Once upon a time, basic city services like street lamps, paved sidewalks, proper disposal of sewage, and even policing were considered progress. But in today’s urban landscape, reformers of various kinds — especially criminal justice and public health experts — appear to want to go beyond mere dog-catching to perfecting the world through catching dogs.
Take the case of Philadelphia, a city closely tied to Benjamin Franklin, born on this day, January 17, 316 years ago in the year 1706. In 1726, when Franklin took up semi-permanent residence in Philadelphia, he introduced several improvements that now seem to be beneath elected officials.
For instance, Philadelphia experienced some embarrassment in early 2021 when it outsourced COVID-19 testing to Philly Fighting COVID, a company whose founder promised more than he could deliver. The 23-year-old, Andrei Doroshin, saw that federal funding was shifting from tests to vaccines. In turn, he abandoned testing clinics designed to cover the city’s poor neighborhoods. The city’s Inspector General found that the Department of Public Health had ignored “several red flags” about the private company.
Philadelphia also had trouble keeping up with trash removal last summer thanks to poor vehicle maintenance and worker shortages. When the city fined citizens for leaving trash out too long, residents understandably objected. Mayor Jim Kenny blamed weather conditions and holiday schedules (Memorial Day). But one journalist didn’t buy the mayor’s account. The city’s trash crisis was “bigger than we alone can contend. It is simply overwhelming.”
After the George Floyd protests, homeless advocates set up encampments on the city’s Ben Franklin Parkway, the gateway to the best art museums. It took city officials five months to close the shanty town after lengthy and meandering negotiations. During that time, neighbors and residents complained of compromised public safety, disruption of recreational activities, and delays to planned development projects.
Worst of all for Philadelphia was the record number of homicides in 2021. After Thanksgiving 2021, when the city hit a record number of murders (501 at the time), District Attorney Larry Krasner assured residents in a press conference: “Basically, we don’t have a crisis of lawlessness, we don’t have a crisis of crime.” Former Mayor Michael Nutter took umbrage at Krasner’s remarks. “Krasner portrays himself as the Great White Hope for Philadelphia’s Black and brown communities,” Nutter wrote. “But if he actually cared about us, he’d understand that the homicide crisis is what is plaguing us the most.”
Yet while Franklin didn’t face problems on the scale of those that confront Kenney, in some ways, the circumstances he faced were even more daunting. Franklin did not have the advantage of the municipal government’s institutional levers. And so, he had to create them.
Well before Franklin became America’s chief diplomat during the Revolutionary War, he had a remarkable run of public service. Key to his work was a recognition of simple social goods. To give citizens a measure of security from thefts and indecency, in 1735 Franklin proposed a system of night watchmen (a quasi-police force), though his plans did not come to fruition for three decades.
Then, in 1736, to protect against fires that could devastate a city comprised of wooden buildings, he founded the Union Fire Company (a volunteer effort).
To provide education for poor children, Franklin started a charity school in 1740.
To protect the city from hostile armies, Franklin organized 10,000 volunteers in a private militia in 1747.
To care for the sick (especially the poor), Franklin led efforts in 1751 to found North America’s first hospital. That same year, he headed up Philadelphia’s first college (later the University of Pennsylvania).
Franklin pursued most of these civic improvements as a private citizen. He only joined the city council in 1751, three years after he retired from the printing business.
Franklin’s reasons for creating the kind of city services that many urban residents used to take for granted were simple. In his autobiography, after discussing at some length plans in London and Philadelphia to reduce dirt on sidewalks (that could also annoy on windy days), Franklin admitted his concern was of “seemingly low nature.” But, he added, human happiness comes not so much from “great Pieces of good Fortune that seldom happen” as much as from “little Advantages that occur every Day.” In essence, some of the most important aspects of daily life were the little things. Significant reforms seldom came to fruition. Plus, they rarely fixed life’s many minor inconveniences.
Becoming a sanctuary city might raise awareness and provide a safe haven for immigrants. But if the Office of Parks and Recreation cannot maintain facilities for the city’s disabled residents, perhaps big ideas for change take their greatest toll on the ordinary residents of a city. In the end, it’s Franklin’s lesson to give appropriate attention to the little stuff and be attentive to the actual needs of citizens that today’s urban reformers would do well to heed.
D. G. Hart teaches history at Hillsdale College and is the author of “Benjamin Franklin: Cultural Protestant.”
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