Mark Naison: America’s Crumbling Infrastructure and Forgotten Neigborhoods





[Mark Naison is Professor of African American Studies and History, Fordham University.]

Early this week, I took Amtrak down to Washington to interview Frank Synder, Pensylvania State director of the AFL-CIO about labor’s campaign for Obama in Pennylvania in the 2008 Presidential election, which was one of the most important, grass roots efforts to confront the “race” issue head on in modern American history

Normally when taking Amtrak, I sleep or read, but because of the terrible crash on the Washington Metro late Monday afternoon, which took place when I was on the very same Metro Line only four stops away, I was too rattled to do either, so I found myself looking out the window the entire ride back to New York

What I saw filled me with sadness.

From Baltimore right through Newark, I saw the remnants of of America’s crumbling industrial infrastructure revealed right before my eyes, along with the damage done to once proud working class neighborhoods in Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Camden, Trenton, Elizabeth and Newark

It was not just the hundreds ofabandoned factories I saw along the route, some of them a quarter of a mile wide, their windows broken or boarded up, their walls covered with graffiti, their yards filled with garbage and rusting trucks, it was the physical conditions, and atmosphere of the neighborhoods adjoining the factory that was equally depressing

Here, especially in Baltimore, Wilmington and North Philadelphia, I passed block after block of two story attached row houses with porches, a distinctive form of housing built for the local working class when these three cities buzzed with industry and enterprise. Once, these modest houses were regularly painted and spotlessly clean, the sidewalks in front of them swept daily by working class men and women proud that a job in a nearby factory allowed them to purchase their own home. Now, what houses were still left, many of them boarded up, or in advanced states of disrepair, stood on blocks where weed filled vacant lots took up as much place as the homes. These neighborhoods once had vital commercial districts, but the few stores left, their entrances protected by gates and their walls covered with graffiti, looked like they were under siege. At the speed we were traveling, which was 20-30 miles an hour ( there were stations in each of these cities and the train would slow down when approaching) I could only get a glimpse of the people on the streets, on porches or in backyards, but the one thing that leaped out at me was that the vast majority of the m were Black and Brown. These on ce pro ud working class communities, deprived of unionized, living wage jobs in steel mills, shipyards, metal fabricating works, chemical and electrical plants and truck and railroad depots, had become holding pens for poor people, many of them trapped in intergenerational poverty, whose labor was no longer valued or needed in a post industrial American economy.

Significantly, the one institution along the tracks that I didn’t see boarded up were the prisons. I passed at least six prison structures along the Amtrak route, easily identified by the windowless walls, their turret like towers ( if they were more than 40 years old) and the barbed wire fencing &nb sp;that surrounded them. I had seen this before in declining industrial cities. When I visited Youngstaown Ohio ten years ago, where a five mile stretch along the Mongahela River was filled with the remnants of once bustling steel mills, the only new bu i lding in the city was a s panking n ew federal prison.

But if anything, the sight of the prisons along the Amtrak route depressed me even more. Once scene in particular reminded me of the profound inequalities, both racial and economic, that deform the American social structure. Just before the train pulled into the station at Newark airport, when it was moving ten miles an hour, I got a glimpse of what had to be prison yard on the West side of the tracks. There I saw a group of forty or fifty black men, most of them in their twenties, playing basketball, or standing around talking, while in a corner two very tough looking fort y year old white men with cut off sleeves stood observing. This was not a scene from OZ, it was real life, but I doubt if anyone else on the train noticed. What made it all the more eerie was that the people getting off and boarding the train at Newark Airport, were predominantly white and middle class. Here you had two different Americas, side by side, as separate and unequal as anything we had du ring the d ays of legal segregation, only race alone was not the criteria. Now it was race AND class that separated those left in decaying stretches of industrial towns and cities, from those living in middle class suburbs and upscale and gentrifying urban neighborhoods


Even before this current economic crises, significant portions of the American population were living in Depression like conditions. Bruce Springsteen, who knows the world along Amtrak very well, tried to remind us of the tragic consequences of deindustrialization in songs like “Born In the USA,” but how many of us heard his message?

Down in the shadow=2 0of the penit entiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I’m ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go

Forty years of union busting, factory closing and prison construction have taken a terrible toll, not only on the lives of tens of millions of people, but on American democracy as a political ideal and a lived reality. Unless we do something to empower the people an d revive the communities that adjoin Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor- and places like it all around the nation-, large portions of the American population will remain locked out of the American Dream.

comments powered by Disqus