Living in America

American Ruin

I’d never seen anything like that place before. We slipped out of the familiarity of scenic Kelly Drive and took a few quick turns that I couldn’t follow and soon we were in a place that was different. The streets were long and flat and lined with row houses as far as the eye can see in every direction. It was a spring day. A few hundred yards behind us, overlooking the Schuylkill River, you would have called it a beautiful one. But here, it felt less so. The sky was still blue but it felt gray. Everything was dull. Nothing was new. The homes were boarded up.  Some were burnt out.  Some had doors. Others didn’t. The spring breeze blew trash down the empty street.

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Alone, on a corner I saw a striking, tall woman in a short red dress. The dress cut a contrast against the backdrop of faded colors and broken things. Her long lean limbs and dark brown skin cast an even longer shadow in the early morning sun on the dirty sidewalk.  She was the only person on earth here, besides us.

As we drove closer to her, the stains and rips on the dress became clearer.  We came to a stop sign at her corner. We stopped. I looked down. She wore a large plaster cast on her left leg, up to her knee. She’d walked through the bottom of it, her bare foot firmly on the ground, shreds of plaster hanging from it. An unfamiliar feeling of horror snapped through me. She looked off in the distance with a blank, vacant stare. She had no idea we’re there-even though we were the only other people on earth.  At least that’s how it felt.

“Do people actually live in those?” I asked trying not to think of the woman’s foot and pointing to one of the more obviously abandoned row homes.

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“Some of them.” My dad answered as we drove on. “I think”

“Where is everyone?” I asked.

“Inside I guess. People usually stay inside here.” he says.

I didn’t blame them.  I was 13. It was 1990. And my dad was taking me to work with him. Work was the 8th grade classroom at Thomas Fitzsimons Middle School in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood of North Philadelphia.  The school was named after a man who signed the Constitution. The neighborhood got its name from one of the nearby gilded age mansions that at one point served strawberries and cream to its restaurant patrons. The irony of those names, as I researched their origin, 26 years later, isn’t lost on me.  There was little sign of history or luxury. Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 1.50.45 PM All that was left was the modern American ruin of one of the most economically depressed, dangerous neighborhoods in the country.

At the school, the kids began to shuffle into the classroom. A few gave me a funny look as I was a random white kid sitting quietly as my dad wrote something on the chalk board. I would say that white kids stuck out in Fitzsimon’s Middle School in 1990, but that would be a lie.  Because there weren’t any.  None.  There weren’t any Latino’s either.  There weren’t any Asians or Arabs or anything.

Every single student in a school of close to a thousand students, in a neighborhood of about 40,000 or so people, was black.  It was, by definition, the least ethnically diverse school in the country-or at least tied for it.  I make it a point to say that.  Because, when you think about it, it’s remarkable.  Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 1.51.17 PM26 years after the Civil Rights act of 1964, exactly halfway between today and then, there was a neighborhood, less than 2 miles from where the whitest schools practiced the whitest sport in the country-crew-that was more segregated in 1990, then it was when there was legal segregation. I’ve spent a long time thinking about why since that day.   At the time, though, I was in awe of the difference of it all.

A beautiful girl with a tired sad smile sat next to me. I said hi.  She ignored me. Most of the class ignored me the whole day.  My dad introduced me.  One tall kid in the back, the class clown I guess, joked that I’d moved to the wrong neighborhood.  And the day went on.

At lunch, my dad and I walked up the street to a corner store to get a sandwich.  I was scared.  I asked him if he did it every day.  He said yes. He told me that people knew he was a teacher there so they left him alone. I didn’t buy it. I figured he’d just been lucky so far. We walked past vacant lots and half knocked down buildings. There were a few people passing from home to home now but it still looked empty.  In the store, the old man behind the counter told me to stay close to my dad.  I did.

