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Next time you visit City Hall, say hello to the cleaners, maintenance workers and security guards. They help keep our 700-room municipal labyrinth running smoothly for the suits who make the big decisions — even though many of them don’t technically work for the city.

Since the 1990s, managing building service workers has been outsourced to a private company, to the tune of $14 million a year.

Big-dollar contracts in Philadelphia have long been political chess pieces — and as the Inquirer reported Thursday, this one is no exception. Former Mayor John Street is mad at Mayor Jim Kenney for switching the contract holder. The Kenney camp said it disqualified PRWT Services Inc., a firm with deep ties to Street that’s been managing municipal maintenance since 2003, because it made undisclosed political contributions. Street said Kenney is just “making excuses.”

Chicago-based management firm Jones Lang LaSalle will take over for PRWT in June. The shift away from a “minority”-owned firm has caused some outcry from critics who have been questioning Kenney’s commitment to diversity.

But will the change affect the workers themselves? And is a private contractor the best way for the city to handle its building maintenance crew?

Privatizing to save dough

Rich Lazer, Kenney’s deputy mayor of labor, said workers shouldn’t be disrupted by the management change.

Privatization of their roles started during Philly’s major financial crisis in the 1990s, when then-Mayor Ed Rendell’s administration enacted sweeping austerity measures and even went to war with big unions in an effort to correct the city’s balance sheet.

One of those quiet measures was the privatization of many essential services, which has become a touchstone of fiscally responsible government (as well as a lucrative revenue stream for corporations, lobbyists and political insiders who exert influence to steer contacts to favorites groups).

The subtext of all outsourcing — whether to local firm in Philly, one in Chicago or one overseas in India — is that someone is making less for their labor, said Donald Cohen, executive director of In the Public Interest, a California-based national research center.

There’s only a couple ways private firms can do the job cheaper than the government itself, Cohen said: use fewer workers, pay them less, or cut wages and benefits.

“There’s nothing else,” Cohen said. “There’s no other magic. That’s the only place you can save money.”

Good wages, but ‘no pension like a city pension’

Contracted security and maintenance workers in large buildings (over 100,000 square feet) are represented by 32BJ. Gabe Morgan, the union’s Pennsylvania director, said Philadelphia is unique in how many third-party vendors have been able to unionize successfully. From security guards to airport workers, the city’s contracted blue-collar workers have achieved some major victories through unionization in recent years.

Because of these agreements, a contracted cleaner in City Hall is making $19/hour with health insurance and benefits, and contracted security officers make $16.50 with retirement plans and health insurance. Those wages are far above the city’s current minimum wages.

Morgan said many benefits for 32BJ contracted blue-collar workers are comparable to those in the public sector, although “there’s no pension like a city pension.”

In short, it still makes more fiscal sense to outsource.

“The Administration believes it is likely still prudent to continue under the current arrangement in which management of the buildings is handled by a qualified firm working under a professional services contract, however we do plan to do an analysis to assess if that’s the case,” city spokesperson Mike Dunn wrote in an email.

Who gets the contract?

Morgan said both Kenney and Street have been supportive in fighting for conditions of contracted workers.

“To be candid, it’s a political story. Both this administration and the Street administration have been very proactive about turning poverty jobs into good jobs,” he said. “The in-between administration, not so much.”

As for the political spat, Kenney has taken hits from his rivals on the campaign trail over his commitment to diversity — and the movement away from PRWT’s minority-run firm plays into that. But the administration maintains it is merely enforcing the rules about breaking rules that prevent vendors from making political contributions without disclosing them.

Cohen, the contracting expert, said that’s a good thing on its face.

“It doesn’t often happen when a contractor will break the law or violate a contract,” Cohen said. “It’s a big deal to apply sanctions.”

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Philadelphia is basically block party capital, with thousands popping up each year. But after a change in the process last season, some residents are having a hard time getting the permits required to host the outdoor festivities.

It’s been eight months since the Streets Department changed the application process. Despite the city walking back the revision, there’s still confusion on how all it’s supposed to work.

When officials announced people had to get separate approval from the police before they could apply to host a block party, it caused a lot of backlash. They quickly changed their tune — restoring the old process and straight-up apologizing for creating such a mess.

So everything’s back to normal now, right? Wrong. With spring in its infancy, block party season’s gaining momentum — and Philadelphia neighbors are reporting new glitches with the online system.

