Welcome to the City of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

As a result of our gun crisis, tens of thousands of Philadelphians might be suffering the same psychological trauma as people in Afghanistan and Rwanda. In a world like that, do two young boys stand a chance?

Norris Square is both lovely and out of place—a park interrupting trash-strewn streets and dirty concrete with a sudden surprising burst of green. Elegant decaying townhomes surround the square and convey the neighborhood’s history—its prosperous origins and decades spent waiting for rescue.

Momentum generated by new construction and an influx of new residents in nearby Northern Liberties and Fishtown s­uggest that Norris Square, which sits just 3.5 miles from City Hall, might be reborn. And by all the principles of urban development, it should be—the homes restored, the park filled with families slurping ice cream, young couples picnicking, musicians strumming guitars. But something is wrong.

There’s a toxic quality to the surrounding streets, made real by the boys on the corners, bristling and edgy, who serve up dope and other drugs to the customers streaming in from wealthier neighborhoods on the nearby El trains. And then there are the incidents that attend these boys, like sparks trailing a fire.

Shawn “Frogg” Banks grew up in the midst of all this, and this past spring he started teaching classes for schoolkids—two groups, totaling 22 boys, in trouble for repeated behavioral issues. Most of the boys had no father figure at home, or had dads who’d done jail time. Statistically speaking, these kids are known as “at-risk youth”—a population we’re most likely to encounter 10 years from now in mug shots or victim photos.

Banks, an ex-con, is in a unique position to keep these kids from living out that fate. He calls his course The Urban Lifestyle 101. When I start attending Banks’s classes in May, at the William McKinley School, his attention is focused on a new gang that is forming—recruiting kids as young as second grade. The name of the gang is childlike: Bad Boys Rumble. But Banks says it would be a mistake not to take the group seriously.

“I grew up around gangs,” he says. “But they made you wait till you were a certain age to join. Now you got second-graders being pressured to be in a gang.”

It’s a Tuesday morning, and Banks is starting the first of two classes he teaches. The first group includes seven-to-10-year-olds, sitting at attention as he starts to speak.

“How many of y’all heard the gunshots the other night?” he asks.

Right away, five of the 13 kids in the room raise their hands.

“How many of your moms told you afterward that they saw it?”

The same five little hands remain up, tiny fingers splayed.

Banks gave up guns and drugs a long time ago. But at 42, he still appears youthful. Even his curly hair suggests athleticism and vitality. The kids can smell his experience on him like musk. And they respond with unconcealed interest to the sudden presence of a man, offering to help with their pain.

“For those who don’t know,” says Banks, “two guys shot each other out in the street. One died right there at the scene. The other died in the hospital. It’s bad, right?”

The kids nod glumly.

“And what we doin’ in here,” says Banks, “is learning how not to become one of those people.”

The kids keep nodding, more vigorously now.

“Let me ask you a question,” he says, “just to see where you’re at. How many of y’all know what them boys on the corners be selling?”

Little-boy voices call out: “Weed!” “Dust!” “Crack!” “Coke!” “Dope!” “Heroin!” “PCP!” “Wet!”

Banks nods along to these sweet voices trilling misery—anA-B-C song of the neighborhood.

Between January 1, 2001, and May 29th of this year, 18,043 people were shot in Philadelphia. That equates to about one shooting every six hours. In that same time period, there were 3,852 murders—a new body yielded up for disposal nearly every day. The entire length of the conflict in Afghanistan hasn’t produced as many dead Americans as we’ve picked up off our city’s streets.

Unfortunately, political debate over urban violence reduces to opposites: On the left, politicians blame economic factors, bad schools and ineffective, even racist law enforcement; to the right, conservatives preach personal responsibility, citing out-of-
wedlock births, absentee fathers and the welfare culture. But many decades of violence—equivalent to a protracted shooting war in neighborhoods like Kensington’s Norris Square—have yielded a more pressing problem. According to some medical experts, a diagnosis we most commonly associate with troubled military combat veterans now fits many thousands of people in our poorest neighborhoods: post-traumatic stress disorder.

PTSD symptoms include intrusive, upsetting memories; nightmares; chronic anxiety and fear; memory loss; diminished interest in life; emotional numbing and angry outbursts. But it’s the effect of these symptoms that tears at the fabric of families and communities and produces the dysfunctional neighborhoods we see today. A war vet who suffers from PTSD is more likely to be unemployed, stuck in an abusive relationship, addicted to drugs or alcohol, mired in poverty and subject to violence. The same is true of people living in this city’s most impoverished neighborhoods. And it’s not a coincidence.

PTSD has been studied most in soldiers. But in research conducted in Philadelphia, Drexel doctors John Rich and Theodore Corbin have found PTSD rates of more than 70 percent among young men who survive being shot or stabbed. Steven Berkowitz, of Penn’s psychiatry department, citing the research conducted so far, suggests the PTSD rate among the urban poor at large could be as high as 40 percent.

“We’re talking about huge portions of entire communities that are impaired in terms of their basic functioning,” says Rich, chair of Drexel’s Department of Health Management and Policy. “These people are suffering and require medical attention, or the cycle will continue.”

The cyclical nature of urban trauma confounds us. We throw up our hands in disgust at the young, violent men of this city; we’re unable to comprehend how anyone could be so emotionally numb, so calloused toward the value of human life. What we fail to grasp, in terms of any coherent policy, is trauma’s strange dual nature.

Violent or traumatic events can produce what some researchers have termed “limbic scars”—real, measurable, physical damage to the brain. This is an effect of violence. But it’s also a cause, because the damage done impairs brain function—producing people who are emotionally numb, indifferent to the value of life and likely to lash out. “It’s a cycle that feeds on itself,” says Rich. “Without intervention, violent, traumatic events precipitate more violent, traumatic events.”

In Philadelphia, this cycle not only continues but mutates, pushing into comparatively well-off areas in dramatic ways. In summer 2011, the media’s attention was riveted by a series of “flash mob” incidents in which gangs of teens, with names like the Young Money Gang, prearranged to meet in Center City. Some of them robbed and assaulted pedestrians and restaurant patrons.

On July 4th of this year, a teenager trekked to 16th and JFK and punctuated a neighborhood dispute by shooting his rival. That incident was never publicly linked to the flash-mob phenomenon, but it was part of it. “These same groups that were flash-mobbing last summer were tweeting about coming out for the Fourth of July early in the day,” says deputy police commissioner Kevin Bethel. “It’s not clear which group this kid, the shooter, was with, but he was one of them.”

Bethel says he expects similar potential for flash-mob activity and violence around the Jay-Z Labor Day weekend concert. And Rich, at Drexel, says such occurrences don’t surprise him anymore. “Violence really does lead to more violence,” he says, “and we’ve got these hurt kids from the neighborhoods who are suffering the effects.”

What Rich and other trauma specialists really seem to be saying is: We meet the kids of Philadelphia’s poor neighborhoods too late—in mug shots, crime stories and obituaries. This distorted, narrow view wrecks our understanding of what’s really at work— showing only the ending, through death or a jail sentence, of a life that spans an entire narrative arc. This summer, however, working with activist Shawn Banks, I watched a couple of such stories unfold—stories of kids crippled by the neighborhood disease.