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For Philadelphia, 2013 was filled with crushing lows and euphoric highs, but the biggest stories shaped us, made us better, and united us in ways we could never have imagined.
School Closings – Facing a $304 million structural budget deficit, the School District of Philadelphia closed 24 public schools in 2013. In a city with at least 40,000 vacant parcels, the closings placed large abandoned buildings in communities that could ill-afford more vacant structures.
But the buildings are merely what we see. We can’t know how these closures will affect our children’s futures. We do, however, know this. In the schools that closed, over 90 percent of the students were economically disadvantaged. That means our most vulnerable students suffered the greatest losses.
Adults, meanwhile, spent much of the time casting blame. I saw teachers falsely accused of greed, I saw a governor disregard students to seek union concessions, and I watched self-proclaimed parent leaders pretend they were the only ones qualified to speak. The only true heroes to emerge from the ashes were the students, because they rose to fight for their own futures.
On May 17, approximately 1,000 students marched to school district headquarters in an effort to prevent the closures. Seventeen-year-old Benny Ramos, from the now-shuttered Charles Carroll High School, said they carried this message for the powers that be: “Yo, you can’t hide. We’ll be right here.”
The Building Collapse – The June 5 building collapse at 22nd and Market Street killed six people and injured 13 when an avalanche of brick and steel fell on the Salvation Army Thrift Shop. Tragically, the collapse took another life one week later when Ronald Wagenhoffer, a Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) employee who was the lead inspector on the demolition site, killed himself.
In this ensuing days, NBC10 and the Mayor’s Office wrangled over a video in which Wagenhoffer said the word “fault.” At issue was whether Wagenhoffer said the collapse was his fault, as the news station contend, or was not his fault, as the City argued.
Putting aside the issue of liability, I don’t know that it matters what Wagenhoffer said. What matters is that contractor Griffin Campbell and excavator operator Sean Benschop were charged with involuntary manslaughter and third degree murder in connection with the collapse.
But theirs wasn’t the only crime. It was a crime that our system allowed a cut-rate contractor to put lives at risk by cutting corners. It was a crime that numerous calls to 311 did not result in shutting down the site. It was a crime that people died in an accident that should never have occurred.
As a city, we must make the necessary changes before the next tragedy takes place. At least that way, those deaths won’t be in vain.
The Philadelphia Eagles – They say that sports are a distraction, and perhaps they’re right. But sometimes a team comes along that captures the imagination while also illustrating our capacity for resilience. The Eagles are such a team, because their players are characters we can both loathe and admire.
Backup quarterback Michael Vick has been called a villain for his past involvement in dogfighting. And yet he’s been called a leader after vouching for teammate Riley Cooper, whose racist tirade threated to divide the locker room.
Starting quarterback Nick Foles has carried himself with great poise while leading the team to the playoffs, and league rushing leader LeSean McCoy has at times carried the team on his back.
Thanks to a year end win against Dallas, an Eagles team that went from worst to first under the tutelage of head coach Chip Kelly will host the New Orleans Saints in Philadelphia. And for a moment, we’ll forget the pain of 2013 to cheer on the flawed heroes that represent us.
The Actual Value Initiative – Early in 2013, the Actual Value Initiative (AVI), which was supposed to repair the city’s flawed property tax system, was the big story.
The problem with reassessing over 550,000 parcels is that there are bound to be mistakes, miscalculations, and inequities. Under AVI, those inequities seem to favor the commercial sector.
In a report entitled, AVI: The Shift in the Tax Burden, Pew found that residential properties would represent 59.9 percent of the city’s total assessed taxable value in 2014, an increase of six percentage points—or about $72 million—from the previous year. The commercial sector would see its property tax burden drop by four percentage points, to 17.3 percent, yielding an overall tax reduction of about $55 million for commercial properties.
The Nutter administration says that 70 percent of homeowners will see the same, lower, or slightly increased property taxes under the new system, and that’s good. But the bigger issue, especially among homeowners in working class and impoverished areas, is trust.
When you’ve watched the public school system endure mounting deficits even as your taxes are collected to fund the schools, it’s difficult to trust the system. When you’ve seen developers and new residents in gentrifying communities get 10-year property tax abatements while you continue to pay the normal rate, it’s difficult to trust the system. If you see that the owner of a commercial skyscraper like One Liberty Place will enjoy a $2.5 million property tax reduction under AVI, even as your own taxes increase, it’s hard to trust the system.
In short, history has taught us not to trust, and we’ve learned that lesson well.
The Land Bank – The passage of Land Bank legislation will streamline the acquisition and development of vacant property in neighborhoods that have been devastated by depopulation, disinvestment, and poverty.
This will be good for private developers, for Community Development Corporations, and for buyers looking to become urban pioneers in neighborhoods that have been written off for decades. But the creation of the Land Bank has the potential to change the complexion of entire neighborhoods. That hasn’t always been a good thing in the past.
From the urban renewal of the fifties up through the present, development in Philadelphia tends to follow a specific pattern. Poverty-stricken areas receive little or no outside investment. Those areas are depopulated when the inhabitants get the means to move out. Government or private developers move in. Property values increase, longtime residents are forced out, and gentrification takes place. That’s what happened with Society Hill during urban renewal. It happened with University City under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania and the Redevelopment Authority. It happened in the Spanish Barrio in Spring Garden, and it is currently happening in areas such as Northern Liberties.
My concern with the forthcoming Land Bank is that the displacement shell game has the potential to reemerge. If that happens, quick, large-scale development could push out the very residents who provided a modicum of stability to blighted areas. And that would be a shame.
The Boston Marathon Bombing – The April 15 bombing at the Boston Marathon killed three and injured 260, including 16 people who lost limbs. It delivered the kind of message words never could: We are at war, and the violence of faraway battlefields in Afghanistan can come to our shores when we least expect it.
We saw that on the blood-spattered streets at the Boston Marathon’s finish line, where the anguished cries of victims filled the air and severed limbs littered the sidewalks.
But the most important thing about the Boston Marathon was our response, which was especially poignant during the Blue Cross Broad Street Run that took place in Philadelphia two weeks later.
I watched as some 40,000 runners jogged beneath the train trestle at Fishers Lane, a sliver of a street where a grassy hill rises up near the northwest entrance to the Logan subway station. Some ran in silence wearing Boston Red Sox jerseys, while others carried American flags that rippled in the wind.
There was Kathy Brooks, who stood on the sidewalk wearing an encouraging smile and holding a large sign that simply read, “Go Fels! We heart Boston.”
I asked Brooks why she was holding the sign.
“Because of what happened at the Marathon,” she said. “We’re supporting. I’m supporting.”
Runners of all hues and backgrounds united in a single purpose that day, and for one morning on the streets of Philadelphia, they showed all of us what is possible in America.
I hope that spirit will follow us into 2014.
Photos: The Associated Press