By Alan Jaffe
On the second level of the Pennsylvania Convention Center on Sunday, there was a regional gathering and competition of teenage cheerleaders.
On the first level, there was a convention of municipal cheerleaders – some 650 civic leaders, city representatives and residents who came to support new ideas for making Philadelphia better.
And leading the rally was Mayor-elect Michael Nutter, who brought the crowd to its feet in a moving appeal for Philadelphians to adopt “a more positive attitude about each other and the city” and to “lift our self-esteem.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer coordinated the Great Expectations Citizens Convention, the culmination of a year-long series of meetings among community and city leaders, neighborhood forums, and media coverage aimed at finding ways to cure the city’s ills and encourage its growth. The effort has been led by a longtime guiding force on the newspaper’s editorial page, Chris Satullo, who moderated Sunday’s program.
Over the past 12 months, Satullo said, the city-wide participation in the Great Expectations meetings has been “typical of what’s been happening around town in this election year. People are awake, eager, and finding their voice. This active love of the city is a beautiful thing to behold.”
The point of the Great Expectations campaign “is an invitation to Philadelphia, to you, to dream,” he said.
Introduced following A Prayer for Philadelphia, a film by Richard Power Hoffmann, Nutter, the keynote speaker at the one-day convention, picked up the theme, but he asked more of the audience. “We all share this dream for Philadelphia,” he said, “it’s a worthy dream. But quite honestly, it time for all of us to stop dreaming. It’s time for us to wake up.”
The city knows how to solve many of its problems, and there have been times when there was a lower crime rate, better schools, and more jobs, he said. Those problems can be surmounted again, Nutter said.
The mayor-elect said he had spent much of the summer on a “best practices tour” of other cities, learning how to create a green, sustainable urban environment, how to improve 911 service, and how to administer a public safety program, like New York’s, that will reduce the murder rate. “We need to get comfortable with thinking about how to do it better,” he said.
The city has entered “a unique moment in time,” Nutter continued, following an election that “stunned many of us.”
While most cities have four professional sports, Philadelphia has a fifth: politics, “a full contact sport that only adults can play,” Nutter said to applause and laughter. But this election proved to be about the issues, “and the media wrote about policy, not personality. People voted their conscience, not color,” he said, to more applause.
“Now, the real work begins,” said the mayor-elect, who listed some of the appointments he has already made and his priorities.
His first concern was public safety, and his first action was to name Washington’s Charles H. Ramsey as the city’s new police commissioner. But he said the city’s Home Rule Charter must be changed to give Ramsey the power to choose his own departmental leadership.
To reduce crime, Nutter said, the city also must make an investment in education. The state and the city need to change the funding formula of how much is spent on each student. Education investment is “intricately linked” to crime on the streets, he said.
Keeping his focus on young people, Nutter also called for increased intern and mentoring programs for students. He said he will ask businesses to take a leading role in such programs in the future.
He also addressed the need to provide jobs to young graduates, lower the tax burden on small businesses, improve city services, and provide more funding to the park system and to the arts.
“This is a great city – not the ‘next great city,’” Nutter insisted. “Let us raise our expectations.”
Turning to the issue of city corruption, he said, “we’ve been ethically challenged for a long time,” but the days of backroom deals are over. He noted that last week he appointed a new inspector general, a new member to the Board of Ethics, and created the new position of Chief Integrity Officer, which will be filled by a former U.S. Attorney. “There will be no reason to put any devices in the Mayor’s Office,” he said.
Nutter asked that the Great Expectations organizers issue a six-month or annual report card that holds the new mayor accountable for the issues raised in the program agenda.
“But this is not a one-way exchange. Democracy is a participatory process. It’s not enough to vote and pay taxes,” he said, and asked for “active engagement and involvement” of his audience.
He then offered his own list of expectations for the residents of Philadelphia.
He called on parents to be more attentive to their children; for neighbors to look out for each other; for young people to stay in school and be productive; for parents to make sure that they raise their children; for men to end domestic violence against women; for women to stop selling and abusing themselves; for citizens to stop shooting each other and police officers; for everyone to clean up and fix up their homes and neighborhoods; for the business community to assist in education funding; for companies to change hiring practices and give ex-offenders an opportunity; and for the media to report more than every murder and fire, and find a good story on a daily basis.
“We need a more positive attitude about each other and the city,” and to “lift our self-esteem,” Nutter urged the audience. “We are only limited by our self-imposed limitations. It really is a new day.”
The convention then broke up into small-group discussions of the 12 topics distilled from the civic engagement process over the past year. For the next three hours the participants discussed proposals on arts and culture; budget and taxes; city services; crime; education; environment; neighborhoods in flux; planning and zoning; poverty; reform and leadership; transportation, and knowledge economy, which takes full advantage of its campuses.
A discussion on how to cut crime in Philadelphia included two police officers — a retired officer from Florida, and a commanding officer in the city’s forensic science division. Both supported a number of measures proposed in the Great Expectations agenda.
Cindy Newman, a native Philadelphian who worked on the Palm Beach County police force before returning to her hometown, said the stop-and-frisk tactic, hotly debated in this city, was highly successful for many years in Florida. Parents were angered by the program when it was introduced 15 years ago, but “when schools became better places to go, the parents thanked us.”
Philadelphia Police Capt. Daniel Castro said the city should adopt stop-and-frisk, “but we have to do it right. We need community buy-in,” he emphasized, and to educate the public about how it is conducted.
Castro also supported the appointment of the new commissioner from Washington and Nutter’s call for a charter change. “Any new CEO needs his new team,” Castro said.
Naming a top cop from outside the department was also a smart move, Castro said. “It’s tough to change the culture of law enforcement, but sometimes you have to change it,” he said. “You have to send a strong message, and you need strong accountability. A guy from outside measures everybody with the same yardstick.”
In the planning and zoning sessions, residents from all over Philadelphia agreed the top priority should be creating a new comprehensive development plan and updated zoning code. Professionalism on boards that govern zoning and development is important, they said, but citizen participation and oversight is equally important.
And it’s important that the right professionals are chosen — those that have no chance of making a profit based on the decisions of the board they sit on.
“You’re not supposed to say yes [to an appointment] if you will have to recuse yourself from votes 50 percent of the time,” said Greg Pastore, president of Bella Vista Town Watch and a member of the Zoning Code Commission.
In other discussion groups, participants suggested adding or subtracting to the list of near-term actions and long-term efforts in the Great Expectations agenda. At a session on the environment, participants suggested that the city’s litter program include recommendations for better enforcement and education, and better access to trash cans.
They also took a view of the larger picture and recommended that the agenda include Philadelphia’s role in global climate change issues.
Arts and culture was a recent addition to the Great Expectations topics. Participants in those discussions focused on the need to expose young minds to the arts, through opportunities to work for organizations, attend performances and rehearsals for free, and learn and practice the arts in school.
They also suggested the expansion of cultural district designation in the city, including the Ben Franklin Parkway, and the reinstatement of an arts and culture officer in the city administration. They also supported the agenda’s proposal for a $60 million regional fund raised through taxes and corporate sources to keep arts groups alive.
Great Expectations’ next steps will be taken in coming weeks and months. A series of neighborhood forums, monitoring programs and follow-up forums will begin this week and continue through February. The program agenda will be refined and presented to the new mayor and City Council next year.
PlanPhilly writer Kellie Patrick Gates contributed to this article.
Alan Jaffe is a former Inquirer editor, Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org