Mark Squilla got involved in politics because he wanted his children to have a safe playground.
By Pete Kennedy
Mark Squilla clearly loves the city and neighborhood where he grew up.
“Tonight, we’re having a 40-year get-together for our grade school, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, at a local bar here in the neighborhood, Mick Daniels,” he said on a recent Saturday.
The reunion was one of four events Squilla was slated to attend that evening. As city councilman for Philadelphia’s first district, his days are often filled with city business appointments and his nights with social gatherings.
Squilla, 52, is a native of the first district, which stretches from South Philadelphia and Center City to the Delaware River, including Chinatown, Northern Liberties, Fishtown, Kensington and Port Richmond.
The LaSalle University alumnus has lived in Philadelphia his entire life, save for a stint in Harrisburg at the beginning of his 25-year career in the state auditor general’s office, where he handled computers and networking issues. It was the late ’80s, and portable computers — too cumbersome to be called laptops yet — were being issued to auditors who went on the road to ensure sure state money was being spent appropriately.
“When people had problems with their computers out in the field … they would call me and I would walk them through it or fix it. And that’s when I really got into enjoying helping people,” Squilla said.
His path to City Council led through a park near his South Philadelphia home.
“I got involved in politics because I had four young kids playing in a playground that was unkept. The city didn’t pump any money into it. It was all concrete, full of broken glass,” Squilla said. “I started working with neighbors in the community to try to get some resources for the playground.”
Frustrated by a lack of response from the city, Squilla ran successfully to become a committee person, representing a ward about four blocks in size. When then City Councilman Frank DiCicco decided to retire in 2011, he endorsed Squilla’s bid for the seat.
Now in his second term, Squilla said the most common request from his constituents is for help finding work. That keeps his focus on initiatives that will create jobs and potentially end the cycle of poverty in the city, like developing the Southport section of the Navy Yard to bring in more container ships.
“That’s an opportunity to grow thousands of jobs, where it’s not necessary to have a college degree to work down there. We have a lot of youth in our communities that could get a good sustaining wage and be able to support their families,” Squilla said.
The papal visit, the upcoming Democratic National convention, and Philadelphia’s recent designation as a World Heritage City have all made it an exciting time to be a Philadelphian, Squilla said. His district, in particular, is seeing revitalization in places like East Passyunk, Port Richmond and Kensington, which are adding new restaurants and other development. Part of his job as a councilman is balancing the interests of longtime, “generational” residents with those of the younger and often civically active new residents.
Initiatives like LOOP, the Longtime Owner Occupants Program, offer tax discounts to generational residents to keep them from being priced out of their houses as home values rise.
As a generational resident himself, he remembers walking to the neighborhood market as a child, putting purchases on his family’s tab, and rarely straying from his own neighborhood. The city has grown more cohesive and interconnected since then, he said.
Asked whether he has higher political aspirations, Squilla said he never intended to run for City Council, but that he’s proud to be a politician, even if the word carries negative connotations lately. Most politicians he has met are good people who are in it for the right reasons, he said.
“When compromise becomes a bad word, we’re setting ourselves up for failure,” Squilla said. “This country was built on compromise. You have to be able to work with others, and not everybody thinks the same way.”
Squilla is a member of the 1492 Society, which organizes the annual Columbus Day Parade in Philadelphia. He works with Italian Consul General Andrea Canepari to support Ciao Philadelphia, the monthlong celebration of Italian culture held each fall.
The councilman lives with his wife, Brigid, in the same South Philadelphia neighborhood where he grew up, Whitman Council. His three daughters and son all attend schools in Philadelphia.