“They had a kind of streamlined process before and then they blew it up,” said South Philly resident and Billy Penn Who’s Nexter Dena Driscoll. “And then pieced it back [together], missing a few pieces.”

How it’s supposed to work

The process now goes like this, per Streets spokesperson Kelly Cofrancisco:

  1. You apply online, submitting a completed form and signatures from 75 percent of your neighbors
  2. You’re notified that you’ve gotta wait a few weeks for police to approve your application before you make a payment
  3. Police either approve or reject the application
  4. If you’re approved, you’re notified that you can now make a payment
  5. You pay up
  6. You get a permit

But recent applicants say this order — where payment comes only after approval — has surfaced a glitch in the online application.

Pay now or pay later?

When Driscoll applied online to host her own block party, she did everything she was supposed to: Collected signatures from her neighbors and sent in the form. She submitted everything on April 5, and from there, Driscoll was instructed to wait a few weeks for police approval, then pay the $25 application fee.

A few days later, she got an error message via email. Driscoll’s application didn’t go through, it read, because she hadn’t paid the fee — yes, the same fee she was instructed not to pay until she got the PPD nod.

The error message James Gitto received after he applied for a block party permit Courtesy James Gitto

To boot, the email misstated the date she had selected. In an email Driscoll received on April 7, the system identified her block party date as April 5 — that was the date she sent in her application, not the date she selected to host the party.

The email provided a phone number and link that Driscoll could visit for help — but when she clicked, the landing page told her she couldn’t pay yet, because she hadn’t gotten police approval. (Is your head spinning yet?)

“The email freaked me out,” she said. “So I call the number, no one picks up and no voicemail is allowed.”

Mixed messages Courtesy Dena Driscoll

Ultimately, Driscoll said she only resolved the problem through a contact in her district councilperson’s office, who helped move the process forward behind the scenes.

She’s not alone in her experience. Other hopeful party hosts report the exact same glitches: the payment error, the broken link and the unreachable phone number. West Passyunk neighbor James Gitto was so frustrated by the ordeal when he applied in March that he gave up on his block party altogether.

“I just never heard anything,” Gitto said. “And it didn’t make sense to move forward with logistical stuff if I didn’t know if I would get the permit.”

Cofrancisco of the Streets Department said these are isolated incidents, and the system is working as designed. She recommended neighbors having trouble with the system call 215-686-5501 or email block.party@phila.gov.

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Last week’s perilous news that Penn Book Center was closing seemed a reminder of Amazon’s inevitable death blow for all brick-and-mortar bookstores. And yet, Philly is seeing something of a groundswell among literary placemakers, from new indie booksellers like Uncle Bobbie’s in Germantown and A Novel Idea in East Passyunk to the burgeoning hub known as Blue Stoop.

In a few weeks, you can add another name to the list.

Philly craft publisher The Head & the Hand has signed a lease to open its own storefront on the Frankford Avenue corridor in Kensington. At a preview on Wednesday night, they welcomed a few dozen friends and neighbors to their cozy storefront within Fireball Printing‘s new facility, where newly built wooden shelves will soon be stocked with contemporary fiction, children’s books and other genres.

Linda Gallant Moore, editorial director for the 8-year-old small press, said that the bookshop will be grounded in community programming.

“There are successful bookstores that are ‘books and'” she said, citing the popular comic book/coffee shop Amalgam two blocks south on Frankford Avenue. “Sometimes it’s a coffee shop, sometimes it’s community minded. They’re all about inviting the neighborhood in.”

The kids' corner is waiting to be filled with books Linda Gallant Moore

Planting roots on this stretch feels right for the press at this time.

Founded in 2011 by writer/urban farmer/trash czar Nic Esposito — his dayjob is heading Mayor Jim Kenney’s anti-litter cabinet — the Head & the Hand began in Fishtown, then had a stint at the historic Physick House in Society Hill. But since 2016, it has been without a physical home.

A few years ago, this new location might have been seen as an odd choice for a fledgling bookshop, despite rapid gentrification to the south. The Lehigh Avenue corridor has been one of the last bastions for the neighborhood’s industrial glory years.

But on Coral Street at Lehigh, the long-delayed Kensington Community Food Co-op is set to open its doors this month. The bones of townhomes are erecting in every direction — a development surge coming at a time when the city has been closing several homeless encampments nearby in an effort to combat an opioid crisis that continues to beset the surrounding neighborhood.

