New Book Examines Three Centuries of Civic Reform in Philadelphia

February 21, 2023 | by Kimberly Haas

The call for reform is a current topic in political circles. To take a long view, however, as political scientist Richardson Dilworth does, it can be seen as just one in a cycle of reform over time. In the case of Philadelphia, it goes back all the way to the city’s founding in 1682.

“In most cities, there is always a constant hum of reform—often business-oriented, often elite,” said Dilworth, professor of politics at Drexel University and the namesake grandson of former Philadelphia mayor Richardson Dilworth. “At certain points, windows of opportunity open up for that hum to grow and have an impact. It’s often triggered by national events, like the Great Depression.”

Dilworth charts that hum over the centuries in his new book, Reforming Philadelphia, 1682-2022, the latest offering in Temple University Press’ series Political Lessons from American Cities. “I was trying to think about how institutions construct cycles by which you can identify similar changes across points in time,” he explained.

As the title suggests, Dilworth begins at the beginning, noting that William Penn’s egalitarian framework for the colony was revised three times over the course of its first 19 years.

“It’s often voiced as ‘the city is not doing what it’s supposed to do.’ A city is a large, complex organization, and there’s always something that needs to be fixed.”

The City of Philadelphia was made even more complex by a major reform in the mid-19th century: the consolidation of Philadelphia County’s 29 municipalities into one city of 24 wards. The resulting City Council, bicameral at the time, ballooned to 98 members.

Dilworth argues that a reform cycle consists of actors promoting and implementing a new idea to push back against an existing political machine. City charter reform was widely seen as a way to curtail corruption. But in 19th century Philadelphia, that wasn’t the case, as revealed in Lincoln Steffens’s infamous “Philadelphia: Corrupt and Contented” article published in 1903, in which he examined the city as an exception, when a new city charter did little to stifle corruption.

Fast forward a few decades, and the city saw another reform. “In the first half of the 20th century the Republican Party was a strong machine with the ability to deliver votes and act cohesively,” Dilworth said. “It started to crumble in the 1930s, really lost its energy, partly because of the City dealing with a Depression budget crisis and then war mobilization. And then in the 1950s, a strong Democratic machine coalesces.”

Like the rest of the country, Philadelphia was swept up with a post-World War II optimism. “That reform coalition of [Mayor Joseph, 1952-56] Clark and my grandfather [Mayor Richardson Dilworth, 1956-62] certainly reflected the post-war optimism,” he agreed. “Optimism from fascism being defeated, the war was over, ability to get back to domestic life. A lot of federal money coming into the city. New leaders were given money and the latitude to recreate the city.”

The City Planning Committee pitched urban renewal to the public in 1948 through the The Better Philadelphia Exhibition. Exhibits like this large-scale interactive model of the city were showcased on the 5th and 6th floors of Gimbel’s Department Store on Market Street. 385,000 visitors came to see the City’s radical, reform-driven vision for the future of Philadelphia. | Photo courtesy of Haverford College

That latitude, however, was not always fairly applied as neighborhoods were razed in the name of urban renewal. “It’s easy to tell a counter narrative: destroying homes and neighborhoods, resulting in Black residents not being able to find homes,” Dilworth noted. “My grandfather and his contemporaries had seen the destruction of Europe. They weren’t going to blink at tearing down blocks.”

Today, Philadelphia is considering the fate of one of the most significant emblems of that era, the Police Administration Building (aka “the Roundhouse”).

In recent decades, Dilworth sees similarities to that 1950s reform era. “Just like in the 1950s where there were underlying problems, but still good things going on, there’s a reform cycle marked by the Michael Nutter election in 2007,” he said. “He was the first mayor elected at a time with population growth after a long decline. It was the effect of the city’s economy becoming service-based through universities and medical institutions, rather than manufacturing.”

Also, cities were being viewed as nodes to address environmental concerns through sustainability and walkability, yielding a new planning code, membership in the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, and Mayor Nutter’s Greenworks plan.

“On the other hand, underlying structural problems arose,” Dilworth continued. “In earlier times, investment in infrastructure was government driven, with federal and state funding to cities for urban renewal. Now, it’s market based, with tax abatements and other incentives given to the private sector. The City acts now largely as a broker, a facilitator of development, but no longer a leader.”

“And the resurgence was based almost entirely around Center City, which caused a reinforcement of racial and economic segregation. Real estate wealth grew for some, but not for most, he said.”

Mayor Richardson Dilworth at his desk in 1957. | Image courtesy of the City of Philadelphia

Nevertheless, Dilworth is optimistic about Philadelphia’s future, even as he acknowledges post-pandemic stresses like increased gun violence and the negative impact of remote work on Center City and the city budget.

Politically speaking, despite what he calls “absurdly high Democratic wins,” he sees further reforms likely, as they come from within the dominant machine, rather than an oppositional party. “There are more reform wards now than 10 years ago. Fewer sleepy machine wards.”

He said the challenge is voter turnout. “The breakdown of mass media makes it hard to get a message out. The ward system encourages low turnout: ward leaders get their own people out and don’t need big numbers to win.”

The crowded Democratic mayoral field will further dilute those numbers. “The fragmentation of the mayoral field is concerning, but also can be seen optimistically,” said Dilworth. “That so many want to be mayor, and so many good candidates, is a positive sign.”


About the Author

Kimberly Haas is a staff writer for Hidden City Daily. She is a long time radio journalist, both nationally and locally with WHYY and WXPN. In particular, she enjoys covering Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, culture and history, as well as urban sustainability and public policy, in both print and audio.

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