For the most part, ideological rivals of various sorts are divided as much over the past as they are the condition of the present and the shape they would like to impose upon the future: those of a more conservative or traditional bent tend to view the past, America’s past specifically, as a lost “Golden Age,” while leftists think of it as a “Dark Age” pervaded by “racism,” “sexism,” “homophobia” and a litany of other sins that fill our “politically correct” catalogue of cardinal offenses.
Although it is America’s past over which contemporary rightists and leftists typically contend, in what follows I would like to address the past, not (directly) of the nation but, rather, of a particular section—“Chambersburg”—of my hometown. My reasons for doing so are twofold: first, on display in this conflict are exactly those rival and equally dangerous tendencies to romanticize and denigrate the past that find full play on the national stage, but since this locality, being of vastly smaller size than America, supplies us with a significantly less ambiguous subject, focus on it promises to provide us with greater familiarity with them than there otherwise would be; second, among the key issues at stake in the dispute over America’s past is that of race and it is in no small measure the issue germane to present positions on Chambersburg’s past.
What is called the “Chambersburg” section of Trenton, New Jersey has a storied past. For roughly the entirety of the twentieth century, the population of Chambersburg—affectionately referred to as “the ‘Burg” by locals—consisted predominantly (but not solely) of Italian immigrants and their American offspring. The remainder of its inhabitants descended from other parts of Europe. This is to say, the neighborhood, not unlike virtually every other part of Trenton at one time, was all white.
This all began to change, I believe, within the last fifteen years or so. Like all changes involving human events, there is no identifiable first moment from which these changes can be said to have sprung; but I think there are few who would disagree with my claim that it was during the last half of the 1990’s that the ‘Burg began to take a noticeable demographic turn—and for the worse, to hear most whites in the Trenton area tell it.
The narrative runs something like this: Chambersburg was a beautiful place. Though a lower middle-class community comprised primarily of relatively inexpensive, modest-sized row homes, it was indeed a true community, a place peopled by largely honest, diligent men and women sharing a common vision of the kind of place most conducive to human flourishing, as they conceived it. This vision of “the human good” they succeeded to a remarkable degree in realizing, as the ‘Burg’s narrow streets—invariably impeccable—bustled with the finest Italian eateries, from five star restaurants to pizza and steak houses, from bakeries to taverns; “social clubs”; educational institutions, Catholic Churches, and family-friendly parks. Each year, for over a century, thousands would descend upon “the heart of the ‘Burg’” to participate in “The Feast of Lights,” an originally religious festival intended to honor the Madonna, the Virgin Mary. Chambersburg was a true community in the sense that its members all knew and looked after one another: so rare was crime, it wasn’t uncommon to spot elderly women sitting on their porches to the wee morning hours on warm summer nights, or walking the streets after dark, free of fear.
Now, what has been said of Chambersburg can and has been said of virtually every other neighborhood in the city of Trenton. But what distinguished it is that such things were being claimed for the ‘Burg long after the quality of life in much of the city had dramatically deteriorated. It is this achievement that endeared it to some, elicited respect from others, and surrounded it with a mystique that arrested the attention of all for decades to follow.
But since the onset of the racial transformation that overtook it a dozen or so years ago, the ‘Burg has been dying a slow death. Today, practically the only thing that remains of the old neighborhood is the name, for as most of its native inhabitants have fled, so too have the myriad of civic institutions that they created become essentially defunct.
This, at any rate, is what we may term “the Golden Age” account of Chambersburg. We would do well to bear in mind that in referring to it as such, I don’t for a second mean to suggest that it is without truth; quite the contrary, there is no small measure of truth in it. Yet it is also the case that insofar as it is saturated in nostalgia, thus omitting features of daily life in the Chambersburg of old that lack the pleasantness of those recounted, it is not only less than fully honest but, moreover, it diminishes what truth it contains.
You see, the ‘Burg managed to preserve its mono-racial character well after most of Trenton’s other white neighborhoods went the way of the dinosaur. This also captures in part its appeal. At the same time, however, it is just this characteristic that informs a rival narrative of the ‘Burg, what we will call “the Dark Age” account.
It isn’t just that blacks and browns happened to be absent from Chambersburg; their absence was the product of a design whose central ingredients were fear and intimidation. The aversion of blacks and, later, Puerto Ricans, to the ‘Burg was well justified, for there is no shortage of evidence—most of it anecdotal, some of it documented—that their ventures there were routinely greeted with varying degrees of hostility, from cold stares to verbal abuse to violent attacks. Chambersburg was “a community” all right, but a “community” of “racists” of the most overt kind, a community whose members were unabashedly, unapologetically opposed to “the Other,” especially—but, importantly, not only—when the Stranger lacked a European (i.e. Caucasoid) pedigree.
