LIVING HISTORY: Marian Tasco Honored by Sen. Casey

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MARIAN TASCO is a mistress of 50 years of crucial Philadelphia Black history.

Former Councilwoman Marian Tasco has been invited to Washington, D.C. later this month as the honoree of U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, Jr. (D-Pa.) at his annual Black History Month celebration. After moving here from North Carolina in 1968, she has witnessed the momentous history of the civil-rights movement in Philadelphia for the last 50 years – and played a vital leadership role in much of it.

Tasco served on Philadelphia City Council for over two decades. Following her seventh term as representative for the 9th District in Far North Philadelphia, she stepped down after 2015. A pioneer, she was elected as the first African American city commissioner in 1983. She also served as both City Council majority leader and majority whip.

The list of leaders Tasco worked under or alongside is a Who’s Who of the generation of Blacks who rose to full participation in the corridors of power in this city. “I was running in high cotton,” she acknowledges with a smile. Today, she stands at the head of a lineage of younger public servants whose careers she molded.

She soon settled with her family in Oak Lane, where middle-class Blacks were moving in that era. “We were all younger,” she notes. We cared about our neighborhood and worked together to maintain its quality. We became block captains. We engaged in town hall meetings and rec center activities.”

She met John White, Jr. in 1974 and became involved with him in the Urban Coalition. She worked alongside Secretary of State C. Delores Tucker, Charles Bowser, Sharmain Matlock-Turner, Jerry Mondesire, George Burrell, Connie Clayton and Chuck Finney, among others. She formed a close relationship with Dwight Evans when he first ran for state representative in 1978. Today, he sits in Congress.

While a clerk-typist at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Tasco put herself through night school at Temple University. But political activism was her passion. She began working for Rev. Bill Gray when he first ran for Congress in 1976; two years later, she managed his winning campaign. She remains a member of Gray’s congregation, Bright Hope Baptist Church.

In 1983, she ran for city commissioner as an insurgent. “I was not endorsed,” she relates, “but I won.” Winning became a habit for her. In 1987, White, now 9th District Councilman, made it known he was stepping down and made it known he would support her as his replacement. The Democratic Party did not endorse her, but she won his seat on City Council, which she held for 38 years.

On her election to Council, she also took over the leadership of the 50th Ward Democratic Committee, a post she retains today. The 50th Ward is legendary for its tight discipline and high turnout, an organization whose endorsement any city candidate is eager to seek and relieved to get – as Mayor Jim Kenney, among many others, will testify.

The 50th Ward only works that well because Oak Lane neighbors trust that Tasco and her team know how to deliver on constituent concerns. Thus, when election time comes, they trust her advice on candidates and deliver for her.

“She doesn’t take it kindly when a staffer can’t solve constituent’s problem,” admits Crystal Jacobs, who worked in Tasco’s office.

U.S. SEN. Bob Casey will honor Marian Tasco in the nation’s capital.

In Council, Tasco set to work on core neighborhood issues like zoning. Absentee landlords were attempting to convert some buildings in this community of single-family dwellings into multi-unit housing; Tasco slammed the brakes on that movement and West Oak Lane’s character remains unchanged today.

Tasco pushed for better athletic programs for local youths. She mastered the art of hoarding her councilmanic funds and working with state elected officials to achieve costly, longterm goals, like rebuilding Finley Rec Center and Emmanuel Rec Center.

Predatory lending was a problem that vexed urban Black communities in the 1990s. “People were losing their homes because of balloon loans,” which started out with low interest rates that steadily increased, year after year, she recounts.

Tasco ran workshops on the subject as president of the Black Caucus of the National League of Cities. Reforms she helped put into place have since helped homeowners not just in Philadelphia, but across the land.

Tasco also played a role in engineering community behavioral-health programs, collaborating with Estelle Richman, who was secretary of Public Welfare under Gov. Ed Rendell, and Mayor John Street. In lay terms, this is the wing of public health that deals with drug and alcohol abuse, gambling problems and similar matters. Different neighborhoods face different challenges in behavioral health – some of which can be devastating. But intervenors need to be attuned to the communities they work in, and the way they are set up matters, Tasco argued.

As often befits a political winner, Tasco did not hesitate to cross swords with others in the political arena. “I often fought with Marge Tartaglione,” the redoubtable City Commission chair, Tasco, said. She worked hard to whack community opposition to public housing in South Philly’s Whitman neighborhood, which was widely regarded as resistance by blue-collar whites who were distressed by the chance that low-income Blacks would move onto their streets.

Toward the end of her last term, Tasco clobbered a formidable foe: Mayor Michael Nutter. Nutter wanted to privatize the City-owned Philadelphia Gas Works. But Tasco, as chair of the Philadelphia Gas Commission – the governmental agency that oversees PGW, wasn’t having any of it. She sank Nutter’s boat. Kenney, his successor, has stayed as far away as possible from PGW.

In any career, some important work is measured by what you have left unaccomplished. For Tasco, the standout challenge may be the Logan Triangle – the 40-acre plot just north of the Roosevelt Expressway, built on a wetland fed by Wissinoming Creek in the 1920s, that developers ignorant of environmental science filled in with ash waste and built rowhomes on top of it.

By the 1950s, this neighborhood was already sinking as the ground slowly melted beneath it. By the 1980s, it was uninhabitable. Nine hundred families had to be moved.

Tasco spent much of her career managing this disaster. At first, she had to oversee the complex process of condemning and razing structures, relocating and compensating residents, and fishing around afterwards for a viable new use for this land. Because of its geology, it is hard to put structures on this land. It would be doable – but costly. But is location right off the Roosevelt Expressway and close to the Schuylkill Expressway makes it attractive as a regional destination, so planners are reluctant to turn it into a giant park (especially since it is so close to recently renovated Hunting Park).

“No one has found any answers yet,” Tasco remarked. “Goldenberg, the real-estate company, has been trying to figure out how to do it. We’ll do anything we can to help them. But it’s not been easy.”

History never ends and Tasco’s work is not over.

“The bottom line is service,” she says.

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