The following essay originally appeared in the June 30, 2008, issue of National Review.
Philadelphia is famous for two things: cheesesteaks and murder.
It’s also well known for being—in Lincoln Steffens’s classic phrase—“corrupt and contented.” Philadelphia has one of the most backward and incompetent city governments in America, but its problems go beyond public administration. Philadelphia suffers from a combination of failed civic institutions, a deeply embedded racial paranoia that undermines law enforcement, and a local culture that has come to shrug at the urban chaos this produces. Philadelphia stands as a warning to other big American cities: This is how you drown under a crime wave.
In 2006, the one-or-two-a-day-and-a-dozen-on-weekends murder spree that earned “Killadelphia” its rap as an urban abattoir came to what everybody hopes was its guns-blazing peak, leaving 406 people dead. Another 392 were murdered in 2007. By way of comparison, Phoenix, which recently overtook Philadelphia as the nation’s fifth-largest city, had 238 murders in 2006. San Antonio, a city nearly Philadelphia’s size and sharing many of its economic challenges, had 119 murders. It’s clearly not all about poverty: Miami, America’s poorest major city, saw 79 homicides in all of 2006. In March 2006, more Americans died violently on the streets of Philadelphia than died fighting in Iraq—and March wasn’t the city’s worst month of that year.
That Iraq comparison isn’t made casually. In an August 2007 Washington Post article titled “The War in West Philadelphia,” surgeon John P. Pryor described his experience this way: “In the swirl of screams and moving figures, my mind drifted to my recent experience in Iraq as an Army surgeon. There we dealt regularly with ‘mascals,’ or mass-casualty situations. In Iraq, ironically, I found myself drawing on my experience as a civilian trauma surgeon each time mascals would overrun the combat hospital. As nine or ten patients from a firefight rolled in, I sometimes caught myself saying ‘just like another Friday night in West Philadelphia.’”
For the tourist, it must be hard to believe that all this mayhem is happening in the city where schoolchildren go to see the Liberty Bell and Carpenters’ Hall. Center City, as Philadelphia’s core is called, is vibrant, diverse, affluent, and full of cafés and theaters. Ten-year property-tax abatements encouraged a boom of condo conversions, and new skyscrapers transformed the city’s skyline. Ed Rendell, now governor, made attracting new business and investment to Center City the cornerstone of his mayoralty, and he still enjoys the reputation of a minor divinity in the city. But there was a hollowness to Rendell’s achievement: Those skyscrapers became home to floors and floors of vacant or underutilized real estate. Awage tax of over 4 percent continued to drive the middle class out of the city and into the suburbs. Small and independent entrepreneurs, when they’re not being milked by union thugs, are suffocated under an expensive and complex tax regime. Rendell left Philadelphia with some of the worst public schools in the country, so incompetently run that the state had to take them over in 2001. And Rendell’s final kick in the shins was leaving this mess in the hands of America’s least competent mayor, John Street, who succeeded him in 2000.
A FAILED CITY GOVERNMENT
The worst of Philadelphia’s murder rampage roughly corresponds with the Street years, and it is not difficult to see why. Street’s administration was a crime spree in its own right. Though the mayor was never charged with a crime, his inner circle kept prosecutors busy: The city treasurer was sentenced to 10 years in prison on a 27-count federal corruption indictment and took a couple of bankers down with him, and the mayor’s consigliere died before facing trial on similar charges. Aprominent Muslim leader close to Street was convicted of using his political influence to win financial favors, while the mayor’s brother, a hot-dog vendor with no relevant experience to speak of (and fronting a company with no employees), was offered a no-bid, million-dollar contract to provide services at the city’s airport.
Politics constantly hobbles the ability of the city’s capable police department to address crime. One illustrative episode involves the shooting of a 16-year-old student outside of Strawberry Mansion High School in West Philadelphia. The head of the school district went to the mayor pleading for more police patrols during the immediate after-school hours, which are the most dangerous time of day for students. But the proposal was scotched by Sandra Dungee Glenn, an African- American school-board member and former chief of staff to Rep. Chaka Fattah. Glenn argued that deploying extra police in the area would send the wrong message to students and make them feel “that we need to be armed against them.” Mayor Street chimed in that he wouldn’t trust “a cop with a Glock” in the schools. So black leaders, along with Philadelphia’s black mayor and its black police chief, directed its heavily black police force to leave black students vulnerable to black criminals, for reasons of racial politics. Sandra Dungee Glenn was subsequently named chair of the School Reform Commission. That’s Philly.
