Cherelle Parker: The Girl Who Found a Home in City Hall

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COUNCILWOMAN Cherelle Parker is Philadelphia’s “Public Servant of the Year 2019.”

BY TONY WEST
Although she has risen far from humble beginnings, Councilmember Cherelle Parker would never describe herself as a “self-made woman.”

No, “I am a product of the village,” she insists proudly.

Parker’s “village” is the bluecollar Black community of Northwest Philadelphia where she was raised in the 1970s and 1980s. She recalls a neighborhood of quiet streets settled by solid folks without much schooling: City workers, factory workers, domestics, pastors – a society where people knew each other, looked out for each other and shared what they had.

Parker describes herself as “a very old-fashioned person, with old-fashioned values.” That’s because she was raised by her grandparents, two immigrants from the rural South who came north and met in North Philadelphia in 1950s. Her grandfather, a Navy veteran, was partially disabled; the family relied for the most part on her grandmother, a domestic worker, for support. They had five children, two of whom were lost to gun violence.

Her mother bore her at age 16. Her biological father was never in her life. When Parker was 11, her mother died.

The linchpin of the family was her grandmother, a strict disciplinarian. “She did the best she could to make sure that I had access to what they did not have,” Parker says. If the girl did not do well in school, there were repercussions.

COUNCILWOMAN Parker and former Councilwoman Marian Tasco stand near a sign on Vernon Road and Greenwood Street that was installed as part of a major revitalization project on the block.

Competitive and headstrong, young Parker learned to play the game – literally. Like many a working-class Philly kid, neighborhood athletics became a focus of her social life. She participated in track with the Philadelphia Flames and was a cheerleader for the Oak Lane Wildcats – a skill that would later serve her well in public life, as anyone who has heard her address a crowd will testify. She is impossible not to notice and impossible not to hear. For sure her colleagues in government have long since caught on to that as well.

But Parker saw early on that there were two kinds of people: the haves and the have-nots. And that she belonged to the have-nots. Her grandparents had little education and few job prospects. That left them at the mercy of life’s risks as well as of people with more money.

“My grandmother cleaned homes for wealthy people,” Parker notes. “They paid her by leaving a brown envelope, cash under the table. That took her out of the tax structure – but also out of Social Security. We had no health insurance. We depended on food stamps. We were always living close to the edge.”

Parker developed a visceral detestation of domineering in any form. Low-wage workers like her grandmother were being bullied, as she saw it. “I’ve hated bullies since I was a little girl,” she says. “That led to a lot of scuffles in my youth. To this day, nothing ticks me off more than someone who’s never been in poverty who dares to pretend to know what poor people should do. What they need, rather, is the power to advocate for themselves.”

Tough Times Strike Northwest Philly

COUNCILWOMAN Parker is joined by former Councilwoman Marian Tasco, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Commissioner Katherine Ott Lovell, PPR staff and the Finley Recreation Center Advisory Council in November 2017 to break ground for $2.1 million improvements at the recreation center.

Two hard facts struck Parker’s village in 1989.

The first was her grandmother’s death, when Cherelle was only 16. That left her with only her grandfather, whose strength was the opposite of her grandmother’s: quiet and gentle.

The second was the onset of the crack cocaine epidemic. It devastated her home communities.

During that era, the old industrial mainstays of their bluecollar world were flickering out. The Budd plant closed, the Tasty-Kake plant closed.

This world was no stranger to drug problems. There had been opioids in the community since the Vietnam War. But they had become a low background buzz. All of a sudden crack blitzed Parker’s teenage society.

She was saved by coaches and teachers who inspired her to do better. In particular, Parker credits her high-school English teacher, Jeanette Jimenez. Jimenez filled the girl’s head with inspirational Black writers: Langston Hughes, Ntozake Shange, Toni Morrison.

“I AM PASSIONATE about education. It is the most-important tool for changing a person and a society.”

She was also supported by the neighborhood matriarchs who drove her to take a positive role in the community by volunteering for service. “They encouraged me to stand up. Had it not been for the community reaching out to me,” Parker avers, “my life could have gone different ways.”

The political realm was taken seriously in the Parker home. Both veterans of Jim Crow Southern discrimination, her grandparents were committed to voting and took the girl along with them when they went to cast their ballots. They lived in the “10th Ward, 2nd Division,” as the councilmember will tell you to this day.

