jennifer's blog

My favorite/least favorite topic: the promise and pitfalls of the contemporary Democratic party

I've been all tied in knots about the party I want to see emerge and the DLC-influenced centrist one that I fear is sticking around. It's the "Clinton referendum" question, the worry that Obama's hope-and-unity just means more unproductive compromise. And all this at a time when the Republican discourse is kind of insane (one odd tax proposal after another, somehow following Bin Laden to the gates of Hell and shooting him there) and Paul Krugman has convincingly argued for a new constructive embrace of partisan-ism.

Anyway, this Thursday, Glenn Hurowitz is reading from his just-published book, Fear and Courage in the Democratic Party, at Robin's Bookstore.

The canned summary:

Coming just in time for election season, Fear and Courage in the Democratic Party chronicles the extraordinary stories of five politicians and activists: three "progressive heroes" who exhibited rare political courage - and through it found unexpected political success, and two "spineless weasels" who embraced The Politics of Fear and rode it to ultimate failure.

The book reveals how Senator Paul Wellstone used his courage to overcome a quirky personality, an occasionally hysterical style and, most of all, an ideology considerably to the left of his constituents, eventually becoming a national hero.

It tells the dramatic story of how the same foundations and corporations that engineered the right-wing takeover of the Republican Party used junk political science to move Democrats to the right as well. Hurowitz shows how the legacy of Bill Clinton, widely proclaimed his generation's greatest political talent, will actually burden the Democratic Party and the progressive movement for decades to come.

A work of astounding insight, Fear and Courage in the Democratic Party promises to transform political discourse in 2008.

Given how some people feel about Paul Wellstone around here, I thought maybe some of you would like to come out.

Robin's Bookstore, 108 S. 13th Street (13th and Sansom)
Thursday, January 17 at 6 pm

New day, new way indeed: we now have a David Auspitz-less zoning board

The king of zoning has given back his crown.

From the Inquirer:

David Auspitz has resigned as chairman of the city Zoning Board of Adjustment after nearly five years in the job.

Auspitz, a board member for 10 years, said yesterday that he submitted his resignation Dec. 17 and officially left the board Monday.

Mayor Nutter, who had criticized Auspitz's stewardship, is expected to name a replacement soon.

This opens space for a real shift in the balance of power between the ZBA and the city planning department. With an ongoing wholesale redrafting of the zoning code, the new administration is entering with something close to a blank slate.

The old day and old way is pretty familiar. Mandatory central air systems and near-autocracy:

While chairman, he was known to offer his opinions on development, parking garages, architectural design, and even his favorite foods. He also could dress down a powerful zoning lawyer or a civic-association volunteer or crack jokes.

Nutter once compared the board's proceedings to television's Judge Judy show.

Dan and I saw this in action. The room was Mr. Auspitz's domain, and everyone else was a supplicant. The planning department was both literally and effectively sidelined.

We have a chance for a much more efficient and transparent system. So it is crucial that the zoning redrafting process effectively balance interests. Keep an eye on planphilly.com for chances to participate, learn, and weigh in.

So much hope and expectation has been laid on this new administration; everyone wants this to finally be the city we know it can be. But here's literally a chance to create a framework for good development and to change the way things get built.

See ya, old way.

One mayoral appointment I am particularly excited by

Michael Nutter has named a director of the Office of Research, Planning, and Policy: Wendell Pritchett, of the University of Pennsylvania Law School (so yeah, he had to deal with me and Dan in class).

During the primary campaign, I questioned--um, speaking delicately--Michael Nutter's emphasis on declaring a state of emergency, and wondered whether his commitment to tax cuts would limit him from really addressing the poverty and inequality that persists across many Philadelphia neighborhoods (as the recent Urban League Study glaringly showed).

But among the things that I did like and respect, the greatest were Nutter's positions on housing, community development, and city planning. I have quoted Nutter maybe twenty times now on the need for assertive and visionary city planning. His papers on zoning and planning reform and housing and community development are really pitch-perfect. I complain a lot (I am Jewish, it is my real birthright), but I have no complaints about the policies outlined in those papers. They include reworking the tax abatement so that it fosters development of affordable housing and development targeted to areas still needing revitalization; unifying related agencies; and creating a land bank for vacant property. The policies are attentive to the need to balance gentrification with neighborhood preservation. If we do half of what they propose, the landscape of housing and development in this city would be both more efficient and much fairer.