The problem is that Sandra Dungee Glenn was right. Black neighborhoods in Philadelphia would feel under siege if they received the police attention they desperately need. As one Philadelphia cop put it, “I can solve crime in these neighborhoods tomorrow. You put a cop on every street corner. But the neighborhoods will complain and the city won’t pay for it.”
THE PARANOID STYLE IN AFRICAN-AMERICAN POLITICS
The careers of mediocrities such as John Street and Sandra Dungee Glenn have been made possible by what might be called “the paranoid style in African-American politics,” the elevation of racial loyalty over citizenship. The hogwash proffered by Barack Obama’s mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright—AIDS is a government plot to kill African-Americans, the CIA peddles crack—is pretty mild compared to political discourse in black Philadelphia. Before the 2004 election, one black newspaper warned its readers to flee the city because President Bush was planning to suppress the inner-city vote . . . with nuclear weapons. This paranoid style is deeply embedded in the race-based politics of Philadelphia, and the police catch the worst of it.
“We have an avid hate for the police,” says Michelle Green, a black woman working an overnight shift near the Convention Center. “Black police officers have taken on the role of overseers,” she says, smiling at the whip-cracking plantation metaphor. “They are haters of their own race.” This attitude is not isolated. “Stop Snitchin’” T-shirts, advertising a philosophy that threatens death to those who cooperate with police—“Snitches get stitches, and get found in ditches”— are a hot item at street kiosks. A former prosecutor reports seeing a woman who planned to give a statement in the murder of her son being physically dragged out of a police car by her neighbors.
But it is precisely in the black neighborhoods that the police are most needed. Nine of Philadelphia’s 25 police districts, mostly in black neighborhoods, account for two-thirds of the city’s homicides. African-Americans represent about 85 percent of the homicide victims and a similar proportion of the killers. None of this is lost on Judge Jeffrey Minehart. He was the first judge to preside over the city’s special “gun court”; he now spends almost all of his time hearing Philadelphia homicide cases. On the day of our interview he happens to be hearing the case of a convicted drug dealer charged with gun possession. The defendant is acting as his own attorney and he’s no Perry Mason. He has to be physically prompted to stand when the judge enters the room. But he’s cut a deal: two to four years in lockup and two years of probation. He’ll probably do the time in boot camp, and that time will probably be closer to two years than to four. It’s a slap on the wrist, but everybody seems pleased with it, except the guilty party. He is disappointed that his sentencing is immediate: “Do we have to do it now?” he asks.
This guy isn’t the kind of armed felon who makes the news in Philadelphia. On the morning of Not-Perry-Mason’s trial, the papers were full of the hunt for all-star fugitive Eric DeShawn Floyd, an armed robber with 17 priors and an appreciation for SKS semiautomatic rifles, one of which he and his crew had just used to murder Philadelphia Police Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski in the aftermath of a botched bank robbery. Three men, disguised as burka-clad Muslim women, were involved in the heist. The Philadelphia Daily News carried an info-graphic describing the SKS with the headline: “Should This Gun Be Legal?” There was no Daily News headline asking why a felon with 17 entries on his rap sheet was walking abroad in Philadelphia. Should that be legal?
It’s a question that needs asking, but Philadelphia’s news media, clergy, and civic leaders won’t start that conversation. Two of the three Philadelphia police officers murdered over the past two years were killed by convicted criminals. Most cop-killers have criminal histories. But the Daily News, like the rest of official Philadelphia, has learned the hard way that it’s easier to blame remote lawmakers in Harrisburg or Washington than to take an honest look at Philadelphia’s criminal realities. In 2002 the Daily News ran a front page carrying mug shots of 14 fugitive murderers wanted in Philadelphia and ran pictures of 27 more inside. Two of the fugitives were apprehended soon after their pictures were published, but the newspaper quickly found itself the subject of boycotts and protests because all of the fugitives whose pictures were published were black, Hispanic, or Asian. The Daily News didn’t racially filter the photos: There simply weren’t any white murder fugitives wanted in Philadelphia at that time. But the paper was nonetheless accused of racism, and some of its own staffers joined in the festival of denunciation. In the end, the newspaper knuckled under and apologized for publishing the truth. Since then, the city’s newspapers, like the district attorney, the mayors, and most of official Philadelphia, have found it much safer to blame Philadelphia’s bloodshed on distant bogeymen in Congress and rednecks at the NRA. Did I mention that the city government isn’t the only failed institution in Philadelphia?