This last point must be stressed. It isn’t just racial minorities who view the ‘Burg of yesteryear as a boiling cauldron of bigotry; nor is it just the leftist guardians of “Politically Correct” orthodoxy who regard it as an emblem of a benighted American past. Local whites of modest economic background, vaguely conservative temperamentally, if not philosophically or ideologically, are similarly contemptuous of the old ‘Burg. A Swede, no less than a sub-Saharan African, I have had it told to me, would be set upon for walking the streets of Chambersburg, for unless one was Italian, one was unwelcome.
A few years ago, a mentally retarded white man who was born and raised in Chambersburg was ambushed by a group of blacks just a couple blocks from his home. His injuries—which included the loss of sight in one eye—were severe enough to guarantee him a trip to the hospital. A local bar held a charity to raise funds for his hospital bills as well as information regarding his assailants. During this time, newspapers relayed the reminiscences of locals who, shocked and outraged by the attack on this poor soul who hadn’t harmed a fly, longed for “the good ole’ days” when this sort of episode would have been unthinkable. My uncle (who, interestingly enough, frequented the bar that hosted the charity event) wasted no time in categorically repudiating the notion that Chambersburg was ever anything even remotely resembling the pristine images in the terms of which it was being described: The residents of the ‘Burg, he emphatically pronounced, “were nasty people.” My late father, from whose lips such fashionable buzz words as “intolerance,” “bigotry,” “racist,” “xenophobia” and the like never sprung, likewise detested the ‘Burg, but mostly because of the arrogance and stupidity that he attributed to its inhabitants. He once laughed that in assuming the physical appearance and mannerisms of a Soprano before The Sopranos, the typical, Italian-American (male) resident of Chambersburg is a cheap caricature of himself: “If he were to be believed, there must be tens of thousands of Mafioso living in the ‘Burg!” And that criticisms of these sorts weren’t the function of a merely “anti-Italian” prejudice, whatever that could be, is born out by the fact that people of Italian descent are among those who have made them.
Like its optimistic counterpart, “the Dark Age” account of Chambersburg contains its share of truth.
Yet, as it has been my intention to show by sharing these reflections on a quasi-legendary neighborhood from my home town, both the standard conservative disposition to romanticize the past as well as the leftist tendency to denigrate it are of limited value. Each provides a service in bringing to our attention features of the past that the other threatens to suppress, but insofar as they mutually deny one another, recognizing only themselves as the authoritative repository of “history,” their respective recollections are alike distortions. However, as with all “historical” enterprises, particularly those that involve—as “the history” of Chambersburg, like “histories” of the United States, involve—race relations, the path toward an approximation of the truth lies in avoiding both of these extremes.
The characterization of Chambersburg as a bustling community that lies at the heart of the Golden Age account is not wide of the mark, yet no less accurate is the Dark Age account on which the ‘Burg is construed as unfriendly territory to non-whites. But these concessions being made, some qualifications are in order.
First, while Chambersburg had none of the crime characteristic of some other neighborhoods, much less that which typifies daily life in today’s “inner cities,” it nonetheless was never the crime-free zone that it is often made out to be. In fact, it was unlike most other areas in having a small, but moderately influential, element of organized crime. Albeit, the presence of “the Mafia” in the ‘Burg was greatly exaggerated, and by no one more so than some of its own residents, especially its young males who, from no doubt an impoverished conception of manhood coupled with a Hobbesian desire to deter threats to themselves, exploited the imagined link between Chambersburg and the mob. What “mobsters” dwelt in the ‘Burg were, overwhelmingly, not real mobsters at all, a loose assortment of punks, bookies, numbers runners, and small time drug dealers all of whom failed to leave the mark on the underworld for which they aimed. Even those very few whose names registered on the rosters of the New York and Philadelphia crime families barely did so and could never realistically dream that they would be remembered in the annals of mob history.
