TOPICS > Economy

Philadelphia Adjusts as Manufacturing Fades

December 7, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In part one of the Patchwork Nation series examining communities across the U.S., Ray Suarez looks at Philadelphia's shift from a city of skilled blue-collar workers to one where just 1 in 20 workers makes things for a living.
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GWEN IFILL: Now Ray Suarez begins a special look at the economy we’re calling Patchwork Nation, a special online collaboration between the PBS NewsHour and The Christian Science Monitor that we’re now taking on air.

The project examines 24 counties and towns. We will be taking you to a number of them: boom towns that are growing and diversifying; campus career centers dominated by college life; agricultural communities experiencing tough times on the farm; and service worker centers, small towns in search of prosperity.

The project finds that, across the United States, recession or recovery very much depends on where you happen to live.

Ray Suarez begins in what the Patchwork Nation project classifies as an industrial metropolis, the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

RAY SUAREZ: America’s fifth largest city is waiting for the economic recovery with four centuries worth of assets. It has a rich inheritance of some of the most revered and visited landmarks of this country’s earliest days as a nation, a lively fine arts scene encouraged and developed for decades as an economic engine, and great research universities, like Temple, Drexel, and the University of Pennsylvania.

But, just a few blocks away, the neighborhoods surrounding Penn tell a different story. Vacant, derelict homes dot the landscape. Much of the city is filled with abandoned manufacturing plants. Twenty-two percent of adults are functionally illiterate, not surprising, given a 50 percent high school dropout rate.

And these neighborhoods are not unique. A full quarter of Philadelphia’s residents live in poverty.

JANET RYDER, AFL-CIO: People can come in and use the computers in order to write resumes.

RAY SUAREZ: And it’s only gotten worse with the recession, says Janet Ryder, a labor advocate who sits on the board of the city’s job banks.

JANET RYDER: Now you are finding that you have to be retooled and re-skilled in order to reenter the work force. And that is a big dilemma. So, now not only do we have young African-American males out of work; we have middle-aged people out of work and middle-class people out of work.

RAY SUAREZ: The city shed 80,000 jobs since last fall. Unemployment is at 11 percent. And, in some fields, like the construction trades, the rate is closer to 50 percent.

Let’s be clear. Philadelphia’s problems didn’t begin with the current recession. It’s been losing industry and population for decades, and has in common with many big, older cities problems with crime and failing public schools. What the current recession has done is give the city a longer walk back to where it is widely agreed it needs to go.

One attempt is with the redevelopment of the city’s 1,000-acre decommissioned Navy yard. At its height, the site employed 40,000 people. Today, the Navy uses the area to store mothballed warships.

But, over the past several years, many corporations, like the clothing company Urban Outfitters, have moved in. Last week, Philadelphia’s mayor, Michael Nutter, with Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell at his side, announced the opening of a solar panel plant at the Navy yard.

MICHAEL NUTTER, mayor, Philadelphia: Well, in years to come, when people think about clean energy and solar power, they’re going to be thinking about Philadelphia and the Philadelphia region.

RAY SUAREZ: The mayor sounds like urban executives across the country when he talks about 2009′s most politically stylish color, green.

MICHAEL NUTTER: As we look to the Navy yard increasingly as a clean energy campus, this is a place where, whether you have a GED or a Ph.D. and anything in between, there is a job opportunity for you as a part of our larger effort at Greenworks Philadelphia.

RAY SUAREZ: Hear that? Everything between a GED and a Ph.D., highly desirable, and tough to do. With the emphasis on high-tech, the Ph.D.s are in good shape. At the University City Science Center…

MAN: It’s getting really cold right now.

RAY SUAREZ: … tomorrow’s inventions are taking form, like carbon-neutral air conditioning and a hydrogen gas generator.

DAVID CADE, president and CEO, AlumiFuel Power, Inc.: This is an item of commerce. You can buy the cans. These will go into the two — inside the two reactors. And, with these two cans, you generate 1,000 liters of hydrogen in 20 minutes and launch a five-foot weather balloon.

