July 29 — 9:00 am, 2016

The angry ones

Reflections on a Philadelphia childhood and why so many white working-class people are drawn to Donald Trump.

ori mills 2 2

When I was a little girl growing up in the 1960s, Port Richmond and its neighboring community of Kensington literally boomed with activity.  Noisy factories lined every major thoroughfare in both areas. Freight trains rumbled along Westmoreland Street from the docks lining the Delaware River to the heavy industry located on Aramingo Avenue. From Aramingo Avenue, tractor trailers made their way along our residential streets transporting anything from chemicals to stinking, squealing pigs destined for the slaughterhouse. At noon each day, a steam whistle from a nearby factory announced lunchtime.

In our crowded neighborhood schools, I can’t recall anyone’s father, the main support of the family in those days, who didn’t have a job. Our fathers were factory workers, truck and bus drivers, construction workers, firefighters or police officers, roofers or mailmen, like my father. The lucky ones secured jobs at the nearby Frankford Arsenal with its government salary and pension. On our fathers’ salaries, our parents could afford a neatly kept little rowhouse, a secondhand car, and a week at the Jersey Shore. We didn’t need government handouts and looked down our noses at those who did.

People in my parents’ generation jealously guarded their jobs and their neighborhoods against real or perceived encroachments. Their little piece of the economic safety net did not result from generations of inherited wealth, but rather from union protections guaranteed by the New Deal. From the Great Depression, they knew how easily things could slip away from them. So they didn’t take kindly to “outsiders,” like Black people or Puerto Ricans, moving into our neighborhood or taking “their” jobs. Thus, racism, bred of fear and ignorance, ran like a third rail along our streets.

They also didn’t like the government, which usually appeared as a form of unwelcome interference. When planners decided to build an exit ramp from Interstate 95 right through Monkiewicz Playground on Richmond Street, the adults demanded a meeting with city officials. Would the city force kids from Chestnut Hill to cross a busy exit ramp to access the baseball field? After being handed paternalistic hogwash, my father came home incensed by the lack of respect and dismissive attitude of the city representatives who refused to consider relocating a ramp that put Port Richmond’s children in danger. How dare they?

Much worse things were soon to follow, leaving a once-proud group of people feeling angry and powerless.

The first sign of change was the arrival of an Acme in the mid-1960s on Aramingo Avenue, built on the site where a mountain of dirt once stood surrounded by earth movers operated by neighborhood men with union salaries. Gradually, the trains stopped arriving from the docks as the factories disappeared one by one, to be replaced by retail stores staffed by part-time workers paid a minimum wage with no benefits.

Kensington followed suit. The west side of Allegheny Avenue, which once hummed with machinery so loud that I could hear it from my seat on the 60 trolley, fell silent. This process was replicated in every industrial area of the city, leaving poverty and devastation in its wake. The once plentiful and steady supply of jobs dried up, turning men whose fathers and grandfathers worked steady, well-paying jobs into the street and onto welfare. The once noisy, bustling, vibrant and safe neighborhoods were now overlaid with a patina of poverty, crime, drugs, and desperation. Entire communities – local shops, playgrounds, churches, schools, and the families who once used them – fell apart. Most have never recovered.

 The “enemy,” if there was one, was never, of course, the Black people and Puerto Ricans whom the White working class once firmly believed “took” their jobs, but rather the impersonal force of business practices that snuffed out the livelihood of millions of American workers of all races. The government, always part and parcel of the perceived lack of respect given to loyal workers who fought in World War II, whose sons went to Vietnam, and grandsons and granddaughters to Iraq, had sold them all out by allowing their jobs to be sent overseas. For the White working class, governmental betrayal was complete.

It is these disenfranchised workers, the people in my old neighborhood, who have turned to Donald Trump. Grasping at straws, hoping for a Hail Mary pass, and looking for a scapegoat on which to blame their misfortunes, they believe Trump’s promises that only he can bring back the noon whistle and restore those well-paying jobs. With Trump as president, the docks will bustle again with longshoremen loading trailers instead of bustling with patrons of bars and casinos. President Trump will force all the job creators who took their factories to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Indonesia to come home and restore the manufacturing jobs that once made America great. Or so they believe.

However empty and unrealistic Trump’s promises, he is giving those on the edge something that no one else is giving them – hope and self-respect. In return, many of them will give him their votes.

 

 

 

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