by Tony West
Child of a neighborhood in the throes of major social and economic changes, Jared Solomon ran for state representative in order to steer those changes for the better.
The 38-year-old attorney has lived in the area since he was three, when his parents broke up and his mother, a schoolteacher, moved in with him above his great-grandparents’ butcher shop on Magee Avenue.
Education took Solomon to good schools outside the Northeast – Swarthmore for college, Villanova for law school – and to work at first in the US Army’s JAG corps, then in prominent Center City law firms. Yet he stayed in the modest middle-class community where his family had its roots.
But if Solomon had come up in the world, Lower Northeast Philadelphia as a whole was not so lucky.
“My family had stayed there because it was a very strong community,” Solomon related. “It its problems but it was stable. There was a nice interconnectedness; neighbors spoke to each other.”
The 21st century saw these strengths start to unravel. “A lot of these positives have deteriorated,” Solomon noted. The business corridors of Bustleton, Castor and Rising Sun Avenues grew shabby. Major nearby employers faded away.
“Poverty has grown by 62% since 2000 in Castor Gardens, Oxford Circle, Lawncrest, Wissinoming and Burholme,” Solomon ticked off. “Unemployment now outpaces the city as a whole, at 20%. Crime is down citywide but it’s up here.
“Property values have plummeted by 10%. My mom has invested thousands of dollars in wood floors for her home; she cannot get that back in today’s Northeast.”
Solomon was troubled by these changes. But he liked others.
“The way we move forward is by embracing the great diversity we have in my district,” he said. “We are the most diverse community in Philadelphia: 30% African American, 20% Latino, 12% Asian. We are seeing some very good ethnic cuisines along our business corridors.”
And the community is attracting young families with long-term interests in mind. When Solomon looked around his home streets as a young man, the first thing he noticed was its youths.
“I thought we could do better for the kids of our neighborhood,” Solomon said.
Ten years ago, Solomon founded a civic action group called Take Back Your Neighborhood. It started with meetings in Castor Gardens above Magee Avenue. “I wanted it to be very results-oriented,” he said. Its first project was to get city trashcans on Castor Avenue where there were none. It took two years, but TBYN got some Big Bellies.
To tackle crime, TBYN partnered with a local security firm to increase neighborhood patrols.
Solomon’s team then turned to the children. It started a youth basketball program for 6-8th-graders. It lobbied to install the first playground at Spruance School and replace the one at Max Myers Rec Center, which also got a new mural. It developed a grieving program for children who have lost a parent.
TBYN sponsored a “diversity festival” at Max Myers, now in its sixth year, with children’s activities, food vendors and introductions to Northeast history; it draws 2,000 people nowadays, said Solomon.
“The more that I focused on neighborhood issues, the more that resonated with the people in the community,” said Solomon. “We were pushing to get a seat at the table.”
Civic activism provides an amateur farm league for urban politicians. By focusing on the young families and new arrivals in a changing neighborhood for a decade, Solomon positioned himself to turn pro.
His break came in 2014, when new General Assembly District boundaries were set after the 2010 census. In effect, the freshly drawn 202nd Legislative Dist. was more of a new district than an adjusted old one. Its incumbent, then-41-year veteran State Rep. Mark Cohen, was a scion of a redoutable clan of hard-working progressives founded by legendary Councilman at Large David Cohen. But redistricting pushed Mark eastward from his ancestral haunts in Olney into new Northeast territory – where Solomon had been growing his network.
Solomon jumped into the 2014 Democratic primary race for the new 202nd Dist. He lost to Cohen by a sliver, 52-48% – this despite zero endorsements from Democratic Party ward committees and scant interest from labor unions.
In his 2016 repeat matchup with Cohen, Solomon moved his numbers far and fast. He says he raised $133,000 in 2014 but $200,000 in 2016. Party and labor support fell into place: He picked up endorsements from the 35th, 54th and 62nd Wards; from Democratic leaders like Controller Alan Butkovitz, Council Members Maria Quiñones-Sánchez and Bobby Henon, and State Sen. Tina Tartaglione. Police, firefighters and plumbers unions ranked up behind him.
Solomon romped home last spring, with 57% of the votes over Cohen. Now he’s the new state rep, having faced no opposition in the general election.
Solomon, like most victors, likes the way he ran his race.
“In an age where everything about politics is negative, in both my races, I concentrated on the positive message of my campaign. People wanted to see the neighborhood improve, their businesses grow, their schools to be better,” he said.
The biggest lesson the 2014 loss taught Solomon was the election-day campaign.
“We began months ahead of time, charting out a robust election-day program,” said Solomon. “I give credits to my campaign team and hundreds of volunteers.”
Now he’s in in Harrisburg. How will he do?
Solomon is all in for bipartisanship – a shrewd move, given that Republicans control every play in his new workplace.
“I am convinced that we work best when we work in a bipartisan way, and at our worst when we hunker down in our ideological camps,” Solomon commented. “I was campaigning right in the midst of a nine-month state budget debacle. Nobody in my community said, ‘Don’t get anything done! Keep pushing on principle.’ Instead, they told me, ‘We want you there to come home and produce.’ I aim to work across the aisle in a substantive way.”
Education is Solomon’s core interest – in particular the education of young people who may not be college-bound.
“I mentor and coach kids,” Solomon said. “For some, college is not an option. When you have no structure at home, no leadership in the schools, that’s probably not going to be that young person’s reality. There is a whole spectrum of intelligences. We have to stop demonizing people who don’t want to go to college.”
Solomon wants to explore what other states do. Texas and Georgia, he says, have pioneered different accreditations toward achieving a high-school degree, in which a craft is part of the curriculum. He wants to incentivize Philadelphia businesses to develop programs in the schools and for summer apprenticeships.
Business corridors are another passion of Solomon’s. His part of the Greater Northeast has little in the way of locally managed corridors and it hurts, in his opinion. He cites Tacony’s Alex Balloon as a model for neighborhood business development in Torresdale, another Northeast community with issues, as a model.
Solon wants to work with Philadelphia City Council, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. and the resources of Harrisburg to turn his commercial corridors around. Someday, he hopes, people from around the region will discover how cool it is to explore his dynamic part of town.