Touring the Real Philly
From the vantage point of the City Center, Philadelphia looks like a picture of urban vibrancy. The Liberty Bell is ensconced in a sleek glass museum and its surrounding historical neighborhoods are quaint and well-restored. The grass is green, the trees pruned, the streets scrubbed clean. Interesting public artworks dot the landscape. Patriotic bunting ruffles the edges of buildings. But the Kensington Welfare Rights Union won't let you be deceived.
"There are 250,000 families living below the poverty line in Philadelphia, and 40,000 abandoned houses that the city has boarded up. That's an incredible disconnect that the Republicans won't be talking about this week!" shouts activist Tamzin Cheshire. She's standing at the head of a yellow school bus crammed full of people on the KWRU's "Reality Tour" of Philadelphia, and as it rolls away from the prim City Center, you can't help but notice how quickly the urban vibrancy turns into urban blight.
The first stop on the tour is "Bushville," a makeshift tent city that the KWRU has erected on a gravel lot strewn with broken glass in North Philadelphia. Tent cities are a tactic that this radical anti-poverty group has used for years as a practical and immediate solution to homelessness, as well as a media stunt to draw attention to the problem. They began setting up Bushville in one North Philadelphia location last Thursday, when the police came by with a man who claimed to own the property and ordered them to leave. (This alleged owner only had an "agreement to sale," meaning that the city was still the actual owner of the property.) KWRU maneuvered deftly around the police pressure, and moved Bushville to a clearly city-owned lot.
Cheshire steps up to introduce the mayor of Bushville, Liz Ortiz, a Latina woman in bike shorts and a loose ponytail. "I was homeless and on welfare for two years," Ortiz says. "I wanted to go into the shelter system with my three kids, but they were going to separate my eighteen year old from us, so I said no. Now I got my own house, thank God, but when I was on welfare I never knew when welfare reforms would take it all away."
The tour ambles on through Kensington, the neighborhood that was once Philadelphia's industrial heart and is now its nexus of economic depression. "On your right, you'll see the abandoned Schmidt's Brewery," Cheshire announces, pointing to a factory filling an entire city block, overgrown with weeds and covered with graffiti. "When it was abandoned in the 1980's, 1400 people lost their jobs. People who used to work at Schmidt's became homeless and started living there. If you come here early in the morning, you'll see people coming out of the building. If you look closely, you can see their laundry hanging up to dry inside."
Schmidt's fate has mirrored that of countless other factories in Philadelphia. As companies realized they could procure cheaper and less regulated labor elsewhere, they packed up their factories and left behind toxic waste, decrepit buildings and unemployed workers. KWRU estimates that Philadelphia has lost over 270,000 jobs in the last thirty years. "Ever since the factories closed down and the jobs left, the number one income here has been welfare," Cheshire says, noting that the Republican party and other welfare reform supporters have constructed their fantasy of the lazy welfare queen with blatant disregard for all those whose jobs were snatched from under their noses.
The tour keeps moving, past rows of crumbling buildings and rubble-filled lots. Where there were once banks, stores and groceries there are now only check cashing spots, pawn shops and liquor stores. A reporter from the BBC remarks on how different this tour is from the trolley tours being given by the Republican National Convention's host committee. Local graduate students, he says, have been taking the press and visiting delegates on a whitewashed sojourn around the city. "They showed us how old buildings have been renovated into new hotels. They took us to this eighteenth century tavern where people in period costume gave us little mincemeat pies. It was clearly promotional, not a well-rounded description of Philadelphia at all." He remarks that at one point, his trolley ran a brief stretch through poverty-stricken Philly, and the tour guides were suspiciously silent.
The last stop on the reality tour is St. Edward's Church, one of nine churches and service centers in the community that have been shut down by the Catholic Archdiocese. It is a cavernous building with a baroque exterior and stained glass windows which, after ten years of abandonment, was squatted by sixty three homeless families who were members of the KWRU. The Catholic church was none too pleased. "The archdiocese came in here and gave us forty-eight hours to get out," says one formerly homeless mother who was among the church squatters. "The KWRU mobilized and got us some media attention, so we ended up staying here for six months. Then winter came and it got too cold inside, so we took over HUD houses. HUD houses are perfectly good houses that get boarded up when the owner can't pay the taxes on them. So we took them over." The yellow schoolbus drives back to the squeaky clean center of Philadelphia, where the Republican National Convention prepares its endless trope about America's booming economic prosperity. Less than two miles away, however, thousands of people have not reaped any of this alleged prosperity, and rest assured that their stories will be conspicuously absent from the podium this week.