Helen Gym wants to tear down the statues and murals to Frank Rizzo. She literally wants to whitewash history, just like they want to whitewash the history of this fractured country by taking down the Confederate memorials in the South. In fact, that was the reason white supremacists and Nazis marched in Charlottesville this week, triggering three deaths.
Now it’s not enough to use the correct words to condemn racists, bigots and evil ideologues. Now you need to go further and erase every vestige of presumed prejudice from the landscape of our cities, and our memories. Because, of course, if we don’t see it, it never happened.
Well, Helen, Frank Rizzo happened. I was there when he was police commissioner, and I was there when he was mayor, and I was there when he tried to become mayor once again. He was our own Willie Stark mixed with Fiorello LaGuardia, a combination of anger, humor, generosity and brutality. He was human, and he was Philadelphia, and he will not be erased that easily.
Sure, I am not in the demographic that hated Rizzo or feared him. Growing up, I was proud that the Big Bambino was our head honcho in City Hall, because he sounded like the people I grew up with and was therefore familiar and welcoming. As a little kid, I thought he was related to us, until I learned he was from South Philadelphia. My West Philadelphia family explained the divide between those two ethnic tribes, kind of like North and South Korea. Same blood, same language, totally different mentality.
And yet, I loved him, or at least the myth of him. He was brash and harsh, and he didn’t suffer fools or criminals lightly. Of course, African Americans saw him differently, with good reason. He was a polarizing character, and in those polarizing days when riots would break out because someone’s car was kicked or someone was shoved up against a wall or someone’s girlfriend was looked at the wrong way, he didn’t step lightly into the public square. He marched in with steel boots and a nightstick (occasionally tucked into a cumberbund).
I am not here to pretend that Frank Rizzo was not a bigot. That’s not for me to say, because no matter what I write, there will be people who agree or disagree, based upon personal experience. And frankly, after I saw what the media did to the tortured, fractured words from Donald Trump in the wake of Charlottesville, I’m not in the mood to try and persuade anyone that I’m right or I’m wrong about our former mayor. I loved him, and if people have a problem with that, so be it. I have no problem if you disagree, which you will. You always do.
And yet, I have a problem with Helen Gym’s proposal to rip his image and his presence from our public consciousness. Gym was not even here when Rizzo was mayor, and I have a suspicion that she is quite happy about that fact. The city that she inhabits now is not the city that existed when I was growing up, and again, there are lots of Philadelphians celebrating the evolution. I celebrate it too, superficially.
But we cannot pretend that Rizzo did not walk these streets, bringing justice to some and sorrow to others. We cannot reduce the most colorful, consequential Italian to call Philadelphia home to an asterisk. Even if we wanted to make him disappear in a fabricated cloud of oblivion, we couldn’t.
He is not in stone, in paint, in old bits of film footage. He is in the historical air, and in the minds of those of us who understood what he was doing, even when we disagreed. He is as much a part of this city as the river that circles and cuts through it, as the streets that felt the footsteps of the founders, as the vendors on the corners selling foods Frank wouldn’t even be able to pronounce (taquitos, churros, kim chee, sashimi).
No one, even someone who presumes to make the world better and more just, kinder and more livable, has the right to shred that history, protect our eyes from it, purge our vistas from the bitter remnants of his urban reign.
If they try, I will be there, standing peacefully and waiting. Philadelphia style.