Philadelphia: the font of all that ails poor white America

by pkerkstra on February 28, 2012

This column appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Feb. 28, 2012.

The renowned and controversial conservative scholar Charles Murray has identified the wellspring of all that ails poor white America, and wouldn’t you just know, it’s in Philadelphia.

Fishtown, to be precise; the once-healthy waterfront community east of the El that, over the last 50 years, devolved into a rare white urban ghetto. The residents of Murray’s Fishtown – particularly its adult men – are such a godless, shiftless, morally bankrupt bunch that he serves them up as a metaphor for the social decline of white working-class America.

In his new book, Coming Apart, Murray posits that low-income whites have abandoned what he calls “the founding virtues” the country was built on: industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity. In the halcyon old days, Murray says, rich and poor alike embraced those virtues. Not anymore. Murray contends that while well-off white America generally stays married, works hard, and goes to church, low-income whites increasingly do not, which has had calamitous effects on the poor.

To make his analysis more accessible, Murray lumps well-off white Americans into two composite communities: one is called Belmont (after a well-to-do Boston suburb), the other Fishtown.

And presto. Now the national elite who read Murray’s influential books will think of Philadelphia when they imagine poor white trash.

That’s unfortunate, but there’s no getting around the fact that Fishtown (the real one) has been troubled for a long time. Yet anyone familiar with the neighborhood’s history knows that the problems Murray ably documents only emerged on a broad scale when Philadelphia’s industrial economy collapsed and the solid-paying low-skilled jobs that supported Fishtown disappeared.

Jack Frost Sugar. Stetson Hat. Luithlen Dye. Rose Mills. Quaker Lace. Ortlieb Brewing. Ajax Metal. All of them – and many others – were situated within, or a few short blocks from, Fishtown. And all of them are gone.

Astonishingly, Murray hardly mentions the disappearing manufacturing jobs, and only to dismiss their relevance in Fishtown’s decline. Sure, factory work is largely gone, he concedes, but what’s stopping Fishtowners from slinging burgers or mopping floors?

To begin with, many Fishtowners are doing exactly that kind of work. Those who aren’t – able-bodied adults who have dropped out of the workforce, thus earning Murray’s scorn – have moved to the socioeconomic fringe for reasons that are far more complicated, says Patty Smallacombe, who wrote a dissertation about Kensington as an ethnography student at Penn.

Why should we listen to Smallacombe? Because Murray leans heavily on her work to give anecdotal life to his statistical account of Fishtown’s failure. Smallacombe spent four years researching Kensington (close enough to Fishtown, apparently, for Murray’s purposes) for her 2002 dissertation. She lived there, spoke with hundreds of residents, and gained a nuanced view of the white urban poor that is altogether different from Murray’s take.

“It’s difficult to have my work be so closely associated with somebody else’s, when they’re making an argument I don’t agree with,” said Smallacombe, now an executive with the United Way of Bucks County.

Smallacombe says that Murray cherry-picked interviews from her dissertation to support his arguments. I wonder if Murray’s conclusions would have changed had he conducted the interviews himself (Murray quotes only one Fishtown resident he spoke to himself in the entire 416-page book.)

Perhaps if Murray had called Sandy Salzman, he would have avoided the mistake of chalking up Fishtown’s recent resurgence to the “irresistible” forces of gentrification. Salzman, who has lived in Fishtown her entire life, is the longtime executive director of the nonprofit New Kensington Community Development Corp., and she knows that nothing irresistible or inevitable produced Fishtown’s recovery.

“Fishtowners are what made Fishtown come back,” Salzman said. “It was the people of Fishtown who started cleaning up the neighborhood and making it better. If we hadn’t done that, if we had not started that change, the gentrifiers never would have moved to the neighborhood.”

Her comments aren’t mere bluster. New Kensington CDC is one of the best and most accomplished CDCs in the city, and it’s been around since 1985, with a staff and board made up mostly of longtime locals such as Salzman. Murray’s book, she said, is “infuriating.”

There wasn’t time for her to elaborate, though. She was running late for a meeting of the city’s Historical Commission, where she was scheduled to make a case for including Penn Treaty Park on the historic register.

Just another good-for-nothing Fishtowner. Right, Dr. Murray?

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