Kevin Riordan: Coordinate law enforcement to protect Center City

Posted: August 02, 2011

I fell in love with Center City the first time I walked up Walnut Street.

Arriving in Philadelphia from Syracuse, N.Y., where the drab downtown emptied out after 5, I eagerly embraced my new city's cosmopolitan vitality. Three decades later, I still do.

But lately when I hop on the Speed Line at Westmont and head downtown, an unwelcome guest comes along for the ride.

Fear.

This feels like a confession of uncoolness, or an admission I've become comfortably suburban or, worse, hopelessly middle-age.

Which I can own.

What I can't accept is that my friends and I could be in danger after enjoying a great meal on 13th Street.

Or that I could be set upon by some young creep just because I'm a gray-haired guy standing on a busy sidewalk near Juniper and Walnut, as happened during the latest "flash mob."

I know very well that Philadelphia has never been Oz, and that being there, particularly in the evening, has always required a certain attentiveness.

I remember the mini-riots on Chestnut Street during the 1980s, that crack-crazed decade during which my car was broken into multiple times downtown.

In three decades of spending time and money in Center City, I've been verbally harassed once or twice and was spit upon by a drunk. Who was, I should add, driving at the time.

And 15 years ago a gang of six somehow made off with my ATM withdrawal.

Did I mention this occurred in broad daylight at 18th and Walnut, or that the oldest perpetrator was probably in fifth grade?

It was like being mugged by the Mouseketeers.

There's nothing remotely amusing about the "flash mob" attacks, of course, and the astonishing ages of those arrested.

Who, and where, are the parents of these apprentice thugs?

I'm less interested in answers to those questions than I am in posing another: Can Mayor Nutter, Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, and everyone else with a stake in this crisis protect Center City from the predators who threaten its future?

I believe the Nutter administration can, and I hope, will. The mayor announced Monday that he will unveil next week a "coordinated response" among law enforcement, youth services, and other agencies, as well as businesses and community groups.

Teenagers who seek to harm people are surely "troubled," as Nutter's preannouncement announcement says.

But criminals like those who beat and robbed a 33-year-old guy at 15th and Sansom on Friday also deserve to be prosecuted and punished. This the mayor also vows to do, which doesn't trouble me in the least.

We law-abiding adults, meanwhile, will consider whether to live, work, or shop downtown; whether to grab dinner before a show or a cup of coffee afterward; and whether it's worth being in Center City at all.

To abandon the heart of the great metropolis to a bunch of what used to be called juvenile delinquents would be an incalculable loss.

Only a handful of other big American cities possess the pungent mix and glitz of downtown Philadelphia, where all sorts of people create all sorts of economic and cultural energy.

Center City isn't some developer's facsimile of what a downtown used to be. It's the real thing, and it can surely be protected without putting a tank at Broad and Spruce, without trampling on the civil rights of teenagers, troubled or otherwise.

More cops? More cameras? More arrests?

A coordinated approach among law enforcement agencies?

Bring it.

Because when it comes to enjoying the richness of Center City, to participating in the metropolitan life that it offers - even to a visitor from New Jersey - the civil rights I'm most concerned about are my own.


Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at http://www.philly.com/blinq.

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