There were many mean streets in the Pennsylvania small town where I grew up.
I grew up in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, a major place of settlement for turn-of-the-last-century Lithuanian immigrants to the United States. Shenandoah was, even in my youth, a former mining boom-town, well along in the processes of decline and decay.
Shenandoah was a kind of miniature city. It had, everyone said, in its heyday, more barrooms than Philadelphia. Protestants, English, German, and Welsh, constituted a small, and shrinking, minority. The town’s population was overwhelming composed of recent Roman Catholic immigrants. Lithuanians were nearly a plurality, but there were also plenty of Poles, Ukrainians, Slovaks, Irish, and Italians. Main Street commerce was dominated by Jews, who lived on Oak Street in the grandest houses in town.
By my 1950s boyhood, once homogeneous ethnic neighborhoods were dispersed. My father bought two houses (he rented one) on the West side of town, in what had, long ago, been the Italian neighborhood. We got along well with our Italian neighbors, who were always stopping us to press fresh tomatoes and other vegetables grown in the backyards on us. When I was a bit older, I was especially popular with the old Italian men because I had grown into a tough guy and protected the Italian kids (Lithuanians like me looked upon Italians, like Jews, as helpless non-combatants) from the juvenile gangs who lay in wait to waylay smaller children to steal their money and to torment and sexually abuse them.
Lithuanians tended to get along with the Italians and the Pennsylvania Dutch, who usually voted Republican. We tended not to get along with the Irish and the Poles, who usually voted democrat.
Shenandoah was a basically working-class mining town (where the mines had just closed down forever), with a significant welfare-and-criminal underclass.
The Internet keeps me in touch today with friends I went to school with and with whom I served mass and who were in the same boy scout troop. One friend, now retired from the Air Force and teaching Systems Theory as an adjunct at several Southern colleges, was reminiscing not long ago, and reflected how his family and mine were “the nice families,” largely surrounded at the end of town by gangsters and scum.
Like most people born into working class families, I was brought up with a contempt for the welfare class and knew first-hand the profound fear that parents like mine had of sinking to the point of “going on relief.” With the mines closing, men were being everywhere thrown out of work, and times were hard in the Anthracite region. Everyone knew people who were up against it and who were proud enough that they would go hungry before they would take relief, and though we pitied their condition, we felt strongly that they were perfectly right.
As you may imagine, I’ve been hearing now, for more than 50 years, sob stories about the plight of the “disenfranchised” (who do actually have the vote) and the “impoverished” (by whom?) in the inner cities. Not surprisingly, I am entirely lacking in sympathy.
We were corresponding on Facebook yesterday about the rioting in Baltimore, and I said the kind of hard-core, unsympathetic things that elderly, white, redneck racists like myself are prone to say. The thread belonged to a bouzhy, female, liberal attorney friend from Yale, and I would have been slightly more diplomatic in my remarks had I realized that one of the readers and participants in the thread was a young, black female recent Yale graduate.
The young lady took offense at my comments, which has caused me to reflect on the peculiarities of racial politics. My preceding remarks were intended to make the point that, in Lithuanian immigrant society, the respectable people may have gone so far as to feel some pity for the welfare/criminal scum residing nearby, but we did not side with them against the police. We also did not tolerate their criminal activities. I personally used to walk to and from school deliberately taking different routes, patrolling to prevent two different well-known juvenile gangs from molesting younger kids.
No one could have set up a drug dealing station in any residential neighborhood in our town. Nor could any adult criminal gangs take over neighborhoods. If any had tried, and the police not intervened, there were plenty of male adult veterans of WWII would have taken care of them immediately.
So, why is it, I often wonder how it is that decent & respectable African-American people have to live in such bad neighborhoods, dominated by drug dealers and gangbangers? Are there no tough and law-abiding African-Americans? And how come the better black people all come a-running to stick-up on racial solidarity grounds for the thug Leroy when the cops beat up on Leroy’s ass? Back where I grew up, if the Lithuanian criminal elements “Hopper” or “Cutha” were seen getting belathered by Shakey the cop with his hickory nightstick, their respectable fellow-Lithuanians would have smiled with warm approval and defended Shakey’s conduct all day long.
In our town’s high school, there was a 350 lb.+ football coach, nicknamed “Moose.” Moose, Mr. R., was not the sharpest pencil in the faculty box, and his academic role was to be homeroom teacher to the General section, the section of academically-hopeless criminals and mental defectives. Moose kept order with a heavy hand. One day, one of the leading bad hats sassed Mr. R., who responded by picking up the large console television set in the front of the room and hurling it at the offender. The bad boy went to the hospital with a broken arm and other injuries, and the whole town told and retold the story, grinning and gloating. Moose was admired, and no disciplinary proceedings whatsoever occurred.