The storefront, pre-shelves Linda Gallant Moore

Gallant Moore says the Head & the Hand is still in the getting-to-know-the-neighborhood period. At Wednesday’s preview, they took suggestions on what they’d like to see in the space — a process they plan to continue after their soft opening on Friday, May 3.

Head & The Hand Books plans to stock plenty of fiction, with an emphasis on local and small presses, including local lit mags like Apiary and the Barrelhouse. There’ll be children’s books galore, and a smattering of true crime, poetry and Philly history.

The store will also serve as a space for the press’ core mission of publishing local authors and providing writers workshops. It helps that their printer, Fireball, is now also their landlord and neighbor.

“It’s funny how bookstores spark conversations,” Gallant Moore said. “People came forward to offer they’d come read to kids for storytime. These are the things you can’t expect or predict, but you hope for.”

The small press is taking suggestions for what books to carry. Linda Gallant Moore

Head & the Hand hopes the food co-op will draw traffic to the bookstore during its new hours, tentatively Thursday through Sunday, and they’ve already worked out a 15 percent discount on bookstore merch for co-op members.

“The hope is that the bookstore functions as a way to bring in a different revenue stream to keep the press going and to serve the neighborhood,” she said. “We’re going to have books, but we’re going to have programming that the neighborhood will really like.”

Plans are to hold a soft opening on the first Friday in May. The bookstore will continue to operate as a non-profit like the press itself, under the fiscal umbrella of the Culture Trust of Greater Philadelphia. Proprietors consider their 8-month lease in the space a wait-and-see period.

The Head & the Hand Books joins a growing cadre of independent booksellers. Even multi-city indie chain Shakespeare & Co., which opened a branch in Rittenhouse last year, is making the model work by emphasizing the community elements of the space. Amazon or not, Gallant Moore says bookstores are still a unifying force — as much as the physical books themselves.

“We can’t quit them,” she said. “In our world of intensely digitized experiences, it’s a retreat to hold paper in your hand and look at works that aren’t glowing back at you.”

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See it at Instagram.
View this post on Instagram

having a spring think

A post shared by jacquelyn caglia (@cagliagram) on Apr 16, 2019 at 4:53am PDT

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Philadelphia ended its decade-long run as the only big city in the country without a street sweeping program on Tuesday with the launch of a pilot program being deployed in six neighborhoods.

But instead of adopting the method that’s popular across the country, Philly officials chose to do things a little differently.

Most municipalities — including New York, Boston, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. — apply parking restrictions to clear the roads and make room for street sweeping vehicles. Instead, to avoid burdening drivers with the task of moving their cars out of the way, Philadelphia will use a two-part process.

First, a walking crew equipped with backpack blowers, brooms and rakes will send sidewalk trash under and around parked cars and into the street. That’s where a mechanical sweeper will take over, sucking up all the litter.

Confused? Here, watch for yourself.

Starting this week, seven-person trash pickup crews will traverse these neighborhoods:

  • West Philadelphia (from Parkside to Lancaster Avenue and 52nd to Girard Avenue)
  • Southwest (from Woodland to Kingsessing Avenue and 49th to Cemetary Avenue)
  • Kensington (from 2nd to Frankford Avenue and Tioga to Lehigh Avenue)
  • Strawberry Mansion (from Diamond to Lehigh Avenue and 29th to 33rd Street)
  • Logan (from Godfrey to Roosevelt Boulevard and Broad to 5th Street)
  • South Philly (from McKean to Oregon Avenue and 4th to 8th Street)

They’re all areas that ranked 2.0 or higher on the city’s Litter Index, a number that indicates so much street trash, it requires city services to clean up.

On the day after each neighborhood’s regularly scheduled trash pickup, sanitation trucks will make their way through. Simultaneously, SWEEP Officers will patrol the neighborhoods on foot to watch out for code violations related to litter. If this pilot goes well, Mayor Jim Kenney said he hopes to expand it to the rest of the city — paid for by an $11.7 million Streets Department investment over the next five years.

During a demonstration of the program on Tuesday morning, it proved to be a pretty dusty operation. The blowers, of course, sent trash flying around the 5700 block of Greenway in Kingsessing, into the eyes, ears and throats of many onlookers. *coughs into keyboard*

Some groups are now lobbying against the program, like the urbanist org 5th Square. Volunteer Dave Brindley is worried about the longterm effects of trash wafting around residential areas — especially in Kensington, where litter oftentimes includes used needles.

