Fishtown Is What’s Wrong With America

According to Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve and a new book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, this Philly neighborhood is a prime example of America's cultural decay.

To hear Charles Murray tell it, Fishtown is a shining example of everything that’s gone wrong with America.

Yes, I’m talking about that Charles Murray—the same guy who rocketed to fame in the 1990s as co-author of The Bell Curve, which offered supposed proof that African-Americans are generally intellectually inferior to whites. He’s back with a new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 in which he laments the declining state and deteriorating morals of America’s working class.

While the Occupy Wall Street crowd blames America’s deepening class divide on the perfidy of the “1 percent,” Murray suggests the poor have mostly themselves to blame—having abandoned honesty, a work ethic, marriage, and religion in favor of crime, single motherhood,  unemployment, and general shiftlessness. To the extent Murray blames the 1 percent, it’s because they’re not lecturing workers more about virtue.

Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood is Murray’s Exhibit A for America’s cultural decay.

“Even when the men can’t get welfare, the women can, and the men can live off them,” Murray writes in a chapter called “The Real Fishtown.” “Such men are known as ‘runners’ or ‘fly-by-nights,’ because they are constantly on the move, avoiding debt collectors, child support collectors, their girlfriends or children, or the police.”

It’s a bleak picture. As challenged as Fishtown has been, though, it still seems a bit unfair. Let’s unpack this a little bit.

Murray prominently features Ken Milano, a lifelong Fishtown resident who has written books about the neighborhood’s history. Milano hosted “Charlie” Murray on a walking tour of the neighborhood while the book was written, and he agrees with many of Murray’s points.

“For me, growing up around here, I think a lot of his points are valid,” Milano told me Friday. “Of my group of kids that I hung out with, we were teenagers and adults in the ’70s and ’80s, two or three of us went to college. Most of us went to work. A lot of people didn’t bother. They were happy to play pinochle or get employment under the table rather than really work.”

Perhaps, but Murray’s account of Fishtown omits a huge part of the neighborhood’s history. He mentions that men in 1960 often went to work in the neighborhood’s factories—but glosses over the fact that those factories have disappeared, with little to take their place in the local economy.

“It’s kind of devastating. When I was a kid in the ’70s, for a working person it was easy to get a job. You could quit a job and get another job the same day,” Milano said. “The factories started shutting down after the war, into the ’60s and ’70s, but you could still get work. Maybe if you weren’t from the neighborhood, it’d be hard, but if you were local you knew somebody who could get you in.”

In fact, a similar process took place across the nation. The country’s manufacturing sector withered over the last 40 years—and so did the kinds of jobs that low-skilled workers could use to decently support a family. Factories disappeared, leaving their workers to go fry burgers and work at Wal-Mart for lower wages than they once could get making widgets. Fishtown’s economy was turned upside-down; is it any wonder the neighborhood also seemed to fall apart for awhile?

So Murray isn’t wrong about what happened, exactly. He just frames the story in such a way that he blames the victims for economic and historical forces far beyond their control. That’s despicable. So of course he’s being praised rapturously by conservatives like New York Times columnist David Brooks. The problems facing the country—and Fishtown itself—don’t require real introspection if you can blame it on the sinfulness of the rabble.

Milano’s affirmation aside, Murray’s book might not get such a great reception around here. As word of the book has spread, it has produced some anger.

“The fact that Murray has the gall to use Fishtown as an example of moral decay, because of all the single mothers and jobless men, enrages me,” my friend Stephanie Jackson told me. “Some of those single mothers are my clients; I am staggered by the sheer number of hours these women work for the wretched wages they earn. I would die, literally, if I were working both a day and a night job and getting three to five hours of sleep a day, as more than one of my clients does to make ends meet.”

Fishtown has faced a lot of challenges. So has America. Murray’s diagnosis of what went wrong isn’t just offensive—it’s so incomplete that it offers little hope of actually fixing the problems we face. Fishtown will survive; let’s hope that Murray’s bright ideas fade away, and soon.