It was fitting that some chuckles could be heard inside the Met Philadelphia on Monday when Mayor Jim Kenney made a surprise inaugural announcement: He’s instituting a citywide street sweeping program in his second term.
You heard that right — it’ll be in every neighborhood, Kenney said. “Which will even require folks to move their cars.”
This is what amounts to a laugh line in Philadelphia in 2020. Perhaps the audience was amused by the mayor’s tough-guy witticism. Or maybe we were laughing at ourselves. Because it is a joke that a city buried in trash has so long been denied a citywide street sweeping program. We are the only major city in America without one.
At a press gaggle afterward, the mayor doubled down. “If you don’t want to move your car — tough,” he proclaimed.
Even so, after the crowds dispersed, the mayor’s spokespeople clarified — or, dare we say, backtracked a little bit on — the line in the litter. As WHYY’s Jake Blumgart reported, Managing Director Brian Abernathy told reporters just hours after the inauguration that maybe not every neighborhood will have to make room for the brooms.
Could he possibly mean South Philly, where the aversion to moving the Buick verges on the pathological?
Some neighborhoods, Abernathy said, will continue to be subjected to the veritable Biblical dust plagues kicked up under the pilot street cleaning program. That’s how the city avoided moving cars by instead equipping brave souls with leaf blowers to push trash into the street, where it’s Hoovered up by mechanical sweepers.
This was a halfway decent solution, if you disregard considerable concern about how healthy it is to send decades of South Philly street crud spiraling into the air — and potentially our lungs. Not to mention the sheer noise. Still, at least the streets were getting cleaned. And people were getting put to work to do it.
And many people I talked to when I followed the crews around last year were excited about the result, if not the process. Some said — miracle of miracles — they would even consider moving their cars to make it easier.
Maybe this is the solution after all: Blast people with dust until they tap out and climb behind the wheel.
Abernathy says that in this city of neighborhoods, trash realities and challenges can change by the block. The city will phase it in fully by 2023 and use data from the pilot street sweeping program to decide what goes where. Fair. Fine. I’m with you. Just make it the best one possible for the neighborhood, and not a compromise built on our reticence.
But when your mayor says enough’s enough — that we’re finally, as a city, past the point of practically prohibiting clean streets — and then his staff says that maybe the status quo is OK in some neighborhoods, it’s a little less encouraging.
Not to mention that the mayor ran on this in 2015.
But that’s the reality in Philly: The prospect of a city liberated from trash is reserved for a mayor’s second term, when you don’t have to worry about reelection anymore.
I’ve supported the mayor’s street sweeping actions in this space, and on my own South Philly block, where I try to sweep up myself — until I hit a point where I’d need a pickax to break through the detritus, which comes sooner than you’d think.
And I support the street sweeping program now. It’s just that it’s hard not to be a little bit cynical when our journey to eliminate trash has been so, well, Philadelphian. Which sometimes means a strange solution to a straightforward problem, because we won’t change our ways.
I hope the mayor keeps talking tough on street cleaning. To his credit, it’s a pretty brave act for Jimmy from Cantrell Street, the land of parking wars, to push anybody to move their cars.
If, and when, he decides it’s time to finally move some cars in South Philadelphia, I hope he drives one of the tow trucks. After all, he’s a two-term mayor now. He’s got nothing to lose. And the city has everything to gain.