RAY SUAREZ: David Cade brought his business to Philadelphia from its original West Coast home. He says, a high concentration of top universities allows him to draw on technical expertise and the institutional support he needs to grow here.

Jeremiah White, iPraxis: We have some very, very good speakers.

RAY SUAREZ: Just one floor below, Jeremiah white is trying to build a bridge between Philadelphia’s toughest neighborhoods and the world-class research institutions nearby.

JEREMIAH WHITE: How can we get more African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, people of color in general, involved in commercializing technology?

RAY SUAREZ: White created iPraxis to help a young generation of minority scientists turn their research into inventions and businesses.

WOMAN: The other difference that I am not quite understanding is copyright vs. licensing that.

RAY SUAREZ: For White, this is step one in creating new jobs for Philadelphia.

JEREMIAH WHITE: If you can get some of these young people, African-Americans, involved in the process, they will form companies in that space, hopefully locate those companies here in Philadelphia, and hire people in neighborhoods.

RAY SUAREZ: But it could take awhile before relief is felt in distressed neighborhoods like Mantua in west Philadelphia.

JANE GOLDEN, executive director, Mural Arts Program: That’s looking really, really nice.

RAY SUAREZ: Twenty-five years ago, Jane Golden started the Mural Arts Program as a way to combat graffiti, but now it is being used as a major tool for urban renewal and community activism.

JANE GOLDEN: We have a mural tour program. Instead of the police coming in, suddenly, they see tour buses coming in. If there are restaurants in the neighborhood, people will eat at the restaurants, so we can further support economic development.

RAY SUAREZ: Golden says she can draw a straight line from the hard work local people do on the murals to a neighborhood worth investing in again.

JANE GOLDEN: This is an area of the city that had been decimated by years of poverty and neglect and drugs. And I have seen this neighborhood change in remarkable ways.

RAY SUAREZ: The improvements prompted a local developer to build new houses on the block, but they were completed just as the real estate meltdown took hold. And none have sold yet.

But even this…

I met up with Dante Chinni, director of the Patchwork Nation project, at a place that perfectly illustrates urban transition. Reading Terminal Market was part of a big train station in the heart of town. Now it’s a food lover’s delight. Chinni says not all cities suffered in the same way over the last two years. But, as a group, they took the brunt of the downturn.

DANTE CHINNI, Patchwork Nation: New York has done better than Philly. Philly has done better than Detroit. On the whole, though, I mean, when you take these numbers and average them out, you know, these places have done worse. Their unemployment rate is a little higher.

In fact, their unemployment rate is among the highest of the 12 community types we look at. Their foreclosure rate is among the highest, if not the highest, of the 12 types of place we look at. So, they have felt a lot of pain. I mean, these places have really experienced a lot of the depths of the recession.

RAY SUAREZ: Which, in a weird way, is a win for Philadelphia.

PAUL LEVY, president and CEO, Center City District: Less bad is the new good for us. We’re not as bad as Las Vegas. We’re not as bad as Phoenix. We’re not as bad as Miami.

RAY SUAREZ: Levy is CEO of a nonprofit economic development organization charged with revitalizing Center City, where most of the jobs are located.

PAUL LEVY: This was originally the Curtis Publishing, where “Ladies’ Home Journal” was published.

RAY SUAREZ: One reason Philadelphia is doing OK, he says, is that its industrial base left long ago. Today, the economy is diversified.

PAUL LEVY: We used to have 52 percent of our work force at the beginning of the 20th century in manufacturing. Today, it’s 4 percent. Those were the jobs we were always losing at a faster rate than the national economy. A great strength in health care and education has buoyed us and carried us through this economy.

RAY SUAREZ: And, by the way, the health of the country is tied to the health of the cities, says Mayor Nutter.

MICHAEL NUTTER: You can’t have a recovery without cities and metro areas recovering as well. They talked about some of the industries that were too big to fail. I would say that cities are too important to fail.

RAY SUAREZ: Nutter has pressed the Obama administration to free up more stimulus funds, so cities like Philadelphia can avoid even deeper layoffs. City revenue is way down. Federal money can fill a gap for Philadelphians, as they wait for a better year in 2010.