While “America’s Mayor” Ed Rendell has been flashing his bad comb-over on national telly as — shudder — the new head of the Democratic National Committee, the city he governs with smoke and mirrors is as unlivable as ever.

There’s a serial rapist/killer loose around here. That’s right, a murderer prowling my pleasant residential Center City Philadelphia neighborhood with its pretty townhouses and stately brownstones and cute window-boxes and flowering pear trees. No, it’s not one of my old boyfriends. This is serious. Philadelphia is a college town, and the psychopathic creep is preying on young, vulnerable college girls. First he stalks them; then he sexually assaults them. This has happened at least four times. Even worse, those he rapes, he may also kill.

Whatever you do around here now, you can’t escape an awareness of this killer on the loose. It’s a panicky feeling. The police composite sketch of his likeness is posted everywhere downtown, from laundries to libraries. Go for a mint chocolate mango cherry water ice to distract you from your trivial daily difficulties, there’s the killer’s cartoonishly sinister face plastered on the window of the ice cream parlor, peering out at you, prepared to pounce. I saw the flyer in the corner supermarket the morning I went to pick up some blueberry bagels. Who would feel like breakfast after that?

The day before yesterday, a dance teacher at the nearby University of the Arts, concerned of course for her students’ welfare, told me that–the Center City rapist–was just seen INSIDE the school’s library, only to be chased away by the campus guards, those Einsteins, who let him escape — if indeed he was the culprit. This happened a mere two blocks from my house!

When I relayed the botched-capture information to Judith, our local committee-person active with Town Watch , she said false reports of the killer’s–sighting–are turning up left and right.

That could be because, she says, the sketch looks like every third under-25 white guy you see around here, and the police are picking up suspect after suspect. Even a friend of Judith’s-daughter-the-architecture-student was rounded up, then released.

What the public needs to see — absent an arrest — is movement, and the police provide that, like a horribly hackneyed plot of a bad movie.

Last week, a crowd of more than 1,000 nervously thronged Holy Trinity Church on chi-chi Rittenhouse Square for a town meeting about the Center City rapist. They heard an FBI criminal profiling expert describe the culprit as a “Power-Reassurance Rapist” who attacks women he feels inferior to and — incredibly enough — may then ask them for “was-it-good-for-you” reassurance about his sexual technique, or give advice on security or apologies for his intrusion. The suspect probably lives in the area where he preys on women, and works in a nearby job he considers beneath him. Desperate and compulsive, he is a high-risk offender who will climb a wall or stand on a sill or a ledge and unscrew security cages over second-story windows to reach his target. Frequently this type of rapist, who typically uses only enough strength to overcome his victim, views these forced sexual encounters as “dates” and — even more incredibly — sometimes calls his victims back again to ask them out!

An area art school psychologist told me that girl students, many still teenagers, were really unsettled and upset about the serial rapist/killer. Nevertheless, she said, their school hadn’t officially held any informational assemblies, or offered students any precautionary counseling, or said anything to them about how to protect themselves. Which, in light of Littleton, seems shortsighted.

Police were certain they had caught the Center City Rapist last week, according to a Philadelphia detective of my acquaintance, but contrary to the wanted poster and descriptions from rape victims, the guy they hauled in was black. I shake my head. Justification for that: DNA samples from crime-scene semen indicate a black person, the detective claims. Though that suspect refused to agree to DNA testing, a sample of his saliva provided corroboration, said the detective, but victims unanimously rejected his photos as their attacker. “Black? Ridiculous. The guy supposedly told one of his victims he was mixed-race,” snorted Ruby of the National People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement. Police logic is another oxymoron, isn’t it?

The one killing was an aberration, the detective speculates, triggered by police arrival in response to a neighbor who heard screams coming from Wharton grad student Shannon Schieber’s 23rd and Pine apartment in May of 1998. When the officers began banging on the victim’s door, the rapist — who carried no gun or knife — panicked trying to keep her quiet, and he strangled her. His body was his only weapon. Police were faulted for not breaking the door down, but the detective said the neighbor who originally called was unsure of what he heard, and where.

Police have linked evidence from the crime scene to two nearby rapes from August 1997, and during August 1999 he sexually assaulted another young woman at 19th and Naudain, all in the same Rittenhouse Square vicinity. If you have any information to these crimes — no detail is too small — please call the Philadelphia police at 215-686-3334-5. Another young woman’s life may hang in the balance.

Across the street from my center-city house is a phalanx of three row-houses made into apartments with University of Pennsylvania students as tenants. The students have, ironically enough, fled from West Philadelphia, where their school is located, to escape the high crime there, including a spate of lurid murders, rapes, and robberies.

Downtown, this student influx has driven rents up to $1,200-$1,400 for a modest one-bedroom apartment, an economic hardship on regular residents who, until now, have lived in Philadelphia precisely because it didn’t have Manhattan rents. Meanwhile, oblivious to the presence of any danger, the Penn students — who usually rent in noisy, careless groups — leave their doors ajar, their windows open and unprotected, their screens unhooked. The idea that a killer is on the prowl doesn’t seem to compute with their sense of entitlement and privilege and invincibility. Brian, I said to the social worker grad student-cum-rocker across the street, someone could just stick their hand through that gaping hole in your screen door. It’s an open invitation. Tell your landlord to fix it. “I guess I’d better,” he says, “I’ll tape it up.”