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After school there was a dance in the basement.  My dad took me down there.  I watched the entire school intertwined in one massive group on an old basketball court. A girl grabbed my hand-on a dare no doubt- and pulled me towards it.  I followed for a few steps until a hand on my shoulder stopped me. A teacher, an older black woman with a stern face shook her head.

“That’s not safe son” she said. I got the point and walked quickly back to where my dad was.  Then we went home. And it was over.


That day, 26 years ago now, was one of the most important days of my life. As we shuffle down the winding path of our time here on earth, most of us, if we’re lucky, see some things. And sometimes those things are things that that we cannot un-see. Things we carry around with us for the rest of our lives. They change us. They stretch the boundaries of what we thought was possible-or impossible. They mold the lens through which we see the world around us and inform what we believe and what we don’t-what we are willing to ignore and what we cannot

We all experience them.  If you’re lucky, you’ll experience more than most-at least more of the kind that don’t destroy parts of you. That which does not kill us, after all, sometimes just gives us bad dreams and anxiety.  Having had a few of those too, I wish little of that on anyone.

I do wish the other kind for people though. The kind that expand space in which our thoughts can move and test our understanding.  Because when something or someone shines a light on the cold reality of parts of the human experience previously hidden from us, growth happens.  And when we turn away from that light, or ignore what we see, or try to fold it and distort it to fit the reality we ought have just left, growth ceases.  Growth is the point.

When I was 13 years old, I had one of those experience.  It planted a seed in me.  And what has grown out of that seed over the last 25 years or so, is something I cannot ignore. And America is waking up to the reality that she can’t either.  Not any more.

For context, I’ll point out that I didn’t come from a wealthy upbringing.  I lived about an hour away in a middle class neighborhood just south of Atlantic City, New Jersey.  My parents were both teachers.  They had split when I wasn’t quite school aged.  But we did OK.  I lived near poorer areas in Atlantic City-just not in them.  I knew where the housing projects were and regularly played against kids from that area in youth sports.  I wasn’t from the mean streets.  But I wasn’t sheltered either.  I had a reasonable understanding of how your garden variety urban poor lived. Which is what most Americans today can say with some good faith, if they live anywhere near any size urban area in any state.  What I saw that day, in that neighborhood in North Philadelphia, was something entirely different.  And it rattled me to my bones.

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Because what I didn’t know, and what most of America doesn’t know because they’ve never seen it-you have to see this to believe it-was that there is a rung below what I thought was the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. Something far more depressed. It’s what’s left behind in our long dead industrial zones in our major metropolitan areas.  It’s something 150 years in the making.  It’s the fall-out from de-industrialization, segregation and a million other things. And it’s not the fault of the people born there-even if their individual actions may be. It’s bad the way nothing else is bad in America. What I saw there was a standard of living that I wouldn’t see again until I served in sub-Saharan Africa and again in Iraq. It is societal ruin. It left me with a sense of boundary, more concrete then what I and others who hadn’t seen it before have. This was a place where the logic and rationality personal accountability and even good fortune, weren’t enough. Not by a long shot. And that sets your world view, if you’re prone to believe that anything is possible, on its side. Some things there, were not possible. Most things there, were not possible.


That was 1990.  So how about today?

The advent of the internet, economic growth and national wealth creation on par with the greatest periods of growth in our history should have helped. Another 26 years of water under the bridge since the Civil Rights act of 1964 should have helped. There’s a lot that’s gone on that could lead you to believe we’ve had some progress.  You would be wrong.

The school closed. It’s still there but it shut down in 2013 after efforts to privatize it were unsuccessful.  The neighborhood is still in the top 25, or bottom really, when it comes to violent crime in the country.  And it’s still economically destitute. A quick search on Zillow will show you that houses go for about $14K. Those pictures of homes are actually homes listed for that price.  Every property on the block next to the school could be bought for a total of less than $200K.

