Barack Obama is in a bad fix. His sturdy lead this late in the election season all but assures that he will inherit this country’s economic train wreck. North Philadelphia, where I caught his rally on Saturday, is in even worse trouble. That neighborhood—an American treasure that produced legends as varied as John Coltrane, Cecil B. Moore and Joe Frazier—is among the hardest hit from the collapse. Not the crash that melted down financial markets last week, but the slow and grinding process of deindustrialization that left it blighted with empty factories and houses.
Parts of North Philadelphia have undergone tremendous revitalization. But it hasn’t exactly been inclusive. Much of the recent housing development in the Temple University area, where Obama spoke, caters to students instead of the area’s permanent residents. The Obama supporters I talked to were still frustrated with the city’s continuing bouts with blight and inequality. One, Valerie Williams, mentioned those factories that were once a testament to the city’s nickname “workshop of the world,” but now stand empty and decaying. “Philadelphia used to be a thriving city of factories,” she said. “That’s gone.”
Obama told the crowd that “change means investing in our cities.” He mentioned his plan to put more money into urban infrastructure ranging from broadband lines to water treatment, which he said could create two million jobs. But there was plenty more about his urban agenda that his audience might have liked to know. Where does Philadelphia fit in with his plans to add affordable housing? Will North Philadelphia be one of twenty “promise neighborhoods” that will expand support services for poor students?
Everyone I talked to from the neighborhood, not surprisingly, says that Obama’s election will turn things around. But I wonder what they will say four years from now if Obama wins. His programs promise to bring more federal dollars to cash starved cities, and it will be good to see urban issues on the federal agenda again after disappearing during the Bush years. Still, he’s held hostage to the small thinking that has dominated both parties since Reagan, who blithely denounced the government’s war on poverty by declaring poverty the winner.
Standing in the middle of a neighborhood that has endured hardship for generations, Obama pointed out that his tax cut is going to “you, the middle class.” I’m guessing his diverse audience included many whose incomes are well below what should be called middle class. For that matter, there are far more than twenty urban neighborhoods in this country whose children need expanded social services. Why not expand services to all of them? Why not get up and declare that the era of scandalous neglect toward America’s inner cities is at an end, like Bill Clinton did for “big government”? I know, I know, I’m being ridiculously idealistic. Better to stick with something we can’t measure, like “changing the world.”