Hello Readers, Bernard Brown submitted this essay to Grid, and I thought it made for a perfect introduction to the new issue. I’ll be back next month! AM
I swim laps at the West Philadelphia branch of the YMCA, on Chestnut between 51st and 52nd. My walk there takes me across Walnut Street, often on the east side of the intersection with 51st Street. I can’t recall when exactly I first noticed that the ADA-compliant sidewalk ramp facing Walnut Street at the northeast corner of the intersection was missing, but I reported it on the City’s 311 system in February 2018. In place of the ramp was dirt and gravel. The ramp had apparently been removed for utility work, but no one had come back to replace it.
The 311 system shifted the ticket to “In Progress,” notifying me that “this means that Philadelphia is actively working to solve the issue.” On March 12, 2018 I got another email saying that the Streets Department had closed the case.
I got excited. I, an engaged citizen of Philadelphia, had reported a problem, and then the government, funded by my tax dollars, had responded by solving it!
But of course that’s not what happened. This is Philadelphia.
The sidewalk ramp was just as missing as it had been before I submitted the complaint.
A few more months went by, and I resubmitted the complaint on 311: same result.
I cursed under my breath every morning I passed the place the ramp should be, and I winced each time I saw a wheelchair user cruise down the street, risking the traffic because they can’t use the sidewalks in our neighborhood.
As the years passed, I tried other routes. In May 2019 a 311 call center representative suggested I reach out to the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. Someone from that office actually called me back to say that he was working on it, but that was the last I heard from them.
I tried my then-district-councilmember Jannie Blackwell’s office, but they didn’t get it fixed either.
In 2020 Jamie Gauthier replaced Jannie Blackwell as my district councilmember. I quickly messaged her about the broken ramp. She replied that she’d have a constituent services staffer get back to me, but they never did. In early 2022 I tried one of her staffers directly. He wrote back saying that he knew exactly the ramp I was talking about, and that he’d reach out to the Streets Department. I didn’t hear back from him after that.
This is how much the City cares about disability access: Enough to bury 311 requests, sometimes just enough for a staffer to call you back or say they’ll work on it, but not enough to actually fix a problem.
There might be good reasons why this ramp is difficult to fix. The ramp is sandwiched between a utility pole and a tree. Also I’m sure it’s a pain to just fix one ramp when the work crews would rather install several at a time, say as a road is resurfaced. But none of that relieves the City of its obligation under the ADA — or just basic civic decency — to provide disabled residents a safe way to get on and off the sidewalk.
This month I wrote our cover story about the poor state of Philadelphia’s sidewalks and how the broken concrete, illegally parked cars, thoughtless construction obstructions, and dangerous (or missing) ramps make it difficult for tens of thousands of disabled Philadelphians to get around the city. The City is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act every day it fails to fix these widespread problems, which has led to a lawsuit from a group of disabled Philadelphians and disability rights organizations. These failures cover every corner of the city, including the broken sidewalk ramp at the northeast corner of Walnut and 51st in the Walnut Hill neighborhood of West Philadelphia, and we must do better