Richardson Dilworth may only be known to many younger Philadelphians by the newly renovated Dilworth Park on the west side of City Hall. That's understandable, as the former mayor died in 1974.
But this towering political figure of the mid-20th century is worth learning about, and a good starting place is last year's biography, Richardson Dilworth: Last of the Bare-Knuckled Aristocrats, by venerable journalist Peter Binzen and his son Jonathan.
Though born to one of the great families of Pittsburgh, Dilworth became one of the leading progressive of his day. He could have avoided service in World War I, but enlisted in the Marines, nearly losing his arm in an artillery attack. Later, as an established lawyer and up-and-coming politicians in Philadelphia, he reenlisted at age 43 to fight in the Pacific during the Second World War. He won a Silver Star at Guadalcanal.
He'd apply the same fighting spirit at home, tearing down Philadelphia's corrupt Republican machine, along with Joseph Clark and others. Today's activists who are sick of the gross tribalism and ineptitude of the city's politics should note the time and organization that went into the progressives' revolt. Their efforts began in 1927, and it wasn't until 1951 that they decisively beat their foes. That year, Clark was elected mayor and Dilworth district attorney. Dilworth became mayor in '56, and served until his second unsuccessful run for governor in 1962.
Dilworth was a strong advocate for public transit, police reform, and city planning, as well as backing the redevelopment of Society Hill. He even built a home there, beating the rush back to Center City by a good four decades.
Once out of elective office, Dilworth further demonstrated his commitment to the city by leading the school board - even than an important but thankless job. That's when Peter Binzen first encountered Dilworth. Binzen, who will be 93 this year, was then a reporter for the Evening Bulletin.
"Dad got a close-up view of Dilworth and found him extremely compelling - he was a fascinating figure, a really charismatic guy," says Jonathan Binzen. "Dilworth was no shrinking violet and worked incredibly hard for Philadelphia. My dad admired his ideals and progressivism and pragmatism. [Dad] wants people to see that they had a politician they can really to be proud of."