Philadelphia's Experience with a Center City District

NEAL R. PEIRCE

April 14, 1992|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Philadelphia. -- Despite deficits and threats of bankruptcy that are eroding its image, this birthplace city of the American Republic is trailblazing new efforts to make the center city safer and cleaner.

Along the way, Philadelphia may even invent a more humane and effective way to deal with the homeless who frequent central city streets and increasingly intimidate citizens through their aggressive panhandling.

The turning point came 13 months ago when a new Center City District, funded by 2,100 downtown property owners in an 80-square block area, swung into operation. The need was compelling: With repeated city work-force cutbacks, Philadelphia's streets had become progressively filthier. Debris lay everywhere and people complained of winds spewing up virtual ''trash storms.''

The district, funded at $6.4 million a year, started right by hiring Paul Levy, a forceful 44-year-old professional community activist, to run its operations.

Deciding a ''clean and safe'' downtown was the first priority, Mr. Levy contracted with a local firm to get a 100-person corps to sweep and vacuum downtown's sidewalks. Within nine months they'd picked up 6,000 3-foot-tall bags of litter from downtown streets, plus another 3,000 cubic yards of trash they sucked into vacuum machines.

Walk through downtown Philadelphia today and you see the difference: the cleanest center city in at least a decade. The walls are cleaner too, through a graffiti and poster removal program.

The district also deployed 40 ''community service representatives'' to walk the streets, give directions, provide escorts, help anyone in trouble. They're armed with walkie-talkies and linked directly to the police. In the wake of that new, friendly ''on the street'' presence, reported crimes have dropped by 20 percent.

None of this is totally original. Downtown management districts of one form or another exist nationwide, from New York to Denver to New Orleans.

They do everything from street maintenance to banners to marketing to running shuttle bus services. As for helpful young people walking the streets, Portland, Oregon, pioneered the practice several years ago.

Why, you can ask, aren't city halls doing this themselves? Do we need all manner of new ''private'' governments, akin in one sense to a walled-off suburban enclave that announces it will provide its own security?

The answer is that cities under less duress would be cleaning their own sidewalks, providing adequate security, making their downtowns inviting places. Public bodies ought to be responsible for public places. But politics makes it tough to get a city council -- especially in hard fiscal times -- to provide ''extra'' service for any part of town.

In Philadelphia's case, the special district might make the difference between a tawdry and doomed downtown and one with a chance. The stakes for the city's business image, and self-image, are immense.

Having made a start at Philadelphia's long-delayed downtown cleanup, Mr. Levy came under pressure from retailers and building managers who told him clean streets would be of marginal utility as long as workers and shoppers were frightened away by aggressive panhandlers and homeless people sleeping on the streets.

The downtown has some 300 to 500 homeless on a typical day, a census revealed. Overwhelmingly, they're single black males. Eight of 10 are hooked on drugs, alcohol or both. With the limited numbers, and targeted problem, what could be done?

The outlines of a trade-off emerged. A campaign could be waged to discourage people from giving money to panhandlers, even to discourage food handouts on the city streets.

In return, advocates for the homeless could get a lot more help in pressing Philadelphia to reorganize its haphazard programs. The idea would be to de-emphasize big overnight shelters that are not only dangerous to sleep in, but throw the homeless out to fend for themselves on the streets during the day. The focus would switch to much smaller facilities, more personal and individualized in their approach, which can provide not just ''a cot and three hots'' but a range of mental-health, drug-treatment and job-counseling services.

Reallocating the $37 million the city of Philadelphia already spends on the homeless, Mr. Levy suggests, could target much more money to long-term solutions. And city housing funds could be targeted to single-room occupancy hotels for ''graduates'' of the new clean and sober shelters.

On those principles, says Mr. Levy, a consensus easily emerged between business and advocates for the homeless: ''It's cheaper to do it the right way.''

A final resolution is still to be reached. Routine city hall politics and the predictable struggles for turf between multiple nonprofit social-service agencies stand in the way. Fundamental reform of the entrenched homeless ''system'' is tough to achieve anywhere.

But Philadelphia has a new mayor, Edward Rendell, who's trying against heavy odds to reform a perennially inert and patronage-controlled city government. And in the Center City District, it has an example of the new, independent civic forces that are likely to be among the prime movers in urban America in the '90s.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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