Street, John F. 1943–
John F. Street 1943–
Mayor of Philadelphia
In 1999, John F. Street became only the second African American elected mayor of Philadelphia, the fifth largest city in the United States. The former lawyer and longtime local gadfly had enjoyed a dynamic quarter-century in Philadelphia city politics, and his career seemed emblematic of a changing of the guard inside American urban politics: Street was a 1960s-era radical who vociferously fought his way into the system, and then worked from within to change it. Along the way, Philadelphia city changed as well—from a blighted hotbed of racial tension to an energetic, prosperous, and effortlessly integrated city. Street’s election victory was a close one, but observers deemed the reformed rebel an ideal leader for the new millennium. “May all Philadelphians, and all who wish the city well, take heart from the vitality, commitment and humility John Street showed at his inauguration,” a Philadelphia Inquirer editorial declared the day after he was sworn in.
Street, who was 56 years old on his inauguration day, grew up during the 1940s and 1950s on a working farm outside Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, an area not far from Philadelphia. His father, who worked in a brick factory, leased the farm with another family, and Street and his two older brothers, James Jr. and Milton, put in long hours to keep it profitable. “When we came home from school, we had to work our farm,” Street told James McBride in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “There were cows to feed, chickens to feed. I first drove a tractor when I was 9.” Street’s parents were devout Seventh Day Adventists, and he and his brothers grew up according to the strict tenets of the church, which prohibited the use of alcohol and tobacco and observed the Sabbath on Saturday. An active member of the church throughout his teens, Street even served as president of a youth group, the Missionary Volunteer Federation. He remained involved with the Seventh Day Adventists beyond his college years.
Despite the suggestion of a teacher at Conshohocken High who tried to dissuade him from a college education—remarking that perhaps he was better suited for vocational training—Street left Pennsylvania in 1961 to
At a Glance…
Born c. 1943; son of James Sr. (a farmer and brick manufacturing plant employee) and Elizabeth Street; married Carolyn Robinson, mid-1960s (divorced); married Helen Street, late 1960s (divorced); married Naomi Post (an attorney); four children. Education: Oakwood College, B.A., 1964; Temple University Law School, J.D., 1975.
Career: Worked on his family’s farm as a teenager, and as a manual laborer in the South in the early 1960s; substitute teacher, cab driver, and street vendor in Philadelphia in the late 1960s and early 1970s; attorney in private practice, Philadelphia, 1975-80; elected to Philadelphia City Council, 1979; re-elected four times and named president of the Council, mid-1990s; elected mayor of Philadelphia, 1999-.
Addresses: Office— Mayor’s Office, Philadelphia City Hall, 1 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107.
attend Oakwood College, a Seventh Day Adventist school for African Americans in Huntsville, Alabama. He left home carrying three money orders for his $150 tuition, a $5 bill, and a bag lunch for the train trip. Street remained in Alabama after classes recessed for the summer, earning money through manual labor jobs for his living expenses the following year. The racism that he experienced firsthand in the South during the early 1960s caused him some dissatisfaction with his church; Seventh Day Adventist elders avoided politics, and were detached from the civil-rights fray of the era, unlike other sects with large numbers of African American members.
After he earned his degree from Oakwood in 1964, Street married briefly, but by 1966 had moved to Philadelphia. He drove a cab, worked as a substitute teacher, married a second time and started a family. He also began working with his brother Milton, who sold hot dogs as a street vendor and had become increasingly involved in community issues. Yearning for a career in the law, Street applied to Philadelphia’s Temple University Law School. His applications were annually rejected because of his education at Oakwood College, which school officials deemed insufficient. One day in 1972, the director of minority admissions at Temple bought a hot dog from a vendor on Broad Street. “This guy with a scraggly beard and a big old Afro wearing five sweatshirts hands me my hot dog and then says, ’Hey. Why can’t I get in that law school?’” the administrator, Carl F. Singley, told Philadelphia Inquirer staff writers Karen E. Quinones Miller and Cynthia Burton.