A CULTURE OF CHAOS
Judge Minehart, too, argues for better gun control, but he’s quick to admit that it wouldn’t have stopped Howard Cain from murdering Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski with a stolen gun. Asked if he’s ever seen a legally purchased firearm used in a crime, Judge Minehart looks surprised by the question. “For homicides, sure, though it’s pretty rare. Outside of that . . . not that I can think of. Practically none.” Which is to say, the gun-control laws already on the books are so poorly enforced, or unenforceable, that they are almost meaningless. This fact is not lost on Judge Minehart.
“Gun control is a piece of the puzzle, I think, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle,” the judge says. “Drugs are a piece of the puzzle, too, but people overestimate how much of this homicide is drug-related. Corner-fights and turf wars are probably about 30 percent. That’s a big piece, sure, but it’s not the largest. Astrong percentage of these crimes are angerrelated.” Minehart is no bleeding-heart liberal, but he believes that intelligently administered anger-management therapy can prevent murders. Guns don’t kill people—rage kills people.
Judge Minehart also argues that expanding the “gun court” he once presided over could help cut into the crime. Gun-court cases are handled separately from the generality of criminal cases. The probation officers’ caseloads are limited, and probationers are drug-tested twice a month. Philadelphia, a city of about 1.5 million, has some 50,000 people on probation. Outside of gun court, the typical Philadelphia probation officer has between 150 and 175 cases, making close monitoring impossible. If those probationers are drug-tested at all, it happens only once every six months.
But official Philadelphia cannot set intelligent priorities, and gun court is hobbled because the city cannot find an extra million or two in its bloated, patronage-packed $4 billion budget. Another program, Operation Safe Streets, put extra police officers on patrol in neighborhoods suffering the worst crime problems. But in true Philly style, the program was staffed through police overtime, which gets very expensive, instead of having its patrols built into regularly budgeted police duties.
The city’s new mayor, Michael Nutter, is something different for Philadelphia: a squeaky-clean technocrat with a kind of nerdy anti-charisma. He is more given to low-key problem-solving than to displays of inspiring oratory. He has already taken some baby steps to set a few things right, including pulling 250 police officers from less-pressing duties and putting them on patrol in high-crime areas. But it is far from clear that Nutter can do for Philadelphia what Rudy Giuliani did for New York. Nutter doesn’t enjoy the same sort of princely powers that a New York mayor can muster, and there isn’t going to be a stock-market boom to carpet Philadelphia with money the way Wall Street rained legal tender on Giuliani-era New York. Philadelphia still has a bull market in murder, and it is far from clear that any political reform can change the culture of a city that has simply come to accept Third World levels of disorder and corruption.
A couple of years ago, National Geographic called Philadelphia “America’s Next Great City.” That motto is already fading on the side of a building near City Hall. Is Philadelphia on the road to recovery, like post- Giuliani New York—or is its future more like Detroit’s? The indicators aren’t good: Established businesses are fleeing, and they’re being replaced by casinos, thanks to the efforts of Ed Rendell and John Street on behalf of the gambling lobby.
There is something strangely antique in Philadelphia’s politics— its old-timey union bosses and unapologetic patronage, its sweetheart contracts for the mayor’s brother. But what really makes an impression isn’t the governmental incompetence, but the blasé acceptance of quotidian chaos on a scale that wouldn’t be tolerated in New York, Atlanta, or Houston. Philly is what you get when you combine San Francisco crazy with Trenton’s economy. Exhibit A: The raving homeless guy nicknamed Screaming Man, who comes careering out of an alley into ritzy Rittenhouse Row, ranting that he has AIDS and threatening to bite passersby. He screams, threatens, howls, and generally makes an urban spectacle of himself as diners at the nearby sidewalk cafes nibble on $16 Gruyère cheeseburgers and drink espresso. He’s been doing this schtick for years and years, without risking intervention from authority of any kind or even really commanding the attention of the rich guys coming out of Holt’s Cigars, who just step around him as if he were dog droppings. He’s part of the local color, like incompetent mayors and Stop Snitchin’ T-shirts, like leaving schoolkids vulnerable to criminals so as not to “send the wrong message.” Philadelphia’s City Hall, perhaps America’s most beautiful municipal building, is crowned with a statue of William Penn. But it might as well be Eric DeShawn Floyd or John Street, Not-Perry-Mason or Screaming Man: This is their city.