President Lyndon Johnson charged Robert Weaver, the first secretary of the Office of Housing and Urban Development with rebuilding American cities into places where a “good life is possible.” Weaver was also the first African-American presidential cabinet member, whose story remained untold until Professor Wendell Pritchett decided to write a book about cities in the mid-twentieth century.
Pritchett was shocked to discover in his research that no biography existed of the man who was “deeply involved in the initiation, creation and implementation of policies that would define the modern city.” To fill that gap, Pritchett wrote Robert Clifton Weaver and the American City: The Life and Times of an Urban Reformer.
In the book, published last year, Pritchett describes Weaver’s prodigious efforts to revitalize American cities and improve race relations through public-private collaborations. Pritchett is continuing Weaver’s legacy today. In the last two years, Pritchett has played an advisory role in shaping urban policy at both the national and local levels.
In 2007, Pritchett chaired an urban policy task force for thenpresidential candidate, Barack Obama. His group proposed a FACULTY NEWS FLASH number of policy ideas to focus the government’s efforts to help cities and urban areas redevelop and to promote cooperation between different levels of government. That same year, he also helped then candidate Michael A. Nutter as policy director for his mayoral campaign. After his election, Mayor Nutter asked Pritchett to serve as deputy chief of staff to help him implement some of the policies they proposed during the campaign. Pritchett returned to the law school last fall, but he continues to serve the mayor in a variety of capacities.
Mayor Nutter, Pritchett says, wants to invest in and bolster changing neighborhoods, as well as coordinate the actions of different agencies so that, for example, the city doesn’t have to waste time and resources by having one department repair the streets and then having another tear it up to fix pipes.
Like in many cities, some Philadelphia neighborhoods are experiencing a revival, with dollars and residents flowing in, while large parts of the city remain in distress, says Pritchett. Cities like Philadelphia, he says, cannot thrive without investment and guidance from HUD.
“HUD helps produce housing, but it doesn’t produce good neighborhoods,” says Pritchett. “HUD needs a broader approach.” Pritchett says HUD should promote targeted neighborhood investment, inclusionary zoning, land banking (a clearinghouse for abandoned properties), and tax incentives.
After the presidential election, Pritchett was appointed to Obama’s HUD transition team. He also led a team that made recommendations to the HUD secretary for long-term changes to improve the agency.
The report recommended increased funding for the Community Development Block Grant program, the last relic of the federal government’s efforts to improve neighborhoods. It also urged HUD to revise the program’s regulations so that local governments can use the money as needed to address their individual problems.
So what sort of future does Pritchett envision for Philadelphia? As a city situated between New York and Washington, Philadelphia has enormous potential not only for tourism, but also as a livable city because of its affordability, says Pritchett. Add its large stock of historic homes, proximity to parks and a host of academic and cultural institutions and the elements are there for a vibrant city, with government’s help, he says.