American Ruin

I’d never seen anything like that place before.

It wasn’t far in distance from the familiarity of Boat House Row on Kelly Drive or the Art Museum.

The streets were long and flat and lined with row houses as far as the eye could see in every direction. It was a Spring day. A few hundred yards behind us, overlooking the Schuylkill, one would have called it a beautiful one. But there, it felt less so.

Everything was dull there. 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 tall thin woman in a short red dress. The dress cut a contrast against the backdrop of faded colors and broken things. Her long limbs and beautiful brown skin cast an even longer shadow in the early morning sun on the dirty sidewalk.

We were alone with her.

As we drove closer, 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 stood firmly on the ground. Shreds of plaster hung from it.

An unfamiliar feeling of fear snapped through me. She looked off in the distance with a vacant stare. She had no idea we were 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 shuffled 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.

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 world, 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 rattled by the difference of it all.

A beautiful girl with tired eyes 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 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 to it. A girl grabbed my hand, on a dare no doubt, and pulled me towards the dance floor. I followed for a few steps until a hand on my shoulder stopped me. A teacher, an older black woman shook her head.

“That’s not a good idea son” she said. I got the point and walked quickly back to where my dad was.

Then we went home. And it was over.

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; of what we thought was impossible. These things 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

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.  I’ve had my share of those too. I wish little of that on anyone.

I do wish the other kind for people though. The kind that expand the 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 believe, growth ceases.

Growth is the point.

When I was 13 years old, the trip to my father’s school was one of those experiences. 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 it can’t either.  Not anymore.

I didn’t come from a wealthy upbringing. I lived about an hour away from that school in a middle class neighborhood just south of Atlantic City. My parents were both teachers.  They 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. I played against kids that lived in them in youth sports.

I wasn’t from the mean streets. But I wasn’t sheltered either.  I had a reasonable understanding of how the average 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.

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 1.51.42 PMBecause what I didn’t know, and what most Americans don’t know because they’ve never seen it, and you have to see tit to believe it, was that there hopelessness and economic destitution in this country beyond what they could ever have imagined. It’s what’s left behind in our long dead industrial zones in our major metropolitan areas. It’s 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 are.

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 a war zone. It’s societal ruin. It left me with a sense of boundary for those who live there more concrete then what I and others who will never see it had previously. 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 in the American dream, on its side.

Some 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.

For that neighborhood, 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 nationally, or bottom really, when it comes to violent crime. It’s still economically destitute.Screen Shot 2016-07-14 at 4.15.40 PMA 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, a city block in Philadelphia, three miles or so from where Rocky Balboa ran up the stairs of the Philadelphia Art Museum.

Almost three decades later the same place is still in the same ruin.  Those pictures by the way, are not from my trip. They’re from Google Maps, taken within the last year.  No change. Frozen in failure.


Hopeless people are desperate people. When our rules don’t protect them, we shouldn’t expect them to follow them. One day I fear there will be a reckoning none of us will like.