Looming over the Roosevelt Boulevard past Rising Sun Avenue, a bleak, lifeless community subsists of a few scattered business and weathered homes. The neighborhood remains one of the few areas in Philly that’s seen a decrease in population over the last 10 years. The landscape is no better a half-mile away at North Front and Duncannon streets, where Tiffanni Williams pushes a stroller past Olney Field, a beaten bed of scorched grass and dirt. “They could make something out of it,” Williams says of the field. “Make it all nice; It’d be real good for the community.”
The field is in such bad condition that Elaine Tomline, 42nd Democratic ward leader since 2001, prefers making the trip to Temple University’s track to exercise than to risk injury walking around Olney Field’s endlessly punctured track. “You’ll roll an ankle walking around that track,” says Tomlin, peering through the field’s rusted fence. It’s been that way for over a decade and Tomlin says with a disappointing sigh that it’ll be that way for another decade.
“It’s just sitting here,” fumes Mike McCrea, a committeeman in the 42nd Ward. “They haven’t done anything to it in so long, it’s just pathetic.”
The delapidated state of Olney Field is a symbol of the neighborhood’s overall decline and neglect. And just one of its many social and political problems that Tomlin can’t fix because its ward (a political boundary that’s smaller than a Council district) is divided by three councilmanic districts—the 7th, 8th and 9th. The field itself is divided by two districts. Tomlin says the outdated ward boundaries “reduces your community crowd. People who live here don’t know who’s representing them because there’s three of them.” And that, she adds, makes it difficult for her to obtain services from the city, like repairing Olney Field. “For 10 years, we sent letters to each councilperson, the last time in June. We basically asked if we could have one councilperson to represent the ward,” says Tomlin. City Council ignored her requests and her recent testimony at last month’s redistricting hearing.
Under Council’s newly passed reidistricting map, at least a dozen of the city’s 66 wards are divided by two or more districts—bringing the total number of cracked wards to at least 17. The city’s got a disorientated representation of political power and that “minimizes a neighborhood’s ability to plan and to ensure infrastructure investment,” says Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez. “There is an underlying issue here that we won’t address … the ward structure needs to be totally redone. Wards no longer represent neighborhoods.”
“The sizes are too different [because of the population changes],” Quiñones-Sánchez adds. “Everyone ends up getting pieces of this ward and that ward. One neighborhood could be in three councilmanic districts.
Even though Philadelphia’s Home Rule Charter mandates the city to redraw new district boundaries every 10 years, it doesn’t have any specific language that compels ward or division redistricting. So the last time city officials remapped Philly’s wards was in 1965, under Mayor James Tate. In fact, the closest the city has gotten to restructuring its wards is splitting some and labeling them “a” or “b,” like wards 39a and 29b. But “that’s ignoring the problem,” Quiñones-Sánchez says.
Wards are extremely political creatures. Each of the city’s divisions are represented by committee people of both political parties elected by voters. The committee people then select their respective party’s ward leader, giving each of the city’s wards both a Democrat and Republican leader. They all share concerns and problems about their respective neighborhoods, while the ward leader is supposed to act as the liaison to Council.
But liaising is nearly impossible when two or more districts split wards and a ward leader must communicate with multiple council members to deliver a single service, like the 42nd ward. “I can understand two councilmanic districts because of the natural divide [of the Roosevelt Boulevard.], but not three,” says Carol Golden, Tomlin’s Republican counterpart. “It’s kinda awkward.”
The 42nd Ward isn’t the only ménage à trios included in the newly voted on district map. The 18th Ward, which includes parts of Fishtown and Port Richmond, is split between the 1st, 5th and 7th districts.
Traveling south toward the 2nd ward, its rectangular frame extends a little more than a mile between Broad Street and Columbus Avenue and another mile from Wharton to South Streets. It’s a hodgepodge of Italian, Asian, Spanish and other cultures, but like most of Philly, it struggles to maintain a Republican presence. The slender ward is broken by parts of three Democratic state House seats: The 182nd, 175th and 186th.
“In Philadelphia, there’s no area where Democrats can’t be successful,” says state Sen. Mike Stack III. “No matter how custom you draw it, it will always become Democratic.”
Stack controls the 58th Ward, which sits in the 172nd state House District. It’s one of the largest wards in the city with more divisions than any other. In fact, it’s so big, he can barley identify how many districts are in it. “At least three legislative districts,” he initially counts, before realizing there are actually four.
But even if the political will was strong enough to change ward boundaries, it’s nearly impossible to do so in Philadelphia, and it showed in the most recent major attempt to redistrict the city’s wards during the mid ’70s. Shortly after Democratic state Rep. Mark Cohen was elected into the House in 1974, he encouraged support for new legislation that would make it nearly impossible for Philadelphia to restructure its wards. Today, he says, “there’s no such thing as an elected official that represents the ward ... There’s no need to,” Cohen says.
While it’s easier for elected officials to maintain the politically uncompetitive status quo of the city, now would be a good time to redraw ward boundaries and bring Philly’s neighborhoods back together. Until that happens, Council’s recent redistricting map falls short of addressing real political restructuring and the block-by-block needs of the people.
Senate Bill 1282, a shady electoral college plan to give out Pennsylvania’s electoral votes by district instead of population. Add to that the fact that Republicans will be redrawing those very same congressional districts this year, and we’ve got outright gerrymandering on our hands.