In ruins: How Philadelphia became the poorest big city in America

The city was a major shipbuilding center until the mid-20th century. Stevedores, like the one pictured with his family, loaded and unloaded ships.
The city was a major shipbuilding center until the mid-20th century. Stevedores, like the one pictured with his family, loaded and unloaded ships. (COURTESY OF THE LIBRARY COMPANY OF PHILADELPHIA)
Posted: May 14, 2014

THERE IS NO POVERTY OF WAYS to tell the story of how Philadelphia became the poorest big city in America.

You can tell it through images like the pictures that the photoblogger aptly named “RuinPorn” posted of the massive Budd Co. complex in Hunting Park. In the 1940s, it anchored the surrounding Hunting Park community with 7,000 well-paying jobs, but has sat mostly abandoned for a dozen years, an aging cathedral of shattered glass and stagnant water.

You can tell by stories like that of Tianna Gaines-Turner, 34, a Frankford woman who photographs and chronicles her struggles to escape food insecurity with her three children for the Witnesses to Hunger Project, and writes that "a lot of times I let my well-being go for them. But what good mother doesn't?"

Or you can tell it by the cold, hard numbers: that about 13 percent of Philadelphians - or nearly 200,000 people - live in deep poverty, meaning that a family of three makes less than $9,700 a year, which is 50 percent of the official poverty line. And the city's numbers have been moving in the wrong direction since the dawn of the 21st century.

In the 50th-anniversary year of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, entire ZIP codes in North or West Philadelphia have been mired so deeply in destitution - with high rates of unemployment and violent crime, overrun by the drug trade or prostitution - for so long that key civic leaders seem to have stopped talking about ideas to reduce poverty, let alone conquer it. (Mayor Nutter did create an office called "Shared Prosperity" last year out of the moribund Mayor's Office of Community Services, but hasn't produced anything beyond an initial report.)

Increasingly, the notions that held sway in LBJ's time - that government can help provide a safety net and offer an escape hatch through education or by promoting jobs - face opposition from those who say the poor are largely to blame for their plight.

Rebecca Vallas, who came to Philadelphia about five years ago to work with mostly poor clients for Community Legal Services, said she quickly discovered that being poor in Philadelphia is "hard work," that the people she worked with struggled to make ends meet with usurious payday lenders, often having to take three buses each way to attend a meeting or a job interview.

"Poor people are not only some of the most hardworking but also the most inventive and resourceful and smart people - because they can make something work without someone to fall back on, or being able to take the weekend off," said Vallas, who recently moved to Washington to lobby for Social Security disability benefits.

How did we get here? A big part of the story - although not the whole story, experts agree - is deindustrialization. With its prominence as America's founding city, its central port location and proximity to coal and other early resources, the great Industrial Revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries came to Philadelphia early . . . and left Philadelphia early. A huge source of employment in neighborhoods such as Kensington was the textile industry, which started moving to the cheaper labor in the American South and was decimated in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Other factories - Philadelphia was once nicknamed "The World's Workshop" because of its toolmaking - boarded up in the mid-20th century, although the impact was blunted for a time by massive military spending, especially at the Navy Yard in South Philly.

Thomas Sugrue, the University of Pennsylvania history professor whose works include Origins of the Urban Crisis, said that deeply entrenched residential segregation in Philadelphia - particularly its racial divide - solidified during the early years of "white flight" to the suburbs and worsened after the riots in North Philadelphia that happened 50 years ago this summer. That hampered the political clout of the city's poor.

"When people are concentrated, it's hard to generate the political will to respond to these problems," Sugrue said. "To the balance of voters, it becomes somebody else's responsibility, somebody else's problem . . . not their problem."

Judith Goode, professor of urban anthropology at Temple University, said that although a new generation of leaders - including Philadelphia's Ed Rendell - has brought a stronger focus to urban renewal since the 1990s, most of the programs have been aimed at tax breaks for developers and businesses luring upscale suburbanites to the central core. Efforts that would help poverty-stricken neighborhoods - luring back blue-collar employers coupled with job training, or improving public schools - got much less priority.

"Urban renewal hasn't worked in ways to help poor people," said Goode, who noted that the popular conservative idea for revitalization in the 1990s and 2000s - enterprise zones, including one centered on Philadelphia's American Street - brought some new facilities, but they largely didn't hire workers out of poverty. Other programs - like former Mayor John Street's abandoned-car and blight-removal effort after taking office in 2000 - cleared some of the devastation of the prior four decades but did not create new opportunities.

Mariana Chilton, associate professor in the School of Public Health at Drexel University and director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, said that City Hall deserves a much greater share of the blame for neglecting poverty-plagued neighborhoods, failing to clear dilapidated homes or fix potholes. "It makes you realize that people have stopped caring about you," she said.

Chilton said she believes that there has been too much emphasis on joblessness in the inner city and that a living wage for the people who are working would do more to pull more Philadelphians above the poverty line. Increasingly, the jobs that have displaced union factory labor with decent wages have been in service sectors such as fast-food restaurants or big-box stores that often pay at or near the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

In addition, she said that paid sick leave - a measure that was considered but voted down by Philadelphia City Council after lobbying by Comcast and other businesses - and early childhood care would help parents who now have to make difficult choices between their kids and health or keeping their jobs.


On Twitter: @Will_Bunch

Blog: ph.ly/Attytood.com

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