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Former Mayors Michael Nutter and Ed Rendell Discuss Philadelphia’s Past, Present and Future

May 10, 2017

Pennoni Honors College Dean Paula Marantz Cohen, PhD, on stage with former Governor Ed Rendell and former Mayor Michael Nutter.
Pennoni Honors College Dean Paula Marantz Cohen, PhD, on stage with former Governor Ed Rendell and former Mayor Michael Nutter.

It was only the best of times, not the worst of times, when former Philadelphia mayors Michael Nutter and Gov. Ed Rendell convened on Drexel University’s campus May 3 for A Tale of Two Mayors: A Conversation on Philadelphia’s Past, Present and Future.” The event was a special live taping of “The Drexel InterView,” a television show hosted by Pennoni Honors College Dean and Distinguished Professor of English Paula Marantz Cohen, PhD.

The two mayors sat on stage in the Bossone Research Center’s Mitchell Auditorium to speak freely about their experiences in office, the city, its development (specifically in University City, in no small part thanks to Drexel), and its educational institutions — and that was just in the 40 or so minutes of the program moderated by Cohen.

During a 20-minute Q&A session with the audience, Nutter and Rendell offered their two cents about topics including how to get involved and make a difference both in the city and in the current political climate, as well as the role of social media in today’s society.

The event will be edited and condensed in an upcoming “The Drexel InterView” episode — the first one ever performed in front of a live audience. Drexel’s Dragon Productions and three undergraduate students from the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design’s Film & Video Department filmed the event, which took place during the Pennoni Honors College’s Week of Undergraduate Excellence, Laurel Murr, an undergraduate production assistant for “The Drexel InterView,” will handle all editing and final mastering of the episode in-house, with the episode then being posted to “The Drexel InterView” YouTube channel and distributed to regional (if not national) stations in the coming months. Audience members who attended the live taping got a sneak peek of the episode’s contents.

The biggest theme of the event was succinctly stated by Rendell at the very beginning of the night: “We have a Philadelphia today which is so much better than it was 25 years ago. It still has its challenges, but it’s come a long way.”

From left to right: former Governor Ed Rendell, Pennoni Honors College Dean Paula Marantz Cohen, PhD, and former Mayor Michael Nutter.

Rendell would know better than anyone, since he was first elected mayor in 1991 and served for eight years. Nutter, too, could agree: He landed a spot on Philadelphia City Council in 1991 and served through all of Rendell’s years as mayor and then some, leaving his seat to become mayor of the city from 2007–15. As such, Nutter and Rendell’s long history of working together and learning from each other was on full display on stage — along with their senses of humor and willingness to riff off one another.

Both mayors named one of their biggest accomplishments in City Hall as restoring some sense of pride in the city, something Rendell called a “mental or emotional success.”

“We made people believe in the city again,” he said. “We made people believe that the city could be a great place to live again. We restored confidence in the business community. We restored confidence in the effectiveness and competency of city government. And we changed the whole mental outlook towards the city 180 degrees. It was a terrific accomplishment and one that I value more than anything else.”

Nutter said the same about his own administration, especially when it came to restoring a sense of pride in the ethics of city government and the city’s public safety efforts. He credited Charles H. Ramsey, whom he brought in as Philadelphia Police commissioner, and Alan Greenberger, whom he brought in as chief planner and then deputy mayor for economic development, as playing a large role in that mission. Interestingly, all three have taken positions at Drexel: Nutter has joined the LeBow College of Business as an Executive Fellow in Leadership; Ramsey is now a distinguished visiting fellow in the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation; and Greenberger, who was in the audience, is a distinguished teaching professor and department head of Architecture, Design & Urbanism in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design.

The two mayors also commented on the development and growth of University City, which occurred throughout their combined 16 years as mayor as well as the time periods in between and after.

Former Mayor Michael Nutter speaking with guests before the event.

“Center City is moving west and West Philly is moving east. Between the two universities, Drexel and Penn, they’re also going north and south, with Drexel taking the more northern route in,” said Nutter, adding that Penn and Drexel’s current and most recent presidents both “transformed University City.”

A large part of that growth has been on behalf of Drexel, through the creation and development of the Schuylkill Yards innovation district and the University’s civic engagement work in West Philadelphia’s Promise Zone.

“I think [Drexel] President [John] Fry could generate development in Siberia,” said Rendell.

On a personal note, Cohen asked Rendell which he enjoyed better: being mayor (from 1992–2000) or governor (from 2003–11).

“Not even close. Mayor is much more fun,” Rendell said, stating that while he had the resources to accomplish more as governor, he enjoyed being a first responder and known personality as a mayor.

“If you woke me up at a deep sleep at 3:15 in the morning and put a flashlight in my face and said, ‘Who are you?’ I would respond ‘Mayor Rendell,’” he said.

To which Nutter quickly replied, “Mayor, I would also just, if that happens, you should immediately call the police.”

Pennoni Honors College Dean Paula Marantz Cohen, PhD; former Governor Ed Rendell and former Mayor Michael Nutter look on during the audience Q&A portion of the event.

The moderated part of the evening ended with Cohen asking both mayors about their thoughts on the future leaders of the country, based on what they’re seeing in the classroom (Rendell is a longtime distinguished senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and Nutter is also the David N. Dinkins Professor of Professional Practice in Urban and Public Affairs at Columbia University). Both replied that they were very optimistic about America’s future leaders, with Nutter describing the resilience that grew in his graduate students from the emotional morning after the election.

“Having taught for 30 years at Drexel, I’ve been seeing precisely what you described — an increased commitment to social service, to good works, to civic engagement and to really engage with other people in a compassionate way, which I think makes me very optimistic as well,” said Cohen. “And hearing the two of you makes me feel great about the city.”

During the Q&A with the audience, Rendell and Nutter spoke passionately about what students at Drexel, and Philadelphians, can do to make an effort to ultimately make a difference in the city and beyond.

“Don’t say it’s not possible to make change,” said Rendell. “Don’t forget about marching. Don’t forget about protesting. Don’t forget about demonstrating. But remember to vote.”

And as he had for most of the evening, and for his career as mayor, Nutter followed Rendell, adding, “Communicate. Resist. Organize. Vote. When we do that, we win.”