The man who was central to developing those policies was Wendell Pritchett. Professor Pritchett is a great academic and an expert on land use and fair housing law. More than that, though, he brings an engagement with progressive public policy. That means turning a critical eye towards how law and policy have served to reinforce poverty and segregation, and having a vision of how they could instead ameliorate it.

One of the most striking parts of the recent Daily News assessment of NTI was that NTI bond dollars were being used to substitute for missing federal money:

Over the years, NTI morphed into a dizzying array of programs. Demolition and acquisition activities remain the anchors, but there also are home-loan and repair programs, a retaining-wall program, programs to work with the issues of homelessness and predatory lending, and support for commercial corridors.

Many of these activities were pre-existing programs in city government, all financed by federal tax dollars. Trouble was, those dollars started to disappear, particularly after the Iraq war began.

Kevin Hanna, the city's housing secretary, said NTI bond money was used to "backfill" many of these existing programs.

Without the bond money, Smith said, many housing programs would have been cut in half. But even with the inflow of new NTI money, "we were basically treading water."

NTI was ambitious and it was unfinished, and that bond money is slated to run out in July. As the discussion around the recent "Inclusionary Housing" bill has shown (here and here) there is great need, made even starker by the lack of federal dollars for housing and urban redevelopment. But we are entering this new administration with someone who understands the problems and has knowledge and experience to bring to bear. Congratulations, Professor Pritchett, and thank you for taking the job.

Dear Inquirer, I take it back

So you have a suburban readership. Today you started an article series that takes that fact and uses it for good. Shows your readers some serious institutional inequity in their own counties, and for good measure, tells us and our new mayor that Philadelphia has some lessons here too.

I was pretty mean about your dumb columns, like the one about the woman who moved to the suburbs and was finally happy, and the insultingly thin coverage of violent crime and the neighborhoods and people it affects.

You're not all bad after all.

Love,
Jennifer

The article, "Suburban Cops, Tough Tactics", takes a long hard look at the penchant for area cops to take on zero-tolerance policies that they enforce mainly in heavily-black areas. Pottstown, Darby, and Coatesville all have or had arrest rates for minor, nuisance-type crimes that way outpace the averages for other cities across the nation.

The laws they use to make the arrests are mostly vague, almost certainly unconsitutional anti-loitering ordinances. And the police doing the arrests are overwhelmingly white.

The Inquirer convened local and national experts to review the laws and arrests. There are revealing and useful graphs here. There is a lot of rich information that I sincerely hope leads to political and legal pressure and policy change.

But the Inquirer also turns the heat on Philadelphia. This article is the first measured look by a local media outlet at the sort of easy criminology-speak rhetoric that got bandied about during the mayoral primary and is invoked in columns all the time. It takes aim at those who claim the "broken windows" theory is some self-evident truth.

What the article has given us a window into is the effect of zero-tolerance, broken-windows-theory influenced policing. Well, the effect: a ton of low-level drug and other nonviolent arrests, and bad or very inconclusive numbers on the more serious crimes that the theory says should be dropping. Broken windows fixes the broken windows, and arrests a bunch of people who really shouldn't be in the system in the process.

(It's not that there is no truth to the theory. Broken windows are signs of deeper decay. But that decay cannot be reversed just through ramped-up policing tactics. It evidences real social breakdown that needs rehab grants for the decayed houses with the broken windows, among a host of other interventions.)

Granted, the suburbs are a cautionary tale. Most generously, the polices examined here seem clumsily applied. More realistically, there is direct and submerged racism at work. Well designed policing programs in the city, including a policy not to prosecute low-level drug possession charges that are the product of stop and frisk, will help. But the Inquirer raises some serious questions about how we go about cracking down on violent crime under the new mayoral administration, and to its great credit, it asks those questions directly to the mayor and to us.

