"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, July 18, 2014

Out With the Old, In With the New (Last—and First—of a Series)

This week’s post marks the conclusion to Phase One of my series about what happened to our urban areas after the Second World War.  I have mixed them in with other observations about the specific history of my subject towns, the eight along the Schuylkill River between Reading and the Philadelphia.  My approach to all has been to attack the myths that surround the history of post-war urban decline, and to substitute more accurate understandings.  I use the phrase “more accurate understandings” in recognition of truth’s infinite complexity, and of the many aspects it presents to its seekers, of whom I am by no means the last word. 

I find it convenient to divide the timeline of post-World War II urban history into two phases loosely based on Acts of the Federal Government.  Phase One dealt with those that together brought on the widespread decline of our older urban areas.  I term them “The Originals”.  They include government acts from the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944 to the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, and are grouped because they were enacted in ignorance of the consequences they would have for America’s urban areas.  There are a rather large number of other subjects I could have—and perhaps should have—addressed in Phase One.  That will undoubtedly be true of those that follow in Phase Two; it’s a space requirement.

My treatment of Phase One is complete, sort of.  I have only touched on the subject of limited access highways, both the Interstate and its predecessors, which have had enormous consequences across the nation.  The earliest—and biggest—consequence to Southeastern Pennsylvania came from the intersection of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the Schuylkill Expressway, both initiated before the Interstate System, and later incorporated into it.  On that subject I refer you to my book, What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania From Main Street To The Malls.  What is perhaps the second biggest consequence to this area is still happening.  I will be discussing this quite significant topic in this blog in the not-too-distant future.

This post will complete The Originals, and will introduce the different approach I will employ in discussing my next series of topics.  Always remember, please, that there was, in truth, no such division into two phases as I posit.  It’s just an attempt to make a complex subject more accessible.  So this final post in the first series doesn’t really “complete” anything at all, nor does it begin with anything truly new.

Phase Two encompasses efforts I group together as “Those Intended to Undo the Damage of the Originals But Which Caused Problems Themselves”.  I have to tighten up that title a bit, but it does get the basic point across, so for now I’ll refer to them as “The Undoers”.  These will often be Federal Government Acts that were written as the consequences of the earlier events and actions were becoming manifest, and which created new programs and approaches to deal with them.  The relevant point is that several of these Acts date back to the 1970s, and a great deal has changed since then, both in how the efforts themselves are administered and how they are perceived.  These stories are complicated enough, but then there are the State Acts and local programs that have been passed to meet similar needs.  Throw in a court decision or two, and things get quite complicated.  These Acts, programs and decisions have already been subjected to several decades of the myth-making process, and many have been so encrusted with coats of blather and layers of hype that their real nature is often barely discernible.  It’s going to be fun.

In truth, my last/first subheading refers to a change in my approach more than in the subjects themselves.  This blog offers urban history in the support of urban activism, and future posts will focus on the activism part.  The subjects for Phase Two are part of history, but I will approach them through examining their current aspect at first, as they are not just current issues, but “hot button” topics.  Yes, I am speaking of Section 8, Deinstitutionalization, Immigration, those topics.

Be warned: I’m not going to spend any time debating the premise behind these government programs that I choose to discuss.  In other words, if you object in principle to “welfare” programs (or at least those that benefit people, if not corporations), you’re pretty much out of luck.  To employ perhaps the most obvious example, I consider “affordable housing” to be an important issue, and will not discuss whether such programs should exist at all, but how well the ones that do exist perform their needed task.  That is a significant distinction, but it does not imply automatic approval, as you will see.  I will fit in some history, to put every subject in context.  Those “hot button” topics in particular call out for some correction of the myths that have become fixtures of popular belief. 

These posts will be mixed in among what I hope will be less inflammatory posts that focus on other things happening today.  As has always been the case, I draw my most of my specific subjects from recent news about events in my subject towns, and I don’t know what that is going to be any more than anyone else.  Still, I expect the stream of reasons why I named tis blog “The More Things Change…to continue unabated.

My approach will change, but the fundamental motive behind what I do and how I do it has not, and will not.  Misunderstandings beget mistakes.  If you base your actions on myths instead of the facts, you are doomed to fail; to the extent that you allow myths to direct your actions, you will fall short of your goal.  We all share the same goals, so we should share the same understanding of the better tactics to achieve them.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Was “The Melting Pot” A Myth In Your Town?

Over the past six months, I have taken several opportunities to excoriate the automobile suburbs (“the crabgrass frontier”) for the pernicious effect they have had on both our urban areas and our race relations.  It’s time I try to balance the books a little.  I have encountered a respected scholar who has something very good to say about those very suburbs.  I find his take on the subject fascinating, because it also fits quite closely with my current theme, inspired by the continued closing of Catholic parishes in Bridgeport and the Conshohockens, of how ethnic/religious discrimination and nativism helped to shape the towns along the lower Schuylkill River.  The connection between the two lies, surprisingly enough, in one of our nation’s most cherished myths.

There may be no more deeply held claim about the United States than that it is a “melting pot,” where ethnicities and races amalgamate into that uniquely blessed person, the “American”.  We retained our hyphenated racial/ethnic/religious identities, but managed to subordinate them and cooperate to build the greatest society the world has ever seen.  But was the melting pot truth or just another feel-good myth?

If we actually did as the myth claims, it had to be in that period since World War I.  If you have an eastern or southern European lineage, then the great immigration boom that brought most of your ancestors to America around the opening of the 20th century had been throttled by the mid 1920s.  Immigrants continued to arrive in the succeeding decades, but in much smaller numbers.  Absent new and different arrivals, the new ethnic groups largely acclimated to their new land, and even assumed a degree of political power within their communities.  This initiated the period our parents taught us to believe was “the good old days,” when people were honest, worked hard and rejected government handouts.  This was also when the concept of the melting pot made its appearance, celebrating the work-together attitude of Americans despite their different ethnicities and backgrounds. 

