I grew up in the Polish ghetto of Chester, Pennsylvania. I use the word "ghetto" in the sense that in those days neighborhoods were ethnically segregated. The Poles held the area between Front Street and Fourth Street. Beyond that other immigrant groups had staked out similar enclaves. It was never clear to me why I had to stay away from the Irish and Italian neighborhoods; the map in my child's mind said simply "there be monsters."
The Polish people of my grandparent's generation were known as the working poor. My grandfather had to quit school when his father died. George Czyszczon became the family breadwinner at age twelve. The custom at the time was to keep a seat open on the factory line for the eldest son. This practice was the only form of social security other than charity on offer at the time. Somehow the family of seven survived the Great Depression if only barely. Then came the war. The neighborhood sent its young men off to fight. My great uncle Joe had one leg three inches shorter than the other, but that didn't exempt him from service. He was sent to Puerto Rico as part of the American garrison. Most of the boys returned; a few did not.
My grandparents owned a modest row house on the 100 block of Thurlow St. Some people called it the wrong side of the tracks. Actually, we were on the tracks. We used to shoot cans off the rails with a BB gun from the neighbor's porch. I guess to the older folks the activity seemed far safer than the old practice of sending young boys up the side of a moving train to rob the coal cars of their precious fuel. Despite our "poverty" the neighborhood was thriving.
St. Hedwig's Catholic Church marked the center of our community. The parish was large enough to require five masses on Sunday. Joe Szpock and Handsome Harry were the only two exempt from attendance because Joe was a bum and Harry was mad. Joe lived in an abandoned car behind the hardware store and made his living doing odd jobs. Harry owned a row house next to my aunt. I guess he was harmless, but his sudden appearance always sent our gang scurrying for cover. The neighborhood monster was tall and oily with fingernails an inch long. When he got sick, the local women took him food and medicine. We looked after our own.
Life was simple and routine. We had work and church, kielbasa for dinner, and Phillies baseball on the AM radio. The streets were clean and free of crime. You painted your concrete porch and front steps every spring. They didn't need it every year, of course, but to neglect this duty might earn you a reputation as a slacker. Kids graduated from St. Hedwig's school, and wonder of wonders, they began to enroll in college. It didn't take long before the next generation joined the middle class and began migrating into the suburbs.
It was all a dream come true until the day that something dreadful happened. The government arrived . . . to help. You see, the G-men had been studying the demographics of the neighborhood. The row houses were never worth much. The G-men began to encourage realtors to buy them up. The government would supply tenants and guarantee the rents.
The new arrivals were nothing like us. By this I mean they didn't share our values and customs. They didn't work or attend church. Their children were wild and undisciplined. They didn't even paint their porch and steps every year! It didn't take long before the neighborhood began to go feral. Broken windows went unrepaired. Garbage began to pile up in the alleys. Stray animals skulked about in the shadows. The Polish people fought back with brooms and buckets of paint, but to no avail. The neighborhood was dominated now by retirees. The muscle that the next generation might have supplied had already moved to the suburbs.
The new class of folk moving in had no vested interest in our neighborhood. The government would take care of everything. At least that was their attitude. Then the drug dealers and prostitutes began to arrive. The police didn't bother to investigate break-ins and assaults. You could file a report at the station if you cared to. When tenants moved out, the landlords simply boarded up the wreckage. The Polish ghetto was dying. The remaining Poles secured their homes with locks and bars and hunkered down to await the death knell.
There is nothing unique in this story. You've heard it before, probably even have a first-hand experience of your own if you're over fifty. The story is repetitive because government thinks it can substitute its influence for civic virtue. But a republic can only survive as long as the citizenry retains values based on hard work and commensurate reward. Nothing is valued that is not earned. The citizenry must have a vested interest in community and nation. It can't be given; it can only be earned. There is no other way.
Chester, Pennsylvania didn't die. It was murdered.