|Sunset Avenue Pavilion, Asbury Park.|
Jane Jacobs had a lot of interesting ideas. Here's one of them.
"Thus, although in many cities councilmen are apt to be local 'mayors', this is unusual in New York, where city councilmen's constituencies (about 300,000 people) are too big for the purpose; instead, local 'mayors' are more frequently state assemblymen who, purely because of the circumstance that they have the smallest scale of constituencies in the city (about 115,000 people) are typically called upon to deal with the city government. Good state assemblymen in New York City deal much more with the city government on behalf of the citizens than they do with the state; they are sometimes vital in this way as city officials, although this is entirely aside from their theoretical responsibilities. It is an outcome of district political make-do."
This is from The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961, p. 423 fn.
I started thinking about what such an arrangement might mean in Philadelphia today. Currently City Council is pretty much impervious to the pleas of constituents that it does not want to hear. Councilmanic prerogative - the ability of a district Council member to stop pretty much anything in his or her district - essentially gives the possessor of a district a position that is unassailable by frontal attack. Here in the city of brotherly love, the Quakerly influence means that such an attack would not generally entail brickbats or rotten tomatoes, but rather attempts to change the council member's mind - appeals to reason, appeals to emotion.
This means that proponents of change on a variety of issues - including my two favorites, parking and bicycling - are basically dead in our tracks. Our representatives are sitting on the parapets of their castles, looking down at us and laughing.
It would be nice to think that we could turn them out at the next election, and in a number of cases that may be possible in 2019, but many of the most problematic are in safe seats. Indeed, the Council seat in West Philadelphia looks like it has become a hereditary office. Perhaps we should start calling it the Duchy of West Philadelphia.
Jacobs, however, seems to be showing us another way - a flanking attack.
If state legislators started weighing in on neighborhood issues, what would that do? I don't think Councilmanic prerogative would evaporate overnight, but it might embolden our mayor to say, "Look, buddy, I know you're absolutely opposed to bike lanes, even though you claim to be in favor of them, but I have an Assemblyman who says he is speaking for the constituents you refuse to represent, and he says go ahead with the lanes. So I'm going ahead."
A dream, perhaps. But here's another way a state legislator could help. I got this idea from my brother. We were talking about Jacobs and her idea of the assemblyman mayor, and he mentioned that the City Club of New York had allied itself with a state senator on an interesting project. (John does a fair amount of volunteer work for the City Club.)
A long time ago, a new baseball team needed a new ballpark, and so the Mets got Shea Stadium. This took an act of the state legislature because Shea Stadium is built on city park land, and, without putting too fine a point on it, park land is supposed to be for parks.
Along with the stadium there came various ancillary uses, including parking lots.
A few years ago, the forces of Mammon decided to build a shopping mall on one of the lots. Quite a few people thought that the state legislation only authorized a stadium and related facilities, and using the law to build a shopping mall was a bit of a stretch. The City Club and a number of other groups decided to sue, and State Senator Tony Avella, who represents quite a bit of this part of Queens, agreed to be the lead plaintiff, or petitioner.
The case was called Avella v. City of New York. In June 2017 the New York State Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the petitioners. (For a story in the New York Times, click here. For a story in the New York Law Journal, click here.)
I'm thinking of the recent lawsuit in Philadelphia, which sought to end parking in the Broad Street median. The suit was dismissed. I wonder whether the case would have gone further if the lead plaintiff had been an elected official.
I'm also thinking of a number of other places around the city where a similar approach might work. Currently uppermost in my mind: Washington Avenue.
|Sunset Avenue Pavilion, Asbury Park.|
See also At Least It Makes People Laugh, My Life in Fairmount Park, Vision Zero in Philadelphia.