Wednesday, March 16, 2005

I don't understand these things

Philadelphia has branded itself as the "City of Brotherly Love" for hundreds of years. But this is an example of brand equity that's been lost. It's a promise that's as empty as "Clear Skies Act" or "Healthy Forests Initiative."

I returned late last night from five days in sunny, optimistic Austin, Texas. As the plane landed, I was less than enthusiastic about greeting the dirty, cold city that's my new hometown. Over dinner Eileen and I caught each other up on what had taken place in our lives while we were apart. She told me that in the time I was gone, more than a dozen people were murdered in Philadelphia, including a 9 year old boy who was shot while he was sitting in a relative's van outside a store.

This morning's Inquirer carried another installment about the explosion of violence, with footnotes about a couple more shootings that occurred last night. There was a story about how our mayor, John Street, is very alarmed and is going to seek some legislation that would make it harder to register guns. (He faces stiff opposition in the Republican-dominated state legislature.)

There was also a map of the city detailing where the killings have taken place. Usually I can take comfort when I see such maps, because they confirm that the neighborhoods I frequent are "safe." But this time I was chilled to see that the murders were spread out over the entire city, including two that were just blocks away. I thought once again of the young woman who was clubbed to death with a baseball bat this winter in front of the Whole Foods store on South Street. That's where I buy organic yogurt and free range chicken. I thought about my wife walking to work each day.

Other stories in the Inquirer today told about the trial of Philadelphia city officials who were wire-tapped by the FBI over the last couple of years and found to be spending most of their government "service" devising ways to line their own pockets through rigged contracts, inflated billings, ghost employees and other such goings-on. For weeks the paper has printed lurid transcripts of the mayor and his lieutenants making their backroom deals. In one Street talks to his point-man about selling seats in the city's suite at Lincoln Financial Field to the highest-bidding campaign contributors. This is the same mayor who wants to do something about all the violence. It's surprising he has enough time to worry about such things in between meeting with his lawyers and lobbying against the city council's proposed "ethics" reform law.

A little graft here and there wouldn't be so bad if Philadelphia wasn't broke. So broke that last summer the mayor closed swimming pools and recreation centers in many poor neighborhoods to save money. Thousands of kids suffered through the sweltering summer with no opportunity to play and exercise and cool off and engage in wholesome, structured activities. This in a place where the city treasurer routinely approves invoices from city suppliers like one for $89,000 worth of services that had been marked up to $300,000. In a place where the mayor's brother pocketed twenty-five cents for every soda sold at the airport for his company's services. A company with no employees.

None of these nincompoops see any connection between their greed and the death of that 9 year old boy last week.


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