Sunday, September 29, 2013

Gilberton Blues

These days, if you google “Gilberton” you will come up with something like this. 
The police chief decided he was Ted Nugent, had to get on the internet and make videos of himself carrying on in similar fashion, more in the vein of guns and politics as opposed to cat scratch fever and wang dang sweet poontang.  No one really cares when Ted Nugent acts that way: he’s an old rock star who doesn’t have to answer to anyone.  Understandably, no sane person wants to see the chief of police of any town carrying on like this on the internet, regardless of first-amendment rights.

Gilberton is one of many towns in Pennsylvania’s anthracite region that, if you blink while driving by, you just might miss it.  I should know … my hometown isn’t much larger, and I just drove through Gilberton a few weeks ago while visiting.  The town went through a very bad spell a few summers ago when torrential flooding destroyed a good-sized number of homes in the town.  So, while the press may not be painting Gilberton in the same “bow your heads and pray” style that they’re now doing with many flooded towns in Colorado, rest assured, Gilberton was in that very same situation recently, and you can still see a few abandoned homes to prove it.

None of this would bother me all that much, save I’ll come across “hip” websites like Gawker who will cover stories like this every now and then.  I really don’t even take issue with the way the story is reported … what would you expect from a website that purposely leans left?  They’re going to be all over this stuff, and rightfully so.  I think what bothers me, as usual, are anonymous reader comments.  “Pennysltucky.”  The assumption that everyone who lives there is just the same as this police chief (despite the fact that he’s being fired).  That weasly sort of anti-white working class sentiment that tips me off that the person writing it is white and has zero contact with anyone of such socio-economic status.  Or possibly did, had a real bad time growing up that way, and thus ran off to the city, not realizing that he couldn’t run away from himself, and that self is just as crass as the wayward rednecks who made his life miserable decades ago.

It’s tiresome, and I come across it all the time in New York.  Hell, I’ll even indulge myself sometimes.  Recently in my hometown, an animal-hoarding couple was reported as having droves of unkempt animals hidden in their ramshackle house, which is just down the block from our house back in the neighborhood.  Another guy was found cooking up meth in the basement of his house on the street where I was born and raised.  Granted, the other side of Route 61, but way too close for comfort.

Reading stories like these always grates on me.  This is not the world I was raised in back there through the 70’s and 80’s.  Granted, it wasn’t heaven back then, but there wasn’t this nagging sense of white working-class America sliding off the map. 

How often have I heard, “When you get to that area between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh …”  Yeah, well, there are a few dozen good-sized cities in that area, many with the same rotten problems all cities have, and a bunch of places that are perfectly fine places to live, provided you can find work locally (which, admittedly, is the rub).  That land area encompasses a lot of social strata, ranging from smaller rust-belt cities to well-populated suburbs to typical rural America.  There are dozens of universities, some as large as Penn State, some as high-end as Bucknell, but most ranging somewhere between, small colleges that have been there for decades, centuries in some cases.  And let’s not forget that Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have many shithole neighborhoods that most folks wouldn’t drive a tank through.  Most people who use that Philadelphia/Pittsburgh take on Pennsylvania never have and never will live in either city.

Reading these sort of comments used to bother me much more.  Now I can recognize, it’s comforting to know that the mediocre imbeciles of the world, people with college degrees who are dumber than nails, will never move/live there and at least keep it safe from the sort of sickly gentrification going on in major cities all over America, not just here.  It’s no joke, and I can understand this article about San Francisco.  Although, I am certain, San Francisco was radically over-priced long before the moneyed wave of techies rolled into town a few years ago.  Just like white Manhattan neighborhoods have been since I set foot here in the 80’s.

“Vanilla monoculture” – the term used in that linked article to describe the new landed gentry – hits the nail on the head for me.  That’s what I see here in New York, and what spooks me so much.  New York has always been about diversity – radical diversity, every class of society, every religion, every ethnicity, every nationality – all right here. 

It still is, but that’s changing.  That sort of wild cross-cultural place in the world gets obliterated by these jackass rents, the four-figure monthly sums for apartments the size of shoeboxes.  Because the only people who are willing to pay that much for such paltry places are predominately college-educated white folks in their 20s and 30s who either are making a lot of money, are paying outrageously lop-sided percentages of meager paychecks on rent, or are being funded by parents.  And they’re doing so because they dig the “diversity.”  Not realizing the simple act of paying four-figure sums for crackerbox apartments obliterates diversity as it removes a massive cross-section of the population who simply can’t afford the rent.

