ailing from among the city’s 661,000
housing units and 142,000 small businesses,
Philadelphians crowd the 11th floor of
the Municipal Services Building, waiting for their
moment with the Department of Licenses and
Many seek help with a problem: a need for a
business license, a dispute with an inspection or,
increasingly, a fine related to vacant property.
L&I’s recent campaign targeting Philadelphia’s
40,000 vacant lots and 15,000 empty structures
means 55,000 new problems are on the way.
This burden does not appear to weigh on a man
walking into an L&I conference room. Dressed
in a pinstripe suit, he greets his visitors and then
begins explaining the benefits of the department’s
vacant land strategy. Developing these 40,000 lots,
he says, could save the city at least $20 million in
maintenance costs annually.
With his jaunty stride, baby face and hair
unspeckled by gray, the man could easily pass
for a junior staffer. But this is Carlton Williams,
, and for the past year and a half he has served
as commissioner of L&I. His 300 inspectors,
customer service representatives and plan
examiners interact with every new business in
Philadelphia. Each year, L&I inspects 90,000
properties and issues nearly 60,000 develop-
Williams is a self-described quintessential
optimist: “If you knew the city 10 years ago and
have seen it today, you know how much potential
From the conference room, all one can see of
the city is the dense traffic circling City Hall. But
Williams’ perspective extends farther, north and
west to neighborhoods such as West Oak Lane,
where he grew up playing football and baseball
in city playgrounds. Midway between those
playgrounds and his downtown office are two
landmarks where Williams’ career in public service
was borne: Fairmount Park and Temple University.
Turning left or right
In the early 1990s, the William Penn Foundation
donated $20 million to a now-defunct program
that some would dismiss as idealistic. The program
offered Philadelphia’s at-risk youth the opportunity
to work as rangers for Fairmount Park while
studying at Temple for an associate’s degree in
sport and recreation management. Hopefully, the
logic went, this group of tough teenagers from bad
neighborhoods would learn to treasure the city’s
green space and become upstanding young leaders.
School of Tourism and Hospitality Management
Assistant Dean Jeffrey Montague was the
program’s academic coordinator, responsible for
creating the curricula and teaching several classes.
Having grown up in the city himself, Montague
knew these kids “couldn’t care less about parks”
—or becoming upstanding young leaders, for that
matter. Montague’s goal: Get them to start caring.
On Left: Carlton Williams poses at Ogontz Avenue, a revitalized section
of Philadelphia just blocks from his childhood home in West Oak Lane.
The commissioner of Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and
Inspections has a big job. But “quintessential optimist” Carlton Williams
greets the challenge—no, opportunity—with open arms.
BY CARL O’DONNELL
Photos by Ryan S. Brandenberg
Spring 2013 |