Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Fishtown, USA

The most interesting neighborhood in Philly and Ellen happens to live there.   Could this be just coincidence?


james said...

I just read all about Fishtown in Charles Murray's excellent book, Coming Apart. Glad to see it being revitalized.

James R said...

Holy Moses! What looked to be a local, lackluster post turns out to be laced with loopiness.

First, I would never hire Cory J. Popp, the narrater of "Uncover Philly" to do my biography. He starts out with Fishtown as "one of the most interesting neighborhoods in Philly", and proceeds to show nothing but elevated trains, decaying river fronts and graffiti. Admittedly the best part was the graffiti—it was covering up what was previously there. I won't even say what "everyone has a dog or a cat" "that won't even look at you" did for me.

But now James reveals Coming Apart, where Fishtown is the example of 'Trashtown'—where no one has a degree and "the traditional bonds of civil society have atrophied" and "why people there are so very unhappy--and dysfunctional." (the quotes are from Harvard professor Niall Ferguson's review of the book. I didn't read it.)

The point of this comment? Well, other than I wan't expecting all this, is, probably, Vonnergut's line "God never wrote a good play." Charles Murray obviously never met Ellen, nothing is as it was a second ago, and for an author or anyone to make sense, we have to pare away a thousand details and just go with incredibly rough filtered view of things based on our own personal relationships to them.

james said...

AFter reading Jim's comment, I picked up the book to make sure we're talking about the same places.

Confusingly, Charles Murray uses the name "Fishtown" to represent a statistical group of similar rust-belt cities. He chose the name because Fishtown Philadelphia was emblematic of middle-class decay. So. I've read about the sort of decay that's happened to former middle class enclaves very much like Fishtown, not about the exact town itself. My apologies! I forgot about that distinction.

From wiki: "The neighborhood [Fishtown] has been working class for centuries. While poverty grew after jobs left in the deindustrialization which afflicted many "rust belt" cities, Fishtown's workers continued to maintain a stable working-class community. Most long-time residents trace their ancestry to Irish, German, and Polish Catholic immigrants.

In recent years Fishtown has experienced moderate gentrification characterized by significant rises in housing prices and the opening of upscale art, entertainment, and dining establishments. An influx of artists and professionals has joined the ranks of police officers, fire fighters, nurses, carpenters, electricians, stonemasons, plumbers, sheet-metal workers, and teamsters."

james said...

Also, Coming Apart is one of those rare books that makes you much more aware of your place in the world. PBS has his Do you live in a bubble" quiz".

James R said...

I hope my comment isn't misinterpreted. I just wanted to express my surprise at
1) I didn't think the video portrayed Fishtown all that well (Of course, he was only there for 6 days.) and
2) according to the book review (found at the Amazon link in my comment), it was the "emblematic" community for "Trashtown".

I don't think James misrepresented anything. I was just surprised at the irony? or, perhaps, the difficulty in creating "emblems".

Now, I see another possible take-a-way, which might address Murray's book. If communities fall far enough for real estate to be attractive to young upwardly-mobile professionals, the community may escape the bubble category. I don't know how a rich community can escape.

James R said...

Also, I started taking the quiz and was feeling pretty good about myself for spending time in Palau, Fort Green area in NYC, and Northside of Pittsburgh, until I read the questions more carefully, e.g. U.S. community, non-college, and 50 closest neighbors, and then just skulked away.

Big Myk said...

Zounds. I didn't expect to that a two-bit video from Philly.com (the online service from both the Phila. Inquirer and the Daily News) would generate so much response.

I confess my total ignorance of the book, Coming Apart. Perhaps it is an exellent book, but my first impressions are not good.

First off, it's written by Charles Murray, one of the authors of The Bell Curve, an attempt to furnish some respectablitily to the notion the Blacks are genetically inferior to Whites. Harvard zoologist Stephen J. Gould wrote simply that, "The central argument of The Bell Curve fails because most of the premises are false."

With Coming Apart, he beats another familiar conservative drum: that the poor (or at least the white poor) are that way because of character flaws. The book sounds like another example of a John Kenneth Galbraith observation: "The conspicuously wealthy turn up urging the character building values of the privation of the poor." As the New York Times review of the book says: "in comparison with the early 1960s, American workers today are less likely to have pensions, less likely to be able to support a family on a single income and, until the much-reviled ObamaCare law kicks in, less likely to be able to afford health insurance if their employer doesn’t provide it. Working-class whites are different from the cognitive elite in at least one way: They have less money."

