City Safari 1

Photo of Louis Theroux’s film, Law and Disorder in Philadelphia.

Now that Larry Krasner has been reelected Philadelphia DA, after every shooting or murder in the city, critics of Krasner are quick to point out on social media that Philadelphia is getting what it deserves.

“Philadelphia, you voted him in again, so this is your karma. Enjoy!” 

Krasner’s reelection has been devastating for the city when it comes to the city’s reputation. I was in Florida recently where I met a number of ex-Philadelphians and residents of South Jersey. Many of them had horrible things to say about Philadelphia. “How can people still live there?” “It’s unbelievable what people there will put up with it.” “That mayor is a disgrace.” “It was nice twenty five years ago. It’s all gone to hell.” 

Philadelphia’s international reputation has suffered tremendously in the last twenty-plus years. In 2010, Louis Theroux’s film, Law and Disorder in Philadelphia, was a sensation throughout Europe. Among Europeans, Philadelphia was no longer thought of as the City of American Independence and as the home of The Founding Fathers. The great historic houses here, the Liberty Bell, Carpenter’s Hall, all of it, was instantly traded for an unending narrative of violence. The City of history became the City of Murder. A trashy, dangerous city. 

City Safari 2

York-Dauphin El station.

People are leaving Philadelphia as a result. Some are leaving for other cities while others are fleeing to the suburbs. But are the suburbs really safe? Are they the answer?

There are no border walls separating the City of Philadelphia from the surrounding counties known as the Delaware Valley. The boundaries that exist are invisible: a highway intersection, perhaps a series of traffic lights or a notable building. For someone to then maintain that what happens in Philadelphia (in terms of violent crime) stays in Philadelphia would be misguided and foolish. In plumber terminology, it’s not a question of leakage, but how much.  

Mostly everyone agrees that Philadelphia is suffering from a homicide pandemic. The year 2020 saw 449 homicides, up 40% from 1990 when there were 500 homicides, according to the Philadelphia Police Department data base. The Philadelphia Tribune reported that children accounted for 195 of the shooting victims in 2020, with women numbering 229. 2020, of course, was a year plagued with lockdowns and fears related to COVID-19, when society, turned on its head, had to reinvent itself. 2020 was also the year that anarchist riots destroyed parts of Center City, West Philadelphia and Port Richmond.

COVID closed school buildings, put an end to sporting events, theater productions and the neighborhood gym. But this was merely the beginning of a citywide downward spiral that saw the freezing in motion of citywide programs created to help thwart gun violence, such as Mayor Kenney’s 2019 Expanded Initiative to Combat Gun Violence and the Philadelphia Police Department’s Focused Deterrence Program in four city neighborhoods that concentrated on personal outreach to persons formerly connected to violence. After all, the pandemic had succeeded in closing courts and giving many criminals a sense of freedom.

Philadelphia’s 2020 gun violence numbers were so high the mayor announced that 2021 would see the streamlining of “antiviolence efforts and programs in city offices partner with community members,” meaning that those pre-COVID outreach services rendered untenable would be resurrected, in effect putting an end to the awful ramifications implicit in Unity in the Community founder Anton Moore’s statement, as quoted by The Tribune: “Right now, the kids are home. When they’re home, they’re not just in the house playing at no computer. They’re out looking for something.”

Mayor Kenney has plenty of company when he links the violence pandemic in the city with what happened after COVID hit. The mayor of Chicago stated that her city’s slump into gun violence was the “perfect storm created by coronavirus.” New York’s former mayor followed suit with his comment that the spike in violence is being fueled by horrible dislocation caused by the pandemic. 

Upper Darby Township in Delaware County is a short ride on the SEPTA Frankford Market line from Center City. The western end of the line is the 69th Street Terminal, the connection hub for buses and trolleys that reach far into the suburbs. According to pre-COVID 2016 FBI stats, Upper Darby Township (pop. 82,950) had 386 violent crimes and 6 murders. That puts it considerably ahead of Cheltenham, Montgomery County (pop 40,000) with 61 cases of violent crime. Norristown, Montgomery County experienced 148 violent crimes in 2016. 

While counties closest to Philadelphia tend to score higher crime rates than remote sections of Chester or Lancaster County-- where distance from the city is sometimes viewed as a protective shield-- well populated small cities in so called outlying suburban-country regions have become their own kind of crime magnet. Consider Lancaster City (not to be confused with the Amish farmland region) where, according to BestPlaces.net, violent crime rings in at 41.3 compared to a U.S. average of 22.7. 

Coatesville’s rating on CityRating.com is considerably higher in 2021 than it was in 2016, when there were 408 incidents of violent crime.  

2020’s Best Suburbs to Live in Pennsylvania as provided by www.niche.com breaks down small Pennsylvania towns in Delaware, Montgomery and Chester County according to home ownership, education, income and political views. As a general overview of towns like Swarthmore, Narberth, West Conshohocken, Malvern and Newtown, Bucks County, the reader discovers more than just statistics.  

In Malvern, for instance, we learn that the town has an “urban suburban feel” and that it is one of the best places to retire. Malvern’s population is also listed as conservative when it comes to political views. Assault cases (no year given) number 57 with zero rapes and zero murders.  

Newtown, Bucks County, a good place to raise a family and where most residents own their own home, has a “sparse suburban feel” to it. There were no recorded murders or rapes in Newtown although a few assaults are noted. 

A sense of humor pervades some of these descriptions, especially Narberth’s description as being “close to the City of Philadelphia, but not too close.” Narberth is listed as having mostly politically liberal residents. 

West Conshohocken is listed as generally politically conservative and a place where “Everyone is really kind and nice…it’s safe to walk outside and talk to your neighbors.” East Whiteland Township also scores high on the Niche rating as the 8th best suburb out of 711 in the state in which to live. 

Jenkintown, Montgomery County attracts young professionals and retirees and is listed as “leaning liberal,” whereas Media, Delaware County breaks the home ownership mold in its listing as a mostly liberal, young professional “urban suburban mix” where most residents rent their homes. In 2020, no murders or rapes were reported in Media but a small number of assault cases were listed. 

Home ownership is generally seen as a sign of neighborhood stability. This is also true in the city where the consensus is that renters aren’t all that invested in the neighborhood. 

When it comes to crime and violence, Philadelphia has competition in the form of Chester, Pennsylvania. 

In 2017, The Delaware County Times reported that Chester had a violent crime rate of approximately 1,615 crimes per 100,000 residents; more than double that of any other Pennsylvania city. “Along with the city of Reading, it and Chester shared unemployment rates over 20 percent. Other Delco towns on the top 50 most dangerous list were Upper Darby, 15; Ridley Township, 23; Haverford, 42; and Radnor,” the newspaper stated. 

While the Delco Times rating doesn’t exactly put Philadelphia in the Walt Disney category, it does encourage a look into the distant past, namely 2011, when The Brookings Institute published a short missive, City and Suburbs, Crime Trends in Metropolitan America. 

“In general, the nation’s largest metropolitan areas are much safer today than they were in years past,” the report stated.    “Within metropolitan areas, older, more urbanized, poorer, and more minority communities have benefited the most from these trends, narrowing the disparities between cities and suburbs and underscoring that crime is not a uniquely urban issue, but a metropolitan one.”

This analysis works as the perfect reverse looking glass for what’s happening in Philadelphia today. 

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