The downtown is booming. The pope is coming. The DNC will be held here. The restaurant scene is world-class. Philadelphia’s rise as a globally recognized city is the result of the vision and determination of many people, from elected officials to business leaders to philanthropists to citizens, and it didn’t happen overnight.
But if there’s one individual credited with having sparked the current renaissance, it’s former Mayor and Pa. Governor Ed Rendell. Recently, Billy Penn had a chance to sit down with him for a brief but wide-ranging interview.
At a conference table in his low-key offices in the Bellevue on Broad, Gov. Rendell sat in front of both an iPad and a wall-mounted flat-screen — at 71, he’s an adept multi-tasker — and discussed everything from what the city needs to do to make itself attractive to young professionals to the best places to go for a cheesesteak. He dropped (kind of cliched) advice for current Governor Tom Wolf (“Go the distance”) and for the next leader of Philadelphia. He even weighed in on whether a hot dog is a sandwich.
Asked if he wanted policy questions before or after fun queries about food — i.e. salad first or dessert first — Rendell proved his reputation as a policy wonk: “I’ll start with the lettuce.” (If you’re a dessert person, just scroll down.)
You weren’t born in Philadelphia, but you came here for college and then never left. What can the city do to make sure young people want to stay and live here?
The city has come light years since I graduated college. I tell a story, when I became mayor, there was a vacant lot right across from City Hall. So I called the CEO of Vanguard and said, “Look, if you come here, we’ll build a building for you — to your specs, with a 10-year abatement, all sorts of incentives.” He said, “Mayor, it sounds great, but I can’t do it. Because our young people all want to live out in the suburbs.”
That was 1992. Ironically, the world has turned on its head. Vanguard now runs its own bus service: picking up kids who live in the city and taking them out to work at its suburban offices and then bringing them back in the evening. Because young people have have opted almost unanimously now to live in the city.
Because you improved Center City?
I started it, yes, but it’s continued after I left. The single best accomplishment of Mayor Nutter’s administration is he’s made the city more hospitable for young people. He’s made it cleaner, the bike trails, there’s so many things they’ve added.
Have you tried Indego bike share, by the way?
No. I’m not a biker.
So, this city has great restaurants, it’s got great pubs, it’s got significant theater — it’s a great place to live — but all that can only hold you for so long if you have children.
We get young people when they’re single. When they get married, we keep them. When they have children, we keep them. Until their children become school age, and then too often — not all of the time, but too often — we lose them. It’s not just whites, it’s middle-class African Americans, middle-class Latinos, who are also moving to the suburbs for the schools.
Is education the main challenge you think the next mayor will face?
Yes, education, and unemployment in the city. Also crime is still a problem — not so much in Center City, but it’s still a problem.
Did you expect the outlying neighborhoods would start gentrifying like they are?
Sure. There’s only so much you can expand Center City. Here’s an amazing statistic: When I took over as mayor in 1992, there were 58,000 people living in Center City. There are now almost 200,000, and the median income of those folks is like $90,000. That type of spending power gives downtown an incredible vitality.
Well, when you have that downtown, it also helps the neighborhoods. Because the people holding the jobs in Center City — in the restaurants, the hotels, the shops, the stores — are people who live in the neighborhoods.
With all the expansion, Center City sometimes struggles with historical preservation…
In addition to millennials, empty nesters are flocking to the city now. We can’t build condos fast enough for all the empty nesters. So preservation is always a balance. [When I was mayor,] I found if something really had historical significance that was of value to the city, we could hold the line. But there are a lot of things that are historic that have no value. One of, say, 27 rowhouses that have the same architectural bent. To keep something like that because it’s historic, and to stop the development that’s going to create 200 construction jobs and 50 permanent jobs, it makes no sense. So you have to balance the equities there. And you can do it.
Is there room for someone to become as beloved a figure as you were in this city?