A recent claim that the melting pot was a myth arises not from the Left, where one would expect to find it, but from the Right.  The Cato Institute’s leading Libertarian scholar, Brink Lindsey, has offered a very interesting take on the subject in his book The Age of Affluence.  Simply put, he says the melting pot was an American myth for most of our history, and he credits the new post World War II automobile suburbs as the mechanism that turned myth into reality.  As he puts it,

“Part of Suburbia’s novelty lay in how it united people across regional, class,
ethnic, and religious lines.  Blasted by critics for their white-bread
homogeneity, suburbs took the myth of the American melting pot and made
it a living social reality.” 

This is quite a claim, but before we examine it through the lens of ethnicity in my subject towns, we must take notice of the one classification Lindsey conspicuously does not mention: race.  He slides right over the point on the way to his thesis, and even a cursory knowledge of American history requires us to admit that the melting pot allowed little black input.  Lindsey ignores this point, but I have emphasized how the automobile suburbs actually contributed to residential segregation.

But what about Lindsey’s claim that it took the post-war suburbs to bring people together across ethnic and religious lines?  Region and class have always played a part in our interior isolation from each other, but when we speak of the melting pot it is the mixing of ethnicity and religion that we are discussing, so that’s where we should focus.

Lindsey offers a broad refutation of a widely-held belief, so we must be careful in examining such a claim.  The first major distinction is to separate the situation in large cities from that in the smaller urban areas.  The existence of ethnic enclave neighborhoods in large cities prior to the Second World War is well documented and understood.  They had been long established by that time, spanning generations.  Their boundaries were unofficial but both recognized and respected.  Young men in particular knew which streets were safe to walk, and those where “intruders” were at risk, usually from young men from “the neighborhood.”  The violence that actually resulted from this pales against what takes place routinely today, but such subdivisions of a large city had a firm foundation in the ethnic and racial divides that existed within our cities at that time.

But what about our small towns, for example your old “home town”?  Is Lindsey correct?  Was “the melting pot” a myth in your town?  Let’s pick the admittedly quite arbitrary date of 1950 to examine this question, and focus on the time before that.  By that date, small town America still remained largely strong and vibrant, but the automobile suburbs were beginning to drain away long-time urban residents.  This was the sunset of “the good old days” that so many people lament, and to which they wish we could all return.  It is a good point to divide our analysis of the melting pot into the old—in our traditional urban areas, and the new—in the automobile suburbs.

I can speak with some authority only about the ethnic/religious divisions within Norristown prior to 1950, because I have researched the subject.  My research has also produced some insight into Bridgeport’s situation at that time.  Such knowledge as I have accumulated, I must confess, suggests that Lindsey has a point.

In 1950, Norristown was still one of the more egregious examples of a town riven and divided by ethnic conflict.  The first crisis came when the Irish began to arrive.  They were “ghettoized,” as we term it today, but that was only a rehearsal to what would happen when the Italians began to arrive.  This influx was much larger, and Norristown simply directed its Italian immigrants to the east end of town, the least developed, with the most shanties and shacks.  This became an unwritten law, and as late as 1950 kept all but the most well-off Italians within the area east of DeKalb Street and south of Fornance Street.  This made an ethnic divide into a geographic one.  This did produce one unintended result, Italian political power in the East End, and thus in Norristown Borough Council.  You could read about this dispute on a political level, but you also lived it on a personal level.  Everyone I interviewed about growing up during the years before 1950 was adamant about the subdivisions with Norristown, and each described them in the same way, only from their individual vantage point.  To those growing up during this time, Norristown’s internal divisions determined where you could safely go, where you didn’t dare, and which ethnicities were not allowed to even date one another.   The evidence on this is consistent: in “the good old days,” Norristown’s melting pot did not even heat up. 

Here is a fascinating piece of evidence concerning the melting pot in Bridgeport, taken from an editorial in the official publication celebrating the borough’s Centennial in 1951:

“The intermingling of people of widely varied, cultural and religious
 backgrounds has not altogether been smooth.  One strand frequently
 sows its dislike of another.  Certain elements in the community want to
favor people of their extraction in public office.  As a result of this racial
prejudice, little cliques form in many organizations and do everything to
discourage other people from taking part in them….This is not an Italian
town.  This is Bridgeport.  The celebration of Bridgeport’s 100th anniversary
shows that it took people from many lands to build the borough.  Let not
a few try to turn it into sinkhole of bigotry and racial prejudice.” 

It is clear that the author uses “racial” where we would use “ethnic,” as the African American population of Bridgeport was very small at this time, and totally without political influence.  The usage also provides insight into the mindset of people in our towns during this era, adding indirectly to the evidence.

What is fascinating is how such a frank statement made its way into an official publication, which normally allows no such thing, regardless of the town or the occasion.  Of course, a single statement, even such an authoritative one, is not sufficient to support any conclusions about Bridgeport’s political and social fabric prior during its heyday before Second World War.  Yet it does suggest that Bridgeport shared yet another issue with its larger neighbor across the river.  I would encourage local historians to look into this.

But what about the other river towns on which I focus?  My knowledge of how varied the ethnic/religious mix was among these towns is little more than superficial, yet sufficient enough to require an examination of each individual location, because differences among them exist, and were important.  I thus address this issue in the form of a request to those of you who grew up in these other towns, or whose parents did, during the ostensibly “good old days”.    Remember, we are speaking of the period largely before 1950, so what stories did your parents tell you about your town in “the good old days”?  Were Royersford, Spring City and West Conshohocken even large enough to demonstrate internal ethnic/religious divisions in the first place?  If your parents lived in the larger towns, who were their friends, who could they date, and who couldn’t they?  Where there places where it was safe to go, and those where it wasn’t?  What unwritten rules existed, and were they based on geography or on ethnicity?  Could Italian Catholics date Irish Catholics?  How about Slovaks and Ukrainians?  Or Jews?  Ask those who remember; you substitute the actual nouns involved in your personal stories, those you learned growing up.

