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

Gloria Steinem

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...