Today it is snowing, and two days ago Harrisburg Democrats voted to kill a bill to help poor people keep their heat

Twenty-four Democratic and Republican legislators in Harrisburg apparently think that early December is a great time to vote to kill a bill to help make sure everyone has access to utilities, including heat. The vote was 24 to 5.

Access to utilities is a basic, fundamental need. That's why in the 1970s, legal services lawyers across the country argued that people have constitutional due process rights related to their utility service. Courts agreed. You have rights in gas and electric and water service, including the right to adequate notice of termination.

However, Pennsylvania legislators were concerned that utility customers were 'gaming the system' and getting utilities that they weren't paying for. They passed Act 201 in 2004 to fix that, and make ultility termination easier when poor people fall behind on their bills. Since the act passed, "Pennsylvania has seen a 38% rise in annual residential service terminations and a 39% rise in homes using potentially unsafe heating sources in winter."

A new bill has been proposed, HB 824, which would "remedy oppressive security deposits for utilities, ease fees for reconnection, create requirements that low-income families be informed of supportive programs and grants, increase payment agreement time frames, among other safe and humane changes." Check out details of the bill here.

It was voted down in committee two days ago, with many Democrats joining the Republicans in the majority. Here's their rationale, as reported by David DeKok of the Patriot News:

Chairman Joseph Preston, D-Allegheny, prime sponsor of the bill, blamed "industry lobbying" for the defection of Democrats on the bill. He vowed to start over in January and come up with a new bill to reform Chapter 14.

Among Democrats opposing bill was Rep. Ron Buxton, whose district is composed of Harrisburg and Steelton. Buxton said he voted "no" because "I was convinced that there were enough safeguards in place." He also said legislators hadn't had enough time to digest the many changes H.B. 824 would have made in Chapter 14 because many of them didn't attend the one hearing on the bill held in Pittsburgh in October.

He said a chart showing the income levels of people who qualify for assistance was passed out by Republicans this morning. "We need to get the word out to people that programs are available to assist them with their energy bills," he said.

Minority chairman Robert W. Godshall, R-Montgomery, who urged the bill's defeat, said the committee needs to look out for the interests of all of Pennsylvania "rather than a special case here and there."

There's a letter you can sign in support of HB 824, as well as information about who to contact to show your support, in another blog entry of mine. Tell your Democratic legislators that access to utilities is something that benefits all Pennsylvanians. Restrictive legislation supported by industrial lobbying groups is not.

TONIGHT: "Crime on Our Minds: a Conversation between Politicians, Academics, Police, and the Community at Large"

Tonight, at Temple University, the "Next American City" magazine is putting on a panel discussion. M. Kay Harris (Temple University Professor of Social Work), Jerry Ratcliffe (Temple University Professor of Criminal Justice), John Phillips Yah-Ya Shabazz (Director of Alternative Disciplinary Program), and, yes, maybe even the much-romanticized John Timoney will all speak. Michael Nutter, Charles Ramsey, Chakah Fattah, Vince Fumo, and Allyson Schwartz may all appear as well. That's some group.

<3 <3 <3

Suddenly and surprisingly, I am back in Bucks County, cooking everything except turkey and pecan pie (one I don't eat, and the other, well, I am much too scattered to bake anything properly) for my mom and my grandmom.

I hate it up here, and every time I come I get all bratty and wonder why my family all had to move out of the city to a place where you have to drive everywhere and another farm turns into a Toll Brothers house or a Wegmans every year. (I wonder this aloud.) And I get sad that most of my family is all spread apart, and because I know that as soon as my absurdly Jewish-thrifty grandmother sees the piles of food I made for three people she will make me feel really guilty. Lovingly though. She has mastered the perfect love-guilt mix.

But I am so massively thankful to be here cooking for them.

And I want to tell all of you how thankful I am for you too.

I am lucky that I know Dan and Ray, who are great, and who inspire me over and over by how much they know, and how sensitively they have thought through all their positions. And lucky that they created and foster this space. Even without my normal dramatic overstatement, I can say that meeting them and finding this website--and all of you--has made my life better.