Parker still remembers the day in 1979 when a tall, thin insurgent knocked on her family’s door and introduced himself as a candidate for State representative. That tall, thin man was Dwight Evans. She avidly followed the 1983 electoral success of Wilson Goode, the City’s first Black mayor – as well as Marian Tasco, the first Black City commissioner.

But the earth moved for Parker in 1990 when, in high school, she entered a speaking contest sponsored by Councilwoman Augusta Clark. Her English teacher pushed her to enter, so she wound up orating to City Council on “The Power of Writing, Reading & Books.”

After her presentation, Gussie Clark introduced her to then-freshman Councilwoman Tasco, who represented Parker’s district.

It was the beginning of Part 2 in Parker’s life.

Parker Is Introduced to Public Life

COUNCILWOMAN Parker presented a citation to Lawncrest resident Frank DeFranco, chief warrant officer for the U.S. Navy and commander of the Michael J. Crescenz Rising Sun VFW Post 2819 as part of Vet Fest. Pictured with Council President Darrell Clarke.

That speech in City Council won other things for Parker besides Tasco’s acquaintance. She picked up a $1,000 prize, for one thing – which looked like $100,000 to a poor N.W. Philly kid in 1990. Most grownups in her neighborhood didn’t get $1,000 checks for anything. The check was sponsored by Dr. Marciene Mattleman, a pioneering journalist with KYW and fierce advocate of literacy.

Parker also won a trip to Senegal and Morocco in West Africa, quite a plum for a young lady at Magnet Parkway High School who had never been out of the United States. Her chaperone, Karen Warrington of sponsor WDAS, who later became one of Congressman Bob Brady’s (D-Phila.) most-trusted voices.

The die was cast. At age 17, Parker was tumbling into politics.

Parker was adopted by Tasco as an intern, paying $200 a week, in a City Council office while still in high school. It is the same office she now occupies today as councilmember: City Hall Room 577, an interior suite with an unusual mezzanine level, all cluttered with decades of data and memorabilia.

COUNCILWOMAN Parker stands with student advocates from Olney and staff of North 5th Street Revitalization Project.

WDAS also gave her an internship, not bad for a college kid on break. Parker’s mentors had seen to it Parker got a scholarship to Lincoln University. So her nose was kept to the grindstone winter and summer. Meanwhile, she acquired an MS in English education.

The first year out of college, Parker threw herself into the education field. She took a job as a high-school English teacher in Pleasantville, N.J., an onshore township outside Atlantic City with a high-minority population whose horizons rarely stretched beyond getting a service job in the casinos. She led the school’s African American Club and taught English as a second language in night school.

No one who engages with Councilmember Parker on any policy will fail to learn that they are dealing with a former teacher. “I am passionate about education,” she says. “It is the most-important tool for changing a person and a society.” Later in her career, Parker added a master’s in public administration from the University of Pennsylvania.

But the long arm of her past reached out to Parker and tapped her on the shoulder in 1995, when an opening came up in Tasco’s Council office. She heeded the call and came home. As she puts it today, “I’m Philly born, I’m Philly bred, I’ll be a Philadelphian till I’m dead.”

COUNCILWOMAN Parker hugs a student during a bicycle giveaway in December 2016 in partnership with CH2M Hill and Neighborhood Bike Works.

Parker started out handling public relations for the councilwoman. As an intern in 1991, she was assigned to represent Tasco at community meetings. Over the next 10 years, she more or less ran the table of job titles: special projects coordinator, special assistant. Regardless of the title, most councilmanic work boils down to the endless challenges of constituent service.

“It’s not sexy work,” Parker says. The problems are complex. But it makes you feel good when you accomplish something for those who need something. We had a strong team that produced results.”

In Tasco’s office, Parker tackled a wide range of issues. Parks and recreation centers, which had done so much for her in her younger years, were a constant cause for advocacy in the 9th District. Actual abandonment and blight are not big problems in Cedarbrook, E. Mt. Airy, Oak Lane, Olney, Lawncrest, Lawndale, Burholme Oxford Circle and Fox Chase; but these “middle neighborhoods” are at risk of developing the problems that have plagued Lower North Philadelphia, they know it and they don’t, by and large, have the private resources to stave off signs of deterioration in their communities. Tasco’s philosophy was to fight across the board to maintain the public spaces and public institutions, a view that Parker adopted.