“I was surprised how bad it was,” Brindley told Billy Penn. “All of these dust particles are going to be kicked up into the air, along with the toxic exhaust from the leaf blowers.”

Other problems: those backpack blowers are noisy, and they’re known to be terrible for the environment. Also, the program might not be scalable for the rest of the city if it takes seven people to get the job done — most street sweeping initiatives employ just two staffers per crew.

City spokesperson Kelly Cofrancisco wants to assuage Philly residents by reminding them that this is just a test. If it doesn’t work out after six months, officials will adjust the program or nix it altogether.

“In general, that’s why we’re doing a pilot,” Cofrancisco said. “Obviously we plan to evaluate this and see how it works.”

In the future, she said the city’s considering battery-powered blowers to lessen the environmental impact. Plus, Cofrancisco thinks today’s demo was likely the worst the program will ever look — since there was so much litter and debris left on the sidewalk. Once folks are cleaning it weekly, it won’t get this bad again.

“We are definitely looking at all the options for cleaner streets,” Cofrancisco added. “Ultimately, we think a lot of people also need their cars to get where they’re going: their job, school, wherever it may be.”

How communities solved their own problems

Meanwhile, Philadelphia neighborhoods haven’t waited for the city to solve its own trash problem. Long before the city announced its street sweeping-variant program, folks had gathered together to clean up streets on their own.

Newbold

In 2015, this South Philly neighborhood founded a street cleaning program that employs folks from the Philly behavioral health nonprofit Horizon House — folks with addiction, developmental disabilities or those who’ve experienced homelessness. The trash collectors traverse the neighborhood with brooms and trash bins in tow, scooping up the litter they see.

A Streets Dep. staffer shows off a 35-gallon trash can to North Philly residents Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn Bella Vista

Then last year, the Bella Vista Neighbors Association joined in, using a fundraising campaign to pay for sidewalk and curb sweeping that was staffed by a professional trash collection company.

North Central

In the neighborhood around Temple, there are a couple ongoing efforts. First, there’s a partnership with the nonprofits One Day at a Time and JDog Junk Removal & Hauling, a veteran-staffed trash removal service, to intensify cleanup efforts during times when students move out of their off-campus housing — and often dump their trash on the streets.

And just this month, Temple launched a community-run special services district, which aims to increase the capacity of the nonprofit-contracted program. That one hasn’t launched quite yet.

And the Streets Department announced back in November that it would pilot the Philacan program, which tests the effectiveness of additional trash cans outside each rowhome at reducing litter. (Neighbors say it hasn’t worked so well.)

Germantown's new dump truck Courtesy Jordan Ferrarini Germantown

In February of this year, the Northwest Philadelphia neighborhood got on board, too. A couple Germantown residents teamed up to buy a literal trash truck. They’re now training six employees — all young people from the community — to drive it around and clean up the community.

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Calling it the “worst kept secret” in baseball, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred on Tuesday afternoon climbed onto a sunlit podium in front of Independence Hall and officially announced the All-Star Game is coming to Philadelphia in 2026.

This info had already been leaked last week, which isn’t that uncommon for Major League Baseball. In 2018, for example, fans sussed out the location when a banner naming Nationals Park as host was spotted by fans and media at an early season exhibition game.

What is very uncommon, however, is letting fans know where the ASG will be held a full seven years in advance.

“We usually don’t announce things out of order,” Manfred said. “That process went out the window with respect to Philadelphia.”

Why the super early kerfuffle? Here’s five reasons.

USA250 is a really big deal

The ostensible reason for the super-advance notice is because of the significance of the year, which marks the semiquincentennial of the Declaration of Independence signing and the birth of the United States.

Philly is making a big push to be THE destination for what’s likely to be a huge nationwide commemoration (bring on the jingoism), and a lot of bringing the ASG here in 2026, “had to do with our desire to be part of the 2026 celebration,” Manfred said.

So Mike Schmidt could reminisce

There’s a symmetry to the occasion. The 1976 All-Star Game was held in Philadelphia during the Bicentennial celebrations here, and was generally considered a big success. Who better to confirm those positive vibes than former Phillies third baseman Mike Schmidt?