That’s right. A city block in Philadelphia, three miles or so from where Rocky Balboa ran up the stairs of the Philadelphia Art Museum, goes for about half of what a two bedroom condo goes for in Southern California where I live now.  Almost three decades later the same place is still in the same ruin.  Those pictures by the way, not from my trip. They’re from Google Maps, taken within the last year.  No change. Frozen in failure.Screen Shot 2016-07-14 at 4.15.40 PM

Why should we care?  I know compassion and fellowship aren’t really great answers-at least not in 21st Century America. So I’ll try this. Large permanently poor populations are really, really bad.  And usually, in most places in most times, those that aren’t permanently poor that live near them, eventually end up fighting those that are-one way or another. Somehow, throughout our 240 year history as a country, we’ve avoided societal clash between our generational urban poor and the rest of the country in America. But there are troubling signs that it’s starting to change.

What happened in Dallas should have been a wake up call for all of us. And what happened in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, this morning, as I write this is even more troubling.  It’s the next step in what normally happens when you have people living like this, next to people living like me. And instead of arguing about whether or not cops matter or black lives matter or gun control matters or a host of other things that actually matter less, we should be taking notice that we are very close to a tipping point in our racial and economic divide. Because in America, the economic divide is also racial. And that’s never been good for anyone.

Terrorism has the world’s attention right now. People all over the world are getting killed by religious ideologues. And though it is somewhat comforting for some to assign it to a specific people and religion, the truth is that it’s a manifestation of inequality.  Yes, those that perpetrate it are using their religion to unify their message, and to provide the powerful justification for horrific acts, but that’s just the mechanics of it. The cause is a permanently poor part of society. It’s an entire region left behind by it’s autocratic leaders. It’s a class of European citizens that fled that destitution and then weren’t able to integrate into society in the countries they came to.

Why that is and who’s at fault is a different debate. But that’s how it works.  And we have every bit of that recipe, down to an ethnic separation and economic hopelessness, right here at home. And it’s not getting better.  It’s getting worse. And I fear that time may have run out to fix it, before a disruptive and potentially violent end.

The Dallas shooter may have been a disturbed lone wolf. But he was a disturbed lone wolf that attached his actions to a cause. And that cause is the cause that almost always signals the beginning of civil unrest. The downtrodden masses tangle with those charged by the rest of society to keep the peace. Think Crispus Attucks and the Boston Massacre-five colonists dead at the hands of the Red Coats assigned to keep order. That’s how this normally starts.

As easy at it is to blame law enforcement for the degradation of relations between authorities and the people of these neighborhoods, we should pause. These areas are impossible to police. And if we don’t do something to address them, on a large scale, in a way that you only do when you’re safety and society depend upon it, this will end badly for all of us. I fear it already is starting to. But that can’t stop us from trying.

Normally, small painless measures don’t suffice to stop a rash of violence against law enforcement-or anyone really. So I’ll pray for our good law enforcement officers and the innocent members of those communities in question. It’s about to get even more unfair for both.  Anyone perpetrating violence against law enforcement, you’re not in club. That swift justice is something our society depends on.

Longer term though, we need to be honest with ourselves about our social safety net in America. It lifts people out of poverty. That’s good. It appears to have bought us some time or the violence would have come decades earlier. But it does absolutely nothing to create real economic progress in the areas that need it most. We’ve created narrow avenues for people to be able to leave-if they can survive.  And the societal progress we’ve made over the last fifty years enables them to integrate into other parts of our society.  But too many don’t make it out and in turn live in areas in which progress and the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness simply aren’t realistic.  And that’s bad.

I don’t know exactly what the answer is. But I know what doing nothing or more of the same looks like. That path through history is well charted.  Over the last 18 months or so, we’ve started walking it in earnest. This may not be a full blown terrorist movement. But I know those well. I’ve lived and fought them for most of my adult life. And this is what they look like when they start. I’ll let law enforcement handle the short of it. Good luck and God speed to my brothers and sisters in uniform.  As for the long, we need something better.  Or we’re going to be fighting this for generations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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