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Community service from the ground up

Michael DiBerardinis

Michael DiBerardinis started as a neighborhood activist and is now a top official in Philadelphia government.

Journey to the top echelons of city government started in his neighborhood

By Pete Kennedy

When Michael DiBerardinis first moved to Philadelphia in the ’70s, his adoptive Kensington neighborhood was beset by abandoned and deteriorating properties, owned by absentee landlords who didn’t pay taxes. DiBerardinis, having earned a political science degree from St. Joseph’s University a few years earlier, was ready to get to work as a community organizer.

He joined a multiracial coalition of stakeholders, which lobbied the city to condemn the vacant houses and allow responsible community members to fix them up and move in. But they were stymied by city politics generally, and one councilman specifically.

“We finally got fed up, so we started moving people into the houses illegally. We said, ‘We’re not going to let this house rot and ruin the neighborhood. We’re not going to let it be vandalized and set on fire,’ DiBerardinis said.

Over two summers, his group moved 1,000 families into those houses, all of whom laid out renovation plans and pledged to stay civically involved.

The revival of his own neighborhood mirrors the larger story of Philadelphia, he said.

“In the end — and these aren’t my numbers, these are from the Office of Housing and Community Development — 800 of the 1,000 folks became legal homeowners. Which really stabilized the neighborhood,” he said.

Fast-forward to 2016, and DiBerardinis, 67, is still effecting positive change in his community, albeit from a very different position. He’s now the managing director of the City of Philadelphia. As the city’s chief operating officer, he supervises five deputies and, indirectly, about 27,000 city employees.

When Mayor Jim Kenney selected DiBerardinis to be managing director, he also expanded the scope of the position compared to the previous administration. The library, prisons, parks, police, fire, health, streets and emergency management departments fall under the managing director’s purview.

DiBerardinis’s public administration savvy has been developed over decades of public service. After working at the grassroots level in Kensington into the mid-1980s, he was hired as an aide by state Rep. Ralph Acosta, and soon thereafter became chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Thomas Foglietta from 1986 to 1991.

In 1992, he was appointed Commissioner of Recreation in Philadelphia, where he was able to reopen previously closed pools and playgrounds. After stints at the William Penn Foundation and the University of Pennsylvania, he went to Harrisburg, serving as the state’s Secretary of Conservation and Natural Resources under Gov. Ed Rendell from 2003-2009. In this position, he protected 150,000 acres of land in the state, more than had been conserved in the previous 30 years combined, and helped boost ecotourism.

In 2009, he reprised his role as Philadelphia’s Commissioner of Parks and Recreation. The following year, he became Deputy Mayor of Environmental and Community Resources.

He became Managing Director in January 2016, and was quickly tested when, just a couple weeks into the new administration, an epic blizzard dumped 22.4 inches of snow on Philadelphia.

The heavy workload and frequent evening and weekend events have left little time for his hobbies, like fly-fishing and studying the Italian language. He used to travel to Italy twice a year, but he has cut that frequency in half lately.

A Downingtown native, his mother was born in Sicily and his paternal relatives come from Abruzzo. DiBerardinis still lives in Fishtown-Kensington area with his wife, Joan Reilly, a leader of the city’s Mural Arts Program and a recognized conservationist.

“I think we’re going to stay there until we can’t climb the steps anymore,” he said.

On Sundays, when he heads to the supermarket or the Italian Market, he still sees some of those 800 families he helped find homes three decades ago. The revival of his own neighborhood mirrors the larger story of Philadelphia, he said.

“For the longest time, we managed decline, and now we’re moving into a period where we’re managing growth. Our population is growing … We have an identifiable entrepreneurial class who are creating new businesses at a really rapid clip,” he said. “People from around the country are invested in Philadelphia.”

And yet, Philadelphia’ poverty rate remains among the highest in the country. So the challenge, and the opportunity, he said, is to make sure the city’s rising fortunes benefit everyone.

“That’s really the vision,” DiBerardinis said. “Building around this momentum and really focusing on supporting strong families, and making sure the neighborhoods people live in are strong, safe and caring.” 

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