“The esthetic appeal of a community is important,” she explains. If schools, recreation centers and business corridors look run-down, housing values deteriorate, jobs dry up and neighbors drift away.

When lower-middle-class workers and property-owners run into problems, they are vulnerable to predatory lending. Parker researched that issue and developed legislative initiatives for her boss to tackle it.

During her service as a Council staffer, Parker began to work with the National Council of Cities, polishing her urban-governance expertise.

The most-spectacular challenge during Parker’s years as a councilmanic aide, however, was the collapse of the Logan Triangle.

“MY GOAL IS to ensure that taxpayers in all neighborhoods get a chance to see their taxpayer dollars at work.”

Welcome to the Sinking City

This 36-acre tract just north of Roosevelt Boulevard in Olney had been developed as a seemingly pleasant residential neighborhood in the 1930s – when the chief fuel for industrial power and home heating was still coal. That led a lots of coal ash, which had to be dumped somewhere. One of those places was the valley of Wingohocking Creek, which widened at that point into a marshy lowland.

Killing two birds with one stone, developers hauled coal ash out from the city and dumped it into the marsh, up to 40 feet deep in places. Then they threw up housing on the new level surface.

The ash was soft and began to subside under the weight of buildings and traffic. By the 1980s, frequent sinkholes led to collapses that destroyed homes and triggered hazards in utility lines. The buildings were steadily abandoned and demolished, forcing the relocation of 1,000 households over the next 10 years.

The Logan Triangle lay then in the 9th District. For years, Tasco and Parker dealt with the final phase of relocation and its aftermath. First, coal ash contains toxic chemicals and had to be removed. The new wasteland attracted illegal dumping, introducing true blight into a middle-class community. Then began the long, intricate and frustrating search for a sustainable new development plan for the site.

It’s a process that has continued even after the Triangle was transferred to the 8th Councilmanic District in 2011. There is current hope that a new recreational facility can arise on part of the land, but no ground has been broken yet.

For Parker, it was a lesson in city planning for the long haul.

Catching the Local to Harrisburg

In the summer of 2005, she was excused from that lesson when a new political opportunity arose. State Rep. LeAnna Washington of Parker’s 200th Legislative District ran for and won the 4th State Senate District seat. Parker decided to go after that vacancy in a special election.

“I knocked on every door in the district,” she says, in steamy summer heat. But she was not alone. A coterie of young Black political operatives, often second-generation consultants like Mungo Sanchez and Billy Miller, bonded with 32-year-old Parker and took up her cause.

A major player, however, was Sam Staten, Sr., the redoubtable head of Laborers’ District Council and a power broker in North Philadelphia. Parker reports he was generous with funding and dispatched Local 332 Laborers to work the streets and the polls with her.
To this day, Parkers vows she is a staunch supporter of organized labor.

COUNCILWOMAN Parker and Councilman Derek Green paint the Accessible Icon on a parking space outside 1515 Arch Street following a press conference to announce the City’s adoption of the new symbol.

So Parker arrived in Harrisburg, where she soon learned that much of what she wanted to do for her city was actually determined at the State level.

Take, for instance, the “Philadelphia Tax Fairness Package” that emerged from the General Assembly in 2014. It was Parker’s response to the dilemma that rising home values in the 21st century posed on older residents whose budgets were tailored to the home values of an earlier era. To prevent them from being forced out of their homes by soaring real-estate levies, Parker wanted a cap on tax increases for owners of modest income.

But tax laws like these are determined at the State level. So a measure had to be crafted that would move through a legislature dominated by the opposing party, the Republicans.

COUNCILWOMAN Parker speaks during one of her annual town hall meetings and budget briefings at Dorothy Emanuel Recreation Center in Mt. Airy.

Parker succeeded in working from the minority to get a majority to pass her legislation. That result enabled the City of Philadelphia to institute the Longterm Owner Occupancy Program (LOOP) which has spared tens of thousands of homeowners from the worst impact of gentrification – while enabling them to reap its benefits.

Parker served 10 years in the House of Representative, the last five as chair of the Philadelphia Delegation. She served on many committees, including Labor, Appropriations and Rules.