I would very much like to know what your local research into family and community turns up, so feel free to contact me.  I repeatedly encourage my readers to look into the way things actually were in their old neighborhoods or towns; only understanding the truth about our problems allows us to craft effective solutions to those problems.  But always keep in mind that what is often said of genealogy is also true of local history: don’t get into it if you aren’t prepared to handle the unpleasant surprises you are sure to encounter as the myths you so cherish founder on the rocks of reality.  When that happens (and it will), try to remember that the end result—knowledge something closer to the truth—is worth the effort, and even the anguish over lost dreams.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Racism Perverted The American Dream

Now that I have your attention, just what “American Dream” am I talking about?  There have been so many, or at least so many uses of the phrase.  Most of them tend toward the philosophical; the superficial ones usually mention “freedom,” while the more sophisticated revolve around “a better life for the children, and their children.”  I’m not going to disagree with this, but I am going to talk about what those two terms actually meant during our history.  That’s why I’m going to nominate “home ownership” for the best phrasing of the American Dream, because it addresses just what “a better life” and "freedom" actually meant to real people, and to a large extent still do.  For a concept to be as old as our early immigrants and as current as today, of course, its literal meaning has to change, and this one has.  The ownership part hasn't, but the amount required has.

Look beneath every claim that our first settlers came over for some variation of “freedom,” and you will find they came over for property, because in those days property was freedom, or at least the basic requirement.  The desire to own one’s own property was the real motivation for the vast majority to come here, and its variations once here have made consistent appearances throughout American history.

Back in the pre-industrial age, it wasn’t so much about the “home” part; the focus was on land, because it was needed to sustain continued occupation of that home.  Land was the reason the vast majority of the original immigrants—and a substantial portion of later immigrants—came here in the first place.  The very first visitors to the western world were searching for quick riches, but the immigrants came in search of the one thing Europe had run out of a long time ago: available land.  Countless generations of the European poor came of age knowing they had no chance of ever owning land; those Hessian mercenaries so castigated in our history were nothing more than European peasants who had only their lives to sell, in a far away place from which most of them never returned.  They didn’t really expect to, not in those days of very chancy travel and no government accountability, but the reason many of them chose to stay was the same that had brought their unplanned adversaries here also: land.  Not only was there acreage beyond the imaginations of downtrodden Europeans, nobody owned it (okay, we are not considering the Native Americans, but neither did the immigrants).

The idea of sufficient land for everybody lies unspoken behind the philosophy of our Founding Fathers.  It was the fundamental assumption about the experiment in Liberty they came to call The United States of America.  Thomas Jefferson immortalized this concept as “The Yeoman Farmer.”  A tenant has a home, but was at the mercy of his landlord.  A peasant may own land (although he usually didn’t), but not enough.  Only someone who not only owns land, but owns enough to provide him and his family with sustenance plus surplus has the ability to resist economic, social and political pressure, and can thus be a free man.  This is also the reason why so many otherwise eligible white men couldn’t vote during the Colonial and Federal periods; they did not meet the wealth requirement, and thus were not trusted to exercise their franchise free of external influence.

The Industrial Revolution changed all this, because it changed everything, but it also took a while to happen.  As the 19th century proceeded, the transition from growing items for local consumption to growing items for sale on the market—in other words, from agriculture to agribusiness—led inexorably to the need for larger and larger parcels of land in order to be successful, and the consequent and equally inexorable decline in the number of farming families.  This was disbelieved and resisted, of course; into the 20th century there was a national movement dedicated to claiming that the traditional 40 acres was still enough to support a family, despite all evidence to the contrary.

By the 1920s more people lived in cities than on farms, but the decline in farm families did not have nearly as much to do with this remarkable historical achievement as did the preceding decades of mass immigration.  The Industrial Revolution had led to the need for larger and larger parcels of land for a resident farm family to be self-sustaining, but it also stimulated something close to the exact opposite to accommodate all those new arrivals.  It did so by providing to an unprecedented portion of the western world’s population an alternative means of securing their daily bread: wage labor.

Thus, despite the fact that a vast majority of the immigrants to the United States in the decades around the turn of the century came from an agricultural background, most were directed to urban areas, and rather unwillingly became part of that emerging concept, the “working class.”  These people did not give up on the idea of owning their own residence, however, but quickly realized that their quest was no longer for “land.”  In the new industrial cities the dream of land ownership transitioned into the only format possible, ownership of a house with little—if any—more land that what it sat on.  It just had to be located near to where he worked and she shopped.  They bought the best homes available under these restraints, which usually were shacks cheaply built specifically to lure those for whom home ownership remained their version of the American dream.  Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle has reminded several generations of readers that the fate of many new Americans who participated in this conversion was to fall victim to predatory lenders and venal administrators, with tragic results.

But the transition continued, and—very gradually—a set of rules emerged to mitigate what happens to individuals and families that attempt to negotiate with corporations, in the field of real estate as well as others.  I said “mitigate,” not “correct,” because the rich taking advantage of the poor has not exactly disappeared from our society.  An American middle class did come into being, and home ownership was virtually a requirement for entrance, at least for a married couple.