“One of my favorite memories was going out [in the ’76 ASG] and being introduced to about a five-minute standing ovation at Veterans Stadium,” Schmidt said from the stage on Tuesday.

The silver-haired legend also remarked that he’s almost 70 years old — so maybe MLB didn’t feel like taking their chances on him being agile enough to crack jokes if they held the news a couple more years.

So Philly can reclaim ‘Sports City, USA’

One of USA250’s goals, according to Dr. Andrew Hohns, the investment baker who’s chairing the nonprofit’s efforts, is to rack up as many sports events in Philly during 2026 as possible. During the Bicentennial, he said the city was host to a whopping 130 sports events — including the NBA and NHL all-star games — and that it helped earn Philadelphia the moniker of “Sports City, USA.”

A preliminary search didn’t turn up much evidence of Hohns’ claim, although a Daily News article from 1983 did include the line, “The way things are going, Philadelphia is starting to look like Sports City, USA.”

In the meantime, though, the title was snagged by a different town. Frisco, Texas, began branding itself as Sports City, U.S.A. in 2017, and right now if you google the phrase, that’s what you’ll get.

Philly needs those seven years of advance notice not just to get other sports leagues on board with the 2026 plan, but to wage a marketing battle with those Texans..

Bryce Harper’s hair

The only current player to speak at the announcement event at Independence Hall was the city’s new home run wizard, Bryce Harper. The $330-million charmer didn’t say all that much during his turn at the mic — although he did take a dig at the former players lined up behind him, calling them “all those old guys back there” — but he did look good.

If MLB had waited several more years, who knows whether Harper’s coif would still be so perfect, or whether the city would still be viewing him with reverence. Taking advantage of the sweetheart stage of this love affair was a smart move on the part of the league.

David Montgomery is ailing

Possibly the truest reason for the premature announcement had to do with something sad. David Montgomery, the current chairman and former president of the Phillies, is very sick.

He had surgery for cancer back in 2014, and though he subsequently returned to work and for several years showed few signs of slowing down, word is that he’s not doing all that well right now.

At the announcement on Tuesday, Commissioner Manfred and other speakers, who included Governor Tom Wolf and Mayor Jim Kenny, alluded to that fact, noting they wished Montgomery and his family the best, and wished he could be present.

In 30 years of friendship, Manfred said, Montgomery never asked for a favor, but “about two years ago, he began asking me if we could announce it here — and if we could do it really soon.”

So Dave, wherever you are, this one’s for you.

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At last, Philadelphia transportation rail lines are visible on Google Maps.

Go ahead, try it out for yourself. Head over to Gmaps on your desktop or Android device (the function’s not yet available on iOS) and tap or click to turn on the “Transit” details, and you’ll see a web of interconnected colored lines. Included so far are BSL and MFL subway lines, plus some trolley, PATCO, Regional Rail and light rail routes.

Before this update, you could see transit stops on Google Maps — but the route lines were not highlighted till now.

This new mapping display didn’t come easy. SEPTA has been working on getting it implemented for half a decade, spokesperson Andrew Busch told Billy Penn.

“One of our goals was to show how multiple SEPTA lines pass through the same streets or tracks,” Busch said, “to help riders better understand how they can use our system and the options that are available to them.”

Busch explained to Billy Penn that conversations between Google and the transit authority were complex and long-lasting — and took years of back-and-forth.

SEPTA’s been providing its transit dataset for more than five years now, he said, but at first the mega-search-engine insisted the files weren’t compatible with its system.

The Philly transit agency didn’t give up — its tech staff made continuous adjustments, repeatedly nudging Google to speed up the process. At the end of 2018, SEPTA folks were connected with Google contractor Ito World, and the two parties collaborated to finally integrate the geospatial data and display it on Maps.

“This gives our customers another way to access information about the transit system,” Busch said.

The new map brings Philly up to par with most other cities. New York, Boston, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Los Angeles, Seattle — all of them already had their transit lines uploaded.

It’s part of a larger push on SEPTA’s behalf to update its digital presence. In tandem with its February 2019 schedule change, officials released some pretty new maps to better display bus frequency. They’re color-coded to easily show which routes run every 15, 30 and 60 minutes.

And if you’re really in a rush, there’s an extremely readable map that displays just the routes that arrive most frequently (that’s every 15 minutes, pending your usual SEPTA delays).

SEPTA riders, rejoice — we can finally use the Internet Machine to easily see the big picture.

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