Among her other legislative accomplishments were the Commonwealth’s Transportation Bill of 2013, which mustered a $2.3-billion investment in infrastructure across the state, including $450 million for public transit – vital to Philadelphia and Southeastern Pennsylvania. Parker pushed through approval of a special cigarette tax to fund Philadelphia schools.

She is particularly proud of Act 75 of 2012, which permits expert testimony regarding victim behavior in sexual-assault trials. Her concern was sparked by the case of Daily News writer Jill Porter, who, after reporting an earlier episode of sexual assault by a man she knew, had to explain why she had not immediately reported the assault to police.

Experts in sexual assault will testify that sexual-assault victims are frequently in a psychological turmoil that inhibits them from reporting the crime in a timely fashion and most states accept such evidence in court. But not Pennsylvania – not, at least, until Parker’s Act 75 was enacted.

No Democrat in the General Assembly gets anything done when the Republican control both houses unless they are skilled at politicking.

Parker sums up her style: “Even when we agree to disagree, you have to earn compromise and earn respect. And your word is your most-important asset. As my grandmother always said, ‘If you don’t have your word, you don’t have anything.’”

Coming Home to City Hall

In 2015, Marian Tasco announced her retirement.

There was no need to discuss the Democratic Party’s choice to replace her. Parker would return to the city that she loved fulltime, to the neighborhood that had made her, to the very office that had taught her the art of public service.

Wrapping up her first term and elected to her second, Parker lays out her aims and methods.

“My goal is to ensure that taxpayers in all neighborhoods get a chance to see their taxpayer dollars at work,” she says. “They need to see community infrastructure sustained and improved.

COUNCILWOMAN Cherelle Parker stood with Rev. Dr. Alyn E. Waller and representatives from the building trades and other vocational programs during her 12th annual College, Vocational & Labor Fair at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church.

“They need to be listened to because the answers to their problems come from them, not from above. My grandmother always said, ‘You have two ears and one mouth; use them in proportion.’

“I am focused on bread-and-butter issues. I want to be able to touch it, taste it, feel it.”

Philadelphia’s chief problem, states Parker, is its poverty rate of 25%, highest among large American cities. And there is only one way out of poverty: jobs, good jobs. “We have to grow the pie,” she insists.

But she sees no simple solution, no silver bullet that will generate more and better jobs. Parker presses for a broad spectrum of economic initiatives, informed by the particular needs of her district.

Budd is gone. Tasty-Kake is gone. The 9th District lies far from the beating hearts of Philly’s booming eds and meds, its culture and tourism. Therefore, Parker is looking for any measure that will foster more-inclusive growth in all neighborhoods.

For her, neighborhood preservation – its homes and small businesses – is the best medicine for the patient.

Parker chairs the Labor & Civil Service Committee, making her an indispensable player on employment policy in Philadelphia. She is vice chair of the Commerce & Economic Development Committee. These two assignments speak volumes on Parker cares about and what her colleagues trust her in.

She is proud of what she has accomplished in her first term. Parker used $40 million in bond funds to create a low-interest home-repair loan program, Restore Repair Renew. She squeezed out another $60 million in bond funds to eliminate the backlog in other City-based home-repair programs.

Parker championed the Philly First Home program, which offers a home-buyer a grant of up to $10,000 (or 6% of the purchase price) to help entry-level buyers. She has won four other measures to improve the rights and protections of lawful property-owners and renters from squatters, title theft and foreclosure.

Parker has worked to steer Mayor Jim Kenney’s Community School and Pre-K initiatives to her district.

Commercial corridors are an abiding obsession for Parker, who has relentlessly pushed through increased funding for cleanup and business assistance wherever there are stores in her district: Rising Sun and Wadsworth Avenues, Vernon Road, Broad & Olney and more.

The Private Life of a Public Servant

When not at work (but when is a City Councilmember really not at work?), Parker has several passions.

One is reading – as one might expect of a former English teacher.

She is the mother of a seven-year-old son, Langston – as one might expect of a former English teacher.

And the lady cooks. “I can burn!” she proclaims. Her specialty is Southern style, from scratch: ribs and beans and all that goes with. And she loves to gather a large party around a table to entertain them with what she has prepared.

What will Parker cook up in her next term? Philadelphia will see. But we can be sure of two things.

It will be consequential.

And it will be done in a good way, with a good heart.

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