The evolving American dream of ownership also explains the appearance of the “suburb.”  Planned residences to provide a quiet, bucolic escape from an ugly, noisy, dirty and polluted city began to appear in America quite early in the 19th century.  They were only for the truly rich at first, and they spread slowly, commensurate with the drop in the wealth requirement for entry into them, to which the railroads made a substantial contribution.  These “railroad suburbs” also further embedded a system of residential segregation by race.   Many people of all classes might be disturbed by the movement of black people into their neighborhoods, but only the most well off had actually possessed the means to move to where such people were unlikely to be found.  The railroad suburbs allowed more families of less wealth to move, and the nature of African American distribution began to change.  While the early “Main Line” suburbs saw the rich bring their black servants with them and house them nearby, the steady arrival of a larger number of the less wealthy (I really have to express it that way) into the expanding suburbs led to precisely the opposite result: the grouping of African Americans within carefully delineated enclaves, progressively more distinct from the community norm.

After the Second World came the “automobile suburb,” about which I have had a word or two to say previously.  The transportation revolution, an unprecedented national prosperity and government spending combined to offer a new variation on the old theme of ownership, not lots of land to support the family, nor a shack or house packed tightly against many others, but a nice house on (initially) one eighth acre of land.  You weren’t isolated as was the farm family, or crowded into unhealthy quarters as so often in the cities.  It seemed like an ideal opportunity, and a great many seized it.


This migration to the crabgrass frontier brought forth a resurgence of traditional American real estate practices in new forms required by the new opportunities.  Racial segregation reached new levels of effectiveness in the automobile suburbs, effectively creating prosperous white rings around a decaying black core.  Within the cities themselves, a predatory financial community “redlined” poorer neighborhoods to death.  The result of these factors—and many others—served to not only maintain but to increase the overall level of residential segregation in the United States.  An unprecedented opportunity to achieve what should have been the true American dream—Inclusive Diversity—was squandered.  Racism perverted this latest version of the American dream, just when technology and economic progress offered the tools to realize it for everyone.  We continue to deal with the consequences. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

Nativism Is All Around Us; We Just Don’t Call It That

My post two weeks ago about the closure of Catholic Churches in Conshohocken and Bridgeport offered the unpleasant historical truth that these churches came into existence through a combination of ethnic prejudice and nativism.  I made a passing reference to how ethnic prejudice and nativism are actually different things, although they do fit together so very well, and always have.  I want to follow up on this, beginning with a classic combination of both.  I will then argue that while ethnic prejudice has declined substantially within the Schuylkill River towns (although it is making a comeback), nativism still exists, virtually undiminished.  Not only that, it exists in every town in the region (I won't go any farther than that, although I am tempted).  Every one of them.  People just don’t call it that, because that would upset the nativists, with social ostracism the likely result.

To start, let’s consider the following combination of both ethnic prejudice and nativism:

More than a decade ago, while at the Norristown/Montgomery County Public Library engaged in research for my book What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania, from Main Street to the Malls, I happened to read a very recent letter to the editor of the Times Herald that not only stuck in my memory, I will never forget it.  The subject of the writer’s ire was the influx of Hispanics into Norristown, but the letter itself was addressed to the “Americans” (his word) already here, who, he contended, were simply allowing the foreigners to come to the community, collect in hovels, work for lower wages and steal local jobs.  He was quite angry that his fellow Americans were letting this happen.  When I finished the letter, I saw that the writer had an obviously Italian surname.  To a historian, the irony, which appears to have totally escaped him, was blindingly obvious:  a century earlier that exact same letter could have appeared in the Times Herald—close to word for word—and the immigrants it warned "Americans" against would have been Italian.  Incidents like this are why I titled my blog “The More Things Change…”

This writer’s comments would usually be cited as an example of “nativism.”  They are, but the letter contains both both nativism and ethnic prejudice, and distinguishing between them isn’t easy.  The ethnic prejudice component of his remarks is obvious, and I doubt any of you need much introduction to ethnic prejudice anyway, so I won’t offer any.  Nativism needs some clarification, however, because it is much more prevalent than most realize.  It negatively affects communities everywhere, even when issues of ethnicity, or race, are not present.

Nativism actually has multiple meanings, most of them scholarly, but we are focusing on its most well-known variant, the belief system that desires favored status for the established and the known over the new and the different.  When discussing examples, the emphasis is usually placed on the different part.  The influx of Hispanics into Norristown motivated that Italian-American letter writer to virtually repeat the slurs hurled at earlier generations of his own people.

But newness is a part of it too, and at the very bottom, it’s what nativism is actually about.  To the writer, Hispanics were upsetting the local scene, replacing everything from old familiar stores to older and even more familiar churches.  Ethnicity figured into his nativism, but chronology usually trumps even ethnicity.  Distaste for and discrimination against the Italians who began to arrive late in the 19th century was not limited to Protestants and the Irish; later arrivals discovered that a caste system had developed with the Italian community (in addition to those imported from their homeland), that of native-born versus immigrant.  The earliest-arriving Italians, who had suffered such discrimination from fellow Catholics, birthed a generation that proceeded to look down upon and mistreat the newer immigrants, who were not only Catholic, and not only Italian, but may even have come from the same area in Italy.  The elderly gentlemen I referred to a few posts ago about selling his home to African Americans also told a most compelling story that supports this.  As a youthful Italian immigrant to Norristown in the first decade of the 20th century, the worst abuse heaped on him was by Italian-Americans of the first generation born in America.  That made them “Americans,” and they seized every opportunity to express their disdain for people who were of the same religion and ethnicity as they, but who were new.

This is true nativism, the automatic devaluing of those whose time of arrival in the area is more recent than yours.  A preference for the established and the familiar over the new is the core of nativism, and it provides the most frequent demonstration of its continuing power.  Ethnicity or race--even class--need have nothing to do with it.

Your best chance of encountering nativism today is to attend a municipal meeting that features a pending issue of controversy that can’t be pinned on ethnicity or race.  There are lots of these, and they usually center around a proposal to tear down something old, build something new, or both.  You can’t recognize a nativist physically, except that they tend to be older.  This isn’t a generational thing, however; it’s about time in local residence.  Nativists are almost invariably the community’s mature to senior citizens, because older people will by definition be the longer-term residents while the newer arrivals are more likely to be young.

