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Rendell's City Building Ignores Middle Class

by Robert Patterson

(This article first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.)

When the Kimmel Center opened in 2001, the performing-arts venue signaled the 21st-century renaissance of Center City. Providing a new home for the Philadelphia Orchestra, the stunning anchor of the Avenue of the Arts embodied everything former Mayor Ed Rendell had envisioned: a booming "arts and culture" sector attracting the upper-income set to a city that has seen better days.

New attractions from the Barnes Foundation to the National Constitution Center have helped make the Quaker City a popular destination. Last month, Philly ranked No. 3 on the New York Times' "52 Places to Go in 2015." Meanwhile, the influx of millennials and empty nesters into Center City and University City has stemmed the hemorrhaging of Philadelphia's population, which plummeted 22 percent between 1970 and 2000.

But is the answer to Philly's malaise the marketing of the city as a "luxury product" – per former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg – replete with highbrow theaters and museums, tony new restaurants, and boutique hotels? Not according to demographer Joel Kotkin, a lifelong Democrat who contends that the much-ballyhooed urban renaissance has inverted the historic role of American cities, as urban hubs like Philadelphia were "typically places not only for the rich and their servants but also for the aspirational middle and lower classes."

Indeed, Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicate that Philadelphia continues to underperform, losing around 30,000 "nonfarm" jobs between 2000 and 2013, while its annual unemployment rate jumped from 5.6 percent to 10 percent. The decline is not merely quantitative: Kotkin has tracked a pullback of higher-paying professional and business-services jobs while South Broad Street was being redeveloped.

The Rendell strategy also appears to have worsened the household-income disparities exercising both Democrats and Republicans as 2016 approaches. The Pew Charitable Trusts documented last year that only 31 percent of Philadelphia's census tracts count as middle class, compared with 81 percent in 1970. Meanwhile, the city's low-income segment has risen to 47 percent, up from 30 percent, trailing only Baltimore and Detroit on that score.

In Pew's baseline year, when 920,400 jobs supported a population of 1.9 million, Philadelphia was an industrial powerhouse. A third of those jobs – compared with 10 percent today – were in manufacturing, construction, and energy. Yet unlike in Motown, where the Big Three automakers reigned, most of these coveted jobs were created by specialty manufacturers and entrepreneurs whose predecessors had established the city as "the world's greatest workshop" in the late 19th century.

These homegrown businesses might have railed against unions and city officials, but in the end, they loved their city: They hired rather than fired their fellow citizens; they didn't build plants overseas; and they set up family foundations to fund the arts and educational opportunities. In other words, the cultural achievements that put the city on the map were by-products of industrial and energy entrepreneurship, as were hundreds of thousands of stable middle-income jobs.

Postwar city-building was also boosted by marriage and baby booms. The World War II generation wed early and frequently reared broods of five or six kids. These child-centered working- and middle-class families not only made Philadelphia thrive but also, nationwide, spawned surging purchases of everything from homes to cars and furnishings to appliances, which historian Elaine Tyler May estimates were responsible for nearly the entire increase in gross domestic product during the 1950s.

In contrast, the downsized households dotting Rittenhouse Square dash hopes that millennials will save the day. The rising generation has yet to accept the imperatives of adulthood. The Pew Research Center reports that a record 43 percent of Americans ages 18 to 31 still live with parents or other relatives, delaying wedlock, parenthood, and home purchases. Only 25 percent are married. Those moving into Center City may be financially independent, yet they too are putting off the family formation that uniquely renews city life.

What Philadelphia needs most of all, according to Kevin L. Kearns of the U.S. Business and Industry Council, is a rebooting of its manufacturing and energy sector, the true generator of wealth, jobs, and cultural amenities. Instead of pampering the already highly successful, he believes a rebuilding of the city's industrial base would deliver upward mobility for the vast majority looking to rise:

"Not all jobs are equal. Manufacturing jobs have historically paid more than service jobs and often lead to greater opportunities, both for jobholders and through spin-off companies and new industries. Moreover, a city that doesn't make things, especially complex things, will not prosper in the 21st century."

The hollowing out of the city's industrial base was not inevitable; it resulted from a combination of environmental and regulatory overkill since the 1970s, the globalization and financial-ization agenda pushed by corporate elites and every president dating back to George H.W. Bush, and the systematic assault on New Deal-era family norms. Only by reversing a host of tax, trade, immigration, banking, regulatory, and social policies can the city come back.

If Mayor Nutter and Gov. Wolf, in coordination with Pennsylvania's congressional delegation, leveraged their influence to shift federal policies to recreate "the world's greatest workshop," Philadelphia could experience a true renaissance, one that transforms the entire city, not just a few neighborhoods where only the new millennial gentry can afford to live and play.

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