Sunday, November 9, 2008

Too good to stay in comments


I grew up spending my summers in the Polish ghetto of Chester, Pennsylvania. I use the word "ghetto" in the sense that neighborhoods were strictly segregated. The Poles held the area of Front St. throught 4th Street. Beyond that other immigrant groups had staked out their claims. It was never clear to me why I had to stay away from Irish and Italian neighborhoods. In my child's mind's eye my mental map said simply "there be monsters." My little enclave was a safe and secure place to grow up.

The Polish people of that generation, first and second, were known as the working poor. My grandfather quit school at age twelve when his father died. The custom was to keep a factory seat open for the next in line, that being the only social security on offer. My grandfather became the family bread-winner. Somehow the family survived the Great Depression if only barely. Then came the war. The neighborhood sent its young men off to fight. Some did not return, but the neighborhood survived.

My grandparents owned a modest rowhouse on the 100 block of Thurlow St. Some people called it the wrong side of the tracks. Actually, we were on the tracks. We used to shoot cans off the rails with a BB gun from the neighbor's porch. I guess to the older folks it seemed far safer than the old habit of sending young boys clambering up the side of moving coal cars to rob them of the precious fuel that would keep a family warm for the day. Despite our "poverty" the neighborhood was thriving.

The center of our lives was St. Hedwig's Church, a majestic structure with stain glass windows stretching to a vaulted ceiling. The congregation was large enough to require five masses on Sunday. Piety was our chief virtue, except for Joe Schpok and Handsome Harry. But those two were excused because Joe was a bum, and Harry was mad. Joe lived in an abandoned car and earned his livelihood doing odd jobs. Harry owned a rowhouse next to my aunt. I guess he was harmless, but his sudden appearance sent our mob scurrying for cover. The neighborhood monster was tall and oily with fingernails an inch long. When he got sick, the local women would bring him food and medicine. Same for Joe. The community looked after its own.

Life was simple and routine. There was work and church, kielbasa for dinner, and Phillies baseball on the AM radio. There was no crime in our neighborhood and the streets were clean. You painted your concrete porch and front steps every spring. They didn't really need it, of course, but no one wanted social stigma of being called a slacker. Kids graduated from St. Hedwig's Catholic School, and wonder of wonders, began to enroll in college. The next generation began moving into the middle class.

It all looked like a dream come true. Until the day something truly dreadful happened. The government arrived . . . to help. You see, the g-men had been studying the demographics. As the third generation moved out, more properties became rentals. The modest rowhouses were never worth much, about 30K in the late 1970's. So the government began to encourage real estate agencies to buy them up. The government would supply tenants and guarantee rents.

The new arrivals were nothing like us. By this I mean they didn't share our values. They didn't work or attend church. Their children were wild and undisciplined. They didn't even paint their steps and porch every year! It didn't take long for the neighborhood to become feral. We began to notice rats and stray animals. Broken windows went unrepaired. Garbage began to pile up in the alleys. The Polish people fought back with brooms and buckets of paint, but to no avail. You see, the neighborhood was now full of retirees. The muscle that the next generation might otherwise supply had moved to the suburbs.

The new class moving in had no vested interest in our neighborhood. The government would take care of everything. The government should take care of everything, at least that was their attitude. And worse, the new arrivals tolerated crime. They actually turned their backs on break-ins and assaults. Then the drug dealers and prostitutes arrived. But the police didn't care. The neighborhood was dying. When tenants moved out, the landlords simply boarded up the wreckage left behind. The remaining Poles secured their doors and windows with locks and bars and hunkered down to await the death knell. The Polish ghetto died without so much as a whimper.

There is nothing unique about this story. It has happened to thousands of neighborhoods across the country, is happening still to this day. It happens because government thinks it can substitute its influence for citizen virtue. But a republic can stand strong only so long as the citizenry retains values based on hard work and commensurate reward. Nothing is valued that is not earned. The citizenry must have a vested interest in community and nation. It can't be given; it must be earned. There is no other way. The government cannot cure poverty because government policy creates poverty. How many lessons do we need? Or should we sit back and wait till the entire nation is naught but a blight upon the land?
[Click on the title above, or date stamp below, to see the full article.]

Chester Pennsylvania didn't die. It was murdered.


  1. ~Paules, about that...

    I grew up in that neighborhood too.

    I mean - it was Czech... and Berwyn, IL...

    But aside from that - exactly the same place.

    Like you said, man.


    - MuscleDaddy

  2. Thanks for posting that, D4. I wonder if I should polish this into a Whittle-sized essay for "The Project." What say you? More polish or more Polish? Or more of both?

    Joe Czyszczon (Cheesh-chon) walked with a limp because one leg was three inches shorter than the other. Even with the aid of a prosthetic shoe he couldn't march, but the army pronounced him fit for duty. Back in the bad old days of World War II, "disabled" meant that you were missing limbs. Uncle Joe had a full compliment of appendages so the army shipped him to Puerto Rico for garrison duty. The story would be otherwise unremarkable except that Joe returned with a good conduct medal, a victory ribbon, and a Puerto Rican wife. Polish and Puerto Rican? Yeah, there's an oddity, unless you understand that both are devoutly Roman Catholic. So Joe and Mercedes were married.

    Locked in the deep recesses of a child's memory is the photo, oil color delivered with a brush over black and white, of the young Mercedes. She stands erect and proud with the bearing of a Spanish princess. Her waist is impossibly thin; it can't be but twenty inches. The child's mind locks the memory indelible. My conscience tugs at the threads of fidelity. She's still alive, the last of her generation. I owe her a visit before she dies.

    My Puerto Rican aunt brought a whip to the backside of the Polish ghetto. "Education!" she screamed at every opportunity. And she was right, spot on, in every way correct. During the marriage of my second cousin (to a freaking Italian!), I mentioned that the last of my cousins resembled her, my great aunt Mercedes. Same dark, slightly kinky hair, same impossibly thin waist. The old crone admonished me gently: "And smart, and college bound."

    Stubborn and hard working are the Poles. Salt of the earth. Valued to this day from London to Tel Aviv for their virtues. No lie. Just ask. I thank to this day my Puerto-Rican great-aunt for the lash she gave me and my generation. Joe had a barber's belt hanging in the kitchen of his rowhouse. I never saw him use it. We all knew what it meant. He was a worker, a father, and the final authority in the household. Fine. Aunt Mercedes was the only one to see the future. And she was right.

  3. And as long as I'm on a good and solid rant, I will proceed. Because Aunt Mercedes is not the only person in history to see the truth. A good and common folk may ascertain through virtue and insight the way forward. A republic of five million produced Franklin, Jefferson, Washington and Madison. What then of a republic of 300 million? Think on that, brothers and sister, and believe yourselves no less worthy than generations that have come before. Indeed. New Washingtons, new Jeffersons, and new Madisons. How cool is that? Why not?

  4. Paules:

    Beautiful stuff.

    My mother was first-generation born here in the states, with her father being from Poland (mother was Russian). He took shrapnel in the leg and lost his right arm escaping from a Nazi prison. He took his Russian bride, came to the States, and started his family. Seven kids later, he became a single father through divorce. Yet, despite this, neither his handicap nor his situation prevented him from earning his letters (Masters in Divinity) and passing on the values of faith and hard work. Both serve my Mom and me well today.


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