But once they begin to speak, you’ll have no problem recognizing them.  They are the ones who invariably preface their remarks by stating how long they have lived in the community.  Their meaning is implicit, but obvious: as long time residents, their opinions should count for more than those of newcomers.  If you haven’t been around as long as they have, you can’t possibly have the best interests of the community at heart the way they do; you actually want to change things, but that means newness, and that’s what nativists fear most.  They know best what should be done, and very rarely does that mean advocate for change.  The old voice that supports the new is not so much rare as noticeable by its isolation. 

There is, of course, an ironic contradiction in all this.  Nativists themselves represent a previous influx of new residents to the area at some time in the past; local reproduction simply does not account for the enormous population increase in Southeastern Pennsylvania (or anywhere else, for that matter).  But they are oblivious to the fact that they were once the newcomers, and that their arrival changed things, upsetting what had been customary before.  Now, however, they are the established ones, and all further change must cease; all is to remain they way they set it up because, well…

People tend to arrive in communities in waves, in response to incentives both large and widespread (about which I have written) and small and local, such as a new superhighway or a new development.  Over time these people can develop a substantial awareness of each other, or at least their common interest in keeping things the way they were when they arrived.  This is what gives local nativists their power at the ballot box.  In our communities, nativism is the reason the same established local political figures remain in office, resisting not just the electoral challenge of newcomers, but the whole concept of a new approach or just a new idea.  They have lost the distinction between the office and its occupant, and interpret challenges to their personal authority as challenges to the welfare of their community.  They do this secure in the knowledge that those who they chronologically represent--in residence more than age--and who have voted for them several times before, are going to turn out at the polls in greater numbers than those vocal, pesky newcomers, keeping them in office and new ideas for their community on hold.  Sound familiar (fill in name of municipality here)?  

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Whose "Gaming The System" Costs You More?

Let’s talk about those cheaters that cause your taxes to rise while the environment around you goes downhill.  I’ll bet you know who they are, or at least think you do.

As a historian, I offer to this subject that fact that “gaming the system” is only slightly younger than the system itself, any system.  Those who can, do, and they use what the system has given them to work with.  The poor always have, do now and always will; this too shall always be with us.  So have the rich, of course; that’s how a great many of their ancestors earned fortunes in the first place.  Several of our Founding Fathers were smugglers who deeply resented the British Crown’s efforts to curtail their law-breaking, and this grand tradition has continued.

Today’s America witnesses the constant volleying back and forth of “truth” about who is doing the cheating, who is to blame, etc., ad nauseum.  Mind you, I’m not talking about the system itself, so whether you approve or disapprove of Section 8, or any “welfare” program on principle should not enter into it at this point, nor should your opinion of how tilted toward property owners our legal system is.  We’ll have that discussion at another time, trust me.  We are limiting this particular discussion to CHEATING, which I hope we can all agree is bad.

So I invite you to ignore the national discourse for the purposes of this conversation, and make your own personal comparison: whose gaming the system costs YOU, the taxpayer more?  Whose degrades your neighborhood more?  For those of you who would argue that the malfeasance of the poor puts the greater financial burden on you, I’ll offer a classic example for our comparison.  Or, if you prefer, pick your own example to use.  It can be a true incident, to which you can testify or under which you may have suffered, or you can even assemble a collection of stereotypes to use, if you are so inclined.  You pick your weapon.

My examples of gaming from the top and the bottom both come from the same town, which is only fair.  I said "town" because the two examples don’t come from Detroit, Baltimore or any of the well-known examples of urban decay, but from the Borough of Pottstown in Southeastern Pennsylvania, a community of some 22,000 people.

Remember, this is all about the Benjamins, so try to total up how much you think each example is costing you by cheating, lying, ignoring the law and general antisocial behavior.  Figure in the cost of the police having to pay attention, the courts, the decline in property values, EVERYTHING, for both examples.  Read, and decide.

Is there any more stereotypical example today of gaming from the bottom than this headline from the Channel 69 website last May?  “Drug Ring Operated from Government-Subsidized Housing, Police Say.”  The leader of this alleged drug ring was identified as one Edward Tillman.   The operation utilized more than one location, but had been headquartered for over a year at the Bright Hope Village, in the 400 block of West King Street, Pottstown, which is, in fact, a subsidized housing complex.  That’s all the information I can pass on about this specific crime, unfortunately.  This is a criminal case, still to be decided, and the law is not free with information about such cases.  That's one reason I invited you to substitute your own example.

I can do a lot better with my example of gaming the system from the top, because it involves a civil case.  It is thus on the public record, in most of its painful detail.  It also took place over a much longer time.  The police knew about it, but it was a matter for the civil courts, so the violator was allowed to continue what he was doing.  I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Golden Cockroach (.com or Facebook) in providing me with the facts:

In 2004, one Mr. Andrew Soule purchased a property at 440 King Street Pottstown, for $75,000, using a mortgage from Fannie Mae.  By 2007, Andrew Soule was falling behind on his property taxes.  The Borough filed tax liens on the property from 2007 through 2010, when it finally took action to collect on the liens.  The exact amount of taxes owed is uncertain, but a knowledgeable estimate puts it at about $15,000.

During the period from 2007 to 2010 Andrew Soule rented the property at 440 King Street; the tenant forced to leave by foreclosure had been paying $1,200 per month to live there.  Soule performed no maintenance during this period (a photo exists of the house at the time of foreclosure to back this up), and with not paying any taxes, he was pretty much pocketing the entire amount. 

