Jan 10, 2013

The People's Candidate

In the late 1970's, neighbors would gather in the market on 9th Street to complain and receive consolation from the woman behind the cash register. Emma was a neighborhood institution. A native Allentonian, she had gone through school with mayor for life Joe Dadonna, and knew everybody at City Hall. More important, she wasn't shy about speaking out. What concerned the long time neighbors back then was a plan to create a Historical District, by a few newcomers.

What concerned Emma wasn't so much the concept, but the proposed size of the district, sixteen square blocks. The planners unfortunately all wanted their homes included, and they lived in an area spread out from Hall Street to 12th, Linden to Liberty.* Shoving property restrictions down the throats of thousands of people who lived in the neighborhood for generations didn't seem right to Emma. As the battle to establish the district became more pitched, Emma began referring to it as the Hysterical District.
Emma eventually lost the battle, but won the hearts of thousands of Allentonians. Emma Tropiano would be elected to City Council beginning in 1986, and would serve four terms. In 1993 she lost the Democratic Primary for Mayor by ONE (1) vote.

Her common sense votes and positions became easy fodder for ridicule. Bashed for opposing fluoridation, our clean water advocates now question the wisdom of that additive. Although every founding member of the Historical District moved away over the years, Emma continued to live on 9th Street, one block up from the store. In the mid 1990's, disgusted by the deterioration of the streetscape, she proposed banning household furniture from front porches. Her proposal was labeled as racist against those who could not afford proper lawn furniture. Today, SWEEP officers issue tickets for sofas on the porch.

Being blunt in the era of political correctness cost Emma. Although a tireless advocate for thousands of Allentown residents of all color, many people who never knew her, now read that she was a bigot. They don't know who called on her for help. They don't know who knocked on her door everyday for assistance. They don't know who approached her at diners and luncheonettes all over Allentown for decades. We who knew her remember, and we remember the truth about a caring woman.

* Because the designated Historical District was too large, it has failed, to this day, to create the atmosphere envisioned by the long gone founders. Perhaps had they listened to, instead of ridiculing, the plain spoken shopkeeper, they would have created a smaller critical mass of like thinking homeowners, who then could have expanded the area.

photo from Morning Call Archives

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Mike,

I moved into the city in the fall of 93. I had some local concerns and called council for help and advice, Emma was the only one to return my call and I was impressed. In conversations she was helpful and I understood immediately she cared about the city and was involved to make a difference for the residents. That said, Emma was wonderful if you were on her side, I remember being shocked when a positive relationship immediately soured because we disagreed on an issue. There was no place for another point of view in Emma’s book and I can remember her lecturing entire council chambers on how wrong they were.
I still have the death threat condolence card she sent me, I took it to the magistrate (Dugan) and asked him if I should take any action. He knew Emma well and assured me that now action was necessary or advised. Indeed he was right.
Like so many strong minded and independent people Emma believed in her own opinions and acted on them. With some polish and diplomatic skills she could have made a great mayor, without them she was destined to be a frustrated council person and failed candidate for higher office.
In my conversations with Emma I never felt I was talking to a person who held any racist views. People/her enemies used some of her poorly expressed concerns to label her as a bigot in order to impugn her and put her on the defensive. Witnessing that taught the lesson of choosing words carefully. One’s political opponents will surely try to use them against you.
Mike, all the old faces are gone in council chambers, not so long ago I ran into an old adversary and while laughing and shaking hands we both agreed that even in the heat of the moment we never doubted the others love of the city or good intentions. Too bad we can’t say to same about Allentown’s current politicians and their allies.

Scott Armstrong

michael molovinsky said...

scott, as you know, i also did a post on emma being ambushed at the women's club debate. although i had no intention of reprinting it now on my History Month series, I must defend emma, since you commented about a death threat. although i know nothing of that, i do know that you organized an ambush of her at the women's club debate, because of her opposition to the rental inspection ordinance. the questions were designed to embarrass her, although she came to the debate in good faith. i recall that they were even" prosecutor" in nature, in that you demanded "yes" or "no" answers from her. let's conclude by saying that both of you were fiercely defensive of your positions. let's hope that if she had lived longer, you two would have also eventually shook hands.

