By Linda K. Harris
More than 200 fired-up longshoremen, many carrying anti-casino placards, staged a protest Tuesday night at the Penn Praxis civic engagement meeting at Furness High School at Third and Mifflin Streets in South Philadelphia.
As the crowd gathered outside the school shortly after 6 p.m., there was relative calm while some stood in the street to draw attention from passing cars.
The placards carried messages such as “Casinos in our neighborhood! Worse urban design in Philadelphia history,” hoisted into the air by Jack Hatty of International Longshoremen’s Association, Local 1291.
Raymond Edwards of South Philadelphia carried the message: “Casinos pay to play?”
And there were plenty of others: “Casinos Take, Ports Pay.” “News Flash: Fumo runs port from prison, also runs from “Bubba,” “Hidden Agendas are our Motto,” “Roads for homes, Piers for Condos, Port Jobs.”
The outside demonstration delayed the start of the session as the protesters filed inside the school and signed in. Once they had reassembled, frustration and outrage flared.
The longshoremen and other casino opponents joined the several dozen people already gathered for the evening’s session intended to forge design principles for the seven miles of the Central Delaware River waterfront. The newcomers filled the school’s cafeteria and that’s when things got hot, and not just because the school furnace was cranking out excess heat.
Penn Praxis’ director Harris Steinberg began to introduce the purpose of the evening, but the crowd erupted.
“This process is a sham. C’mon!” shouted John Lafferty, business agent for ILA. “It’s all after the fact! They can’t bring up casinos, they can’t bring up traffic. We’ll partake in this process – we’re not here to disrupt. But let’s address the real issue: the impact these casinos will have on out jobs and our neighborhood. This organization [Praxis] has been skirting that since the beginning.”
“It’s time to take a stand,” another person shouted. “We’re here to make a stand.”
When Steinberg suggested that they could all participate in a fun exercise that would imagine the waterfront of the future, a shout from the crowd interrupted: “How’s that fun to lose your jobs?”
An angry Henry Lewandowski III, an attorney whose father and stepfather worked on the waterfront, displayed his outrage: “What you’re seeing today are the people you disrespected when you started this plan – now you’ve got them.”
While protesting outside, Lewandowski also expressed some cynicism. “My concern is this program is a sham. Every time we go to a Penn Praxis meeting, they refuse to acknowledge that casinos shut off the ability for future port expansion. It could expand fourfold, we know. This neighborhood was built on longtime port wages. I’m afraid this neighborhood will collapse without those wages.”
Steinberg assured the crowd that Penn Praxis was not working against their interests. “This visioning process is not about relocating the port,” he said.
Just as the meeting appeared to be cresting toward a disastrous tipping point, James H. Paylor Jr., ILA vice president and Boise Butler, president of ILA Local 1291, appeared on the scene. They had just returned from Harrisburg where they were lobbying against a proposed bond issue that would pay for improvements and construction along the waterfront, most of which had little benefit for the shipping industry and for them, they said.
Steinberg turned the microphone over to Paylor, and by then it was almost 7 p.m., an hour after the session was to have started.
Paylor, a tall, powerful man with a commanding voice, spoke for 20 minutes.
“The reason we’re late,” he started off, “is it took us half an hour to drive from Spring Garden to here – and that’s without the casinos.”
He moved quickly to defend the Penn Praxis process: “The people from Penn Praxis are not your enemy,” he said. “What they were told was move forward and don’t get tied up with the issue of casinos. But it’s impossible.”
“As I said back when this all started – to be apolitical in Philadelphia is an impossibility.”
He continued to address the crowd and their heated emotions.
“They have kicked a sleeping bear, which is you people,” Paylor said.
“There is no plan. The state doesn’t know what the city is doing and the city doesn’t know what the state is doing. To me, that’s anarchy.”
Harris Sokoloff, an expert in civic engagement with the Penn Graduate School of Education, later explained to the group that what Penn Praxis could do is present what the people want for the waterfront. It’s not enough to take them a list of things you don’t want, he said. “I want you to be able to tell them what you do want,” he said emphatically.
The issue for the longshoremen is the protection of at least 45,000 jobs and the chance to expand the port, creating more jobs, they say.
The casinos, along with a planned Food Distribution Center at the old Philadelphia Navy Yard, would stymie any port expansion, at a time, Paylor said, when Philadelphia has a chance to increase fourfold the amount of cargo arriving at the Port of Philadelphia.
