Occasionally, I am in Center City Philadelphia when it’s time for me to go over to New Jersey for my weekly voice lesson. In this case, I take the PATCO train, which runs from the city to suburban points southeast, until I end up at my destination of Westmont, which is near Haddonfield, the local County Seat of Suburbia. They’ve got some nice Presbyterian churches and a Krispie Kreme. What else could you want? White Castle, perhaps.

The nearest train stop to me in the city is located in a relatively safe neighborhood that is nevertheless host to a lot of drug activity. Miraculously, this filth has only caused one murder on that corner that I know of in the past several years. All kinds of funny stuff happens below street level near the train platforms, though: Cops arresting some variety of transexual prostitute is commonplace, and the smell of piss permeates everything.

The train makes its way through the underground tunnel until it gets to the Ben Franklin Bridge—a real beauty of engineering, even if it is named for a clown. One looks right and left to see the area that was rent in half by this construction project in the early 20th century. The story goes that this had devastating economic effects.

I used to be afraid of bridges as a kid. I thought they could collapse and dunk us into the water at any moment. Now they’re some of my favorite things. The Ben Franklin can’t compare with the view from the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge out over the New York Harbor, or the majesty of the Verrazano Narrows at dawn, but it is comely in its own right. From the middle of the span, one looks out over miles of cityscape. Handsome old churches dot the landscape, marking neighborhoods that have really gone to seed over the years—some more recently than we’d like to think. In the distance one sees the Philadelphia Sports Complex, testimony to the American desire to watch recreation rather than to engage in it. And then there is I-95, Philly’s disastrous idea of a waterfront.

Over to the left one can see Camden, which actually has a real waterfront, complete with a ballpark, the Battleship New Jersey, and the Aquarium. Several magnificent buildings stand proud amidst the war zone there, testifying that there was a time when this city was a magnificent place with a future to anticipate, not unlike places like Reading, PA, which I like to call Little Camden.

Back underground, through the bowels of the city. You see all kinds of interesting things in Camden, as would be expected, but you’re more likely to see an ugly fat couple making out than a violent crime. I realize this violates Suburban Myth, but when did popular myth ever amount to much more than a fanciful sport of self-congratulation? (The English sin, the French disease, etc…) Nonetheless, there are gigantic social problems in these cities, and it’s overwhelming to think about the scale of them.

The train resurfaces in Suburbia, and I disembark in apparently safer, saner neighborhoods. But you know what? I think the problems are just as bad there; it’s just that Suburbanites are good at hiding it, like Lester Burnham’s family in American Beauty.

It’s almost impossible to take this little train ride and not wonder how these problems surfaced and how they might be solved. The last time I did it I got to thinking about the effort it takes to improve just one city block, one church, one school. Even to do this it takes one or two strong leaders and a lot of other people cooperating, not to mention a lot of money.  Multiply that effort by thousands even to reflect what it takes to change a medium-sized city.

What caused all this illness? Many cite the race riots. Maybe. I wasn’t alive; I don’t know. I also wonder about monetary debasement, which has its own economically deleterious effects. Whatever the causes, they are likely complex and deep-seated. Erik Erikson had a theory of personality development which wasn’t really chronological in how it looked at causation; rather, Erikson had three categories (I forget what they are), and a person’s history in these three categories kind of swirled around their life, creating the human being that they were. In hindsight it could be untangled, possibly, but there was no telling the future. I have  a feeling that the rot our society has experienced has not really been on a linear trajectory either, but rather the soup that we are left with after many ingredients have been thrown in. Is it even possible to untangle all the causes now? Is it anything other than counterproductive?

This ads up to one gigantic mountain of an issue, and I wonder how often people realize that when they swoon in front of a politician who promises panaceas for the world’s problems. And what’s with the politicians who think they can take this stuff on? Is it stupidity? Arrogance? Messianic delusions?

From where I sit it seems to me that the politicians are useless and can only effect harm. We have plugged our ears to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and have confounded government and society. The rot that we see in our culture can’t be chased away with policy. The disintegration of humanity can’t be fixed with a salute to the flag. Over and over again, government has taken on social problems and only made them worse. The War on Poverty, at least according to some, brought us the fatherless family. The War on Drugs brought violence to the streets. Social promotion brought us an illiterate population. The War on Tara, as George Bush called it, brought needless fear to many hearts.

Not far from me there is a business whose owner took a chance a few years ago by setting up shop in a somewhat dicey neighborhood. I used to avoid walking there after dark. It has become the centerpiece of a rebirth of that area. These are the kinds of investments that need to happen if our culture is to be put back together again. Brick by brick. Everything on a small scale. This doesn’t afford a demigod an opportunity to congratulate himself or herself; but it does give us a chance to get out of the rut we are in.

I was eating dinner tonight with a friend when the subject of urban violence came up. What would it take for me to move out of the city? A whole lot, really. I think it’s important that if you believe in the place you live, you stay and do what you’re supposed to do there. It’s my little contribution to bringing back a reason to be optimistic. What’s yours?


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