Finally, and the real reason I'm making this comment, I'm not sure why Murray choses to call his fictional "Trashtown" Fishtown, but he's totally missed the mark. Ellen's lived in Fishtown for almost three years. She's not reported any partiucular concern about crime and considers it to be fairly safe. She thinks her neighbors are great. And I've been in and out of Fishtown any number of times visiting Ellen and it looks like a thriving place: lots of people walking about, including a lot of mothers and fathers with kids. Yes, and even kids play in the street. If anything the real Fishtown disproves Murray's point.

Before I posted the video, I sent it to Ellen and asked her how much of it she recognized. Here's what she wrote back:

Pretty much all of it. Some of the smaller street art I haven't stumbled across before, but I've been to all of those restaurants, walked by all of those stores. The crazy wolf art is just down the street from me, and I pass the big fish mural every day coming to and from work.

I took Pete, Lisa, Marie, Bob & co. to La Colombe, that massive coffee place they showed. The margarita that briefly flashed on the screen is from Loco Pez, a Mexican place down the street from me. The ice cream is Little Baby's, which has really out of this world flavors (beer ice cream made with Yard's Brawler, for example).

Despite my dinky little apartment, I think you can see why I'm in no rush to leave.

I know that anecdotal evidence is the least reliable, but mine suggests that Murray chose the wrong neighborhood.

james said...

Don’t want to go off on a tangent here (congrats on the move, Ellen!), but Charles Murray has been falsely accused of racism simply for writing about something pyschometricians have been finding for the past 90 years, namely that different races have consistently different results on IQ tests.

Now, we can debate the accuracy of IQ tests or their usefulness, but the crime Murray committed was to simply aggregate the scientific literature on IQ testing. He has never said any race is inferior to another.

Here’s his response to accusations of racism (which almost always come from people who haven’t read the book):

"Our sin was to openly discuss the issue, not to advocate a position. But for the last 40 years, that’s been sin enough. I’ll be happy to respond at more length to allegations of racism made by anyone who can buttress them with a direct quote from anything I’ve written. I’ll leave you with this thought: in all the critiques of The Bell Curve in particular and my work more generally, no one ever accompanies their charges with direct quotes of what I’ve actually said. There’s a reason for that."

He says further:

"The position that Richard Herrnstein and I took about the role of race, IQ and genes in The Bell Curve is contained in a single paragraph in an 800-page book. It is found on page 311, and consists in its entirety of the following text: If the reader is now convinced that either the genetic or environmental explanation has won out to the exclusion of the other, we have not done a sufficiently good job of presenting one side or the other. It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences. What might the mix be? We are resolutely agnostic on that issue; as far as we can determine, the evidence does not justify an estimate."

The Bell Curve is a fascinating book, unfairly maligned, and it’s too bad that most people don’t know the book’s main topic is class structure in America, and the widening gulf between upper and lower classes. I’ve learned more about the origins of income inequality and cultural stratification from this book than from any trend piece or news article I’ve ever read. It’s an important book, whether you agree with it or not.

In Murray’s defense, everything I’ve read of his is thoughtful, well-written, and surprisingly moderate, given the vitriolic response of his critics. He strikes me as an earnest, honest writer. I would urge everyone to read him before dismissing him.

james said...

By the way Jim, Fort Greene is now a yuppie paradise, filled with bankers and multi-million dollar brownstones.

James R said...

Yes, I looked that up at the time I wrote it—nice!—again, it seems that is another area that escaped the bubble.

I knew as soon as Myk wrote his comment I would be saying this (especially after looking at the Bell Curve Wikipedia article: I will not be participating in any Bell Curve wars ;). I defer to those who have read it.

james said...

Yeah, it may be one of those books that might be too fraught with many long, angry back-and-forths between proponents and detractors.

But for what it's worth, I think Charles Murray is interesting reading.

Big Myk said...

I suppose that should have withheld any comment. For I have not read a single word that Murray has written (except for the titles of his books). In my defense, in view of the barrage of withering criticism I'd read about the Bell Curve, figured that it was safe to let that one be. I've stayed away from the Hobbit movies on the same principle.

james said...

Ha, me too Myk!