Fighting blight in spartan times

by pkerkstra on May 3, 2011

It’s not what you could really call a comprehensive redevelopment plan, not yet, but for the first time since Mayor Nutter took office, his administration is developing a coherent plan for helping out some of Philadelphia’s neediest neighborhoods. It’s called Philly Rising, and it’s showing some real promise.

Until now, it’s been hard to discern what, exactly, the Nutter administration was doing to help out the city’s most-troubled blocks. Though some would surely say otherwise, the problem wasn’t lack of concern. City officials—including a lot of bright folks from Fels—spent a lot of time analyzing data and looking at maps (former Managing Director Camille Barnett is very fond of maps) that charted out all that ails Philadelphia’s most distressed neighborhoods.

Somehow, though, all that earnest analysis didn’t lead to many improvements on the ground. Then, a little over a year ago, at the suggestion of Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, the administration began trying something new.

The approach was modest—in budget (there is none, really) and scope (just five square blocks at a time)—but it was rooted in a novel concept. The city would first ask residents what the neighborhood needed, and then get them to commit to helping the city make the changes happen.

“We’re not coming in with a ton of money. I think the biggest change is we’re treating the people in these areas as partners rather than as clients of the city or service recipients,” said John Farrell, a deputy city managing director who is heading up Philly Rising.

There are a few challenges here. The first is in getting city departments and agencies—not all of which answer directly to Mayor Nutter—to participate. Another is convincing local residents and community groups, many of whom have little faith in the city, to buy in. In Hartranft, where Philly Rising got its start, those challenges largely seem to have been overcome. Violent crime in the neighborhood declined by 16 percent last year, far better than the rest of the police district.

The neighborhood also has a new computer lab, a reclaimed public pool (it was there all along, just not in use) and empty lots where once 14 crumbling, abandoned buildings stood, serving as havens for drug dealers.

The computer lab is a good example of how Philly Rising works. Farrell cadged the computers from Temple University, which was replacing the machines with newer models, and convinced the local elementary school to open a section of the building up at night to local adults trying to get their GEDs. Since the lab is staffed entirely by neighborhood volunteers, the community now has a significant new asset at virtually no cost to the public.

Make no mistake. NTI this is not. There will be no big bonds for acquiring and clearing vacant land, no major new departmental outlays. To date, it has been funded purely out of the existing budget, and Nutter has asked Council for just a half million more next year to expand the program.

Farrell is optimistic that the city can move the needle on crime and quality of life problems in a meaningful way with this approach. I wonder, though, if Philly Rising can really work on a larger scale. I get that city departments can give a little extra here and there to help out a few neighborhoods at a time without big new budget outlays. I’m skeptical it can be done in dozens of neighborhoods at once, without it showing up on the bottom line.

But I hope I’m wrong. And, at minimum, the effort looks like it has given some direction and renewed vigor to the Nutter administration’s neighborhood strategy.

(This originally appeared on PhillyPost)

Previous post:

Next post: