Philadelphia


From the global to the local, in no particular order…

  • For those who can read a bit of French, Radio France Internationale’s round-up of West African media reaction to the death of Gabon’s President Omar Bongo is fascinating. (I also have a piece in The Times that includes interviews with a couple of SA-based analysts about Gabon’s post-Bongo future.)
  • Ken Saro-Wiwa, Jr writes in The Guardian about his recently settled case against Shell Oil in Nigeria.
  • Chris Blattman has a much friendlier take on Douglas Foster’s Zuma piece than I did a couple weeks ago.
  • Philadelphia Daily News blogger Will Bunch takes on the Philly news establishment, and has some wise, if unkind words that are applicable to all newspapers in this day and age. Newspapers should focus on “forging new connections with the communities, more open to citizen journalists and forging ties with local bloggers, rethinking the whole purpose of print.” Philadelphia is a city with a vibrant online, informal, citizen journalist / blogger scene. On the other hand, the ineptitude of the print newspaper situation killed the notion of the viability of daily print-based newspapers in my mind. My current attitude towards the medium? Fun and a highly enjoyable throwback, but ultimately near-useless.
  • And, for fun, what the hell is happening to the hangouts of my youth?!?!

When people talk about citizen democracy it often seems like a utopian pipe dream. Any realist should know will never be possible if you want a semblance of order in a given society, the argument goes. Philadelphia is currently testing some of the boundaries of what might and might not work insofar as hearing the voice of the people in what are increasingly desperate economic circumstances.

The city’s mayor, Michael Nutter, announced a round of emergency budget cuts, which affected the fire department and library services on November 6, two days after the election of Barack Obama. He faced an immediate outcry against these two cuts in particular and ended up trudging before eight town hall meetings to take a beating from citizens expressing their displeasure with his proposals.

I attended one of  these meetings in the Mayfair section of Northeast Philadelphia. I was not impressed with Nutter’s performance, as I thought it reflected a paternalistic attitude that seemed to be characterizing much of his approach towards dealing with the crisis. I would sum up his — as well as his administration’s — attitude like this: “You don’t understand how hard this is. Yeah we’ll let you scream at us and then we’ll do whatever we want. Stupid citizens.”

Other commentators seemed to get a similar vibe and the administration has tried to put forward a more substantive image with regards to citizen involvement in crafting a new series of town hall meetings. We’ve now had three of the four meetings. I attended the first, in another section of Northeast Philadelphia. Reported estimates seemed to settle on about 500 people having attended the meeting. They were broken into a number of small groups of about 20 people each plus two moderators. You can read a good rundown of what each group decided, along with some choice quotes from the groups at It’s Our City’s report (WHYY is a co-organizer of the four workshops). Each group received pieces of paper with a supposedly exhaustive list of all the options available to cut, and then groups got to making the cuts Though the groups varied, on average they made about 50 percent of the necessary cuts.

Some question whether all the choices are on the table. Still, I think the biggest question mark is not just about the government’s willingness to listen to citizens, but the bigger zeitgeist that these meetings could represent. Is this just paying lip service to citizen democracy? Or are we facing a situation where the citizens are stepping in to make important decisions where politicians are stymied by both incompetence and the gravity of the situation at hand?

One thing I worry about is how both the government and observers perceive these meetings. It’s one thing to say, “Look how hard this is, citizens can only cut half of the budget in 1.5 hour meetings.” I would say that shows how easy it is. Give the people another 1.5 hours and you’ll be done with your problem.

Okay, realistically speaking it’s not that easy, but I think the people have demonstrated an ability to deal with this that is, in many ways, far more mature and transparent than anything we’ve seen from city officials. Let’s remember that when things get too bad for the politicians to handle, the people have successfully taken things into their own hands before. Check out the example of the “piqueteros” in Argentina during their recent economic crisis to get an idea of where we could  be headed if things continue like they are.

Originally published on WHYY’s It’s Our City blog:

Following the money

by Ben Bradlow, WHYY Online

There is a lot of money coming out of the federal government these days. Yesterday, Barack Obama signed a bill authorizing a historically large chunk of this money with the new federal stimulus package.

