Running Philadelphia can look like a child's game. Rock, paper, scissors:

After landlord Richard Basciano hired a bankrupt contractor recommended by a formerly bankrupt architect to hire a marijuana-smoking ex-offender to knock down a building on Center City's main street, a few knowledgeable and conscientious citizens - an architect, bricklayers, people capable of recognizing knuckleheads at work and dangerous structural elements threatening collapse - did more than you or I or anyone else did: They called and asked City Hall to end the danger.

The city, some days later, visited, noted the minimal required paperwork was in order, and went away.

Because, of course, paper covers stone.

The wall fell, killing six people, including the daughter of the city treasurer.

Whom to blame? City officials started prosecuting, not the landlord, or the contractor, but the marijuana-smoking ex-offender who was their instrument. And they've launched some investigations.

Well, it's a start.

On the other hand, everyone in City Hall who is supposed to have a hand in keeping the citizens safe from bricks falling on our heads along the city's principal east-west thoroughfare in broad daylight remained in place, and supplying rational explanations for what happened.

There are a lot of public activities in Philadelphia that work this way - or fail to work this way. The public schools were forced to lay off more than 3,000 people last week. Girard College, despite years of creative investment by the same class of private money managers who have been unable to lift the city and state pension systems from chronic underfunding, is closing its boarding school. Nobody in charge seems to be moving on because of those failures.

In the Market Street collapse, there are plenty of people who will be pointing out, in the weeks and months ahead, that they warned City Hall something like this would happen.

The Wild West off-campus construction rush near Temple University, the expediter system that can speed job permits to raw would-be contractors, the financial contributions to political campaigns that can give City Council members an incentive to tolerate dangerous conditions - maybe some of these loose straps will get tightened a bit.

Here's the lessons for ordinary citizens:

If you see a wall you have reason to believe may be threatening to fall on civilians - sure, call City Hall - but don't stop there. Go to the people most closely concerned. Try telling the store manager: "There's knuckleheads at work next door. . . . You'd better shut down and get everyone out." (This is basic Boy Scout stuff, though our City Hall has paid lawyers to run the Boy Scouts out of town.)

Don't trust the loudmouths who blame "government regulation" for all the hiring American companies aren't doing. Sure, knuckleheaded enforcement pounds hard-pressed small business.

But regulation exists for good reason. People have gotten killed and maimed by careless builders, food suppliers, manufacturers, energy operators, and government projects, many times past. Cut basic regulation, make it easier for the marginally competent to knock things down over our heads, and people start dying again.

It will be a great day when the people we pay to face our collective problems can be rewarded for getting the job done, not just for doing the job. Until then, better keep looking up, and speaking up. That's better protection against stones - than just paper.


Related Report

Contractor was at the Market Street site, but did not see the excavator doing demolition work on the building before it collapsed, defense attorney says. B Section.

Contact Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194,, @PhillyJoeD.