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 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.”

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