Let’s admit our self-interest here. We want to know what this bill means for the city of Philadelphia.  When – and where – are we going to see the money?

Shortly after President Barack Obama’s election, Mayor Michael Nutter led a committee of mayors from across the country to submit a list of shovel-ready projects in American cities that could receive federal stimulus funds.  Still, it has long been clear that state governments would be receiving most of the funds.  Alan Berube, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, said that this is due to distinct Washington, DC political realities.

“The mayors were up against a couple things. One is just interest group politics in Washington and that transportation has often been dominated by less urban interests, people like the road builders,” he said. “They also faced the obstacle that the purpose of this bill was to spend money quickly. The bias in the bill was to put money into existing programs, not creating new ones.” …

Read the rest here.

Originally posted on WHYY”s It’s Our City blog:

by Ben Bradlow, WHYY Online

When Italian immigrants arrived in Philadelphia, they made South Philadelphia their home. So it should come as no surprise that over the last ten years the streets of the storied area of the city have been populated by a new immigrant population: Mexicans.  They come primarily from the central Mexican province of Puebla.

At Max de la Cruz’s new dress shop, which he opened only three months ago,  de la Cruz sees an opportunity to make money by catering to growing family life in the community.

“A lot more children are being born here,” he said. “[My store] allows people to bring their customs here so they don’t forget their home, Mexico.”

This means selling the ornate dresses and suits commonly worn at important family functions like baptisms, quinceañeras, and weddings.

According to Peter Bloom, the leader of the primary community group for Mexicans in Philadelphia, JUNTOS / Casa de Los Soles, what started out as a migration of single men evolved to include whole families.  At the same time others who originally came as single have laid down roots here.

“When you talk to people they’re not here to settle, but the amount of time they’re going to be here is much longer. Now it’s ‘I’m going to stay here until my kids finish high school.’ And their kids are only five years old.  So that’s going to be another thirteen years.  I think that started happening about four years ago,” he said.

Even as the Mexican community has begun to transport its cultural life to South Philadelphia, a faltering economy poses a threat.  Shop owner De la Cruz said that his new business is still on shaky ground after experiencing low sales numbers during Christmas.  Domenic Vitiello, an urban studies professor at University of Pennsylvania warned that such hardship could be a sign of things to come.

“The dress stores, the music stores, the sporting goods stores – I suspect that those will have a harder time in economic times like these,” he said.

Maximino Sandoval, a community activist, said that he worries about cuts in work hours and days for many Mexican laborers.  Still, as more families become established, workers like Sandoval may be here for the long haul.

“There are people like me who have to stay here because of our children. It’s not even about living well or eating well,” said Sandoval, “it’s about our children, for their education and their school.  So we have to tolerate the conditions here.”

Find more here.

While transferring at City Hall station this evening a guy I’ve never noticed before stands on the El platform next to a bucket of single pink and red roses. “A new day in America,” he repeats as a sales pitch, his eyes darting around for someone who might like to bring home a flower to a loved one.

Originally published in Swarthmore’s Bulletin magazine:

“A Change Is Gonna Come”

An Obama campaigner shares the jubilation of his candidate’s victory.

By Benjamin Bradlow ’08
obama_1.jpg

Barack Obama

When I found myself in Barack Obama’s campaign field office in South Philadelphia on Election Day—where I had worked for the past month—I couldn’t help feeling somewhat surprised to be there. For almost the entirety of my awareness of politics, I had been alienated from my government, estranged from my country, and unsure of my generation. That night, campaign workers cried, screamed, and high-fived their way through the office and into the dancing multitudes on Philadelphia’s Broad Street, a block away from our office.

I felt the empowerment of my youth. I screamed, hugged, and danced in the streets of this struggling, emotional city, with friends and with strangers, black and white. This was my country, shorn of the shackles of our parents, of our teachers, of our former leaders. After years of feeling that the Bush administration was just one constant attempt to hoodwink the country and the world, I could begin to consider that maybe we had pulled the ultimate trump card in what had previously been just a high stakes game of political frivolity.

