I took an Amtrak train from Harrisburg to Philadelphia, to spend my first two nights of the trip in a hostel, as opposed to with a host or friend. This has turned out to be a significant decision, as it yielded insights into a side of America I’d only glimpsed beforehand.
Arriving at 30th Street Amtrak Station I decided to take the subway 4 stops west to be within walking distance of the hostel which I had booked for two nights on the internet. I asked at the subway station how to get to where I was going, and at the time didn’t think much of the ticket vendor’s slight surprise at my destination. It wasn’t long before I understood. West Philadelphia is not the good part of the city. It’s not where tourists are supposed to go. Indeed, I had meant to book a hostel in the Penn State University area, but must have gotten confused because that is not where I ended up. No, my first thought when I got off the subway at 46th Street and Market was “fuck me, I’m not supposed to be here”.
What i’d walked into can perhaps best be described as the underbelly of the American Dream; the places that people like me aren’t supposed to go, and which many people would like to pretend don’t exist. But they do exist, and it’s places like this which – from a cursory glance – have not benefited one ounce from Bush’s tax cuts for the ultra rich. Of course, there are areas like this in every city in America (and probably the world), but whereas I’d quickly treked through some sketchy areas of New York, I hadn’t really witnessed American poverty until I got off the Westbound subway.
Let me describe the neighbourhood I walked five blocks through to get to my hostel. The paving stones are broken and uneven, and a pale, yellow-green grass pokes through all the cracks and grows in abundance at the edge of the sidewalks. Houses are in a state of disrepair, and rubbish lies unswept at the side of the streets. Most cars look as beat and old as the roads they stand on – except for, that is, the conspicuous shiny new SUVs with tinted windows, that cruise through the neighbourhood blasting gangster rap. Around the corner from my hostel, there are – amongst the boarded up shopfronts – no less that two ’99cent stores’, one of which displays two signs: “No children under 16 allowed without a parent” and “We gladly accept food stamps”. Get that? They gladly accept food stamps. This is not the America of the 1930s, or even the 1980s, which a New York Times article recently noted was the last time – until 2008, that is – in which food stamp use was not in decline. But don’t kid yourself that this sign was new; food stamps have been a staple in this neighbourhood for a long time, if appearances are anything to go by.
As I walked through these streets to my hostel, I had two over-riding thoughts. Actually that is not true; I had one thought, and a general feeling of fear. I was afraid for two reasons; firstly because I had ‘tourist’ – and therefore ‘target’ – written all over me, and secondly because I am white. You see, this is a poor neighbourhood, and in American cities that usually – and in this case, certainly – means something else: a non-white neighbourhood. Is that an admission of a sub-conscious racism I didn’t know i possessed? Perhaps, yes. Either way, my fear led to my thought: “get out of here, fast”.
But I didn’t – mostly because this hostel has a no-refunds policy (presumably because otherwise people would take one look at the neighbourhood and go running back to the east city). In fact, the only thing that made me feel less scared as I was walking through these streets was the fact that I have heavy tattooing down the bottom of my right leg and was wearing shorts. For the first time in three weeks my choice of body art felt not like a cultural elephant-in-the-room of social awkwardness, but like valuable camouflage.
As I was walking to the hostel a young black man stopped me and asked me for food. This, by the way, is not uncommon in the United States. Being asked for money is a daily occurrence – every time you exit a bus, train or subway station someone (usually black, surprise surprise) asks you for spare change. However, a half-dozen times on this trip I have been asked directly for food, usually with an appeal as to how long it has been since the person in question last ate. As I must confess to often doing, I made my excuses and guiltily walked away, praying the guy in question wouldn’t take a fancy to the pack I was carrying.
I got to my hostel, and rang the bell. A few minutes later the door was answered, and I explained I had made a reservation. I was told by a young, well-built black guy to wait outside. After five minutes he came back and said “OK, you can come in”. For the next 20 minutes I sat nervously on a couch whilst he fiddled with a laptop and watched television, ignoring me completely – all the time praying he would say they had no records of me and were full-up anyway. But eventually he looked up and told me they had my reservation, and then he showed me to my room. As it happens, the hostel is clean, well-kept and safe. Most of the people staying here are long-term residents, working in the city and needing a place to stay until they get somewhere more permanent. This calmed me down as I concluded that the hostel was a safe refuge from the streets outside.
