As of this week, I am a Philadelphian once again. I returned here after a two-and-a-half-year interval in Brooklyn, which even in the midst of a pandemic is both a stimulating garden of eclectic delights and a horror show of metastasizing gentrification.
The timing of my return, I’ve been told, couldn’t have been worse, coming as it did barely two weeks after a tidal wave of serial vandalism that laid waste to Center City shopping districts west of Broad Street and spread across the Schuylkill River to storefronts as far west as 69th and Market Streets in Upper Darby. More than 100 arrests were reported, with 13 police among those injured. Civilian casualty figures have not yet been disclosed, and the total damages are still being assessed.
Our new home is in the West 40s, about four blocks south of where the wave crested, broke, and eventually trailed off. All of which, of course, was part of the widespread, more variegated reaction to the May 25 strangulation of an unarmed African American man named George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer named Derek Chauvin. Days and nights have passed since the destruction, and there remains some question as to the degree to which the carnage here was provoked—and by whom. The shock of the Center City mayhem yielded to a calm that was not, in the parlance of journalese, “uneasy” so much as resigned, as masked-against-Covid-19 citizens with brooms, barrels, and boards pitched in to help begin the cleanup process.
Affected blocks in West Philadelphia will likely take a longer time to recover; even in flusher times than this, the neighborhoods beyond the campuses of Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania are more economically challenged than the streets nearer to Rittenhouse Square. Yet here, too, there is more resignation than rage, the kind of dazed-and-weary reaction akin to the aftermath of a hurricane, flood, or other natural disaster.
Riots aren’t extraordinary events after racial injustice. What has been extraordinary are some of the other things that have happened here in Philadelphia since George Floyd’s murder.
Begin with the uprising that took place not on the streets but in the newsrooms shared by The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, onetime competitors merged into a two-paper single entity by staff contraction and ownership upheavals over the past decades. In the immediate wake of the rioting, the Inquirer’s architecture columnist Inga Saffron wrote a dissection of the short- and long-term impact of the damage to the city’s landscape provoked by a legacy of racism. The headline above her column read, “Buildings Matter, Too,” which was, to say the least, problematic. Almost immediately, the Inquirer’s editors apologized for the implicitly disrespectful reference to the Black Lives Matter movement.
But as far as black, brown, and other minority journalists working for both papers were concerned, the apology wasn’t enough. For many, the misstep was yet another example of racial insensitivity that, according to an African American colleague from my own years (1981–89) as a Daily News writer, had apparently worsened. In response, the company’s “journalists of color” announced that they would stage what they characterized as a collective “sick-and-tired” day off on June 4, addressing an open letter to their editors and publishers with more than forty signatures:
We’re tired of hasty apologies and silent corrections when someone screws up. We’re tired of workshops and worksheets and diversity panels. We’re tired of working for months and years to gain the trust of our communities—communities that have long had good reason to not trust our profession—only to see that trust eroded in an instant by careless, unempathetic decisions.… We’re tired of being told of the progress the company has made and being served platitudes about “diversity and inclusion” when we raise our concerns. We’re tired of seeing our words and photos twisted to fit a narrative that does not reflect our reality. We’re tired of being told to show both sides of issues there are no two sides of. Things need to change.
By Friday of that week, “things” did change with the resignation of Inquirer Executive Editor Stan Wischnowski, though it’s unclear from any published accounts what specific differences Wischnowski’s departure will make. I can easily imagine, however, from my 30-year career in newspapers how burned out one could get from sitting in on dozens of in-house panels on improving “diversity” in staffing, management, and coverage and watching those in power do their best to acclimate minority concerns without doing much of anything about them. As with any other virus (including the one that’s keeping us all from hugging each other right now), racism is something to be somehow circumvented, avoided, or adapted to until some manner of cure or vaccine is found—though, unlike Covid-19, the potential cure hasn’t exactly been hidden from view, just hard for some to swallow.
What’s been even more amazing—as in blue-snow-pigs-in-flight amazing—has been the erasure of Frank Rizzo from the city’s physical and (it would seem) political landscape. On June 3, the 10-foot statue of the former police commissioner and mayor that stood in front of the Municipal Services Building across the street from City Hall—and had been a target for protesters’ anger—was removed by city workers. Just as incredibly—at least for those of us who lived in Rizzo’s domineering shadow for years—no one seems terribly interested in putting it back. The following week, the front pages of both the Inquirer and the Daily News displayed photos of Rizzo’s similarly overpowering portrait mural in South Philly’s Italian Market being painted over with little more than a “good riddance” or variations thereof gathered from passers-by.
Symbols and statues celebrating America’s racist past have been going down and out for a couple weeks now. But a Confederate general or official is far removed from our present day in ways that Rizzo, who died at 70 in 1991 while preparing for yet another mayoral run, isn’t. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, Rizzo was the unapologetic embodiment of reactionary and racist ideology who gained national repute—and, I would argue, the mayor’s job—for leading a police department that regularly deployed “excessive force,” especially toward suspects of color. When he ran for reelection, he urged his constituency to “vote white.”
By the time I showed up to work at the Daily News in 1981, Rizzo was two years removed from being mayor. And yet the city’s racial polarization he helped stoke continued to smolder for years afterward. (On my first day on the job, I was practically run out of a white Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood by surly citizens who thought I was there to make a “racial thing” out of the demolition of an abandoned building. Most of them, as with Rizzo, were against the idea of integrated public housing in neighborhoods like theirs.) In the 40 years since Rizzo left office, three of his six successors have been African American. The current incumbent, Jim Kenney, who is white, says he is glad the Rizzo statue is gone, calling it “a deplorable monument to racism, bigotry and police brutality.”
In Rizzo’s lifetime, and likely for some time after, Philadelphians grew accustomed to hearing even a few local political voices raised on his behalf. But such voices are all gone now, and it feels like neither they nor Rizzo’s legacy are returning any time soon. Rizzo used to continually deny in his post-mayoral life that he was a racist (which I remember him pronouncing “raych-ist,” much like the word “fascist”; since it is far too easy to make too much of this, I’m choosing to leave it at that). But he had plenty of chances to prove it up until the end of his life, and he never took any of them. Someone should probably tell the incumbent president that history’s a harsh arbiter for such behavior, even if it’s unlikely he’ll listen.