The effect is like that of living in a perpetual college-town world condensed into an urban neighborhood that was previously nothing like a college town.  The 20-year leases on delis and bodegas get taken over by “cool” coffee shops and frozen yogurt places.  New people in the neighborhood get on websites and pine for a Trader Joe’s to open up locally.  You don’t have to worry about getting your ass kicked in a bar … you have to worry about not peppering your conversation with appropriately hip vacation destinations.  Frankly, you don’t have to worry about anything in a bar … everybody is fucking texting each other and the atmosphere is more like a library.

Simple rule of thumb most New Yorkers know: if you feel you absolutely must spend a lot of money to live in a “cool” neighborhood … you are not cool.  Never have been, never will be.  And the act of you living there, in its own small way, makes the neighborhood even less cool.

New York wasn’t like this until recently.  Well, again, white Manhattan has been like this for decades, and places like Park Slope in Brooklyn became this way in the 80s, but there were many neighborhoods where working and middle-class people perfectly fit.  Now it seems like any neighborhood in the 718s where there’s already a white working-class base is becoming overwhelmed by these jackass rents.  Even some non-white … places like Bushwick in Brooklyn, even parts of Harlem and the South Bronx that were previously way off-white … you’re starting to see the hammer fall.  There’s not going to be any happy medium … once this ball starts rolling, much like a tornado, it rolls over everything in its path.

Which, again, is why, despite some reservations based on decades of personal experience, I’m just fine with rural Pennsylvania, and any place like it (these places are legion in America), that are in no imminent danger of being mowed down by this bullshit.  You could argue that these places are just as much a “monoculture” as these over-valued urban neighborhoods, and I hate to admit there’s more than a grain of truth in that.  But at least real opportunity exists there for everyone.  The only reason you will now find middle-class and lower people in many New York City neighborhoods today is because they own their property.  Take my word for it, no middle-class people are moving in when the monthly mortgage for a two-story row house will run $4,000/month or much higher.

It’s a strange time in America, and while I can see the wheels in motion will not be stopped, I’m just as curious as to how all this started.  And all I can think is that when the Baby Boom generation came of age and started making money, lots of it in the 80’s, the birth of the term “yuppies” that worked so well in describing a class of people … when this happened, these people caught a lot of shit culturally over their rampant greed.  Even that was fairly light-hearted.  If you called someone a yuppie in the 80s, the person might have felt hurt for a minute, but then he’d think, “You’re calling me that because I make a lot of money.  Whatever else you think about me … I make a lot of money.  You don’t.  That’s all that matters to me.”

That attitude, that ability to bury a moral question that should have caused at least a few moments of doubt, became common currency.  So that when these people had kids … and these kids grew up … they’re conditioned to not even grasp this as an essential problem in our society, that poor people, and these days, even middle-class people, don’t deserve to be pushed around and marginalized simply because they don’t have the same level of wealth, nor the urge to live with that way of seeing the world.  I’ve noticed this sort of moral blankness in a lot of that new “vanilla monoculture.”  There are plenty of things they’ll get up in arms over, but not this.

Ironically, on a website like Gawker, I will see routine articles decrying obscene rent values in New York.  That strikes me as a hollow gesture, the right thing to say if you’re a good liberal, but practicing that belief is a whole different story. It does give me some hope that maybe enough people are deciding to file an issue like this under “white liberal guilt” that it could become a trend and gain traction with local media and politicians, possibly enough to at least realize that we’re pricing middle and working-class people of all colors out of our cities.  Obviously, I don’t expect anyone in a position of power to do anything about it – but at least if that seed can be planted with enough people …

For those of who don’t want to gear our lives towards money, who never have and never will make that the focus of how and why we live, these are strange, troubling times, with no end in sight.  So you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t get too upset over the police chief of Gilberton carrying on like a jackass and losing his job.  Most people who live back there in Pennsylvania, say what you want about them, but they don’t have to do this stupid dance with greed we do in cities.  If it makes you sleep better at night to pictures places like this as hillbilly wonderland, go right ahead, you have my blessing.  I wish everyone would start thinking the same thing about where I live and get all these desperately uncool people with too much money the hell out of here!

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