Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Suburb in the Big City

Brown Brothers Harriman Co.

In gathering views on what made Philadelphia deteriorate, a rather surprising response was given by Don Roberts, of Brown Brothers, Harriman. Don had obviously given this matter considerable thought, and without a moment's hesitation he answered, "The City-County Consolidation of 1858." For a few weeks, I puzzled over this answer, but my older daughter Miriam suddenly made it clear.

Miriam lives in Chestnut Hill, the suburb within the city. Her answer was made up of two anecdotes, relating personal experiences with city employees. The first had to do with the Water Department, which I had always heard was the crown jewel of the City bureaucracy. One day, she had no water in her house. Her first impulse, for whatever reason, was to call Roto Router. The nice man came and told her her pipes were fine, but the water had been turned off at the street, and he was forbidden to turn it back on. Happens all the time, he said, and he knew it was a waste of time to call anyone but the City. After several phone calls to the Water Department, the department sent out a man. At first, the Water Department denied they had turned it off. The next day a man came and, well, Yes, we did turn it off. Your next door neighbor hadn't paid her water bill, so we sent a man to turn off her water. He couldn't find her pipe, so he turned off the nearest thing he could find, which happened to be yours. After hearing my daughter screech in her best accent, they turned it back on. Sorry about that.

Earth Day

The second anti-city-consolidation episode was to discover a uniformed city employee rummaging in her garbage. Asked what he was doing, he announced he was fining her $85 for failing to separate garbage from the trash. After being told she was freakishly diligent in doing so and was in fact one of the founding members of Earth Day, he rummaged some more and found a cardboard box with some strawberry juice smeared on it. So, she took the next day off from work, went down to headquarters to spend the whole day, and had the satisfaction of having the fine removed. Her neighbors later told her, happens all the time. When it happens to them, they just pay the fine and shrug it off.

Those of us who live in the unconsolidated suburbs are universal of the opinion that neither of these episodes could possibly have ever happened in their suburb because suburban officials listen to the citizens. Come to think of it, I'll plan to ask Don Roberts where he lives, just to see if this was the point he was making.

Originally published: Saturday, January 24, 2015; most-recently modified: Wednesday, June 05, 2019