Soon after I had started at the South Philadelphia office, in early October, reports emerged that John McCain would be making his last stand in Pennsylvania, hoping to chip away at Obama’s support in heavily populated Philadelphia by targeting white, working-class neighborhoods in Northeast and South Philadelphia. Obama visited four areas of the city during my first weekend working for the campaign. His last stop was at 52nd Street in West Philadelphia, long a key shopping avenue for the city’s historic African American community. The crowd overflowed at least two blocks beyond the designated area for the rally. Old ladies cried; crowds chanted, “Yes we can”; and street hawkers entertained by contorting the candidate’s name as they shouted into bullhorns, “Obamaobamaobamaobama!” It was both moving and fitting that his last stop in Philadelphia would be to this area of the city, which surely had never before been the focus of a presidential campaign. Still, this was all he would offer as help in our fight in the biggest battleground city of the election.

We were left with our “bodies on the doors” strategy, to use the vaguely dehumanizing, gung-ho language of the campaign field staff. So I went to the doors in the wards where Hillary Clinton had rung up large margins—up to 50 percent—in her primary challenge to Obama earlier in the year. These wards were full of the white, working-class voters who, we had been told, would never vote for a black man. My pleas were sometimes met by aggressive, racist ripostes. “It’s been the White House for 200 years, and I don’t want it to become the Black House,” one man with a thick foreign accent told me, somehow laying claim to an imagined legacy that was clearly an adopted one for him.

A father playing with his children at a playground in South Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza predicted, “If he gets in, he’s going to bring Sharpton, Jackson, and Farrakhan with him.”

But more often than not, and, it seemed, as the economic picture became increasingly bleak, I heard tales of lost jobs, financial insecurity, and a desire among Republicans and Democrats alike to vote for the person “who cares about me.” The stories fit right into the Obama pitches I had seen in TV ads and speeches, and I began to adopt some of his rhetoric in selling his candidacy when I spoke to voters: “John McCain wants to double down on the failed Bush policies of the last eight years.” “Obama is working for you.” “We can’t afford John McCain.”

More and more South Philadelphians seemed to agree as the weeks went by. But the campaign fight in the area was going to go down to the bitter end. One undecided old lady, skeptical of Obama’s experience, couldn’t help but note, “The young people really seem to like him.” “That’s why I’m here,” I almost replied.

We had to convince the people who had heard all about how Barack Obama was not like them that he actually was. This occasionally became a tougher proposition than I had bargained for. In late October, I made a call to a woman in a predominantly African American area of South Philadelphia. I stuck to the script. “Can we count on your support for Barack Obama this Election Day?”

“Yes, but I never hear him talking about us,” she said. “It’s always ‘the middle class.’ Well I’m definitely not the middle class. When is somebody going to talk about the working poor?”

All I could say to this woman, as I listened to the cries of her young children in the background, was, “You’re right.”

A black woman was unsure of Obama despite his being black, and white people were doubtful because he was black. Some were hopeful despite their fears of being let down, while others were afraid to hope. And I was beginning to regain my own political inspiration — “to drink the Obama kool-aid,” as my younger brother liked to joke — as I watched this inner battle playing out with voters across South Philadelphia.

As the last days of the campaign piled up, I received an e-mail from my mother encouraging me to keep working hard so that we could all celebrate on Election Day. She signed off as “the original Obamamama.” I shook my head in wonder at her motherly idiosyncrasies. I thought of what this election meant to her and my father, white South Africans who emigrated in the late 1970s and were now planning on moving back to their home country.

In my house, growing up, there was always one political hero: Nelson Mandela. By the time Mandela was actually on the ballot in South Africa, my parents had lived in the United States for more than 25 years, had become citizens, and had voted in many American elections. On Nov. 4, it struck me. They had left a country that, among its many injustices, denied the possibility of a black man for president in a majority black country. Today, they would cast their first vote for a black chief executive not in South Africa, but in the United States, a country with its own fraught history of racism. As I made my way through that day, I thought about when they would vote. Maybe they would see it as their election, just as much as I saw it as mine.

