Most of the focus on Mayor Kenney's Rebuild program has been on the process of getting it passed, with Council members tussling with the administration over control and over how the projects can launch minority workers into careers in the construction trades.
Those issues were resolved (at least for now) by passage of the Rebuild legislation by Council on Thursday.
As building projects go, Rebuild isn't very sexy. The sum that will be spent — $500 million over seven years – won't leave us with some grand edifice, like the sports stadiums in South Philadelphia or the Convention Center.
Instead, the money – which includes a $100 million grant from the William Penn Foundation — will be used to repair and restore and, in some cases, reimagine up to 200 of the city's 400 playgrounds, pools, libraries and recreation centers.
This program isn't merely an investment in bricks and mortar. It is crucial investment in Philadelphia's neighborhoods.
There was a time when churches served as the anchor of neighborhoods, providing not only Mass or Sunday services, but also education, recreation, a space for community gatherings, festivals and fairs.
For a multitude of reasons, those days are mostly past. Now, the hub of a neighborhood is likely to be its rec center or library. Don't take our word for it. Go to any rec center, especially after schools hours, and usually every inch of it is being used: basketball in the indoor and outdoor courts, flag football and soccer on the playing field; arts and craft in the community room and any number of other activities.
At Starr Garden – still operating 107 years since it opened at 6th and Lombard streets– in addition to basketball courts, a small ballfield and a playground, there are ceramic classes and Tai Chi for adults and aerobics for children.
During the day, libraries act as havens for the elderly and in the afternoons the desks will be taken over by students, using it as a safe, quiet place to study and do homework. These facilities are vital part of the fabric of neighborhoods, though the good they do is often taken for granted or forgotten. One purpose of Rebuild is to make up for years of neglect. The leaky roofs, the malfunctioning bathrooms, the damaged basketball courts, the worn-down, patchy playing fields will get long-needed fixes.
Outside of trash collection and police patrols, rec centers and libraries are the city's only visible presence at the street level in neighborhoods. And, if you think residents don't care about them, just try to close one down. In his first year as mayor, Michael Nutter nearly got his eyebrows singed off when he tried to close down libraries. He later retreated and had said trying to close libraries was the worst decision he made as mayor.
Our glittering Center City is the great job creator and a magnet for tourists. It is indispensable to our economy. But, neighborhoods are indispensable to the life of the city itself. Philadelphia will rise or fall on the strength and viability of these communities. And neighborhoods will rise or fall on the quality of life of the people who live there.