like the shantytowns of Santo Domingo than anything we associate with the United States.


With their collapsed houses, abandoned lots and daytime drug zombies, areas such as Kensington, 10 minutes north of Center City, compare unfavorably to the South Bronx of the 1970s.


More than any other big-city mayor, Rendell opposed welfare reform, warning of the "fiscal and human catastrophe" that would ensue once thousands of former recipients looked for work in his job-hungry city - despite the mounting evidence that seemed to contradict him in his own streets.


He displayed some of the same moral urgency when he set out to get federal money for an empowerment zone in North Philadelphia, aimed at bringing jobs to those same welfare recipients. Now, five years and many millions of dollars after the mayor's dramatic performance before the Senate, pleading for their support, the empowerment zone has produced numerous jobs and contracts for John Street's allies, several large holes in the ground where the Billie Holiday Entertainment Complex was supposed to be, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid bills.


His schools superintendant, David Hornbeck, arrived to initial enthusiasm but has since alienated Harrisburg and has been unable to reverse poor morale among teachers and lack of public confidence, even while producing real reforms and gains that may be too little, too late.


While Police Chief John F. Timoney has been a great success, in fact Rendell resisted his appointment, cashiering previous chief Richard Neal only when political pressure, led by State Rep. Dwight Evans, forced him to do so.


Rendell saved the city from immediate disaster, but he didn't stop Philly's long, slow, downward slide. The question for mayor-elect John Street is whether he can, without undermining the city's newfound optimism, address the problems Rendell only began to face. If Street can't, expect the city's decline to continue.