Second, it is correct that outsiders were viewed warily and racial minorities, blacks specifically, were traditionally unwelcomed. But it is not the case that one had to be of Italian descent to be accepted in the ‘Burg; whites of non-Italian European lineages could not only travel unmolested, they lived there for as long as there had been a Chambersburg. As for non-whites, it would be at the cost of the truth to deny that innocent blacks and browns had been unjustly, and even outrageously, treated upon entering Chambersburg, the prey to hordes of its white predators who would chase and sometimes subject them to merciless beatings. Yet it would be a gross mistake to confuse what never amounted to more than the unruly conduct of pockets of adolescents and low-lives with that of the hard working and law abiding citizens that comprised the vast majority of Chambersburg. Another error of judgment would be to dramatize the extent to which blacks and Hispanics were excluded from the neighborhood: the first black family moved into the ‘Burg as far back as the 1960’s—before the race riots that would engulf Trenton and the country—and there were some Puerto Ricans who reportedly lived there as well during this time. A final mistake is to avoid the assumption—all too common in our “Politically Correct” age—that whatever problems minorities encountered in the ‘Burg were necessarily unsolicited, the mere function of a raw, irrational pathology called “white racism.”
From what I have been able to determine, it wasn’t until the 1960’s that the ‘Burg began to acquire for itself its reputation vis-à-vis non-whites—exactly that time period immediately following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. when legions of black youths, as well as some who weren’t so young, exploded in a protracted orgy of violence that irrevocably changed the city of Trenton for the worse. Whites were randomly targeted for attack and the business district downtown was torched. Because of the violence, Trenton’s only high school was closed. As a result, masses of white teenagers from both Chambersburg as well as other white neighborhoods from within the city and nearby suburbia congregated at Columbus Park, a long staple of the ‘Burg located on a thoroughfare that served as an unofficial borderline between black and white Trenton for decades. A group of blacks, evidently emboldened by the fear that the rioting had succeeded in inspiring in whites throughout the rest of the city (and the nation) threatened to cross the street into Chambersburg. The white kids at Columbus Park were having none of it, a point they managed to convey in no uncertain terms by forming a human wall at the park’s edge and issuing the warning that entry into the ‘Burg promised to be a one-way trip. Stories circulated over the years that blacks’ attempt to call the whites’ bluff landed them in the sewer—yes, the sewer!—but whether this happened, I have never been able to verify. What is established is that the troubles that black rioters visited upon much of the rest of the city were kept far from Chambersburg, as men and, believe it or not, even some women—and elderly women to boot!—encircled the streets of their community armed with baseball bats, golf clubs, handguns, and rifles.
It was from this series of events, I believe, that the ‘Burg began to acquire its quasi-legendary character.
Over the years, in misguided efforts at bravado, young males—usually teenagers—have sought to avail themselves of and strengthen the reputation of Chambersburg bequeathed to them by previous generations by targeting those blacks and browns found passing through their neighborhood. However, their attempts to recapture “the glory days” of their fathers who saved the community from riotous barbarians each failed singularly and, in truth, were bound to do so.
First of all, the sheer delight experienced by far too many of the ‘Burg’s gatekeepers from the ‘60’s over the prospect of actually harming those that dared to cross the invisible line into their territory casts in doubt the premise that they were “glory days” at all. Furthermore, their progeny were two-bit thugs whose prey consisted largely (even if not exclusively) of outnumbered minority members who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time: it is one thing to threaten the use of and even employ force to stop a mob with designs to set your home on fire, but another thing entirely to do the same with respect to a black kid or two simply because they are passing by your home.
Today, Chambersburg is a different world from what it once was. Blacks and browns are no longer fearful of the whites who once resided there, it is true, but this owes to the fact that, for the most part, there are no longer any such whites. This, though, doesn’t mean that the minorities who are now a majority in the ‘Burg are free of all fear of violence; quite the contrary, for the violence with which they live in the present and which they inflict upon one another is at once more pervasive and intense than any that they suffered in the past at the hands of whites. The ‘Burg’s once clean streets are strewn with garbage and its once tidy homes are frequently dilapidated. Law-abiding residents will no longer sit on their front porches, much less walk the streets, whether during the day or night, and gang activity is on the rise. Vestigial traces of the old ‘Burg can be found in the forms of a couple of Italian restaurants and bakeries, but with the coroner’s report no one takes exception: the old ‘Burg is dead, and in its stead lies a new entity, but something bordering on another corpse. If blacks’ and Hispanics’ prevalence in Chambersburg can be hailed as a “victory” over the “oppression” of the past, then it is a victory that is bitter sweet, for their penetration of this “glass ceiling” left them and the population that they displaced shredded by countless shards of glass.
As with Chambersburg, so with everything else in this life: Golden Ages exist in Heaven, Dark Ages in Hell, but in this world, neither the unadulterated optimism attending to the former nor the dreary pessimism belonging to the latter have any place, for it is a mode of existence that invites both tears and laughter.
Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.