Over the past few decades, the Northeast has threatened to break off from Philadelphia repeatedly, and to form its own county called “Liberty.” Part of the argument stems from Northeast Philadelphians being livid over their supposed subsidization of the rest of Philly with their taxes, and part of it is a more basic issue: They just don’t feel like part of the city.
Rather, they feel as though their neighborhood is treated as vestigial when it comes to policy, and vital when it comes to taxation.
If you don’t believe me, take a look at recent election maps. Donald Trump came very close to overtaking Hillary Clinton in the Northeast, and actually did so in the 66th Ward in 2016; in the same year, Sen. Pat Toomey won two Northeastern wards. And in the 2017 Democratic primary for district attorney and city controller, Larry Krasner and Rebecca Rhynhart were destroyed in the Northeast, losing loads of wards. Those two candidates, whom the Northeast roundly rejected, will now be helping run the city.
One way to solve this problem: Steal an idea from New York, where the borough system provides areas with their own provisional governments and, councils and task forces.
Philadelphia’s ideal borough system wouldn’t invest truly dramatic power into each borough’s government. The mayor and City Council would still have override powers, but each borough would have its own board, president, district attorney, and sheriff. Borough boards could draft resolutions and approve legislation pertinent to the borough before it went before City Council; presidents would serve as de facto community chieftains and tone setters, as they do in New York City. A centralized sheriff in every borough would allow for more customized, focused neighborhood policing, and a borough district attorney would oversee a contingent of people roughly the size of the population of Pittsburgh.
Boroughs in Philly would only foster political participation.
How many members of Philly’s sizable Ukrainian or Polish communities are in power? How many southeast Asians? How many Middle Eastern folks? How many Central Americans? Precious few. In part because there’s no place for them in government here, and in part because so few feel inspired to make a run in the face of a traditionally white and black government.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION
If Philly had five boroughs, based on neighborhoods, what would you name them?
The author’s suggestions:
- Northeast Philly: Liberty Borough
- Northwest Philly: Manayunk Borough
- Center City: Franklin Borough
- South Philly: (Frankie) Avalon Borough
- West Philly: (Fresh) Prince Borough
Send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Some responses may appear on Philly.com.
Also, there’s no place to run without the support of a machine. A borough system supported by neighborhood control could help blow up machine politics in this town by forcing political leaders to divide up their political capital over a vast new cadre of diverse, urban politicians.
New York’s borough situation is different than what Philly’s could and should be. In NYC, every borough also is a county, and the city itself has a considerably larger population, making it easier to compartmentalize government. But each NYC borough has a district attorney, a president and community boards. The powers of community boards and the borough president aren’t as vast as city council’s, but they do inform local policy, allowing residents to have more direct control over government. Staten Island is more conservative than Manhattan and borough governments reflect that.
Marc Collazzo, former district office manager for State Rep. John Taylor and current executive director of the Mayfair Business Improvement District, digs the idea. “People would like” the idea of boroughs, he says. “Neighborhoods deserve to be heard, no matter what the issue. Where you run into trouble is when that doesn’t happen.”
Collazzo says civic organizations do their best to fill in the gap when Philadelphians are let down by their representation, but that boroughs, or a similar model, are worth exploring.
A Republican and a realist, Collazzo says current politicians would have to cede some of their power to make boroughs in Philly happen. And while he admits that many more elected positions would put more weight on the local political system, it’d be worth the sacrifice.
“It’d be more bureaucracy, but it would be for a good reason,” he says.
If there’s any lesson to learn from this election, it’s that representation is everything. Democrats proudly elected the country’s first transgender legislators, and women dominated male incumbents across the country. Minority legislators made huge gains. Philly deserves that, too.
Quinn O’Callaghan is a journalist and staff writer for the Philadelphia Citizen. His books are represented by Dystel, Goderich & Bourret.