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Agenda for renewal, overshadowed

On a bitterly cold morning last week, the 1300 block of North 23d Street seemed an unexceptional example of North Philadelphia's slow decline.

Just two rowhouses remained along the street's eastern walk, one sandwiched between a pair of abandoned shells, the other bookended by vacant lots. Bricks from one wreck's facade spilled onto the sidewalk; a second's shuttered windows rattled in the wind. Wrappers and other breeze-blown trash littered the lots.

It is difficult to imagine anyone taking credit for the scene.

John Street does. And decidedly should.

He came here eight years ago, at the wheel of a blue flatbed truck, in jeans, black sneakers and a baseball cap, to tow two abandoned cars from the block. It was the start of his signature campaign to clear decades of urban decay and ready Philadelphia's worst neighborhoods for an age of renewal.

As he is about to leave office tomorrow, there are signs of success, no matter how limited. The abandoned cars are still gone. Vacant lots remain, but they are neatly fenced, with trimmed grass and planted with a few young trees. If greater renewal is biding its time, it certainly seems possible - something unthinkable eight years ago.

"He brought housing back into North Philadelphia. He cleaned the lots, the streets. He made it worth living in North Philadelphia. The rest of them skipped over us and sold us out. But Street - he did all he could under the circumstances," Donald Craig, 74, said as he sat drinking coffee in the Boots Coin-Op Laundromat near the intersection of Ridge Avenue and 23d Street.

Drive a little more than a mile north and the urban view is still rough-edged.

This is where, in February 2004, 10-year-old Faheem Thomas-Childs was fatally shot while walking to school, caught in the crossfire of rival gangs. In the months and years that followed, murder became a more frequent visitor to many of the city's poorest corners. In 2006, the city had the most homicides in almost a decade.

Last week, Dawan Stratford, the 34-year-old owner of a cell-phone store on North Philadelphia's West Cambria Street, tried to be charitable when asked about the mayor's role.

"He tried to do something about crime, but, personally, I feel it got worse," he said.

As his time winds down as mayor, Street, 64, leaves a legacy that can be as mixed as the opinions offered by Craig and Stratford.

His second term was marred for a time by rising violence that seemed to tear at the fabric of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

Just last month, Street brought himself unfavorable reviews with his decision to collect $111,000 in raises he had deferred for three years.

And there was the Bug - the FBI investigation that led to the mayor's office and left an indelible stain on Street's reputation, even though he was not charged with any wrongdoing.

Yet while Street's anti-blight program has slowed to a crawl, its successes, no matter how small, are celebrated in the neighborhoods, where a fenced and seeded lot always trumps an abandoned building.

On his watch, the city's housing market soared, the population loss slowed, and the skyline changed with the addition of two office high-rises: the Cira Centre and the Comcast tower.

"It's hard to find any project that was completed during the time when John Street was mayor that he didn't have a big part in making a reality," said Comcast executive David L. Cohen, chief of staff under Street's predecessor, Ed Rendell.

Take the new stadiums for the Phillies and the Eagles. The facilities were partly Rendell's vision, but it fell to Street to seal the deal.

"In those closing days, he was there literally every minute, negotiating every detail," Eagles president Joe Banner said. "He persuaded us in terms of some of the things we had to give up in the parking agreement and some other areas. I don't think we would have had a deal if he had not been very personally and effectively involved."

If Street doesn't get his due on the stadiums and more, the blame, in part, is his own.

Throughout his tenure, the mayor remained steadfast in his belief that he did not have to crow about his achievements. The facts would speak for themselves. People would recognize his accomplishments without his having to point them out.

Consistent with that approach, Street declined an interview request for this article.

In his silence, Street left his story to be told by others, often his critics.

Street and the vision thing

Street's war on blight, the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, may have been his boldest undertaking in 28 years of public service.

He floated $296 million in bonds to pay for an urban housecleaning. Derelict buildings were demolished and lots were cleaned, many planted with fresh grass and given wooden fences. And, according to the Street administration, more than 289,000 abandoned cars were removed from the streets.

Street vowed to see 16,000 new homes built under his watch and 14,000 abandoned buildings razed.

He exceeded the housing target - about 21,000 market-rate and affordable units have been built or are in the works. Much of the affordable housing was built by the Philadelphia Housing Authority and is scattered in North Philadelphia, Southwest Philadelphia, East Falls and elsewhere. The market-rate units are concentrated in Center City, such as the 750 luxury condos and townhouses that make up the gated community on Grays Ferry Avenue known as Naval Square.

However, just 5,657 dangerous vacant buildings came down.

Walk the city's hardscrabble neighborhoods and it is easy to find believers in Street's efforts.

"There used to be broken bottles all over the place, but it got clean, and it's staying clean," Maria Gutierrez, 38, said of her neighborhood at Eighth Street and Indiana Avenue.

The reason, she said, is a big drop in drug activity and a boost in uniformed police officers, the result of Operation Safe Streets, another Street initiative.

"I used to walk out of my house and see lines of people waiting to buy drugs," Gutierrez said. "I feel much safer going home now, or going to the store."

That she feels safer is ironic given that the biggest knock against Street, at least in his second term, was the rise in violence in many neighbors.

