Sunday, December 9, 2012

The New Philadelphian

In a recent Philadelphia Magazine article, Patrick Kerkstra seems to have coined the term "New Philadelphian." The New Philadelphian is a growing demographic made up of upper middle class transplants and recent college graduates that call revitalized neighborhoods like Graduate Hospital, Northern Liberties, and Callowhill their home.

Kerkstra focuses on the New Philadelphian's frustration with local politics, their abysmal voter turnout, and the choice to use community organizations, non-profits, and blogs as the way to voice their opinions and enact change.

While their frustration is understandable, that frustration has always been there. It's been responsible for a terminal outlook amongst many native Philadelphians and a large part of that population's acceptance of the status quo. The frustration has been responsible for the career Council Members that continue to exploit their voters, corrupt dynasties, and now, a lack of mutual understanding between those politicians and the growing number of New Philadelphians.

However, the New Philadelphians' reluctance to engage in local politics is as indicative of an American generation as it is the simple fact that they're new to the city. Kerkstra's article deliberately exempts immigrants because they are actively engaged in politics, somewhat successfully, and the only person he interviewed that seemed to truly go up against any local machine is from Dublin.

The rest of those interviewed are involved in neighborhood organizations and non-profits, and while those organizations work with politicians, they aren't the best examples of the democratic process. It's easy to argue your case in a community meeting or a non-profit, but you have little to lose.

Is this what happens when a generation with shelves full of participation trophies enters the real world?

A generation raised in suburban high schools that have never experienced failure are naturally reluctant to go up against career politicians, to be thrust into the local media and answer to the city instead of their peers, and, even if they manage to win, forced to manage an office steeped in a century of corruption, responsible for a fraction of the population that will never think you're doing enough.

Politics puts you in a tough position that requires motivation and strong character, whether you're a good person or not, and New Philadelphians are largely part of a generation of Americans that never really had to try. Failure is hard enough on its own, but it's even harder to face the inevitable fact that most of your friends won't bother to vote. Is it really any mystery that a generation who doesn't vote has chosen to avoid the traditional path to politics?

Not that these watchdogs involved in community organizations and non-profits haven't served their vital roles in the revitalization of our city. They serve a purpose and their actions should be commended.

But City Hall won't change until someone in this growing demographic of idealists is willing to risk public humiliation, criticism, and failure on behalf of their peers. The fact that City Council harbors a bunch of cronies doesn't mean that the system that put them there is broken. In fact it's the only system Philadelphia has to elect our leaders, and opting out won't change that.

1 comment:

  1. Good essay, but I should note that Patrick Kerkstra's isn't the first use of that term.

    Councilman Jim Kenney - yes, that Jim Kenney, I believe - proposed back around 2001 the creation of an "Office of New Philadelphians" - a one-stop city agency that would help immigrants from abroad adjust to life here and address their needs. It was modeled on a similar office in Boston called the Office of New Bostonians.

    Those New Philadelphians have transformed this place every bit as much as, or maybe even more than, the ones Kerkstra writes about have. If you were here 20 years ago, and if you recall what Washington Avenue looked like then compared to now, you know what I mean.

    And some of them ARE getting involved in politics. As you argue, their purely domestic counterparts need to do the same.