Rizzo: The man and the statue

Frank Rizzo and the benefits of adversity

Did Frank Rizzo's achievements as Philadelphia’s police chief and mayor merit a statue on a prominent piece of public land?

The statue: a useful lesson for the age of Trump. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia.)

I believe the answer is no. But in politics, the right things often happen for the wrong reasons. This month, seizing on the current widespread revulsion toward statues honoring Confederate generals, slave owners, and segregationist Southern politicians, thousands of well-intentioned Philadelphians took to Center City’s streets to lump Rizzo in the same category and to demand that a 10-foot-tall bronze statue of him — planted outside the Municipal Services Building since 1998 — be similarly toppled, or at least moved to a less in-your-face venue.

As Shakespeare put it, ‘tis a consummation devoutly to be wished: Rizzo’s tenure as mayor (1972-80) was a civic disaster. The man was a demagogue, a bully, a polarizer, a rampaging bull in our municipal china shop, and a borderline fascist.

Kamikaze mission

If you weren’t there, you may have difficulty imagining what a negative and downright nasty place Philadelphia became during the bizarre 20-year period (1971 to 1991) when Rizzo ran for mayor six times, draining the civic energies of his supporters and detractors alike. Once installed in the mayor’s office, Rizzo reduced virtually every problem confronting his administration to a personal battle between himself and some designated villain. In 1978, after suffering overwhelming defeat in his disruptive effort to change the City Charter so he could seek a third consecutive term, Rizzo acknowledged that he had been warned all along that his campaign was doomed, yet plunged ahead anyway: “I had to go on that kamikaze mission, or I wouldn’t be Frank Rizzo,” he told a TV interviewer.

Was he a racist? While I can't pretend to speak for him, Rizzo did cater to the prejudices of his racist constituents. When these blue-collar whites, in their frustration with social and economic forces beyond their control, blamed their troubles on minorities, radicals, bureaucrats, or intellectuals, Rizzo listened sympathetically, greased their prejudices, reinforced their hunger for scapegoats, and reassured them that he could solve their problems. These were, of course, also the classic characteristics of a demagogue.

Real civic saviors

The Rizzo statue was funded privately, and its high-visibility location was approved in 1998 by then-mayor Ed Rendell as a gracious, if misguided, gesture toward his erstwhile political opponents. (Rendell now says the placement was a mistake.) In theory, public statues are erected to honor public heroes like military leaders, civic saviors, and (occasionally) writers, poets, and artists. But no statue memorializes Philadelphia’s greatest mayors of the past century, presumably because their works speak for them:

  • Joseph S. Clark (1952-56) demonstrated to a tired and cynical city what government could accomplish with inspired leadership. He replaced the city's sidewalk gas lamps (yes, in the 1950s!) with electric lights, instituted street cleanings on a regular basis (!), launched a new sewage treatment system, replaced the city’s horse-drawn garbage wagons (!) with modern sanitation trucks, and created modern fire stations and playgrounds throughout the city.
  • His successor, Richardson Dilworth (1956-62), guided the transformation of Philadelphia’s largely abandoned historic district into Society Hill, an upper-middle-class enclave that triggered the subsequent rebirth of Center City at a time when white flight to the suburbs was a national plague.
  • Rendell (1992-2000) solved a seemingly insoluble financial crisis and also launched the reinvention of South Broad Street as a theater district.

That ’90s makeover

Rizzo, by contrast, was to municipal government what the iceberg was to the Titanic. When he left office in 1980, Rizzo bequeathed to his city a decaying transportation system, a politicized school board, racial animosity, spiraling property taxes, reduced city services, an annual homicide rate that was 65 percent higher than it had been when he became police commissioner in 1967, more than 100,000 lost jobs and a nearly 250,000-person drop in population, as well as a pension crisis that persists today. Those catastrophes weren’t all Rizzo’s fault, to be sure. But the fact remains that this master of the illusion of control was helpless to stem the city's decline and did much to exacerbate it. His administration’s greatest achievement — the Center City tunnel linking commuter-rail lines east and west of Broad Street — was launched by his predecessors, opposed by Rizzo, and completed only with his grudging assent.  

In the years immediately following Rizzo’s death in 1991, two remarkable things happened in Philadelphia. First, the city’s supposedly insoluble financial crisis suddenly evaporated; second, Philadelphia's habitually negative residents suddenly started feeling good about themselves and their city. Much of this makeover was rightly credited to Ed Rendell and John Street, respectively the city’s mayor and City Council president through most of the 1990s. But an important factor, I would submit, was the removal, by death, of Rizzo’s overwhelming presence.

And now, Donald Trump

Yet you could argue that those tempestuous Rizzo years were a blessing in disguise, forcing many traditionally reticent Philadelphians to discover strengths they hadn’t previously known they possessed. Rizzo’s inadvertent gift to Philadelphia, I would argue, was the anti-Rizzo coalition of liberals, African Americans, Latinos, LGBT people, feminists, and, yes, even white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, who shared little in common other than the contempt in which Rizzo held them— that and their mutual if unspoken belief Philadelphia was an urban experiment worth defending. The persistence of their unlikely alliance even to this month’s anti-statue demonstrations explains to some extent Philadelphia’s subsequent reinvention as a world-class center of arts and culture, education, medicine, cuisine, upscale hotels, and gleaming high-rise buildings the likes of which were unknown to Philadelphia during any of its so-called previous “golden ages.”

But real life, unlike literature, provides no final chapter. As I write, the reins of the U.S. government have been handed to a bullying, egomaniacal, juvenile, demagogic con man next to whom Frank Rizzo was a model of public service, self-sacrifice, and mature self-effacement. In the Age of Donald Trump, Americans may yet need to relearn the lessons of the Age of Rizzo. In this sense, that ludicrously inappropriate Rizzo statue, like the man himself, offers us a useful starting point for a necessary civic dialogue. Who ever said democracy was easy?

To read a related commentary by Alaina Mabaso, click here.

Our readers respond

Bob Levin

of Berkeley, CA on August 31, 2017

Thanks for this, Dan. Good writing, good thinking, good clarity and calm (and indignation as appropriate). Refreshing in these brain-clotting times.

Margaret Darby

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on September 02, 2017

We should examine the intent of those who erect statues memorializing horrible people. The intent of placing statues of Civil War heroes in prominent places can only be intimidation, especially those erected during the Jim Crow era.

As to Mr. Rendell's intent when he steamrolled the funding and statue of Mayor Rizzo and made sure it was placed prominently near City Hall, only he can say. But something tells me it was not to make a friendly gesture towards a political opponent who was unable to appreciate the tribute.

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