Licenses That Amplify

Philadelphia License Department Supports Growth for Corporations at the Expense of Individuals and Local Community

By Julie Liebershuck 

Art by Mike Chen

I go to bed at midnight to the sound of heavy machinery. Construction on Woodland Avenue and 48th: a project that has been in the works for more than a year. Later in the morning at 46th and Spruce, my friend will wake up to a similar monotonous doldrum of heavy machinery, where the corner lot next to her has been under construction since September of 2017. A period so extensive that even Google Street View no longer shows what used to reside there before — a social services building called Transition To Independent Living Center — and instead showcases the early stages of construction whose site continues to consume the sidewalk and bike lane in their entirety. 

What is shocking about construction sites like these is not that the development is occurring. We know that developers reign large in the city. From the University of Pennsylvania who has been eating up neighborhood spaces since its inception in the 18th century, to Ori Feibush of OCF Realtors who is notorious for the recent demolition of the historic Franklin Chocolate Factory. What is disturbing is what these corporations are able to get away with. From the blaring construction at all hours of the day to the risks obstructed sidewalks and streets pose to pedestrians and bikers, it appears as though developers are free to operate however they please with no consequences. 

Who grants permission to these seemingly unrestrained and ever-dominating developers? Who is supposed to hold them accountable? The answer to both of these questions is the department of Licenses and Inspection, L+I. 

As the heavy machinery drums, I scroll through their website. Their vision, as defined on a featured PDF titled “Start Right: A Guide to L+I Services,” is stated as: building safety. Their mission is supporting investment, growth, and development through education, code enforcement, and the delivery of outstanding customer service. Their core values: Integrity. Customer Service. Quality. Commitment. Accountability. I laugh at safety and accountability and think of 46th and Spruce. It is not the pedestrians and bikers, it is not the people, for whom the organization builds safety. Who, then, do these core values actually serve?

I click through the webpage and notice an obvious difference between the sections for homeowners and businesses. When clicking on the tab titled “Residents” an error message immediately pops up with a warning that “we’re still working on this page’s design and content” and the question, “how can we make it better?” The notice vanishes and then a seemingly never-ending alphabetized list titled “Service Directory” appears. The page is drab, the brightest color having already faded away with the error message. The link for each service opens a new page describing the “who,” “where” and “how” and prompts users to fill out a form, call a number that may or not work, or provide numbers for other agencies that could be of help. If you have access to a computer and phone, if you have the luxury and time (and money) to parcel through all of the items, to explore their many, confusing avenues, you may be able to find the proper form or number to call. 

The “Businesses” tab however is glorious. A web user’s dream interface. It greets you with a panoramic picture of Philadelphia’s cityscape. “This is your one-stop shop for resources to plan, launch, and manage your business.” You can venture off into three areas — Plan, Launch or Manage — each embellished with an array of resources to assist you. A whole sub-section devoted to announcements and upcoming events. The statement, “We are a city built by entrepreneurs” followed  A link to start a contract and do business with the city sticks out like a blaring billboard. The professional, accommodating design screams business ownership as the ideal form of land use. “Your success is our success.” For L+I, success is a business. For business owners and developers, L+I has got their backs. 

But what happens to the pedestrians and bikers? To the people who live next door? To the social service centers like Transition To Independent Living who do not fit into L+I’s vision of success? Maybe they try to find safer, more supportive spaces where the odds won’t be stacked against them. Or maybe, they perish. 

. . .

I walk through a community garden that flourishes in a lot next to West Philadelphia’s Ahimsa House, a community center for peace, justice and sustainability. The center has offered a variety of free services and safe spaces to the community for the past eight years. The raised beds are just starting to sprout; the plots along the perimeter belonging to Food Not Bombs are rich with fresh soil. The yurt at the back of the lot stands strong, the L+I warning placards half-peeled off. Back in May of 2018, that yurt was something of a scandal, and in fact, set off a series of unfortunate events that forced the house to announce closure this past mid-April, 2019. The drama with the yurt — charged with a building code violation from L+I after a tip-off — was sorted but after all the commotion, L+I started investigating the house itself. 

The chaos that ensued for Ahimsa House is convoluted, just like the contradicting and often biased L+I processes themselves that residents and community members must hurdle through. The series of letters, the piles of paperwork, the timely and unproductive visits to various L+I offices in the city, the neighborhood zoning meetings where landlords and multi-home-owners dominated the conversations… all leading to a fine for $500,000 for every day Ahimsa was in violation of mis-zoning starting in May 2018. This is what happens to community members when they lack the money and power to make it in the successful business world that L+I adores.

As development floods through the streets unmasked yet uncontrolled under the city’s guise of success, we must ask ourselves to whom the land truly belongs and for whom city services like L+I truly serve. We must question the accessibility of a city organization to the general public. Perhaps, even, we should begin by questioning the very concepts of land ownership and use that created organizations like L+I in the first place. Perhaps our notions of land itself must be reworked in order to better serve the people. It was not all that long ago that this land was inhabited by indigenous communities, who were in many cases violently expelled.  The history of violent control of land still lingers; it smells like L+I. Let this piece serve as a call for a radical rethinking. Let’s redefine the sounds of heavy machinery. 

. . .

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