In 2010 the bank foreclosed on the property (in other words, Soule wasn’t making his mortgage payments either), and ended up owning the property.  Andrew Soule’s total default was $99,425.10, and some potential creditors did not participate in the legal actions, so the actual amount is unknown, but greater for sure.

In 2011 the bank sold the property through a Fannie Mae auction for $19,425.00 to one Luigi Fischer.  Luigi Fischer is Andrew Soule’s cousin, and has not been seen since shortly after the auction.  Gee, do you think he might have been a front?  The house sits empty to this date and is accumulating another set of tax loans.  Did I mention that Andrew Soule owns the property next door at #444 King Street—which sits empty—and a number of other properties in Pottstown, on which he has also defaulted?  No matter; we are comparing only single examples, after all.

Try to run the math on just this one property of one slumlord's complete refusal to live up to his legal and contractual obligations—pay no taxes, do no maintenance—while collecting up to $1,200 a month, for four years.  That doesn’t take into account the time and money spent by the Borough going through the legal motions they knew were pointless.  That’s where I get to add the expenses of police and municipal administration to my example; he made them jump through hoops, and laughed all the way to the bank.  THEN HE RECYCLED THE PROPERTY TO EXPLOIT IT ALL OVER AGAIN.  My friends at Golden Cockroach have exposed this travesty, and may have put a crimp in this slumlord’s plans.  I certainly hope so, and if I can add to his Internet Walk of Shame I am proud to do so. 

So, how do my examples compare, or how does mine from the top compare to mine (or yours) from the bottom?  Whose flaunting of the law do you think cost the taxpayers more money?  Which example brings down a neighborhood more?  I said I would let you decide.

I’m sure you have a multitude of other versions of your example, but so do I.  Mine was just one building of just one slumlord (who owns several), in a not very big town, who is by no means finished stealing from you, the taxpayer.  Those like him often own the rancid buildings from which you see drug dealing; it’s but one way they rip off the people at the bottom, whose cleverness may equal theirs, but whose resources certainly do not. 

I don’t expect that this one comparison will cause you to let go of your closely held viewpoint about what’s wrong with our country, but all I ask is that you absorb the lesson and multiply it by the countless number of people who do pretty much the same thing.  As always, I ask you to make your decision based on “the Benjamins,” not some comforting collection of myths.  We should all be angry at EVERY attempt to cheat and steal from ourselves and our communities; we should seek out and vigorously prosecute ALL examples from wherever we find them.  But shouldn’t we be angrier at those who cost us more, who do our towns and cities more damage?  Should we not focus on them more, and allocate more resources to their prosecution and conviction?  You would think so, particularly when the comparison isn’t even close.  But I don’t see that being the case.

I would submit to you that gaming the system from the top is much more effective than from the bottom, and that it costs you, the taxpayer, a great deal more.  There two fundamental reasons for this: first, because the gamers at the top have a lot more money to play with, and second, because their ancestors wrote the rules of the system in the first place.  We still live within a legal system that was created to give primacy to the rights of property over the rights of man.  That was the "original intent"of our Constitution and our inheritance from the English common law.  It was also a subject on which our founding fathers waxed eloquently and at length.  All those misguided liberals from Theodore Roosevelt on have added laws aimed at reducing that imbalance, and the resulting laws have offered new ways to game the system from the bottom, but money still talks.  Of course, as Bob Dylan reminds us, "money doesn't talk, it swears." 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Why So Many Churches in the First Place?

I began this blog in April of last year.  In November, I decided that I would publish on a weekly basis.  I had my articles on urban history pretty much outlined in my mind, but they were only going to be about every third post.  I was less confident about the current subjects I would tackle, realizing that I would need recent events to provide relevant topics, and I had no idea what those would be in the future.  I needn’t have worried.  Day to day events in the Schuylkill Valley have provided the subjects for so many posts that I am now stressed about the accumulating backlog.  I have added to that stress by bumping those stories for this week’s subject, from very recent news.

The news?  Another closure of Catholic churches in Southeastern Pennsylvania.  The Archdiocese just announced which churches will be closed and their parishes subsumed into already existing ones.  The effect was widespread, but the towns along the Schuylkill Valley were hit particularly hard.  Bridgeport will lose its only remaining two Catholic churches and become part of Sacred Heart Parish in Swedesburg, Upper Merion.  Conshohocken will also lose two churches, and West Conshohocken will lose the only one it has.

The announcement evoked waves of both shock and nostalgia, the latter with good reason.  The closings really should come as a surprise to no one who is aware of the Catholic Church’s downward regional membership trend, not to mention the increased secularization of society in general.

As I read through the many comments lamenting the loss and evoking the memories of these churches, I came across one on Facebook by an individual (who shall remain nameless) about the situation in Bridgeport that I much admire, and quote it here:

All of those churches were built by immigrants; why haven’t they attracted any of the new immigrants to Bridgeport area?  We should always have been a welcoming church and not exclude people because of their ethnic background.  There is no reason that a town as small as Bridgeport should have separate Catholic churches.”

The writer is quite correct about the origins of the churches, and his remarks exemplify the modern ecumenical approach to religion.  Unfortunately, the existence of the many churches themselves (not to mention those that have closed already) testifies that religion in American history has not been quite so accepting of differences as many would proclaim today.

Not only were the Schuylkill Valley Catholic churches built by immigrants, but the story behind their construction is a microcosm of American ethnic and religious history itself.  It’s an all-American tale, with ethnic prejudice and nativism (they are not the same thing) playing the lead roles, ably supported by religious animosity and racism.

Let’s put the religious animosity thing in the background first.  The earliest settlers in Southeastern Pennsylvania were a diverse lot, but they shared two things in common: they were from northern or western Europe, and they were Protestant.  Mind you, they were rather fractured themselves along ethnic and religious lines, and they would endure the decline of their churches also, but theirs is not our story today.

