Beneath the mostly uplifting statistics — more jobs! more residents! more fun! — showcased in the latest State of Center City report, there’s a practical guide for Philadelphia neighborhoods. The report’s 74 pages offer a hard-won, data-rich blueprint for replicating Center City’s celebrated success in business districts, and community hubs citywide, and perhaps even lessening the contrast between downtown’s exciting skyline and Philly’s unenviable status as American’s poorest big city.
The trash-strewn streets, grimy sidewalks, and filthy public spaces that exemplified and amplified the declining quality of residential and commercial life downtown during the 1970s and ’80s made “Filthydelphia” famous but also helped inspire the creation of the Center City District in 1991. This business improvement district, which produced the report with its partner, the Central Philadelphia Development Corporation, has not only cleaned up the downtown core but has kept it clean.
The report’s uplifting statistics include survey results suggesting that Center City is widely seen as far tidier than anywhere else in Philadelphia; one need not be a statistician to grasp that the perception essentially matches a reality that runs deeper than aesthetics alone. Increases in private investment, population, tourism, and development of all sorts have followed all that cleaning, greening, and improvement on downtown streetscapes, in parks, and in old and new public spaces of all sorts. Without this ambitious, if imperfect, transformation of the public realm, Center City’s renaissance might not have happened when it did. Or at all.
Philly neighborhoods don’t possess the resources or the private and institutional wealth of Center City and University City — where a special services district was established in the late 1990s. But much of the rest of the city does struggle with the sort of litter problems that once signified downtown’s decline.
Substantial neighborhood business districts and smaller community commercial hubs can study the track records and use the data developed during more than two decades of experience in Center City and University City. The neighborhoods also can benefit from good timing: City Hall is working to improve trash collection and is even experimenting with restoration of street sweeping, a once standard feature of city life that had inexplicably been allowed to wither.
Center City and to a lesser extent University City are sometimes caricatured as unique preserves where capitalist, intellectual, and cultural wealth have made possible a level of quality-of-life improvements other parts of Philadelphia can only dream about.
But it would be a fallacy to buy into the notion that neighborhoods have to be rich to be clean or thriving. The CCD has done a few things very well: imposed an unwavering will to improve, held themselves accountable by capturing and analyzing data on their performance, and most of all, deemed the district worthy of effort and improvement. It’s not that Center City is clean and shiny because it’s rich. It’s become richer as it grew cleaner and shinier. That’s an important lesson in a city scarred by neighborhoods with devastating poverty — and with litter, trash, and filth. There’s a lesson there for those responsible for those neighborhoods, including the mayor and District Councilmembers.