The city's homicide total hit 406 in 2006, giving Philadelphia the highest rate among the nation's 10 largest cities.

The total was slightly lower in 2007 - 392 - but a change was difficult to discern given the repeated instances of dramatic, violent crimes, including the slaying of two armored-truck guards in the Northeast, an attempted drug-related assassination of three people on a Center City street, and the killing of Officer Chuck Cassidy during a robbery in October.

The rise in homicides stood in contrast to Street's first term, when the murder rate decreased for three years. In 2002, for instance, homicides dropped to their lowest total since 1985. They increased from 2003 to 2006, and a sense of helplessness grew.

Street's position was that violence was influenced by social, cultural and economic factors beyond a mayor's control. He put an emphasis on long-term approaches: teen curfew centers and after-school programs, an office to work with ex-offenders, and enhancements to programs that focus intensely on youths most likely to commit murder.

'We've made this city safer'

The latest crime statistics are more favorable. Total violent crime - homicides, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults - fell 8 percent last year. Shootings dropped 13 percent.

Street's spokesman, Joe Grace, said the mayor deserved credit for reversing the trend.

"There's still more to be done, but despite the perception, we believe we've made this city safer," he said.

Last week, 58-year-old Geraldine Emson gave Street the benefit of the doubt when it came to crime.

"As far as I'm concerned, he did his best," she said as she shopped for shoes on Cecil B. Moore Avenue west of Temple University. "It was not his fault that people are going cuckoo."

The same sentiment could be found in South Philadelphia.

"I don't think anybody can control the crime," David Jarmin, 84, said as he lunched inside the Melrose Diner.

Billy Smith, 56, was another booster.

"Street took care good care of the city," he said in the Boots Coin-Op Laundromat, "but they gave him a bad rap with that government probe. It wasn't fair."

Turning the tables on scandal

The reference, of course, was to the FBI investigation into the city's pay-to-play culture.

On Oct. 7, 2003, while Street was locked in an increasingly difficult reelection campaign, an FBI listening device was discovered in his City Hall office ceiling.

Street seized what to some was a scandal and made it an issue, portraying himself as the aggrieved target of a malicious smear orchestrated by no less than the Republican-run White House. He was reelected easily.

The investigation continued, however.

The FBI's chief targets included two Democratic fund-raisers from Street's inner circle: Ronald A. White, who was indicted on conspiracy, extortion and other charges but died before trial, and Leonard Ross, Street's former law partner, who is serving a two-year-plus sentence for corruption related to the development of Penn's Landing.

In all, the probe led to more than two dozen convictions. That number included only one city employee, Treasurer Corey Kemp, now serving a 10-year term for accepting bribes to steer work to White.

Street was not charged with a crime or ever named a target of the investigation.

The bug, however, fundamentally changed how he will be remembered.

"I certainly think the bug will be the first thing that comes to mind, just like the MOVE bombing is the first thing that comes to mind when Wilson Goode's time as mayor is discussed," said Zack Stalberg, editor of the Philadelphia Daily News for most of Street's tenure and now president of the Committee of Seventy, a government watchdog group.

The federal investigation "became shorthand for the ethical lapses of the Street years, and that overshadowed everything else," he added.

Overshadowed, and stifled, it would seem.

After his reelection, Street offered little in the way of major initiatives. He chose instead to reinforce the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative and other programs already under way, and keep at the work he was comfortable with and proud of: balancing the city's books.

"After the bug incident and series of indictments, the mayor, who is not the most outgoing person anyway, bunkered up and became more inaccessible," said G. Terry Madonna, professor of public affairs at Franklin and Marshall College. Consequently, "the second term was stillborn. The bug helped him get elected, but it didn't help him govern."

The mayor's defenders say this is a misperception.

"The media tried to make the probe a self-fulfilling prophecy," said George Burrell, a top political adviser to Street. "Show me a building that didn't get built. Show me a project that got stopped. Show me something that did not happen, something the Street administration did not achieve because of the probe."

A mayor hard to connect with

As much as the probe proved a distraction, the administration may have suffered as much or more - at least in image - because of something else entirely: Street's personality.

From start to finish, his time in office was replete with examples of politically tactless acts and remarks that seemed to highlight a disregard for public opinion.

In his first year as mayor, for instance, he famously ignored a paramedic stricken with hepatitis C, Mary Kohler, who slept outside his office as part of a labor battle for more sick leave for city firefighters. As TV cameras recorded Street walking by the frail woman without a glance or a nod, her celebrity grew and Street's stature dwindled.

Then there was his decision in June, in the midst of the city homicide crisis, to spend much of a working day waiting in line for the latest cell phone.

Business and political leaders complained that he could be difficult to deal with.

"They didn't like him, they didn't trust him, and they didn't support him. He was too much not like them," Cohen said of the business community.

Politically, Street paid a price, State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.) said.

"There are far more things he could have done," Evans said. "John Street thought he could do things himself. He didn't think he needed anybody."

At times, Street's personality seemed to overshadow his agenda.

"What people will really be talking about when they think of John Street is how remote he was, how tough it was for Philadelphians to connect to him," Stalberg said.

In that sense, he added, "he is a most unlikely politician."