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Despite Philadelphia’s glorious tree lighting, we are a city that is (literally and figuratively) in the dark | Helen Ubiñas

Seeing our local seat of city government bathed in colorful light made it almost possible to forget that Philadelphia is a city in the dark. Literally and figuratively.

Visitors watch the tree lighting ceremony at City Hall on Thursday.
Visitors watch the tree lighting ceremony at City Hall on Thursday.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia sure knows how to put on a show.

After the coronavirus forced last year’s tree-lighting ceremony to go virtual, hundreds of revelers — some even wearing masks! — gathered around the north side of City Hall on Thursday to take in the festivities, including a stirring rendition of “O Holy Night” by Aijee Evans. Evans is the street cellist I recently wrote about after some teens stole her tips and kinder-hearted citizens rallied around her.

At about 7:45 p.m. on the notably pleasant fall night, the countdown to the main event began. Seconds later the 45-foot, 40-year-old concolor fir that traveled to the city from a tree farm in Upstate New York glowed gloriously with nearly a mile of lights to appreciative cheers.

“O Christmas Tree!” indeed.

Seeing our beacon of local government bathed in light made it almost possible to forget that Philadelphia is actually a city in the dark.

Consider the literal darkness in which many Philadelphians currently live, as chronicled in an illuminating story this week by my colleagues Max Marin and Ryan Briggs about thousands of broken-streetlight complaints. Turns out a lot of Philly’s streets are darker than they’ve been in years because city officials allowed a streetlight-maintenance contract to lapse until months later they negotiated a new deal. Though, negotiate is way too generous a description. The “deal” they eventually struck was with the same contractor at more than triple the price, which means somebody skipped effective negotiation training.

But, see, even when those streetlights go on, we’ll still be in the dark. An Inquirer editorial this week called out the city for continuing to blindly battle gun violence without evaluating which strategies actually work.

If that criticism sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve been beating that drum for years. First in 2017, shortly after the launch of the city’s Office of Violence Prevention — created, I was told, to conduct precisely this kind of evaluation.

Then a year later, after the office added several well-paid, full-time employees but still hadn’t managed to complete that long-promised audit.

Then a year after that and after that, until here we are in a city that has recorded 500-plus homicides, a startling loss of life that we haven’t seen since the height of the crack-cocaine epidemic in 1990.

Knocking around in the dark leads to some bruising frustration — but don’t confuse that kind of righteous reaction with the tiresome temper tantrums unleashed by Mayor Kenney when called to answer, well, almost anything these days.

About what he might say to convicted labor leader John Dougherty and Councilmember Bobby Henon: “None of your business. How’s that?”

About the city reaching 500 homicides during a news conference: “I’ve been mayor for six years, I don’t remember getting all this attention to less than 300 …”

That is just utter nonsense, and it needs to stop.

It erases and insults the residents of this city who have long pushed Kenney and other public officials to do better by the people they were elected and are paid to serve. And by better, I don’t mean single-handedly ending gun violence. I mean showing residents the respect they deserve by not acting as if accountability is a pesky aggravation, by answering questions — especially ones you don’t like — and by applying equal urgency to all epidemics plaguing this city.

Residents like Jamal Johnson, a tireless city activist who waged a 26-day hunger strike earlier this year right outside City Hall to call attention to gun violence.

Johnson was at the tree lighting Thursday, though not for pleasure.

He was there with a small group of protesters who held antiviolence signs and weaved in and out of the crowd with a pointed message to the public officials inside City Hall.

“Don’t sit up there and think we’re going to let this go!” Johnson shouted into a bullhorn.

To the holiday revelers, many of whom tried their best to look past the protesters to the pretty lights, Johnson had another message.

“Don’t think this can’t happen to you.”