So I am thankful for being able to be totally dorky over policy and politics, for learning tons of new things, and for Sam's cheerleading, which sometimes is over the top enough to shake even me out of my despair at, uh, the whole of modern late-capitalist American society.

I guess comment if you are all sappy too.

Ramsey's in, Johnson's out (Updated)

(Update from Dan): Everyone should check this out.

Nutter announced our new police chief today at the 51st and Chestnut YMCA: Charles Ramsey, the former head of police in Washington DC.

From philly.com:

Mayor-elect Michael Nutter today named former Washington police chief Charles H. Ramsey as his pick for police commissioner, citing Ramsey's "presence, record and passion" as key assets that he said will "turn the city around and bring about a new day in Philadelphia."

With nearly four decades of police experience, Ramsey comes to Philadelphia about a year after stepping down as the Washington police chief, a position he held from 1998 through 2006.

Nutter made the much-anticipated announcement at the YMCA at 51st Street and Chestnut Street, one of the city's most violent neighborhoods.

Among the criteria he was searching for, the mayor-elect said he wanted someone with a "proven crime-fighting record in a big, urban police department."

Ramsey, who left as the top cop in the nation's capital in January, when new Washington mayor Adrian M. Fenty took office, oversaw a significant drop in crime during his tenure.

He oversaw a 3,900-member police force; Philadelphia has about 6,600 officers.

Last month, Ramsey was a finalist for Baltimore's top police job, but the position went to a veteran of that city's department.

What do you think?

City Council to Consider Flawed Inclusionary Zoning Bill TOMMORROW!

There is an inclusionary zoning bill that, if passed, would put Philadelphia at the forefront of cities in making sure that average city residents benefit from all that high-end development cropping up everywhere. Inclusionary zoning mandates that some portion of new construction over a certain size contains affordable units, or allows "in lieu" contribution to a fund that will build that affordable housing and provide other crucial services. This bill was drafted with the accumulated wisdom of our own Community Legal Services lawyers, and with the knowledge of leading national experts.

This great inclusionary zoning bill, which Philadelphia greatly needs, is NOT the one that City Council will be voting on tomorrow.

The bill before City Council, drafted by Councilman Darrell Clarke and put up for last-minute vote before Mayor Street leaves office, looks like an inclusionary zoning bill. However, the affordable housing that it would mandate is not affordable to the average Philadelphian. Councilman Clarke's bill only requires that developers build units that would be affordable to people making between 80% and 150% of the median income for Philadelphia. That works out to $57,000 to $104,000 per year in income. Most Philadelphia families do not come close to even the low end of that spectrum. (Click here for a comparison of the two bills.)

We have the chance to pass a model bill in the new year, with a new mayor and a revived City Council. It is crucial that we get Councilman Clarke's bill voted down tomorrow, so we do not squander that opportunity.

As the mayor elect has said (and I've quoted twice this week): "We no longer need to chase growth; now we need to guide it." True words. We need to stop settling for less than we deserve. Come to City Hall room 400 tomorrow at 9:45 am. Testify why each Philadephian deserves the chance to buy a house he or she can afford. Tell City Council we will wait for the right bill.

The Grandest of Grand Plans

As of today, over 900 people have registered for the "presentation of a civic vision for the central Delaware riverfront" Wednesday at the Convention Center.

The presentation comes at a pivotal point: after a year of an amazing design process, detailed charmingly and fascinatingly by Matt Blanchard here, and just as the city gets ready to welcome an exciting new mayor.

That mayor, Michael Nutter, spoke starkly during the primary of the need for Philadelphia to finally re-embrace large-scale civic planning. He said he intended to "re-establish the Planning Commission as the nation’s preeminent city planning agency," and used the sort of sweeping and inspiring language that marks Penn Praxis's plan.

"We plan in order to protect our future as well as our past."
-- Michael Nutter

The whole process of developing the plan to be presented Wednesday for our shared waterfront has been inspiring: resolutely participatory, and fueled by immense local as well as national talent. It is a good model for the future as we move into the exciting time of a new administration that has been laden with so much hope and expectation that it can reverse the things that had seemed to fatally plague our city, the things we no longer want to accept: underperforming schools, inadequate transit, isolated and economically suffering neighborhoods, and unharnessed development.