Singley told Street that he would look into the matter, and Street was then asked to make a personal appearance before the Law School’s admissions committee; his forthright manner and sincerity impressed them, and he was admitted. After he graduated in 1975 and passed the Pennsylvania bar, Street began his own private practice, specializing in criminal law, but he often took on cases without charging his clients (known as pro bono work) when he felt the merits of the issue were worthwhile. Instead of feeling as if he was making a positive difference in the world, however, Street grew dejected by the nature of his profession. Once, he achieved a hard-won acquittal for a client, and then a few months later the same man was charged in a triple slaying. “I remember thinking that I worked so hard all of my life, I really struggled to get an education, and I applied all that I learned to this case, and now three people are dead because of it,” he told Miller and Burton in the Inquirer.
Street’s brother, Milton, had become a well-known figure in Philadelphia, partly as a result of his challenges to the city’s tough new vending ordinances. Street helped with Milton’s boisterous organized demonstrations, and soon both were regular visitors at Philadelphia City Council meetings. Their activism began to include housing and community issues; they gained a ground-swell of grass-roots support in their charge that the current City Hall was ineffectively using the federal funds awarded to the city for urban improvement.
Milton Street ran for a seat in the Pennsylvania state legislature in 1978 and won the election. Inspired by his brother’s success, Street made a bid for a seat on the City Council the following year, representing north central Philadelphia and much of Center City—and defeated three other challengers. Just a few days after he took office in January of 1980, he was pulled over by the police while driving on a street in his council district, and a license plate check revealed unpaid parking tickets totaling more than $900. Taken into custody, Street was transported to the station house in a police van.
By this time, Street had already been plagued by financial woes that would continue to dog his career. However, he did not let these personal problems detract him from his duties to his constituents, nor did he use his position to obtain preferential treatment. Prior to his election, Street had never earned much money in private practice, and found himself in arrears to the city for taxes and utilities, the Internal Revenue Service, and even Temple University. “I just wasn’t a person who cared or worried about a lot of personal amenities or all that,” Philadelphia Inquirer Robert Zausner quoted Street as saying. “I spent almost no time accumulating any personal wealth.”
But for Street, the antagonistic newcomer challenging the entrenched Philadelphia political system, his entry into municipal politics was blessed, in the first month in office, by the advent of Abscam. In this Federal Bureau of Investigation sting operation, Philadelphia’s powerful City Council president, George Schwartz, and two other council members accepted large amounts of cash from FBI agents posing as wealthy Arab sheikhs hoping for political favors. Street immediately called for their resignation, but the three managed to hold on to their seats until the investigation was final, and a virtual war inside council chambers ensued over the next few months—with Street leading the opposition in a most vociferous manner. In one memorable session, Street conducted a three-hour harangue against Schwartz. “You come here every week and arrogantly sit by, and you went over to the Barclay, and you took the cash,” Street recalled about this infamous day in a 1984 interview with Philadelphia Inquirer reporter James McBride. “Then you … come in here every day acting like you did nothing, like those newspaper reports were just, you know, something that somebody plucked out of thin air…”
Yet Street’s most famous moment during his long tenure on the council came one day in 1981, when its new president ruled that the body would not vote on a bill to rescue the city’s financially troubled school district. “I’m tired of this and I’m fired up, because I got a lot of children out there who are looking to me,” Street fumed, according to the McBride article. “Everybody knows that the overwhelming majority of students in the public school system are black. We’re black. It’s a black public school system… and white people in this council are not going to tell me that I can’t put my bill in.” He then declared that if he couldn’t introduce his bill, then no one else could introduce any further legislative matters either. Street then seized the stenotype tripod in the chambers. A council member grabbed him from behind, while another, Francis Rafferty, sucker-punched him; Street broke free and wrestled Rafferty to the ground. The brawl made the national news.
Street said he learned two lessons that day: “One, that I could pick a 250-pound man up above my head,” he told Miller and Burton in the Inquirer interview, “and two, that if I wanted to be an effective leader, I would have to learn how to approach people in a way that they could accept, and not take offense.” Vowing to improve his attitude and his reputation, Street began to polish his conciliatory skills on the council, and the strategy paid off, both for his political career and his constituency. “I know exactly why I was elected,” he told McBride in 1984 after voters returned him to the council job. “My job is not to complain about the conditions of North Philadelphia. My job is to do something about it. My job is to be a part of the council, so that people who have heretofore been shut out of the process are part of the process and reap the benefits.”
