Why Philadelphia Needs to Seize Hahnemann Hospital

Photo by Jacqueline Day on Unsplash

A lot can and should be said about the national systemic failures which have exacerbated this Coronavirus crisis, but from a Philadelphia perspective, nothing has been as frustrating as watching Mayor Kenney waste a week trying to negotiate in good faith with owner Joel Freedman over the closed Hahnemann Hospital building. Maybe it’s just because I’m quarantined and testy, or maybe I’ve just grown tired of watching the same stories play out again and again.

If I were making a meme of the Hahnemann negotiations, Freedman would be Lucy, the building the football, and Kenney (or really, the whole city) would be Charlie Brown. And you do not want to be Charlie Brown.

It’s absolutely criminal what Freedman has done, but it’s no different than the kinds of criminality which are commonplace in our economic system.

The main reason why it’s been so frustrating to witness the failed negotiations is that it should have been obvious to all the city officials involved how they were going to play out. At this point, no one should be surprised that Freedman would try to extort the city for millions of dollars in a time of crisis. No one. He already demonstrated his character a year ago when he purposefully bankrupted and closed the hospital, depriving the city of a crucial public health resource.

It’s absolutely criminal what Freedman has done, but it’s no different than the kinds of criminality which are commonplace in our economic system. Do not be suckered in by news stories about celebrity or corporate charity, the laws of capital apply just as much during a crisis as during any other time, and if an investor thinks he can leverage the crisis to his advantage (whether developer or even US Senator), he’s going to take that opportunity (as loathsome as it is, for his class, not taking that opportunity would be criminal). So, be outraged, yes, but don’t be naive, especially if you’re in a position of authority.

All of this means that we are on our own. And measures which would in “normal” times be seen as extreme become not just sensible but necessary in a crisis.

Here’s the thing. I can’t say for sure what is going to happen in the coming weeks and months. But I do know that if the pandemic does continue to get worse, we will be happy that we took every precaution possible to put ourselves in the strongest possible position to overcome it. Continued federal austerity has put all the states and local municipalities at a significant disadvantage (similar to the shameful dynamic between the EU and Italy as it succumbed to the virus).

Pennsylvania cannot rely on Washington’s support, and similarly, Philadelphia cannot rely on Harrisburg either (emergency declarations and stimulus packages are too little too late). In a rational society with a functioning political system we could, but we don’t live in either of those and should stop pretending that anything about the current crisis will change this (at least in the short run).

All of this means that we are on our own. And measures which would in “normal” times be seen as extreme become not just sensible but necessary in a crisis.

As I am typing this, Philadelphia has already experienced its first couple of coronavirus related deaths. The number of cases is still rising and shows no signs of slowing for the immediate future. The mayor’s foot-dragging on shutting down first the schools and then the city didn’t help this, but none of that matters now. We have to respond to the situation we are in (and to be honest, it probably would have ended up here regardless — after all, in a crisis, no one is an island).

It is with all of these things (and more) in mind that I heartily suggest a public seizure of the Hanneman hospital building.

Enough negotiating. Send police to the Hahnemann building, seize it, get a locksmith, a cleaning crew, a maintenance crew, and start wheeling in equipment and prepping it for patients.

To be clear, I am not talking about using eminent domain or any other legalistic means to take over the building. Some have explored this option, including Helen Gym, and while these options should remain available in the future for the re-establishment of Hahnemann as a publicly owned hospital, something Philadelphia desperately needs (and used to have), in this moment of crisis they are too slow and too bureaucratic.

Philadelphia cannot afford (figuratively) to get caught up in weeks of debate about whether eminent domain applies or what an equitable price might look like for the sale (if our leaders were interested in doing this, they should have started last summer when the hospital first closed). Our liberal, legal institutions cannot adapt fast enough to keep up with a health crisis that might overwhelm our facilities in a matter of days or weeks. Courts are unreliable, undemocratic, and tend to support private property rights even when it means putting actual lives in danger.

Instead, what I (and quite a few others online) am advocating for is a takeover. By force. Enough negotiating. Send police to the Hahnemann building, seize it, get a locksmith, a cleaning crew, a maintenance crew, and start wheeling in equipment and prepping it for patients. Ignore the courts, ignore the law, ignore Joel Freedman — and do not compensate him. What could he do? Call the cops?

It’s wasted real estate in right in the middle of Center City and we’re in an unprecedented crisis.

And for the record, if Freedman had already been successful in converting the building into luxury housing (his likely ultimately goal all along) and there were people living there, it would be a different situation. But it’s only been less than a year and the building literally just sitting there empty. It’s wasted real estate in right in the middle of Center City and we’re in an unprecedented crisis.

Now Philadelphia is saying that they’re going to lease space from Temple University for the duration of the crisis. That’s fine for the time being, good for Temple, good for Philly. But that doesn’t change the fact that Philadelphia needs a public hospital and Hahnemann is still the best available candidate considering it was a hospital until last year.

Again, I’m simply stating the obvious here. The city might need the building, the owner won’t give it up, so just take the building. Get it prepped. Keep it ready just in case the city ends up needing it. When the crisis is over, give him his dumbass building back. We don’t yet know how the next few weeks and moths will go; personally, I’m optimistic, although some of the professional estimates are not. We don’t want to end up on the other side of this thing thinking we didn’t do everything not necessarily legally, but humanly possible to prevent as many deaths as we could.

So, seize Hahnemann.

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Socialist. Philadelphian. Writing about PA/Phila politics (and more) from a left perspective. Because Left is Best.

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Joseph Marziano

Joseph Marziano

Socialist. Philadelphian. Writing about PA/Phila politics (and more) from a left perspective. Because Left is Best.

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