Secede? The idea is faint, but not yet dead

Posted: November 17, 2004

For years, it seemed that Northeast residents had stolen - and slightly modified - the refrain of the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield: "We don't get no respect, no respect at all."

We pay taxes, residents would gripe, and for what? The money goes to Center City/North Philadelphia/Anywhere But Here. Our trash collection is substandard, the police are too busy in other parts of Philadelphia to respond to our complaints, and don't even ask us about getting snow removed.

Things got so bad that, in the 1980s, the Northeast Secession Movement was born.

Under a Senate bill sponsored by then-State Sen. Frank Salvatore, the city would be severed at Frankford and Tacony Creeks, the northern piece possibly renamed "Liberty County." Although one poll showed Northeast residents favored the idea by a 4-1 margin, the legislation quietly faded away by the late 1990s.

And how do residents feel now?

Depends on whom you ask.

"We don't get anything for the amount of taxes we pay," said Steve Danilla, a Torresdale resident whose family moved to Northeast in the 1940s. "Unless you gave Mayor Street a road map, I don't think he'd know his way up here."

Perched on a stool next to Danilla's at the Country Club Restaurant, Wes Carver politely disagreed.

"I can't complain. The mayor's not my favorite person, but they're taking care of things," said Carver, 78, of Burholme. "They're a little slow on some stuff, like street repairs, but it's OK."

Perhaps geography contributes to that "second-class citizen" feeling. Al Taubenberger, president of the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, notes that people in Main Line suburbs like Bala Cynwyd are physically closer to City Hall than folks living in neighborhoods like Somerton.

"This feeling of being removed affects people's thinking," said Taubenberger, who grew up in Burholme and now lives in Fox Chase. "They're so far out, sometimes they don't connect well with Philadelphia."

The city is trying to connect with them, officials say. The public transportation system is better, with added bus routes. Garbage collection - "institutionally disorganized" in the 1980s, according to City Councilman Brian J. O'Neill - now runs fairly smoothly. Snow removal, too, is "leaps and bounds over what it used to be," said O'Neill, who represents the 10th District.

"There's a good quality of life [in the Northeast] that appeals to a lot of people," O'Neill said.

There's room for improvement. Police services in Northeast are occasionally lacking, O'Neill said. Roosevelt Boulevard is an accident-strewn driver's nightmare.

Residents and local politicians were angered by the Street administration's recent proposal to close the Northeast Services Center on Roosevelt Boulevard, known as the mini-City Hall, as well as another city service center.

"I think most people in Northeast Philadelphia rarely, if ever, go into Center City; that's why the mini-City Hall is important and when [residents] see something like the proposal to remove it, the 'second-class citizen' idea is reinforced," Taubenberger said.

Northeast's political leaders - including O'Neill, City Councilman at-large Jack Kelly, State House Speaker John M. Perzel and State Rep. George T. Kenney Jr. - have made it clear they're against the building's closing.

And that could make a difference. One thing that has helped is the growing power of politicians from this pocket of the city. O'Neill has been on the job since 1979. Kelly is the only at-large member from the Northeast. Sixth District Councilwoman Joan L. Krajewski, whose area includes Port Richmond and communities along the Delaware River, chairs the powerful Appropriations Committee and her Community Life Improvement Program - CLIP - is only in the Northeast.

"That doesn't happen overnight," O'Neill said of the area's growing political power. "The more seniority you have, the more you know. You still have to fight, but you're getting better results."

On the state level, Mayfair's Perzel is often called the most powerful politician in Harrisburg after Gov. Rendell. His home district is now poised to get a new recreation center - John Perzel Community Center - at Battersby and St. Vincent Streets. Ground was broken a few weeks ago and the center is scheduled to open in summer 2005.

In years past, "we weren't getting a fair shake at City Hall. The neighborhoods weren't getting recognized," said Scott Cummings, president of the Mayfair Civic Association. "John Perzel has really taken a grip of the Northeast and stepped up as a leader."

Contact staff writer Natalie Pompilio at 215-854-2813 or npompilio@phillynews.com.

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