“I’m used to photographing what is illusive, things that are hidden. In Kensington, there were women on every corner making eyes at me, a single man in a sedan driving the avenue.”
Prideful, working class white ethnic neighborhoods in cities have been ignored and poorly represented for at least a half century, goes a major theme of Peter Binzen’s 1968 Whitetown USA dissection. [Google Books here.]
Written by a former Philadelphia Bulletin newspaper reporter with whom I was thrilled to have lunch last month, the book attacks the principle that whites are a monolithic group of privilege. Binzen, a former education reported, focuses heavily on the school system in the book to tell a tale of why working class and even upwardly mobile middle class whites were opposed to affirmative action and other social welfare programs perceived to help blacks.
The first third of the book features the similarities of Whitetowns from cities across the country: white neighborhoods often with many recent immigrants that are working class, prideful of place, protective, provincial, conservative and often seen as bigoted. The rest dives deepest into Kensington, a decaying industrial corridor then and a decayed shell today, and its adjacent Fishtown, a smaller, more residential neighborhood where I now live.
As I often am eager to do, I wanted to share some of my favorite passages and thoughts from the soft cover copy I tore through:
Continue reading Whitetown USA: 1968 book on the ‘silent majority’ of poor urban whites by Peter Binzen
By Christopher Wink | May 06, 2008
There is a suddenness to life in this city.
Surely it is exaggerated in the minds of those who live mostly in fears of their own creation. Four hundred dead of 1.5 million isn’t anything to the pain and poverty of many in this world, but murders on the streets of Philadelphia require a viciousness that can’t possibly come naturally.
The stories come and seem to portray great tragedies in their crushing art.
Tony Lain was a 42-year-old married father of two from Mayfair, a neighborhood of runaways from the gritty, urban decay of Kensington’s old Irish Catholic blocks.
He worked for Petro Oil in Southhampton, a working class man of flaws and simplicities.
By Christopher Wink | Feb. 13, 2008
She grew up in Kensington Irish Catholic, like so many subjects of stories like this. Too many kids. Too tiny a house, standing side by side with others that fell ill with the same afflictions.
When she was young, she was like a Philly soft pretzel, she told me. Skinny and narrow and twisted and salty. She smiled at that.
She got her braces off 34 days before her 19th birthday. She met a boy 59 days before she graduated from Archbishop Ryan. He would go home with her, the 50 to the 3, 67 days before she chose for him.
Even then, when things were good enough, she’d sneak to Saint Mike’s. Sit in the back. Maybe light a candle. Something about it made her feel like someone was listening to only her. Like someone thought she was. Special. He could do that for her, too, then, she said. But not like those morning in Saint Mike’s, when the world stopped, aside from a girl in Kensington with no braces and a tight grip on the smooth, rolled edge of that pew.
She had thought about community, she told me. Get the grades, go to Temple, even. He wanted to strike out on his own, with her. Get a job. She chose for him, 138 days before she learned she was pregnant, 16 days before he did.
They had the kid. And another. One more, too. Too many kids. Too tiny a house, standing side by side with others that fell ill with the same afflictions. The neighborhood was different, problems seemed more daunting, but it wasn’t anything that hadn’t been said before.
It was sometime around then – the young one couldn’t have been more than two – when he learned he had Hodgkin’s disease, the same day she did. Aggressive. Inevitable. She couldn’t remember much of it. It took more than three years. Seems a lot longer when you say it then when you live it, even less when you remember it. He died in pain. She still lived it.
She stopped going to Saint Mike’s. Someone else could sit in the back. Light a candle. Clutch the pew in control of the wooden and stable. She got mad. And spent a lot of wasted years being mad with kids trying to learn to live in a world that she couldn’t recognize anymore.
The kids got older, though, as kids do, and she got so used to the pain and frustration that unlived dreams became childish fantasies. She was better for having avoided them.
She went to bible study a few weeks ago, she told me. You’re bound to rediscover what once meant something to you. Maybe we have everything at the start and are meant to spend the rest of it finding it again.
It was not long after that first return that she opened the book to find a verse to discuss and came, at random, to Isaiah, “defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” Widows and orphans, and, like that, something about it made her feel like someone was listening to only her. Like someone thought she was. Special.