I think there probably is one right now, and it’s Chief [Charles] Ramsey. Before the mayoral primary, in the poll that showed [Jim] Kenney up by 25 points, it also showed my favorable/unfavorable with the public was something like 75 to 15. Chief Ramsey was 78 to 16. If he had chosen to run for mayor, he’d be the nominee and not Jim Kenney.
When you won as mayor, it was with a high enough margin that people felt it gave you a mandate. Does that even apply anymore? People assume the Democratic candidate will get the high percentage of the vote.
Well, the [mayoral] election now in Philadelphia is really the primary. I would say Jim Kenney does have a mandate because he won every demographic in this city: black voters, white voters, Hispanic voters, older voters, younger voters.
I got a mandate not just by the margin of my victory, but because I was very specific as a candidate about what I was going to do as mayor. That we were going to have to find ways to balance the budget and if it meant going to war with the unions, we were going to do it. So people gave me a mandate by accepting the things that I laid out during the campaign.
Jimmy less so. He won because people believed he was the best candidate; had the best personal qualities. I don’t think he had an agenda, per se.
You know who didn’t vote in the primaries, hardly, was the millennials.
It’s very tough to get millennials to vote in anything other than presidential elections.
How would you get them engaged? Is there any way?
You’ve got to make the case to them that in many ways the mayor is going to have more of an impact on their day to day lives than the President of the United States. I don’t think anyone of the candidates made that case. I think millennials looked at the candidates and thought, “There’s not a whole lot of difference.” Actually, had Doug Oliver had a lot of money, I think he might have inspired a bigger millennial turnout.
He could run again in the future.
Oh, no question. The Rendell Center for Civics and Civic Engagement, we sponsored a debate among the Democrats that was televised into the schools, and there were around 90 school kids present. The clear winner was Doug Oliver. At the end of the debate, 85 of the 90 kids circled Doug Oliver, wanting his autograph. No one cared about Jimmy Kenney or Lynne Abraham or Tony Williams or whatever. But Doug just didn’t have the money to compete.
You’ve said your success as mayor was partly based on not taking no for an answer.
Right. One of my best assets as a mayor and as a governor, was I would say, “I don’t want to hear why we can’t do this, I want to hear how we are gonna do this.” For example, my lawyers — whether it was the city solicitor or state general counsels — would come to me and say, “Are you sure this is legal?” And I would say, “Well, are you sure it’s illegal?” And if they said no, I’d say, guess what, we’re going to do it, because it will benefit the people, and if someone sues us and we lose, we’ll stop.
When you were Pennsylvania Governor, you oversaw one of the nation’s longest state budget impasses — it took 101 days to get a budget approved. Governor Tom Wolf is now nearly 50 days into his own budget impasse. Have you given him any advice?
Did you see the movie Field of Dreams? Remember those messages Kevin Costner got? I’ve been texting him messages from that movie. “Stay the course.” “Go the distance.” “If you hold, they will fold” — my version of “If you build it, they will come.” He’s got to hang in there, and not let the tail wag the dog. The Republicans made a big deal how Governor Corbett got every budget done on time. Yeah, but they sucked!
They cut education by $1 million, what good is that. My belief was, we’re gonna get it right, no matter how long it takes, and I don’t care if my favorable rating drops. I’m here not to be temporarily popular, I’m here to make change happen. And the only way [Wolf] can effect real change, is if he digs in.
So, should he compromise?
You compromise only when you convince the other side that there’s no way out. That they’re gonna have to come to the table. Let’s say the Wolf budget has seven major things in it, and the Republicans have two major things they want — privatization of liquor stores and pension reform. Well, they can compromise and give the Republicans some of what they want on those two, and let’s say Governor Wolf gets five out of the seven that he wants.
Liquor privatization is something that even Democrat-leaning restaurant owners seem to be in favor of these days.
There is a way to compromise on that where you could expand private sales without doing away with state stores. You give supermarkets the right to sell beer and wine. You give beer distributors the right to sell beer and wine. You give restaurants the right to sell everything on a retail basis. And leave the state stores in place. Now, the state stores that aren’t very profitable will eventually go out of business, but the profitable ones will stay.
