Coming Apart, the book I published a few months ago, tracks the cultural divergences in America's classes from 1960 to 2010, focusing on whites as a way of getting people to understand that the problems I describe aren't driven by minorities. I used Belmont, an affluent Boston suburb, as my label for the white upper middle class, and Fishtown, referring to Philadelphia's own Fishtown, one of the oldest white working-class communities in America, as my label for the white working class.
The story I told using national numbers was bleak. During the last half-century, marriage rates in white working-class America plunged and so did church attendance, while violent crime increased almost fivefold (even after taking the reductions since the mid-1990s into account). White working-class males dropped out of the labor force, in good times and bad — by 2008, before the economic meltdown, about one out of eight white working-class males in the prime of life (30—49) was not even in the labor force.
The real Fishtown mirrored the story for my national Fishtown. From the 1960 to 2000 censuses, the percentage of Fishtown households headed by married couples fell by more than half and the proportion of adult males who were not in the labor force more than tripled. Precise numbers on crime and religious affiliations for the real Fishtown were not available, but the anecdotal evidence was depressing.
I am traveling to Philadelphia this week for a public appearance at Bryn Mawr College, so I asked Ken Milano to tell me how the real Fishtown has responded to Coming Apart. He ought to know — a lifelong resident of Fishtown, Milano is also the leading local historian of Fishtown and the broader Kensington area.
Milano reported that, unsurprisingly, the people of Fishtown have been less than thrilled. He directed me to a website, fishtown.us, run by Pastor Dan Roth of the Summerfield United Methodist Church, which, along with its forums on local events and issues, has one devoted to denunciations of me. Milano told me not to take them too seriously — a lot of the posts sound to him like they were written by newcomers who hadn't read the book. But there is a legitimate underlying reason why people living in Fishtown in 2012 believe that I got it wrong: I described Fishtown in its latter years as a working-class community during the late 1990s.
"Some of the complaints I heard," Milano e-mailed me, "were 'What Fishtown is Murray talking about?' The one in the book is barely recognizable in 2012. Yes, there are still working folks here, but to the newcomers, they are the pain-in-the-ass juvenile delinquents who mess with their cars, vandalize their houses, and make life miserable for the newbies."
Gentrification is in high gear. I could see it when I visited Fishtown during the writing of the book — abandoned factories that had been turned into chic loft apartments, and blue-collar bars transformed into trendy watering holes for the twenty-something singles who had moved in. Since then, Milano thinks that gentrification has reached a tipping point. The Pickled Heron and the Soup Kitchen, new and well-reviewed restaurants, have opened in what is now called "the Frankford Arts Corridor" because of the art galleries that have also opened there. Expensive new houses are being built with super-high ratings for greenness. The Trenton Avenue Art Festival will be held at the end of May, including, Milano reports, "the Kinetic Sculpture Derby Race, when odd and strange machines will race through the area, ending up at a big mud pit, with thousands cheering wildly. It's not Grandmom's Fishtown anymore."
For the newcomers, there are no memories of a tight-knit community organized around the family and the Catholic Church where everybody knew everybody, doors could be left unlocked, and children safely allowed to play outdoors, knowing that neighbors were keeping an eye on them, and where local problems were solved in local ways. There are also no memories among the newcomers of how that community slowly unraveled in the face of the forces that I blame (well-intentioned but disastrously destructive reforms of the 1960s in education, criminal justice, and welfare) and the forces that the left blames (the loss of skilled blue-collar jobs, the decline of unions, globalization).
Who is right about original causes doesn't make much difference anymore. The original causes have long since been overtaken by cultural changes that now have a life of their own, independently of either public policy or the labor market. What's important now is not to let what happened to Fishtown be ignored. For whatever reasons, the culture that used to characterize working-class America — indeed, that made working-class America the spine of America's civic culture — has come apart. Recognizing that this has happened is the indispensable first step in figuring out what to do next.