He was Asian, a visitor to our country, and spoke broken English.
We were on a SEPTA Regional Rail train, rolling slowly on tracks that wend their way through North Philadelphia.
He was staring out the window, intently.
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He turned away from the sight of decaying row houses and poverty outside, and asked, “What is this? How did this happen?”
Try explaining that to a stranger with few language skills, no sense of city history, no framework to understand the issues, all in the 10 minutes before we got to Suburban Station.
Here’s what I told him: It used to be a nice neighborhood and then the jobs left.
That simple explanation has bearing on just about all the great issues facing Philadelphia as we approach tomorrow’s election.
We are said to be the poorest big city in America, so don’t let the gentrification of some neighborhoods sway you. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 26.5 percent of us live below the poverty level, and it’s a lot higher than that in the neighborhoods our train was passing.
Indeed, years ago we volunteered with a church group that did home improvements in one of those neighborhoods. We’ll never forget one woman who had no running water, so she used the small concrete patio outside the back door for a toilet. And not just for urine.
Or the elderly woman who had no kitchen floor, so she had to walk atop the floor joists.
Here’s what we thought at the time: how could human beings be living like this five miles away from the sylvan suburban settings up the road?
So we’re putting poverty and jobs that do not involve selling illegal substances down as the number one issue facing Philly.
Poverty ends up in schools, too. Tens of thousands of kids qualify for free breakfast and lunch at school.
Many would say that education and the miserable state of city schools should be first on the list, and it’s hard to argue with that.
Somehow, the state government under former Gov. Tom Corbett thought it was OK to nearly bankrupt a school system responsible for 150,000 kids.
But it’s not all about numbers. I interviewed a dedicated grade school teacher recently who told me he had to buy his own classroom supplies, and paint his own miserable-looking classroom.
And I talked to a millennial parent who, like thousands of her peers, is trying to decide whether to leave the city so her toddler can get a good public education.
And then there is transportation. The governance of SEPTA is complex, but the city has two representatives on the board.
Here’s the question:
Have you ever lugged a baby in a stroller up and down the steps to the Broad Street subway line, where many stations have no elevators or escalators?
And do you feel secure late at night on the subway or the Market-Frankford El? The only sign of authority I’ve seen is the person driving the train. He/she would have no idea what to do, and no alternatives, if trouble breaks out.
Poverty, jobs, schools, transportation.
That’s what’s at stake tomorrow.