The last, unharnessed development, is a good place to start. As our new mayor said:

"Recent Mayors of Philadelphia have pursued unrelated transactions rather than followed a plan. We no longer need to chase growth; now we need to guide it."
-- Michael Nutter

These are words Philadelphia needs to hear, and to which the government needs to be held. They are at the heart of the fight over the waterfront.

We should all go Wednesday and join in a celebration of the civic life of our city: civic participation and civic vision. You can register here. Go and stand in the old Philadelphia (the Convention Center) and see the new Philadelphia (an ambitious and democratically planned waterfront) made visible.

And we should seek not only to advocate for the Penn Praxis plan, which is in many ways OUR plan, but we should seek to continue the inspiring process of participation and collaboration that they sparked and apply it to the other areas where we want change.

This winter, who wants heat?

There's a letter of support below for PA House Bill 824. Please sign it. Bill 824 returns crucial due process and other protections that would help prevent unnecessary and unfair utility terminations to low-income people. These have increased substantially under a 2004 law.

It's about to be winter. Clearly time to act.

The new bill would: remedy oppressive security deposits for utilities, ease fees for reconnection, create requirements that low-income families be informed of supportive programs and grants, incrases payment agreement time frames, among other safe and humane changes.

The letter, and information about how to sign on, is below.

And they'd like to give us more 'hermetic waterfront towers'

One of the smartest and best aspects of the Penn Praxis plan for Philadelphia's waterfront is to extend the streets to the river. Extending the street grid extends the neighborhoods and just like that! you finally have a habitable waterfront. It may not be THAT simple, but once the steps are taken and the infrastructure for the extention of those streets is laid down, beautiful organic development will go wild.

But it seems that developers are making a bid to close off this realizable piece of Penn Praxis's ambitious vision. Michael Sklaroff of Ballard Spahr and the city Historical Commission wrote a letter to the city planning director, warning that laying down a normal street grid would be "a disastrous showstopper for waterfront development." And Craig Schelter, former city planner and consultant to area developers, wants the waterfront to remain cut off: "there are a lot of people coming in from the suburbs who don't want the rest of the world walking through their project."

The quotes are from a great piece by Inga Saffron where she decries this logic, references Penn's orginal street grid and its balance of healthy development and public use within a gorgeously livable streetscape, and invokes what is at stake--the lived experience of our city:

The Penn Praxis plan includes lots of pretty renderings, but keep in mind that those geometric grids of streets and blocks are what will make everything else work. Think of city streets as a corset, holding in check the sprawling tendencies of modern construction. Without the streets, developers will go wild with acre-size big-box stores, massive parking garages, and gated towers.

Penn Praxis started as tilting at windmills. They've built a huge network connecting experts and citizens, and opening spaces to learn and participate in the development process. So everyone, participate! This is really the time to speak up and push the new mayor and the new and old councilpeople and the appointed zoning reform board to start shaping this city for the people who live in it. It only gets more too late from here.

Exploring The Trap: On The Dark Side of El Vez, And The Well-Paid World of Once Well-Meaning Progressives

Hey, everyone should read this article by a great Philly journalist (Matt Blanchard), about a great Phillly writer (Daniel Brook).

Daniel's book, "The Trap"--which you should also read, you can borrow it from me once I've had the chance to pick it up from Robin's or Joe Fox--is about the huge pressures that push graduates away from civic and public service, and towards vastly more profitable corporate work. The problem is real (uh, speaking as a recent law school graduate), and the consequences to society are serious:

It wasn't always this way, Brook explains: "In 1970, someone starting at a big-city corporate law firm made just $2,000 more than a starting teacher in a big-city school. Today that salary gap is $100,000."

So when the under-30 crowd at El Vez decides to buy a house or educate their kids, the big-salary sellouts among them will drive up prices for real estate and private schools, Brook says, asserting that it's precisely this dynamic that has made middle-class life impossible in cities such as San Francisco and New York.