Personally, I have felt safer on the streets of Guatemala and El Salvador than Philadelphia, where you may be attacked and beaten in broad daylight with impunity, like my elderly neighbor Esther recently was while unlocking her front door in plain view of a handful of people at the parking lot, who just watched and did nothing while some criminal pummeler broke her shoulder, left her crumpled on her front steps, ripped off her purse, and went on to his next victim.

Clinton apologist Rendell’s recent appointment as national Dem chief shows how utterly bereft of vision and substance that political party has become. “They think he’s a great
fund-raiser , says Ruby, the Uhuru activist. But for whom? Last year alone, Philadelphia lost more of its population than any other American city. And if Rendell is such a great mayor, why are so many people leaving Philadelphia? Why is the departure rate escalating? Why the flight, Ed?

Rendell is a flamboyant zero, a New Democrat more like the Old Republicans, which is why the two-party system is dead. The name of the game is Republicrats and Demmicans. Under the Rendell administration, big businesses get huge tax breaks while homeowners are crushed by confiscatory property taxes and small businesses are similarly clobbered. Besides his infatuation with corporate interests (and blondes), his zeal for costly and inefficient privatization of city services, his boasts of breaking city unions, his balancing the budget on the backs of the poor, his morally shallow statements to the media in defense of Bill Clinton’s extramarital depredations, his prickly exchanges with reporters, and his documented off-color remarks to a woman journalist, Ed Rendell leaves no hoagie unturned.

He’s a charismatic glad-hander who I would bet has never ridden the 23 Trolley, which runs from Rocky’s proletarian South Philly to genteel Chestnut Hill. If he had, he would see how sections of Philadelphia resemble a bombed-out Third World country. He would see how his catering to special interest groups, and his lack of leadership have helped create Urban Schizophrenia, a city with a dangerously dysfunctional and disjointed split personality: Downtown, bejewelled by posh sidewalk cafes and fancy restaurants and luxury hotels; and Uptown, complete with ghetto poverty and desolation and addictions and cheap drug deaths in some outlying neighborhoods that would curl your hair.

The jewel in Rendell’s crown is his vaunted Avenue of the Arts, but it’s as phony as he is. Essentially, the Avenue of the Arts is Rendell’s blueprint to stud Broad Street with various mostly mainstream cultural attractions; in short, it’s a glitzy boondoggle, and a real-estate bonanza for his corporate cronies holding deeds to much of the valuable land there.

Where I live, two blocks from the Avenue of the Arts, you can’t safely park your cars without them getting broken into and the windows smashed by the sleazy street hustlers — male and female and transgender — who cater to horny suburban men who cruise the 16th St. circuit in search of something strange. Yes, this is Center City, a few scant blocks from City Hall, where Ed Rendell works.

Up until last year — despite evidence of what I call “Urban Diamonds,” streets strewn with glittering glass shards from car windows smashed into smithereens — cheerleaders for Mayor Edward Rendell insisted quality of downtown city life was improving when actually, corrupt cops were fudging crime statistics to make it appear that way.

And when network TV zeroed in on drug dealing in the so-called North Philly Badlands a while back, the Rendell administration was embarrassed, and very unhappy … about the bad publicity potentially besmirching his national reputation as “America’s Mayor.”

While Ed Rendell was sleeping over in the White House, local police corruption was rampant. Then when it reached an annoyingly obvious level, Rendell hired former New Yorker John Timoney, a police commissioner from the Giuliani school of crime control — you know, highly visible and overly zealous efforts at the wrong targets. Much like a neutron bomb, it destroys people but leaves buildings standing.

If Rendell is doing such a great job as mayor, why are there still hookers brazenly plying their trade in the parking lot at the end of my–charming–block at night? Why do so many suburbanites still say they are afraid to visit Philadelphia for as much as an evening’s worth of entertainment? Why do they worry their cars will get ticketed or towed or broken into or they will get mugged or hassled or suffer some other unpleasant misadventure? Because this has so often been their experience, despite Pollyanna-esque PR spinmeisters seeking to attract tourists and visitors to the City of Brotherly Love with the vapid travel motto, “Philadelphia … the city that loves you back.” Yeah, AND GIVES YOU A DISEASE.

Being mayor was always a rumored stepping stone to Rendell’s higher political aspirations. To progressives, Rendell has always represented Blind Ambition with a Bad Comb-Over, in a rumpled, over-sized David Byrne suit. Currently, the governor’s office looms large when Rendell concludes his second term as mayor in January. As one of his critics sniped, “Listen, it would overall be better for us if he’d just fade away, maybe work on some hobbies in his garage.”

Ditto for the Center City Rapist. Like maybe a basket-weaving class on Death Row.

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