Let’s, however, put the neighbourhood back into context. About a year ago I had a somewhat heated email exchange with an Old Balliol Member who lives in New York about the nature of politics, social economics and so forth. Quite a gulf of the political spectrum existed between us, and the exchange at times became quite hostile (mostly my fault, but no surprises there). One thing that has always stuck in my memory however was the comment made by my correspondent that Scandinavia was “the latest example of a failed socialist dream”. Now i’ve never been to Scandinavia, so i cannot comment on its dreams, failed or otherwise. But I have seen the area of 46th Street Subway Stop in west Philadelphia. If American society embodies the highest (though I use that term hesitatingly) manifestation of the Capitalist Dream, then this looks like a prime contender for the status of failure to me. This is a neighbourhood where a 6ft, 21-year-old athletic male (i.e. me) makes an immediate resolution to be back inside his hostel before it gets dark, and not to leave again until the sun comes up. If my words don’t conjure a mental picture, then the following might help (I took all of these, just so you know, in a hurry after checking there was nobody within approachable distance, because frankly I didn’t want to get mugged for my camera):
This is the local school, (not what it looks like, a prison). The mural reads “Let Books Take You To Another World”:
Photographs, however, don’t really give you a thorough impression. You really have to walk these streets to see how poor they are. Many (liberal) social commentators say that if you are black and poor in America, your life-quality is akin to that of people living in the Third World. I’ve never been to a “Third World” country, but this neighbourhood is as run-down and decrepit as the worst areas of Eastern Europe I saw when traveling last year. More Bulgaria than Pennsylvania.
Anyway, braving the five blocks to the subway, I have taken a couple of trips into east Philadelphia, the so-called city of brotherly love. Mostly I visited the historic area, where I reached my absolute saturation point with public American history and the relentless repetition of the national myths. But more of that in a minute.
One thing I did enjoy today was the African American museum, located near Penn’s Landing in Eastern Philly. The museum focuses on black history in particular, with two main exhibits; one about notable African civilisations and their contribution to human development, one about Afro-Mexicans (i.e. blacks in Mexico). I learned a lot, for example that 35.5% of slaves trafficked between the 15th and 20th Centuries went to Brazil – that’s over 4 million men, women and children, whereas ‘only’ 500,000 were taken to North America (though 2 million were taken to the British West Indies, and would have come to the USA via that route). Furthermore, it wasn’t until 1992 that the government of Mexico acknowledged a third ‘root’ of Mexican ethnicity – Africa – as until then it had claimed only two ethnic roots, native Indian and Spanish.
The African American museum was, however, not in a great state. Although to be fair one exhibition was only partially open, and a second was mid-way between clearing the old and setting up the new, the whole place had a feel of underfunding, neglect and general lack of public interest; i only saw two other visitors in the entire place. This was interesting, and I wonder to what extent it is a cause, effect or correlation of wider race issues in the USA.
I did spend, however, quite some time trudging around the historic sites. Philadelphia was a key city in the American Independence movement of the late 18th Century, the town which Benjamin Franklin ran away to and because famous in, where Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and where the rest of the founding fathers signed it. Yet today I reached my absolute limit with regards to hearing American national myths.
Take for example, the story of the Founding Fathers. According to the museums and visitor centers of Philadelphia, the tale goes like this: The Founding Fathers were stalwart defenders of the liberty of the ordinary man. Inspired by the anti-absolutist writings of Locke and Paine, they over-threw the wicked, arbitrary, unjustified and dictatorial rule of colonial Britain, asserting the rights of all men – who were self-evidently created equal, as they wrote in the Declaration of Independence – to found a free democracy and enshrine the principle of individual freedom, founding the Greatest Nation in the World. Somewhat embarrassingly, these founding fathers were all slave-owners – but we can overlook that by making for contextual excuses, and pointing to individuals like Franklin who “eventually saw the evils of the institution” [Independence Visitor Center] and freed their own slaves.
Now, another telling of the story might go like this: The Founding Fathers were a group of wealthy, self-interested, slave-owning white male patriarchs who rebelled against British rule not in the interests of freedom or liberty for the ordinary man but out of a desire to avoid paying taxes, and so as to establish a political system in which they could become predominant. After achieving independence they did not institute state-wide universal suffrage, did not extend the rights of women, and continued to uphold the institution of slavery. They couched their arguments in the terms of Locke and Paine to attract popular enthusiasm, but in truth aimed to establish a system in which the elite property owners of the colonies – i.e. themselves – achieved dominance.
Naturally, the truth lies somewhere between these two accounts, and i’m inclined to believe closer to the former. Yet you’ll hear not a word against the Founding Fathers in Philadelphia; Saints upon Earth, they were, founders of the Greatest Democracy in the History of the World no less. Now, I understand that nations have their national myths, and I suggested in my last post the idea that Americans are naturally proud of their nation because it is, well, a winner. Yet today I found the patriotic fervour too much to deal with. Perhaps it was because of where I had had to walk through earlier that day; the American Dream doesn’t seem like so much to celebrate, and likewise the founding of the nation, if you get off the subway at 46th Street. Whatever the reason, the endless repetition of the claims to the greatness of America and its founders – and the implication, intended or not, that the rest of the world is wholly inferior by comparison – can become too much to endure.