Throughout the 1980s, Street continued to earn a reputation as one of the hardest working members on the Philadelphia City Council. He regularly put in 12-hour days, and used his legal background to school himself on municipal law, Philadelphia’s city charter, local ordinances, council procedural rules—in general, how to challenge the system through its own means. The area of Philadelphia that Street represented, and where he and his family lived, was one of the most disadvan-taged areas in the city; unemployment was 38 percent in the mid-1980s in some sections of his district, and an estimated 40 percent of residents lived below the poverty level when he was first elected. Street’s own home was broken into several times, and his vehicles stolen or vandalized on other occasions. During his years on the council, Street worked to win community development funds and secured minority hiring contracts. The need for adequate housing was one of his top priorities. Street’s district contained 67,000 residential tracts, 11,000 of which were vacant at one point. Behind the scenes at City Hall, he convinced his colleagues on the city council to support a radical piece of legislation. This legislation affirmed the rights of squatters, and allowed them to occupy and rehabilitate abandoned homes within a one-year time-frame. “It’s the piece of legislation for which I take the greatest pride,” Street told the Inquirer in 1984. “The development and concept of that represents the most creative solution to the housing problem I’ve seen in my years as a housing activist.”
By the time a new mayor took office in 1992, the city of Philadelphia was in dismal financial shape. As a respected member of the city council, Street’s political skills were courted by the new mayor, Ed Rendell. “Hoping to avoid the rancor that had plagued previous administrations, Rendell made Street part of every important decision in City Hall, shared patronage jobs, and heaped praise on him,” Miller and Burton wrote in the Inquirer article. “The two met every Tuesday morning—in Street’s office.” In return, Street supported the mayor’s political agenda and schooled himself in municipal matters. Over the next few years, Rendell secured wage concessions from the city’s powerful unions, tightened the budget, and sought new business development for Philadelphia. By the time Street was elected city council president in the mid-1990s, Philadelphia had pulled back from the brink of financial ruin, and the coalition between Rendell and Street was considered a key factor in that comeback.
In 1999, Street resigned as city council president to run for mayor. Rendell, barred by the city charter from seeking a third term, endorsed Street’s candidacy. There were also four other Democratic contenders and one Republican contender for the office. Street edged out the other Democrats in the primary election and faced Sam Katz, a white Republican and municipal finance expert, in the general election. As the campaign heated up, it was feared that voters in the city might indeed choose its first Republican mayor since 1947. Street obtained the support of prominent Democrats such as Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and President Bill Clinton, who made a stop in Philadelphia to stump for him. “Above all, in debate after debate, Street delighted in simply announcing that his opponent was a Republican, a fact Katz hardly advertised,” wrote Francis X. Clines in the New York Times.”Street fairly gloated in counting on this city’s deep history of party loyalty.” Registered Democrats in Philadelphia outnumbered Republicans by a four-to-one margin.
The mayoral election was extremely close, with Street winning by a mere 8,000 votes. In his inaugural address in early January of 2000, he vowed to continue his fight against urban blight and for improved educational opportunities for Philadelphia’s students. “Any community that fails its children can never call itself a success,” the Philadelphia Inquirer quoted him as saying. As the mayor of the nation’s fifth-largest city, Street faced battles with the state legislature on several key issues, including funding for education. He also noted that his election to the mayor’s office had won him a whole new crowd of admirers, many of whom came to him in the weeks after the election as he planned his administration and told him, “We weren’t for you, but we are willing to support you now,” Street told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Street, who has three grown children from his second marriage and an 11-year-old son with his third wife, lawyer Naomi Post, is a longtime fitness fanatic who once forced a newspaper reporter to endure a 17-mile bike ride at a fast clip in order to conduct an interview. Less than a month after taking office, Street appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show after a magazine poll found Philadelphias to be the most overweight urban residents in the United States. He told the talk show host that he planned to establish a fitness czar’s office in his administration. “We are sedentary. We don’t exercise enough. We really do have to create a movement,” Street told Winfrey, according to Philadelphia Inquirer writer Monica Yant.
New Republic, November 1, 1999, pp. 13-14.
New York Times, May 13,1999; May 19, 1999; May 20, 1999; November 3,1999; November 4, 1999.
Philadelphia Daily News, January 26, 1980, p. 2.
Philadelphia Inquirer, March 18, 1984; April 18, 1999, p. Al; May 7,1999, p. Al; January 3,2000; January 4, 2000; January 20, 2000.