“There’s zero return on the casinos,” Paylor said. “People are ignoring what’s in their best interest.”
So urgent was the issue to the longshoremen that Paylor and Butler called an emergency meeting Monday morning at 6:30 a.m. and about 300 people showed up. That’s where the Penn Praxis demonstration was organized.
A two-page manifesto handed out laid bare the intensity of their concerns. It began: “Your jobs, your way of life and your communities are under attack from corrupt politicians, corrupt State agencies and big money investors who promote public corruption for their own financial benefits at you and your family’s expense! You and your family members must get involved and fight for yourself. Right now, in the City of Philadelphia, a port City for over 300 years, a way of life is being sacrificed for the enrichment of a few well-connected individuals.”
Earlier this month, Paylor said, Gov. Rendell announced the plan for the $350 million bond issue. The Packer Avenue Marine Terminal would get $40 million for renovations and upgrades, $16 million for Tioga and $120 million for the paper product facility. But it’s the $80 to $100 million for the Food Distribution Center that most disturbs them.
The center would be built on more than 150 acres at the Philadelphia Naval Yard. That land is coveted by the shipping interests and longshoremen for port expansion, a move that is needed to keep the port competitive, the ILA maintains.
On February 12, the Philadelphia Marine Trade Association, which handles all labor and related issues at the port, and the ILA teamed up and sent a letter to the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, asking them not to act on the bond issue until they have a chance to present their case. The bond proposal was put aside until after March 2, when the two organizations will present their version of how waterfront investment should be handled.
“They agreed to hold off. We’re trying to do this in the proper way,” Paylor said.
Butler said the Food Distribution Center should be moved to another site because it isn’t related to the waterfront because all of its wares will arrive by trucks and trains.
“They can give us that land. The Produce Center doesn’t need to be on the water. Nothing we unload goes into the Produce Center,” he said.
“It’s not a whole lot of land,” Butler said. “Our consultants told us with the job growth in our industry, with that land we could grow 15,000 to 20,000 new jobs. We are so unique here in Philadelphia. We have three major railroads [with access to the port]. “There is nowhere on this North American continent that has that. Nowhere in North America has that, and we’re about to blow this opportunity? We’re about growing jobs, pension jobs, and jobs with health benefits.
“Everything we take off a ship creates jobs, no matter what we’re taking off,” Butler said.
Pat Sweeney of Old Kensington, who attended the meeting, can attest to that. Sweeney works in the accounting department of Inchcape Shipping Services, which offers a variety of marine services to ports. “There are a lot of peripheral things that make money from the shipping industry. I certainly don’t want to see it go under.”
Said Paylor: “Our mission here is to get somebody to listen and not give us just lip service. The Penn Praxis design is not going to hold up the process. They are victims just like our people. It’s a crime. Somebody’s got to stop what’s happening before we have 45,000 unemployed. The negative impact will start as soon as construction starts. We’re already having problems getting in and out.”
Paylor characterized the situation as life or death. If the port doesn’t grow, in three to five years, it could be gone. “Our plan includes all of the governor’s project, plus one that creates new job opportunities. It doesn’t inflict pain on any working family.”
One of the reasons the ILA and others who have businesses related to the waterfront want to see the port expanded and the river dredged to 45 feet, is the increased opportunity. West Coast ports became too crowded and shipping interests began to move toward the East Coast. In addition, many of the big-box discount stores like Wal-Mart and Target recently built regional distribution centers on the East Coast to cut down on trucking and land-based transportation of goods, according to World Trade Magazine (“The East Coast Port Alternatives, June 2005). That has translated into increased opportunity for places such as the Port of Philadelphia, but has also increased the competition with other East Coast ports such as Baltimore, New York and Savannah, Ga., and Jacksonville, Fla., among others, according to the article.
While the casinos promise to bring new jobs to the city, the ILA maintains that they are not family-supporting jobs. Their research shows that casino employees make about $28,000 a year while longshoremen jobs can pay as much as $57,000.
“If one person loses their job, it’s a crime,” Paylor said. “If 45,000 lose their jobs, it’s a holocaust.”
Terry Paylor who serves on the Whitman Council, a South Philadelphia civic association, said she had lived in the neighborhood for 48 years. She has handed out flyers and gathered signatures for petitions to stop the casinos. “I want to preserve this neighborhood for my grandchildren. It is a community. The casinos will totally destroy it,” she said.
Linda K. Harris is a former editor and writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer. She lives in South Philadelphia.