Likewise, I am starting to become tired of the (frankly incessant) rhetoric about liberty and freedom. Take, for example, the Liberty Bell:
The Liberty Bell is – according to the dozen displays you must pass before you reach it – a symbol of freedom the world around. Its story I can surmise for you thus: cast in England and brought to Philadelphia where it served as the state house bell, it was evacuated during the War of Independence so as ensure the British didn’t capture it. After the British were pushed away, it was rung as a symbol of liberty. The crack is the result of attempts to fix a smaller fault in the bell. One day the bell was ringing for Washington’s birthday and it cracked to the top, meaning it was silenced forever. in the 1830s Abolitionists adopted the now-named Liberty Bell as a symbol of freedom in the struggle to end slavery. After the Civil War ended in 1865 the bell was taken on a tour of the USA to help encourage the process of reconciliation. Many world leaders have been photographed with it, including Nelson Mandela. Americans view it as a symbol of freedom.
Yet the information is stretched out to a dozen, highly repetitive displays before you get to the bell, all of which reinforce the constant message: America loves freedom, Americas are free. While this is true, it might be worth recalling what kind of freedom some Americans enjoy: if you live near 46th Street subway station, your freedoms involve the freedom to hire a hooker, smoke crack and get shot. Furthermore, the displays do an interesting job of covering-over some basic problems with the liberty symbolism of the Liberty Bell. Sure, it may have become a symbol of freedom during the Revolutionary War, but the founding fathers who wrote that they held the truth that all men are created equal to be self-evident didn’t see it as self-evident that some men shouldn’t be slaves because of the colour of their skin. Rather, it wasn’t until 1863 that Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation – and did that against the wishes of much of his party, in an act of great personal vision and determination which he thought would lose him the 1864 Presidential election, a testament to his individual greatness (and in my opinion, his worthiness for continued praise and admiration). The Liberty Bell museum papers over this with a brief nod that the Founding Fathers were slave-holders, and quickly explains that the Abolitionist movement in 1835 adopted the Bell as its symbol – declining to mention that in 1835 the Abolitionists were viewed as crackpots and dangerous radials by most, and it would be another 28 years until slavery was in fact abolished.
There is, however, something more deeply significant in all this public rhetoric of freedom, and although my thoughts about it are still in the process of being straightened out, here’s an initial outline. Such rhetoric is often disingenuous, particularly in the mouths of politicians – after all, no politician ever tells us they are against freedom! – but in America the word seems to have become a hollow platitude. Its endless repetition seems almost to have bored out the content, so that Americans have no doubt that they are free, but if pressed on exactly what that freedom amounts to, things get sticky. In fact, they get so sticky i’m not yet ready to try and write-out my thoughts on the matter any further. So until then, enjoy some pictures of nicer, whiter parts of Philadelphia:
Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed.
The central town hall.
Benjamin Franklin’s Grave (photo taken holding camera through railings). Franklin – who ran away from Boston to Philly when he was 17 – was a self-taught genius; a philosopher, scientist and inventor (of lightning rods, no less) he was perhaps the greatest of the Founding Fathers alongside Jefferson and Washington. Notably, he thought the Bald Eagle was a poor choice of national bird, and preferred the Turkey. I agree (America is chock-full of pictures and sculptures of Flags and Eagles; where else do Flags and Eagles remind you of?). You’ll observe here that people have thrown money onto his grave. Perhaps they believe Franklin’s ghost will bring them good luck in return – or perhaps its critical commentary upon the state of modern American politics and a nasty jibe at Franklin. Who knows?
Philadelphia skyline, with a statue of General George B. McClellan in the foreground. McClellan was General of the Unionist Army of the Potomac for much of the Civil War. He was also an ego-maniac and an indecisive general who on numerous occasions failed to take the initiative against Robert E. Lee because his endemic over-caution continuously led him to over-estimate the enemy’s strength. He was eventually removed from command, and became the Democratic Party’s nominee and major challenger to Lincoln in the 1864 Presidential campaign.
A couple of shots from Penn’s Landing. This is – you’ll be surprised to hear -where William Penn the founder of Pennsylvania landed on the banks of the Delaware River, and where Philadelphia began. As a colonial colony Philadelphia was the only city that allowed complete religious toleration. Whereas in, e.g. Boston the Puritan settlers who fled Britain to avoid religious persecution quickly set about instituting religious persecution, in Philadelphia you could be a Quaker, Jew, Presbyterian or whatever. Nowadays Penn’s Landing has been turned into a sort of out-door concert and event center. The idea is good, but it’s getting run-down: cobble stones are loose and need replacing, and the water-sculpture fountains are getting dirty and stained. This, incidentally, is the story of much of Philly; a growing need for public works and repairs becoming long over-due.
Late in the afternoon there was a minor accident on the subway, when two trains collided (gently, nobody was hurt). In any case, local press was all over it, and I snapped this shot of the interview-mugging of a local transport statesman, which i think is quite cool.