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TODAY I SAW: Hope In The Ruins

deeneythumbnail.jpgBY JEFF DEENEY Chester is the archetypal once-thriving small American city left to die in the post-industrial flux of globalization. The steel industry, ship building and other manufacturing that used to fuel the local economy have long since evaporated, the city’s population halved since its 1950s heyday. Chester today is largely black and extremely poor. Its economic decline is readily apparent to even the casual surveyor of its housing stock; boarded up, abandoned buildings and vacant store fronts with faded marquees dot the downtown streets. Some homes were neglected for so long that their roofs eventually caved in, causing the floors below to collapse under their weight, leaving what look like demolition sites in the middle of a residential block.

Chester is 20 miles south of Philadelphia, but looks every bit as bad as the worst big city ghetto. Its woes have been compounded over the years by the presence of numerous toxic industrial waste sites and a failing school system. The Central Business District is little more than a collection of dollar stores, discount clothing shops, hair salons and corner take out joints; by 5pm the entire stretch is shuttered, its sidewalks barren and eerily quiet. The new waterfront casino that was one of the Chester’s few recent major economic developments is a nickel and dime slot parlor whose front doors overlook the razor wire surrounding the state prison facility across the street.

Considering Chester’s make up of primarily poor blacks, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Barack Obama hassam_flores_x_obamabig.jpg overwhelming support, here. There’s no shortage of Obama lawn signs, at least on blocks where the homes have lawns. What’s worth noting, though, is the local Obama supporters’ practice of affixing campaign signs to the facades of the city’s multitude of abandoned properties. Throughout Chester you’ll find them tacked to plywood boards that cover shattered windows and seal doorways to prevent squatters from converting the properties to drug houses. Block after block, the blue signs baring Obama’s name can be found framed by flaking paint, yards with high, weedy grass, and crumbling concrete stoops covered in broken bottle glass.

Flat rectangles of plywood like those used to board up an abandoned house are a logical place to slap any kind of sign. It might not be worth noting if there weren’t so many of them. But if you drive through Chester, circling from 9th Street to Seventh, from Seventh to Fifth, on up to Front Street where children gather, pitching pebbles at the rusting railcars that rumble along the CSX tracks just ten feet from their front steps, you start to realize that there is an intention behind the placement of these Obama signs. They hang from abandoned buildings at literally every turn. They are like figurative “X’s” marking the blighted spots of institutional failure, where the destitution of American dreams are most apparent. The signs seem to say, “Change this.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Deeney is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in PW, City Paper and the Inquirer. He focuses on issues of urban poverty and drug culture. He is currently working on a book about life in the crossfire of poverty, drugs, guns, and the bureaucracies designed to remedy them, all of which informed his experiences as social workers in some of the city’s most dire and depleted neighborhoods.

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