[ the new philadelphia ]
It's often said that the fundamental unit of life in Philadelphia is the neighborhood. But more likely, it's the block. A city block is, after all, a micro-neighborhood. There are good blocks, and there are bad blocks — and the difference is everything. A good block has flavor, cohesion, leadership, pride: It knows it's a good block. And for many city blocks — thousands, every year — there is no better expression of that pride, no more sacred jubilee, than the block party.
Such is the case on the 900 block of South 49th Street in West Philadelphia, where residents have held an annual block party for roughly the past 45 years. It's a chance for neighbors to meet, and for the diverse block — young, old, black, white — to get together.
At least, it was all those things until late July, when the block's party application was, for the first time ever, denied. "This has never happened," says Dorothy Myers, a former block captain of 19 years.
But happen it did. After applying to the city for a block-party permit, which allows residents to block access to the street, current block captain David Adams was shocked to have his application returned along with the $20 application fee.
The reason: The block is on an "arterial roadway."
Adams sought the help of his city councilwoman, Jannie L. Blackwell, but an aide told him that the denial stemmed from a new Streets Department policy. "[The aide] suggested some alternatives, but there are no alternatives to having a neighborly party on your own block," Adams says.
And, in fact, this year Streets has begun implementing "an existing policy of not issuing block party permits for streets with higher traffic volumes or streets with SEPTA service," writes Andrew Stober, the director of strategic initiatives at the Mayor's Office of Transportation and Utilities, in an e-mail. Indeed, blocking off that section of 49th Street for just four hours would mean diverting two-dozen buses and possibly slowing emergency response times.
Still, that explanation didn't assuage Adams, who points out that state Sen. Anthony Williams held a party of sorts the following week on the even-busier Baltimore Avenue. (Williams, in an e-mail, notes that he obtained a more expensive "festival" permit, which includes costs for the extra city services festivals require. "I love block parties," he adds.)
The block's beef with City Hall comes amid a spate of highly publicized episodes of long-standing traditions conflicting with long-standing, yet long-unenforced city codes: There was the notice given to a church housing homeless addicts-in-recovery in its basement, which the city considered a fire hazard; the Manayunk church that was warned about its loud bell; the recent "crackdown" on the freewheeling Italian Market by the Department of Licenses and Inspections; the city's position that bloggers who bring in revenue should obtain business privilege licenses.
The block party policy is hardly a massive crackdown: So far this year, Streets has granted 7,168 of 7,305 — 98 percent — of the permits requested; last year, the department turned down only four requests.
But where permits are denied, the administration isn't flinching. Deputy Mayor for Transportation and Utilities Rina Cutler not only defends the city's enforcement, but also makes a plaintive appeal to Philadelphians to see this and other enforcement policies as part of a "new Philadelphia," where the law is the law.
"People are mad that we're writing trash tickets," Cutler says. "But we do not create the laws. The fact is, agencies in city government are getting their act together and operating as a professional organization. ... It's not better 100 percent of the time, but the departments who are trying are getting blamed for trying."
Cutler acknowledges residents' frustration — particularly the impression that the city is nitpicking small-potatoes issues on the one hand, while struggling to keep up with crime and blight on the other — but says she sees Philly undergoing a cultural change from a city where rules were easily bent, with a little influence, to one where "the rules are going to have to be for everyone."
"You can't have it both ways," she says. "Some people have common sense and good judgment who work for government, but some don't. And if I leave it up to individuals, that's how people wind up in jail."