So I was preparing to fly back home from Philly last week when I briefly made the acquaintance of someone on the rental-car shuttle bus. I never got his name. He was sitting up front, in the passenger seat, a huge, broad-shouldered white dude of middle age in a blue blazer and buzz cut. The poor sap had a flight leaving in less than an hour, whereas I had plenty of time, so we commiserated over this before eventually getting to the obligatory, “You headed out or headed home?” He was headed home, to Cincinnati, after attending a “military justice convention” in southern New Jersey. Unbidden, he indicated that he couldn’t get out of Philly fast enough.
I asked him what he meant because, with Clara in school there, Sharon and I are spending legitimate time in Philly for the first time and we’re frankly a sucker for its many charms. “It’s just so dirty here,” this guy said, adding that while Cincinnati has its own problems, “there are just so many homeless people here. It doesn’t feel safe.”
Doesn’t feel safe?
“Like you feel when you’re on the south side of Chicago.”
Well, this was all the code language I cared to exchange with this fellow, a 275-pound military justice professional who presumably has an understanding of actual war zones.
This is where we are today, people. Rhetoric matters. How does one avoid tying this guy’s attitude directly to having a political candidate, and now a president, who talks incessantly about the carnage of American urban life? [When he’s not talking about the fear we should rightly maintain for other brown people, be they Hispanic or Arab.] For 18 months now he’s been trotting out this fear mongering (as opposed to solutions) from a place of high visibility and authority. Seems to me it has colored the way a whole lot of white people view urban areas, people of color, homeless people, even the universality that is urban grit and grime.
The south side of Chicago reference was the kicker: Straight from Steve Bannon’s white nationalist gob to this guy’s ear.
There are plenty of Philly folk who learn my daughter is a freshman at Penn and raise their eyebrows, as in “that’s not a great part of town.” True enough, and so much better for it. You wanna live the entirety of your existence in some gentrified green zone, or perhaps a gated community in some lily-white suburb, or maybe a more pastoral outpost where gangs of dangerous immigrants or urban toughs might never find you?
Or do you want to get a decent cheese steak, or check out the Phillies at Citizens Park, or maybe hop on the SEPTA and go clubbing?
For me, and for Clara apparently, that’s an easy decision. Less so for large portions of Americans.
There is no getting around the fact that Philly, like many American cities, is largely segregated by race. We could get into the reasons why (i.e. redlining, the discriminatory and completely purposeful practice of fencing off areas where banks would avoid investments based on community demographics), but it seems awfully churlish to further isolate black folks (and stereotype black life as hyper violent) when it’s exactly the predations of white power and race fear that ghettoized this “demographic” in the first place. Seems to me a whole lotta white folks are particularly frightened (or buy into Trump’s rhetoric all the more quickly) in part because they know — deep down in their rational subconsciouses — that their own white privilege was central to or complicit in how all this has gone down.
The outgrowths of these prejudices are inescapable. When I drove south on this trip, from the northern Philly suburbs to grab Clara for dinner, one of my local friends advised that I avoid the famously traffic-choked I-76 corridor. So I took the surface roads, which took me right through the solidly African-American enclave of West Philly. I got nothing of the menacing vibe my Cincinnati friend got. It was nearly spring there in the Mid-Atlantic and folks were outside, porch-sitting, gossiping, working on their cars. As a Mainer, it felt damned spring-like to me. I drove through 20-25 blocks of this area with my windows down and never felt unsafe.
I knew that eventually I would pass over Market Street, where I‘d be able to divine exactly where to go. At some point, headed south on 42nd Street, I saw a white guy walking north and I’ll admit it: I thought to myself, “Okay. I must be getting close to Penn.” Sure enough, Market was two lights away.
I’ve saved the best irony for last: When our military justice conventioneer was painting this sorry picture of Philadelphia, I couldn’t help but notice the shuttle driver, a black dude, nodding his head. Where I said nothing, the driver chimed right in: “This place sure ain’t what it used to be.”