Contrary to popular thought, Upper Darby Township is much more than the bustling SEPTA transit center, the famed Tower Theatre and the all-purpose shopping strip that runs along 69th Street between Market and Marshall.
The state’s sixth largest municipality is a welcoming melting pot of historic neighborhoods, global cultures and modest residents.
At the helm of Upper Darby’s recent renaissance is lifelong resident and seasoned civil servant, Mayor Tom Micozzie.
“You can’t run an effective organization if you don’t communicate with your leadership,” he said.
Since the early 2000s, Upper Darby has witnessed a heavy influx of new residents and business owners from over 100 multiethnic backgrounds, speaking more than 70 different languages. The gregarious and passionate former fire chief, Mayor Micozzie, has had to manage a township government that addresses the increase of new immigrants.
“My grandfather came from Italy,” Micozzie shares speaking of his family’s history. “I understand how difficult it was for them (his family) to be immigrants back then. It’s especially difficult for immigrants now.”
Upper Darby has a storied history led by immigrants including the Swedish, Irish and Italians. Following the tradition of its Quaker roots, Upper Darby was active in the antislavery movement and continues to embrace inclusion.
With over 82,000 residents, there is a growing presence of people of color, throughout Upper Darby’s 8 square miles, including African Americans, Indians, Asians, Latinos and natives of various African countries, namely Liberia.
The Upper Darby Police Department’s recent recruitment drive, seeking diverse candidates, is “what I’m proud of,” Micozzie said. “300 candidates applied, 298 took the physical and 128 passed the test. The interviews are next.
“My emphasis is community based,” the mayor added. “We have the people, resources and commitment.”
A reflection of Mayor Micozzie’s commitment is the year-old long community policing center.
“Neighbors like the quick response,” according to the center Community Services Coordinator, Nashid Furaha-Ali.
The 10-year Upper Darby resident holds a sociology degree and is a veteran of Philadelphia’s foster care service system.
“He is the quarterback down here; people respect him, trust him and like him,” Micozzie said of Furaha-Ali. Under the auspice of the police department, Furaha-Ali and “the center has given a positive presence in the neighborhood,” stated police Chief Mike Chitwood.
Securing the township and ensuring resident safety, the police department sent 249 guns to be incinerated in Delaware earlier this month.
Plans for an upcoming gun buyback program are in the works. Chitwood credits strong communication and solid relationships with various community leaders for the success of such initiatives.
Maintaining civil order and aiming to provide a world-class quality of life for all residents, Micozzie was installed earlier this year to serve a full term. In 2009, he was appointed unanimously by his council peers, to serve as mayor, for the remainder of the unexpired term of then Mayor F. Raymond Shay.
When referring to Micozzie, “he’s a leader,” said Tom Judge, chief administrative officer for the township. “His goal is to find the people that can penetrate the community.”
The two have a great working relationship that is predated by a childhood friendship and years of serving Upper Darby in their respective fields.
“I’m an out-of-the-box thinker,” Micozzie said. Believing the community policing center is an example of his thought process and a prototype for other municipalities to implement, he wishes he could have more.
“Tom lets me know what I can or can’t do,” he said. “What the bottom line is.”
Listening to and engaging with the people of Upper Darby has been an effective leadership style and seems to be natural for the mayor.
As the Upper Darby community grows, Micozzie is prepared to work with every represented group, old and new.
“We’re all embraced in our community,” he said. “I’m a man of my word.”