Back in 2007, I lived across the street from a bar called Bob’s Happy Hour Tavern in Fishtown, a white working-class neighborhood northeast of downtown Philadelphia near the Delaware River waterfront. Bob’s was a smoke-filled den of drugs and violence.
During the day, it was haunted by grizzled old white guys who would just as soon stick you with a dirty shiv and rob you for spare change as ask you to buy them a Budweiser. On any given night there was so much crack and meth floating around the place, tweaked-out locals would accidentally drop bags of it on the bathroom floor. After I moved away, I heard that a neighborhood crime boss named Big Mike—who once helped me get back a bunch of stuff that some meth-heads stole from my apartment—accidentally killed a guy in front of Bob’s and went into hiding in the neighborhood for months. It was that kind of place.
I went back to Bob’s last month when I was in town for the Democratic National Convention, just for old time’s sake. But I found the place all boarded up and abandoned. A passerby told me it had been closed for a couple months, he didn’t know why. The rest of Fishtown, by contrast, seemed to be doing pretty well. Tell-tale signs of gentrification were all around: boutique clothing shops, craft beer pubs, new residential construction. But Bob’s didn’t make it.
I thought about Bob’s and Fishtown as I was listening to Donald Trump’s big speech Monday afternoon in Detroit. Citing a litany of gloomy economic statistics, Trump made his usual pitch for trade protectionism, tax cuts, and regulatory reform.
“No one will gain more from these proposals than low- and middle-income Americans,” he said, drawing on a major theme of his campaign. Trump’s message about the economy more or less boils down to this: the working class has been ignored and forgotten, while the political elites have rigged the system to benefit themselves. And, as he said Monday, “We can’t fix a rigged system by relying on the people who rigged it in the first place.” So vote for Trump and make American great again.
To the surprise of pundits and the political class, this argument has found an approving audience among a plurality of GOP primary voters, and especially among working-class whites. Poor whites have been alternately maligned and ignored by both parties for years, in contrast to poor minority communities that not only get more attention from the media but have been actively courted by Democrats for decades (and, at least before Trump, some Republicans).
A Case Study In The White Working Class
At the same time, poor whites have developed staggeringly self-destructive habits. During Trump’s speech, Bob’s Happy Hour Tavern kept coming to mind because its story is in some ways the story of America’s white working class.
A bit of background on Bob’s: in 2006, the owner, Bobby Harris, was murdered in a 4 a.m. robbery just blocks away. By the time I moved to Fishtown, the place was run mostly by his sister, a lovely woman named Debbie, who, try as she might, couldn’t do much to stop the locals from freeloading and dealing drugs out of the place. The bar racked up debt and Liquor Control Board violations, and closed down in 2013.
A year later, after some renovations, Debbie and her husband re-opened under the name Bobby’s, with the notion of catering to the gentrifying millennials and professionals who had been steadily moving into Fishtown. Last year, Debbie told a local paper she stopped serving Budweiser to get “the regulars to stay away. They would come in here and drink buckets of Bud and they would take advantage of my mom, say they’d pay her tomorrow and they wouldn’t.”
But as it happened, despite stocking some local craft beers and hosting live music and poetry nights, Bob’s couldn’t make the transition. Having lived in Fishtown, I can imagine how tough it must have been to keep the locals away. It’s not like they just disappeared from the neighborhood. They are the neighborhood.
Our cities are full of neighborhoods like this. I didn’t realize the severity of the problem until I moved to Philadelphia, a case study in the plight and pathologies of the white working class. Unlike many cities that saw “white flight” in the 1960s, Philadelphia is still home to a large number of poor whites.
Today, it’s the poorest large city in America, with a quarter of its residents living in poverty, and nearly half of those living in “deep poverty.” During the Great Recession, Philadelphia’s poverty rate was 28 percent. That’s improved since 2008-09, but only because of an influx of young professionals diluted the rate, not because of a decline in the number of impoverished residents. The locals at Bob’s didn’t get up and move—but they are being left behind.
No wonder Charles Murray chose Fishtown as his statistical construct of a white, blue-collar neighborhood in “Coming Apart.” Murray’s prescient 2012 book, which collates mountains of demographic data about white Americans, chronicles the hollowing out of the middle class and shines a light on the deep pathologies of poor whites. Nowhere is it more striking than in neighborhoods like Fishtown, where less than a third of children grow up in two-parent families, men routinely drop out of the workforce on dubious claims of disability, illiteracy and substance abuse are both widespread, and once-crowded churches are now attended only by a handful of septuagenarians.
Conservatives Need To Reach Out
As these neighborhoods gentrify, young people from Belmont—Murray’s stand-in for upper-class America, where couples stay married, attend church, and send their kids to college—move into the city and bring their good habits with them. Economic growth soon follows. The corner bodega turns into a yoga studio, blighted buildings are replaced by new condos, Bob’s Happy Hour Tavern turns into a brewpub that serves locally sourced gourmet burgers.
Of course, not everyone shares in that growth. The regulars at Bob’s certainly don’t. And sure, maybe they’re a nasty bunch of old drunks, like the rural white folks we meet in J.D. Vance’s gripping new memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” who can’t seem to get out of their own way long enough to get ahead. But they’re here nonetheless, in our towns and cities, and they’ve been stirred up by Trump, a man who’ll never be able to deliver the prosperity he promises but who speaks directly to their frustrations and fears.
If conservatives want a political future, if they want to take back the GOP and lead the country, they’ll need to figure out a way to speak to these people. They will need to persuade them that their best chance for a better life doesn’t rest with the empty promises of a demagogue like Trump—or with Hillary Clinton and the tired old liberal policies that Democrats have imposed on our cities for generations.
They will have to go to the Fishtowns of America, to the forgotten and shuttered places, and by word and deed show the people there, however backward they might be, that they can rebuild their lives and their communities, and that they aren’t alone anymore.