By Seymour I. "Spence" Toll
Pedestrian is hardly an exciting noun, and as an adjective it's often disparaging, suggesting commonplace, tedious, and boring. In welcome contrast, the pedestrians of Center City Philadelphia can be upbeat today and hopeful for a better tomorrow. That's because, for more than two decades, the area has been becoming a safer and more inviting place to live, work, play, and, yes, walk.
We have to thank the Center City District for the major role it's played in making that happen and for sustaining the impressive effort. Formed in 1990 as a business improvement district funded by special assessments on all taxable properties within its boundaries, the agency describes its mission as keeping "Philadelphia's downtown, called Center City, clean, safe, beautiful, and fun."
Encompassing 233 Center City blocks, the district is involved in a number of civic projects — including streetscape improvements, tree-planting, and additional signs and lighting — that are enriching urban life. The most striking of them is the massive continuing transformation of Dilworth Plaza, on the west side of City Hall, scheduled to be completed in early 2014. The project will replace the plaza's inaccessible multilevel form with open space and such urban amenities as a large street-level lawn, groves of trees, a programmable fountain, areas for 400 chairs and benches, and a café, as well as much-improved access to subways and trolley lines.
For now, however, let's put aside that dramatic development and consider a mission that, however unglamorous, is critically important for our physical and psychological well-being. That is the district's care of Center City streets.
Gallons of garbage
Seventy-one percent of the district's $19.4 million budget is devoted to staff and other expenditures that keep the streets clean. Every day of the week, 50 sweepers, pressure washers, and supervisors work the streets, and 59 more cleaners are doing their jobs in 3.5 miles of underground transit concourses, as well as the Suburban and Market East Stations. Last year, the district's street cleaners collected three million gallons of sidewalk trash.
In addition, day and night, seven days a week, the district employs 42 community service representatives on foot patrol to serve as "on-street ambassadors as well as additional eyes and ears for the police." Over the past two decades, they have helped reduce serious crime in the area by 42 percent.
Much of this effort is as visible as the distinctive teal uniforms of Center City District employees. Thanks to them, the area's sidewalks are kept free of most litter; empty soda bottles and cigarette butts have a greatly reduced life expectancy on the streets. They also remove graffiti and stickers from buildings and light poles. And they assist inquiring pedestrians, whether visitors or locals, with directions.
The net result of more than 20 years of constructive effort is not only a much cleaner, safer, and more attractive Center City, but one with a promising future. The most persuasive proof of this is the striking growth of an ever younger population of Center City residents. Some of them are having children and taking a greater interest in downtown schools.
The growing number of restaurants is of a piece with a downtown that now has an enthusiastic, youthful nightlife. Numerous outdoor cafés, virtually unknown in the area before the Center City District was formed, also reflect the area's expanding appeal. It's a pedestrian delight to stroll by al fresco diners and drinkers glowing over their food, beverages, and companionship.
Through the district's efforts, the heart of our town has become an increasingly inviting example of urbanism's civilizing potential, and we owe the district and its employees our warmest thanks for this.
Communicating one's gratitude to a faceless organization is rarely as satisfying as speaking directly to the men and women who do the work. I walk through Center City several days a week, and I almost always see at least one uniformed district employee. Having had many momentary encounters with them myself, I suggest you ease your way up to one of them and say something like, "Thank you for making the city so attractive." I can safely predict that you will get a look of surprise, and that's almost certain to be followed by a quiet expression of thanks and a smile.
I daresay the Center City District doesn't train its employees to deal with such spontaneous expressions of gratitude. No matter; they certainly deserve them.
Chat live with Walter Phillips about his commentary in Currents Sunday, on merit selection of judges, at 1 p.m. today at www.philly.com.