The Protestant descendants of these early European immigrants had pretty much settled in and assumed the reins of local control under the new Republic when they were confronted by the first of what would be repeated migrations of strange people quite literally coming up the Schuylkill.  They actually came up the railroad (which came up the Schuylkill Valley), as far as it had reached, then got off and went to work building its route from then on.  They were the Irish.  They were considered close to sub-human; they were dirty, brawling alcoholics, who often faced the sign “dogs and Irishmen need not apply” when looking for work.  They were consigned to the poorest parts of town and exploited in every conceivable way.  Worst of all, they were Catholic.  As they began to accumulate in the nascent industrial towns, they upset the traditional control of the region's Protestants.

Both unwelcome in Protestant churches and possessing absolutely no desire to worship there anyway, once enough Irish had accumulated in a community, they organized and built their own church.  Most of the Irish settled downriver; they quickly came to dominate the Conshohockens, and played a large part in the growth of Norristown and Bridgeport, but their numbers and influence was less farther up the river.  St. Matthew’s Church in Conshohocken was the town’s first, organized in 1851 by its Irish residents.  West Conshohocken’s early residents could use St. Matthew’s, and it wasn’t until 1888 that enough Catholics had settled on the right bank of the river for St. Gertrude’s Church to appear.  They were Irish.  The presence of St. Patrick’s in Norristown just across the river also delayed Bridgeport’s Catholics building a church.  St. Augustine’s was Bridgeport’s first Catholic church, established by its Irish residents in 1892.

Each town on the lower Schuylkill River thus already possessed a Catholic Church when the next wave of immigrants began to flood our shores, some of who also came up the Schuylkill Valley on the railroad.  They were greater in number, and they hailed from Europe, but from southern and eastern Europe, not western and northern, and most of them were also Catholic.  This is a great oversimplification, as this group of immigrants possessed a great variety of religious doctrines and different homelands, but it will suffice to make my point.

So what happened?  Did the Irish, remembering how badly they had been treated, resolve to treat these new fellow-religionists better?  Of course not; if anything, they treated the new immigrants worse, although the later generations of the Protestant elite did contribute their part, just as their ancestors had done to the Irish.  Ethnicity trumped religion; an Italian Catholic or a Polish Catholic was not welcome in an Irish Catholic church, period.  So, the Italians and the Poles and all the others did the best they could until they accumulated enough of themselves to build their own church.  In Conshohocken, Polish Catholics established St. Mary’s Church in 1905, while Italians established Saints Cosmas and Damian Church in 1926.  Bridgeport’s Italians also opened Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in 1926.

See the pattern?  An Irish Catholic church is the first to be established, which then offers the back of its hand to later arrivals, because, although they are Catholics, they are “different.”  Italians, Poles, and the others were routinely not welcomed in Irish churches, but, in truth, would rather worship and celebrate with their own peoples regardless.  They wasted little time and less effort trying to join existing churches, and set about establishing their own.  Ethnic prejudice and nativism are why there were so many churches in these immigrant-built towns. 

Amid all of this, keep in the back of your mind that Racism thing; as the repeated waves of immigration populated the Schuylkill Valley, regardless of one’s opinions about Catholics (or Protestants), or about this or that European ethnicity, all could—and did—combine in despising black people the most and treating them the worst.  It’s an American tradition.

To bring things back to the present, I ask this question:  What do the Bridgeport and Conshohocken churches mentioned in the paragraphs above have in common?  Answer: They are all being closed by the Archdiocese in this current contraction.  They have been in the crosshairs of history for some time now, and their demise long forseen.  The flow of immigrants dried up beginning in the 1920s, courtesy of the U.S. government.  But the churches still thrived, at least until after the Second World War.  Within each municipality, ethnicity continued to be the most often employed means of self-identification.  However as the era of mass communications and that of mass mobility merged, the local ethnic churches lost their centrality as ethnic identity exerted a lesser pull with each succeeding generation.  They young moved away, leaving the borough congregations to age and wither.  A yearly festival would bring many back to eat, enjoy and reminisce, but the sustaining attendance of family groups inexorably decreased, and once in a while wasn’t enough.

One final point concerning Bridgeport: the Facebook poster I quoted asked why the Bridgeport area has not been attracting any of the new immigrants.  In fact, it has, and not too there many are happy about it.  I am speaking of Hispanics, another of the many historical spillovers from Norristown to Bridgeport. As a historian I find this fascinating, and I’m not even going to make any comments about history repeating itself.

Bridgeport and the Conshohockens find themselves at a turning point in history (I’ve made this point about Bridgeport before).  Their ethnic churches made them the communities they were, and the ethnic churches are all but gone, as is the local focus the churches provided.  Current trends differ greatly between Bridgeport and the Conshohockens, but they have this in common: the old community ties that generations developed and could point to with pride—those that defined the communities themselves—are disappearing.  What will take their place?

Friday, June 6, 2014

Many Fled, Some Fought, but a Few Profited (Tenth in a Series)

My recent posts in this series have offered reasons why residential segregation was the theme of the automobile suburbs, and why it pretty much worked.  My previous post introduced the idea that the influx of African Americans into our cities also spurred further residential segregation within the cities themselves, as “white flight” took its toll.  As we turn our attention from how African Americans ended up in our northern cities to what happened to them on arrival, let’s pick up from where we left off by understanding that while the phrase “white flight” describes a reality, it doesn’t describe the whole reality.  Some whites who felt threatened by the influx did not flee, but defended their neighborhoods with methods ranging from employing the law to ignoring it.  Regardless of their tactics, the net result was a loss, not just for those they opposed, but for themselves as well.  You can say they have only themselves to blame, but that would be ignoring the existence and importance of a crucial third group, much smaller in size, but huge in influence: those who realized they could profit from the conflict, and profit even more by intensifying it.  They succeeded in enriching themselves, and in the process further solidified the racial segregation in our cities while removing the tax base upon which those cities depended.  They won because everyone else lost.  That’s why I focus on them, not those whose desires and fears they exploited.