The street celebrations of Obama’s victory seemed to belong to the young and racially diverse crowd that gathered that night. I felt one with this crowd and our victory. The next morning, I realized an even more profound truth. This election belonged to everyone. At Greater Mount Olive A.M.E. Church, where I had coordinated volunteer canvassers in the days leading up to Election Day, older members of the African American church laid their claim to the victory, drawing the lineage of King and Kennedy to Obama. White and black of all ages were smiling at each other on the public bus I took back to the campaign office to begin cleaning up. This was not just my election. This election belonged to my parents. It was the election of the tired old lady in South Philadelphia worried about her dwindling retirement money and skyrocketing pharmaceutical bills. It belonged to African Americans across the country waiting on Martin Luther King’s dream.

I took it as my own as well. I ran into a friend in the streets near the campaign office that day, and all we could do was hug and talk about our hopes for the future. Barack Obama was our next president. We had inspired and become inspired along the way. Such optimism was out there in broad daylight for everyone to see and feel.

I scoured the Internet throughout the day for reactions from around the world, waiting to see what Mandela, and my family’s number two hero, the Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work against apartheid, would say. The first time I cried during the entire election season was when I read of their public joy at this momentous occasion.

A few days later, my parents forwarded me a private e-mail a family friend had received from Tutu. On Election Night, Barack Obama recalled the soul singer Sam Cooke’s powerful “A Change Is Gonna Come” when he told America and the world that “change has come.” And in his message, Tutu—that voice I had always admired that combined wisdom, justice, old age, and youthful exuberance all in one—articulated in his response what every single one of us was feeling at that moment: “Yippee!”

If anybody arrives to this site from the link the editors put at the end of the article, welcome!

Originally appeared on WHYY’s It’s Our City blog:

Amid the hum of skateboard wheels against the concrete of Love Park, about 30 gay activists gathered in the frigid cold on Saturday evening. As one opposite-sex couple tentatively made their way through “We Shall Overcome” and “If I Had a Hammer,” others joined in, quickly becoming confident in the spirit of the song though many remained unsure of the words.

“Sometimes people have to be prodded into action, but once they are, really we’re an unstoppable force,” said Katherine Morris, age 18, from Prospect Park, Penn.

She was one of the first to arrive at the Light Up The Night vigil, which was held in conjunction with similar events all around the country. The program was under the umbrella of a new gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender activist organization called Join the Impact, which has had a raised profile in the wake of California’s vote to ban gay marriage in approving Proposition 8 on November 4.

..

Read, watch  and listen to the rest here.

Originally published on WHYY’s It’s Our City blog:

President-elect Barack Obama is already under the spotlight as he tries to cope with the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. But walk by any curbside clothing stand in Philadelphia and you are likely to see one positive economic benefit from an Obama presidency that hasn’t even begun yet. The Obama image is dominating the street fashion world and some clothes sellers are hoping to take full advantage for as long as the trend lasts…

View the audio slideshow here.

Originally appeared on WHYY’s It’s Our City blog:

I attended my first of the Mayor Michael Nutter’s town hall meetings about his planned budget cuts last night. There’s been a lot of discussion about the evolving stagecraft of the town hall meetings. It was a welcome innovation to have the relevant department heads speak in addition to the mayor, and Nutter was relatively mobile throughout the gymnasium. City officials are distributing forms asking people to say what they view as the city services to be prioritized in the budget, and they’ve already started publishing the results. Still, this meeting seemed stuck between two different political goals: explaining the cuts and seeking input from the public…

Read the rest here.

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Also, Swarthmore – unprompted by me! – linked to my video piece about a casino development in Philadelphia. You can find that here.

I’ll be back to actually blogging at this site in the next day or two.

(Just in the interest of consolidating everything in one place, this and the next post are actually almost a week old, but new here.)

Originally published on WHYY’s Sixth Square blog:

Give yourself a couple of days to digest your Thanksgiving feast, and then stave off the work week after a four day holiday by treating yourself to El Guincho at the Barbary on Sunday evening. The Spanish artist is a cross between an unusually eclectic DJ and general party provocateur. It took a long time for his international debut album, Alegranza! (which means “happiness” in Spanish), to get released in the US, but it finally made it here this fall after burning up Europe all summer…

Read the rest here.

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