That $100,000 gap isn't just between big-city corporate lawyers and perpetually underpaid urban school teachers: it's between lawyers serving individual people without much resources, and lawyers serving those with money. The public service lawyers make close to what the school teachers do. Factoring in inflation, salaries for legal services lawyers here in Philadelphia (who serve the poorest city residents and make worlds of difference in the areas of predatory lending, mortgage foreclosures, family law, and so on) are less today then they were when Irv Ackelsberg started out.

Private sector salaries? $145,000 starting at the biggest firms here in town. Not that they keep young lawyers all that long (and not that that salary is incommensurate with the debt law school burdens you with). But the damage is done: the salaries are seductive, the gap is frightening, and you have whole classes of young lawyers spending their time learning the intricacies of skills that can only help companies make and keep more money, and absorbing the outlook that work requires.

Sigh. I can't wait to read the book and find out exactly who and what I should be mad at for all of this.

"Continual lockdowns and triple-celling": We have too many damn people in jail

David Rudovsky has been suing the city forever, trying to get an end put to the ridiculous prison overcrowding that results in three people being held in two-person cells and, because of the lack of adequate correctional staff, lockdowns 23 out of 24 hours a day.

A judge agreed in January all this is unconstitutional, and today the Inquirer's Robert Moran had a great rundown of the background to the overcrowding problem.

At base, the problem of overcrowding has two solutions: build new prison, or get rid of some of the prisoners. The article marshalls a lot of good evidence for the latter.

Some pretty important and startling facts. There is a record number of people in jail in Philadelphia:

On Aug. 6, the prison population hit 9,123, an all-time high that is more than double the average of 4,000 inmates held in the late 1980s.

It also exceeds by about 1,600 the number of inmates the city's six detention centers were designed to hold.

A disturbing, disgusting number of them are there because they simply can't afford to make bail. A Temple study found that nearly HALF of all city inmates are in prison for this reason. They haven't been convicted of anything at all yet, and a person with money in the exact same position would be out on the street, free.

I know that during my "tour" of the local prison system after being arrested at the 2000 Republican convention, the greatest shock (aside from the generosity of the women prisoners) was that we locked up pretrial inmates solely because they didn't have money for bail.

It's hot and I am at least a little lazy (yes, this is an open thread!)

These are some things I am thinking about. What about you?

1. The zoning code reform. Plan Philly just posted the first batch of bios and questionnaires; they are doing all the newly-named zoning commissioners.

Now I know John Westrum's marital status (separated!), that he's into the "next great city" lingo, and that he just wants community groups to tell them what to do ("give us a road map and we'll follow it").

I haven't gotten to read them all yet, so tell me if you see something interesting! Also, the Zoning Code Commission is meeting the morning of September 12, if you want to ask Mr. Westrum out in person.

2. The Sunday Times on Pennsylvania's toll and transit fight. They blurb "two Republican lawmakers" calling the toll plan "a shell game." Talking about the Times, last night about four of the top ten most-emailed articles were mortgage horror stories, including this disturbing profile of Countrywide's lending practices.

3. Beach reading. I'm reading a history of welfare rights organizing ("The Battle for Welfare Rights") and it is amazing. That picture on the cover is women activists taking over the Department of Health Education and Welfare and drafting resolutions from the desk of the commissioner calling for a guaranteed minimum income for all citizens and an end to the Vietnam War. It's also teaching me about the details and politics of Great Society programs, to get ready for what Sam says is going to be the next 1964, 2010. What are you all reading?

4. Canvassing. My friend Ed just wrote a great review of Dana Fisher's new book about the progressive canvass industry, "Activism, Inc," for Mobilization Journal.

There's a long funny discussion here, with a copy of the review, one very defensive and slightly brainwashed-sounding canvasser, and some links to critiques of various paid canvassing models.

The book is a pretty direct critique of the barely-anonymized PIRG group (it argues that this canvassing model is tied to the problems of the Democratic Party, since it is too detached and not enough tied to local groups or issues; this is "outsourced" activism). Thoughts?

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