Keep in mind that I said “further solidified” because our cities always have been residentially segregated, and I’m not just talking about the ones in the South.  African Americans were present in the north from early colonial times.  As either individual servants—or slaves—they were easily overlooked, and rarely counted accurately.  As long as they were few in number, this worked; once there got to be more of them they were harder to ignore.  Southern communities realized this quite early, of course, but while total population growth in the northern cities greatly exceeded that of African Americans, it could be largely ignored.  The Great Migration and the opening of the automobile suburbs put an end to that.  This is when a great many heretofore settled and content middle class white people actually had to confront the issue of race much too closely. 

Some may flee and some may fight, but a few will always profit.  An unholy combination of real estate speculators, bankers and other types that tend to benefit when the general populace suffers saw how racism plus proximity equaled fat profits for them.  Some of them resolved that if African Americans could not be kept out entirely, then they were to be directed to specific neighborhoods; others realized how to profit from it.  First on the list of neighborhoods in their lens was, of course, were those so unfortunate as to already have African Americans living in them.  As proximity was the prime motivator of “white flight,” those already-existing neighborhoods tended to expand.  This was not left to chance, however.

I have previously introduced you to “Restrictive Covenants” as a primary (but not the only) means by which the political/financial power structure ensured that the new automobile suburbs would be white.  Now it’s time for three new phrases that help to describe the means by which racial segregation was maintained and even reinforced in the cities affected by both The Great Migration and White Flight.  It was an impressive achievement, considering the huge numbers of people involved.  Of course huge numbers of people moving meant equally huge profits for those who subscribed to Ayn Rand’s dictum that morality has no place in a market economy, and who were positioned to profit as much from economic crisis as from economic prosperity.

This semi-alliance that saw profit in population turnover had a huge legal advantage; the National Housing Act of 1934, in attempting to manage real estate risk, allowed banks to outline whole neighborhoods as being “insufficiently secure” for investment capital.  From this grew the practice of “Redlining” neighborhoods, allowing banks to legally refuse to make loans to aspiring businesses—or residences—within those areas.  This quickly caused the flow of that vital ingredient of capitalist enterprise to those neighborhoods to dry up, while spurring the flight of what capital still remained to other locations.  Loans to bring in and to sustain industry and commerce—those all-important contributors to the tax base—became virtually unavailable within redlined neighborhoods.  This condemned these neighborhoods—as well as all those within them—to decline and decay.

A closely related practice (sometimes so intertwined with redlining as to be inseparable) was “Mortgage Discrimination,” specifically on the basis of race or ethnicity.  This was also widespread and openly practiced within the financial community at least until the 1970s.  Unlike redlining, which focused on a neighborhood, mortgage discrimination focused on individuals and thus had to be disguised to a greater extent, for obvious reasons.  The two interacted, of course, and African American families applying for a mortgage were much more likely to be denied one, particularly if it was for the "wrong" neighborhood.  This added residential mortgages to the industrial and commercial ones being carefully directed to specific neighborhoods and denied to others, thus completing the trifecta of disinvestment.

It should surprise no one when I mention that those neighborhoods most subjected to the combination of discriminatory practices so carefully developed by our financial sector almost always housed not just the poorer people, which were disproportionately black anyway, but also numerous middle class neighborhoods that had the bad luck to also house African Americans.  Luck had nothing to do with it, of course.  That is where the real conspiracy came in, and it was all about the Benjamins.  The emotional resistance of frightened white people in redlined districts (or those nearby) could turn a profit for the right people in any number of ways.

“Block Busting” is my third phrase, and probably the most well known of the three.  It’s one of the very best business strategies ever developed, because it was always guaranteed to turn a profit for the middleman. Both sides in a real estate transaction paid him regardless, so the key was volume, and nothing drives volume like fear.  Please keep in mind that African Americans were by no means the first ones to find themselves playing the villain in this particular melodrama.  My book What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania, From Main Street to the Malls, describes how a prominent real estate agent, motivated by the ethnic discrimination he had experienced as an Italian, resolved to do exactly what local residents feared most: move Italians into every neighborhood in town.  By the by, his idealism, plus the fear of Italians moving into the neighborhood, produced good profits.

These policies and practices effectively divided our cities into those neighborhoods that were protected and those that were not.  The story simply gets worse from there.  By the 1960s, the effects of this perfect storm of happenstances—government policies, romanticism and racism, all undergirded by a transportation revolution—were becoming obvious everywhere.  The Federal Government responded by passing new Acts designed to combat the ills caused by the post-war Acts.  I will discuss these in future posts, because many perceive the cures to have been worse than the disease.

But it wasn’t only the large cities that saw such directing of the African American influx, or the effective, if not formal, redlining of its neighborhoods.  If you live in a town of any size, aren’t there one or more “black neighborhoods”?  Size is definitely a factor here; redlining neighborhoods in large cities was commonplace (my use of the past tense doesn’t mean it has ended), but much smaller towns the size of Norristown and Pottstown certainly saw it on a substantial scale.  The smaller the town, the less opportunity for residential segregation, but it was practiced whenever possible.

So, rather than focus your anger on one side or another of this tragic dispute, how about those who simply exploited it for personal gain?  They are the ones to blame for the fact that everyone but them lost, with the collective loss to the community the greatest of all.  Most important, understand that such people are still very much with us.  There are still ways to leach wealth and capital from urban areas, and there are still people doing just that.  Redlining, mortgage discrimination and block busting may (or may not) have disappeared, but those who would eat the the vitals of our towns and cities in total disregard of the human consequences are still with us.  That's why I periodically remind you of Slumlords.  The more things change...