History Lessens

(October 2013)

Philadelphia is more than a year from its next mayoral election, but discussions about the city's next mayor and the legacy of the current mayor are already well underway. With, with a little perspective, it is clear that Philadelphia will little note nor long remember the struggle for power that will consume our civic conversations surrounding the coming election.  The decisions that will truly inform Philadelphia's future will likely receive nowhere near the scrutiny they should.  

It is certain that the stakes of the 2015 election will be described as significant -- the most important election in our generation; the turning point in our city's history -- in the months ahead.  Candidates and their supporters will cast the election as a mythical contest pitting good versus evil and tell us that our fate hangs in the balance.


As part of a project looking at the development of Philadelphia government over the past four centuries, I have spent a lot of time with my nose in city history books. It is evident that what we agonize over today will merit but a footnote in future retellings and that even the most powerful of today’s figures will soon be forgotten by tomorrow's citizens.

Think not?

Remember the popular Philadelphia politician who helped save city from brink of bankruptcy while bringing to public office a can-do spirit that propelled him to the Governor's office and had supporters clamoring to bring him back as Mayor when he returned from his years in Harrisburg?  Surely you recall Robert E. Pattison.  The good Governor's name graces a city street, but few Philadelphians know why.

What about the first mayor of his ethnicity, who came to power with great promise but proved to be an ineffective politician and had his administration set back by the repercussions from a tragic explosion and fire that leveled a city block?  Certainly you remember Morton McMichael?  Mayor McMichael merited a school in his name but his marks on our civic history are faded.

How about the mayor who overcame a notable investigation into corruption in his administration to focus his operations on safe streets and finalize a stadium deal in south Philly? Mayor W. Freeland Kendrick has a recreation center named for him but no other hold on our collective memory.

Power ebbs and flows quickly with the pace of civic history and power struggles are quickly forgotten.  What endures?  Plans and physical development inform the future while taxes turn out to not only be as certain as death, but as enduring as well.  Debates surrounding such matters do not generate nearly as much attention as do the passion plays to occupy the mayor's office.

The expanse of Fairmount Park defines neighborhoods across Philadelphia a century and a half after it was established and the Market-Frankford El continues to inform development and commerce after a century (even if you still can't get to Heaven on it).  The Wage Tax was implemented as a "temporary" tax – in 1939, but seems likely to be guiding location decisions by firms and families in 2039 and beyond.  The recent "temporary" increases to the Real Estate Tax and Sales Tax are similarly here to stay and will drive economic decision into the future.

Of course, those impacts should make some intuitive sense.  The built environment has a permanence that legislative decisions lack.  A tax has broad and sweeping reach while a deal to lure a new employer has next to no impact on the city's larger economy.  

So as Mayor Nutter considers his legacy, he should consider that he will be remembered (or forgotten) much more for how his mayoralty affects Philadelphia's physical environment and that even the most well-considered policy shift will not have the impact of a tax change.  For all his words or deeds, Mayor Nutter's most lasting (and memorable) actions might include the creation of the Race Street Pier and the initiative to base real estate taxation on the actual value of city properties. Maybe the next generation will decide that's worth putting his name on a plaza.

Collectively, Philadelphia will invest a good deal of money, time, and faith in selecting a new Mayor in 2015 but the campaign will be settled over relatively minor differences about power, policy, and political influence.  There will be sound and fury, but history demonstrates that next to nothing from the contest will be significant over time.

In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare noted that "the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones."  So it is with Philadelphia mayors.  The names Nutter, Street, and Rendell will soon be as little recognized as Lamberton, Connell, and Wilson.

One Philadelphia favorite son who’s good has been remembered long after his penny-littered internment counseled, "If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worthy reading, or do things worth the writing."

Mayors -- and mayoral wanna-bes -- let's hear how you will make lasting change.  Show us what you will build or develop.  Tell us how you will change the taxes we all confront.  Make plans that will stir our blood. Or, quite literally, you'll be history.