Bill Sherman said...

I long for the Good Old Days when you could call Mrs.Tropiano up and get an answer.Today you would be threatened with harassment charges if you called a City official.

Anonymous said...

Mike,

We are really traveling back in time on this post. I am reluctant to rehash old disputes but readers of this site might be interested in how the political scene of this city has changed so dramatically in a very short period.
The debate was sponsored by a coalition of community groups and all candidates for city office were invited. Rental Inspections was the issue that united the community groups so it could not have surprised any candidate that questions directly related to that issue were going to be asked. Emma was a vociferous opponent of Rental Inspections, she was also the owner of rental units, and if memory serves me correctly some of them were tag “unfit for human habitation”. Was Emma ambushed by the question put to every candidate”have you ever owned a rental unit that was tagged unfit for human habitation”? I doubt it. Was she upset the question was asked? You bet she was and the way she handled it that night did her candidacy no service.
Mike, who could argue that opposing Emma on an issue was going to be a political cage match? She was tough as nails and fought hard. So did we. After the election I wrote a paragraph on all of the council candidates, winners and loser in the West Park newsletter. In spite of our bitter differences I commended her spirit and love of the city. She died a few weeks later. That was a loss for the city.

Scott Armstrong

michael molovinsky said...

scott, my intention here is not to bicker with you, but defend the memory of a friend. that was a contrived question, designed to specifically embarrass emma. you had been fed research by a morning call reporter, who collaborated with you in the planned attack. perhaps now that you realize that her passing was a loss for the city, you can also appreciate that the question needed not be asked.

Anonymous said...

Mike,

All is fair in love and war/politics. It is not for the faint of heart. Emma could dish it out and she could take it. Far worse has been done to us by our political opponents then what was done to Emma at that debate years ago.
You and I squared off on more than one occasion in council chambers but have maintained respect for each other and for the difference of opinion. Such respect is no longer the rule and civic involvement has diminished and concern and disagreement expressed to those in power are countered with smears and questioning of motive.

Scott Armstrong

Anonymous said...

She could be kind and caring.
She could turn on a dime and be mean and vindictive.Her ability to pin point problems often exceeded her ability to craft solutions. Her worldview was fiercely held, often internally contradictory.
She was tough as nails.
She was a complex,folk figure who got her moment in the national spotlight ( several times ).
She was quoteable and colorful as all get-out.
We'll not see the likes of her again anytime soon.
And then there was the baby blue Caddy!
Those were the days.

michael molovinsky said...

scott, also in fairness to emma, i must point out that tagging a building as "unfit" is a subjective call, some say even punitive. last year i documented a house which should have been tagged, and wasn't. eventually, i got inside; the bathroom had missing floorboards and no sink. meanwhile, the city now has hundreds of houses which are tagged. so many in fact, that some believe the number in itself contributes to an atmosphere of blight.

Juan Luis Pedro Felipo de Huevos Epstein said...

Mike,

After reading about Emma and admiring her from afar in Easton, I think that is what most modern day politicians forget: Why does someone get into politics? It is not for the $$$. And it is definitely not for the fame. And contrary to what has been going on lately, it is not about a stepping stone into a higher office.

It is about the love of your fellow man. One does this type of work to help others. I know it is cliche, but it is really about trying to make a difference.

Or at least it was. Hopefully, maybe it will be that, again?

Anonymous said...

Mike,

I couldn't agree with you more regarding the current tagging of buildings as unfit. In fact the bureau of code enforcement seems to be in general very run run.

Scott Armstrong

Anonymous said...

The local media love to marginalize people like Emma, Ron Angle and others who dare questions the rulers of the day, and who may seem to lack the phoney sophistication of some of today's 'appointed' leaders. Imagine being called a racist because you thought rodent-breeding living room furniture on front porches was not a good thing for the city? And don't forget the real racists who didn't care for her Italian heritage.