Last month, my family and I attended a church fellowship in the Frankford section of Philadelphia. This was not our first trip to Frankford, but it was the first time that my 12-year-old son asked a question that has gripped me ever since: “Daddy, are we still in Philadelphia?”
It is not that our son has been sheltered from urban America. We live in Philadelphia, work in Philadelphia, our three children attend public school in Philadelphia, and our church, Bright Hope, is located in the city’s bustling urban renewal community — North Philadelphia.
The question our son raised about Frankford had little to do with “location.” His question arose because of the absence of city-wide urban “inspiration” and “transformation.”
Like many of you, we recognize that our city is faced with profound challenges. We cannot avoid urban ills. Rather we seek to transform them — one life, one family, one block, and one community at a time. And with persistent, unwavering commitment, hope is born.
As I have processed my son’s question, I now realize the profundity of it: Where is the hope? Where is the transformation?
In 1859, Charles Dickens’ novel, “A Tale of Two Cities,” underscores the plight of the French lower-class and how demoralized they had become by the French aristocracy. As a result of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, the French Revolution was born and brutality surfaced from the oppressed and marginalized. Dickens’ novel seeks to highlight the injustice inflicted upon the disregarded and the disparities between the aristocrats and peasants, the rich and the poor.
Yes, when our son raised the question, “Are we still in Philadelphia?,” it was a question of a curious child trying to morally understand how “two cities” can co-exist in a metropolis that is the birthplace of democracy, home to some of the nation’s most outstanding institutions of higher education, and headquarters to some of the nation’s Fortune 500 companies.
Whether we want to admit it or not, we are witnessing the creation of “two cities” in Philadelphia.
If we open our eyes, we will see that some people, neighborhoods, and communities are not getting better but getting worse.
Some neighborhoods are clean, while others are not. Some are safe, while others are war zones. Some are budding with hope, while others live in the abyss of despair.
While there has been a tremendous resurrection of select neighborhoods like Center City, University City, Fairmount/Art Museum, Brewerytown, Northern Liberties, Yorktown (now coined “Templetown”), or Queens Village, there has yet to be a major revival commenced in the most needed neighborhoods of Philadelphia.
We are not becoming the City of Brotherly Love, but the City of Brotherly Division.
According to the August 2013 U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics report, Philadelphia County joblessness is 10.4 percent — the highest rate of joblessness in the region and much higher than the nationwide unemployment rate of 7.8 percent.
Moreover, the most recent U.S. Census reports show that 27 percent of Philadelphians, and more than one-third of Philadelphia children, live below the federal poverty level. As a result, Philadelphia is No. 1 in the urban poverty metric and has recently been labeled the “poorest big city in the United States.”
The prophetic query our son raised, as we drove home through the dark streets of Frankford, represents a larger and more profound moral dilemma: How can we renovate Dilworth Plaza with $50 million of taxpayers’ money, rehab only select row homes near the universities of Pennsylvania and Temple, and provide home tax-abatement programs to most high net worth individuals in the city, while the neighborhoods of the masses in Philadelphia continue to decay and become havens of the poor?
If transformation is going to come to every neighborhood, every block, every ward, and every community, then it will require strong leadership and a clear vision for the “haves” as well as “have-nots” in our city.
In 2014 we will elect a new Governor. In 2015, Philadelphia will elect a new mayor. And in 2016, this nation will elect a new president. Currently, there are no true frontrunners — of declared candidates — in any of these races.
As I have reflected on the needs of our beloved Philadelphia, it has become crystal clear to me, and other citizens, that our city needs now, more than ever, leadership and vision from the political and business realms.
We need leaders who will not only have the courage to challenge the status quo, but also who are committed to ensuring that every community and neighborhood in Philadelphia thrives and prospers.
Our next gubernatorial and mayoral elections will be quite telling. Will Philadelphia’s 21st century continue as a “tale of two cities” with one of those “cities” in greatest decline? Or will Philadelphia reemerge as the beacon of hope for all its citizens — as it was originally envisioned? We will soon see.
As always, keep the faith.
Kevin R. Johnson, Ed.D. is senior pastor of the Bright Hope Baptist Church. Follow him on Twitter @drkrj.