On to food and drink. You’ve described what makes a good cheesesteak —
Right, cheap meat, good cheese, grease on the onions.
Do you have a favorite place to get one?
That’s hard. I like Pat’s, down in South Philly, but Geno’s also makes a very fine cheesesteak. I like Jim’s on South Street. But my favorite is probably Dalessandro’s. Funny thing, my son Jesse’s favorite is Chubby’s, which is right across the street. Philadelphia is blessed with a plethora of fine cheesesteak places.
Oh yeah. I would say blessed. It’s not just cheesesteak places, though, anymore. It’s all restaurants. You can get anything. I think we have more fine restaurants per capita than New York does. And it’s a community. I was at the [Eli Kulp Day] fundraiser at High Street on Market, and the whole restaurant community came out, even his competitors. I hear they raised $130,000 — goddamn, that’s awesome.
We heard you took the DNC site selection committee to High Street on Market, where they loved the angry crab spaghetti and that helped clinch Philly’s spot.
I did take them there. I also took them to Reading Terminal Market, and another clincher was the Amish donuts. They just went nuts about those.
Other favorite donuts in town?
I like Federal Donuts. But I also like Dunkin’ Donuts.
How about coffee, are you a coffee drinker?
No. I’m not a coffee drinker. I mean, occasionally if I’m desperate I’ll drink it to stay awake.
So what do you drink in the morning?
Coke or Pepsi?
Well, I used to love Pepsi One, but it is finally gone out of circulation, after years and years. They just aren’t making it. So my preference right now is Cherry Coke Zero.
I would probably give the nod to Salumeria in the Reading Terminal Market. Every year Midge and I have a Christmas Pollyanna with like five couples, and we always have Salumeria cater it.
There’s a great place in [Mayfair] for tomato pie — Tony’s — and Di Bruno’s actually sells it here in Center City. The best pizza in general? I think Stella’s [Pizzeria Stella]. Again, we’ve got a ton, Slice is good. Also, there’s a little restaurant down at the bottom of Ridge Avenue, where I live in East Falls, that has great pizza [In Riva]. And also great meatballs.
I’d say it’s a tie between Village Whiskey, Monk’s Cafe and Misconduct. Which is sort of a sports bar. But it has great hamburgers.
Speaking of sports, best place to watch the Eagles if you can’t be at Lincoln Financial Field?
I think the best place is at the big screen at Xfinity, because you get to watch it with 2000 people. The enthusiasm, you get a sense of common mission.
You can kind of also get that feeling following along on Twitter. Do you do your own Twitter?
I have a company that tweets things like when I’m on TV and stuff, but I do like three or four a week on my own. Actually my most popular tweet ever was just recently — about the McRib.
How about best breakfast sandwiches?
I go to Schlesinger’s Deli a lot. But Starbucks has great breakfast sandwiches, and Dunkin Donuts has great breakfast sandwiches. Wawa has great breakfast sandwiches — and they often have promotions where you can get 2 for $3. In fact, we’re all looking forward to one opening right across the street.
Yeah, what happened to all the Wawas? If you were still mayor, would you have let all these Center City Wawas close?
God, absolutely not.
My favorite is Barclay Prime. But just by a hair. I mean, I love Morton’s, love Capital Grille, love Del Frisco’s, Butcher and Singer. Again, we’re blessed with an incredible number of great steak places.
Are we reaching a point where there’s too many restaurants?
I always ask myself about restaurants and condominiums, who’s going to build the one that’s one too many. But that will take care of itself. Market forces. Like, when Chops opened up in the Comcast tower, I thought they probably couldn’t compete in Center City. But it’s doing well. As the population of Center City grows, the restaurant expansion is continuing to be very successful. Some places you can’t get a reservation unless you call 3 weeks in advance.
Last question: Is a hot dog a sandwich?