Philadelphia is a small town fighting itself and a place of revelation
December 3, 2012By Solomon Jones
Despite the few people within our midst who decided to turn to violence, most Philadelphians continued working hard, banded together to survive and reached out to help one another. In truth, we had no choice.
By all statistical accounts, Philadelphia is a large city.
With 1.5 million people, a majority female population and a racial makeup that is mostly African American with strong Hispanic and Asian communities, Philadelphia provides a snapshot of the demographic shifts in many major American cities.
However, the numbers don't tell the whole story.
While statistics indicate that Philadelphia is a typical city, in reality, it's more like a small town. In the wake of a deadly weekend in which seven Philadelphians were murdered, that small town character might be our salvation, specifically where violence is concerned.
Watch where you're going
Incredibly, despite its international sea, air, and ground transportation hubs, Philadelphia is less a city of migrants than a city of lifers, and while the sarcasm and biting honesty covers a town with a beating heart, it's a place where you'd better watch your step.
In Philadelphia, you will inevitably run into the people with whom you've had conflict. If you've hurt someone, you'll not only see them again, you'll see other Philadelphians who'll know every grisly detail.
Unlike other small towns, Philadelphia is not a place of secrets. It's a place of revelation. It will strip you down in the public square for all the world to see.
Statistics are unnecessary
That's why Philadelphia is so much more than numbers.
Philadelphians don't need the Consumer Price Index to know that prices in the Philadelphia-Wilmington-Atlantic City area went up by 2.2 percent over the past year. In a working-class city where 28 percent of the population lives in poverty, we feel every price increase, no matter how minute.
We don't need the Bureau of Labor Statistics to tell us that Philadelphia's 10.8 percent unemployment rate in September was 3 percentage points higher than the national average. We see our jobless neighbors. We know their parents and children. They have faces and names and histories and hopes that they shared with us when they still dreamed.
Philadelphians know that the statistics tell a bigger story — a story that's tied together like the plot of an epic novel.
Visible plot twists
We can ride past North Philadelphia's shuttered factories and see the names of long dead companies chiseled into stone. We can see whole communities that were born of manufacturing; communities where "shipping jobs to China" is less a political slogan than an economic reality.
We remember the rage of the sixties, the drugs of the eighties and the imprisonment of the nineties. And for those of us who've carefully followed the plot points over the decades, the ebb and flow of our little town's story is not about numbers. It's about lives.
When jobs leave along with investment, communities die.
When drugs replace the legitimate economy, families are torn apart and crime abounds.
When crime increases, prisons flourish, and those who remain are left to pick up the pieces.
But that's what's so different about Philadelphia. We fought to maintain communities even as joblessness, rage and poverty made murder an alternative for some. But despite the few people within our midst who decided to turn to violence, most Philadelphians continued working hard, banded together to survive, and reached out to help one another. In truth, we had no choice.
More than faceless names
As much as it pains us to say so, our town's murderers and victims are more than faces on the nightly newscasts. They're people we know. We used to go to church with the perpetrator's cousin, or we attended elementary school with the victim's mother. We remember them both when they were little boys. We never thought they'd end up as illustrations of gun violence.
Yes, violence in Philadelphia is a problem. It's a scourge that was decades in the making. Perhaps that's why we were too numb to listen when Attorney General Eric Holder, in announcing the Violent Crime Reduction Partnership this summer, said, "Despite the fact that the national violent crime rate has continued its downward trend, a number of major cities across the country — including Philadelphia — have experienced alarming increases in the number of homicides over the past year."
The numbers supported Holder's assertion then, and they still support it now.
As of Monday, there were 309 homicides in Philadelphia in 2012, a 16 percent increase over the previous year. But this is Philadelphia. We didn't need numbers to understand that Holder was right. We see our neighbors in mourning. We see some of our young men in caskets. We see too many others in prisons.
How best to fight back
Still, in our small town, we know that the fight against guns is about much more than high-tech policing. It's about us — the ones who remain when the guns go silent and the smoke begins to clear.
It's about a slender man named Donnie Andrews standing on a corner with a sign that says, "Our sons are being murdered and no one's upset."
It's about the mothers of murder victims banding together and starting an anti-violence group called, "Mothers In Charge."
It's about the young fathers I see walking their children to school.
It's about the block captains who organize their neighbors.
It's about us.
Just as we fought when the factories closed and the rage tore North Philly apart.
Just as we fought when the drugs destroyed families and sent far too many to prison.
Just as we fought as our little town's story became such a perilous tale, our town will continue to fight.
There's only one thing we must do differently to have any chance of winning:
We've got to stop fighting each other.