Published on Saturday, July 29, 2000 in the Toronto Globe & Mail
Conventions, Policies World Away From Streets Of Philadelphia
by Barrie McKenna
"The purpose of prosperity is to leave no one out, to leave no one behind. I'm running because my party must match a conservative mind with a compassionate heart."
-- George W. Bush

If Mr. Bush is to put his self-styled compassionate conservatism to work, he'll have to start in places like Kensington, the poorest neighbourhood in the City of Brotherly Love and the poorest anywhere in Pennsylvania.

As Philadelphia prepares to host the Republican national convention, which is to confirm Mr. Bush as the party's presidential candidate, the good life that the Texas Governor wants for all remains decidedly elusive in Kensington and much of blighted, crime-ridden North Philadelphia.

"We hear about people getting out of poverty, but we never see it," complained Katie Engle, a 54-year-old grandmother who grew up poor here and now works for the Kensington Welfare Rights Union.

The area was once a thriving working-class neighbourhood but it is now dominated by boarded-up houses and shuttered factories.

Children play on the streets surrounded by abandoned cars and mounds of old garbage. According to social workers, welfare and drugs drive the local economy.

The U.S. economic boom is real and is generating new working-class jobs in the sprawling suburbs, but not in the inner core of cities such as Philadelphia.

"Prosperity is being decentralized along the exit ramps and away from the poor," said Bruce Katz, director of the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

Welfare reform, a legacy of the Republican-controlled Congress, has produced substantial declines in the welfare rolls across the country. Yet, a number of urban areas are proof that there are cracks in a system designed to get people back to work. Welfare caseloads are dropping here, but not nearly as rapidly as in the rest of the country.

Philadelphia County, which encompasses most of this city on the banks of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, has less that 12 per cent of the state's population. Yet, it is home to half of Pennsylvania's welfare recipients, up from less than 40 per cent in 1994, before welfare reform, according to a just-released Brookings Institution study.

That's more than four times Philadelphia's "fair share" of the welfare caseload based on population, and the fourth-worst ranking of 89 urban U.S. counties analyzed. Blacks account for slightly more than 40 per cent of the population in Philadelphia County, but 70 per cent of people on welfare.

Inner-city areas such as Kensington also suffer from dysfunctional schools, poor transportation links to the location of jobs and inadequate child and health care.

"This has been a policy blind spot for decades," Mr. Katz said.

Indeed, if Mr. Bush moves to Washington in January, the blind spot literally may be staring him in the face. The White House is within walking distance of some of the poorest and most crime-infested urban tracts in the United States.

Tommy Spence, a 44-year-old recovering cocaine addict who lives in North Philadelphia, wants Mr. Bush to know that the old ways of dealing with the country's problems are failing.

"The drugs have to go or it's going to kill America," he said. "But throwing the little guy in jail, that's not working."

Hosting the Republican convention is supposed to be a celebration of the city's rejuvenation. This is the first national convention by either of the two main U.S. political parties held in Philadelphia since 1948. (Both parties held their conventions in the city that year.)

But recent years have been rough on Philly. It was the country's largest city in the late 1800s, but it now ranks fifth. The banks, railroads, garment factories and heavy industries that built the country and made Philadelphia great are nearly all gone now, victims of the digitization of the U.S. economy.

In the 1980s, the city nearly went bankrupt as the middle class fled to the suburbs.

To be sure, it's a new Philadelphia that the city is showing off to 45,000 convention delegates, lobbyists, corporate sponsors and journalists.

Pharmaceutical makers and high-technology companies have replaced the old economy. Real-estate prices are rising, unemployment is falling and many once-dangerous parts of the downtown have come back to life.

But the most active job creation is taking place to the north of the city along Highway 202, Philadelphia's Silicon Valley. Here companies that didn't exist a decade ago are the rising stars:, Safeguard Scientifics, Comcast and others.

Further north, in West Point, Pa., drug giant Merck is adding 1,000 employees a year at one of the largest research and drug-making facilities in the world.

On the eve of the five-day convention, which begins Monday, the city is busily trying to tidy itself up. The new mayor, Democrat John Street, has spearheaded a campaign to haul away more than 30,000 abandoned cars from city streets and to bulldoze vacant buildings.

"This will help the city. It will bring in lots of money," Mark Cattafesta, an insurance salesman and registered Republican, said as he sat watching a Phillies-Cubs baseball game at Veterans Stadium, across the street from the convention site.

"I want to keep the economy going and the market up. [President Bill] Clinton has done a good job of it. I don't know what Bush is going to do, whether he'll be able to keep it going."

School bus driver Leroy Wilson, 52, also sees the convention as an opportunity to show off the good side of this often maligned city.

"We need something positive here for a change, especially after that beating," said Mr. Wilson, referring to the recent videotaped beating by police of a black man suspected of shooting at police and hijacking a car.

Eager to avoid a repeat of the chaotic antiglobalization demonstrations in Seattle and Washington, D.C. in recent months, police have undergone special training in handling demonstrators and set aside three detention centres to lock up unruly protesters.

Copyright 2000 Globe Interactive