Thursday, March 25, 2010

You're asking me?

... What is happening in Philadelphia and elsewhere?

Last night, I walked up to Center City to meet my friend and former colleague Pat Banks for dinner. She and I then went to the Union League to watch Nelson Shanks paint Michael Smerconish. On the way, I ran into a neighbor who warned me about these flash mobs. I'm in better shape and a good deal tougher than most, but as Muhammad Ali put it once, "I ain't no damn fool, either." Brought the matter up with Pat, and she was concerned, too. I figured my street smarts would make me alert enough to trouble to be able to dodge it and, as it happened, nothing happened. Guess I'll have to start packing heat.


  1. Dear Sir,

    I was in Philadelphia last week and noticed even in the little bit I was in the sad decline. Armed guards at the conference center and the entry of every major hotel nearby. It hadn't been that way a few years back. And I have to say that I've been on the streets of NYC, Dublin, Washington DC and others in the past several months and it was Philadelphia that made me want to roll up like a big armored bug and hide away. What a shame.



  2. Yes, Frank, I am asking you (and others) to weigh in the problem. Tell me this is an isolated flash-in-the-pan rather than the early signs of a cancer that will not be easily cured.

    Speaking with a lighter spin, I recall that Philadelphia brought us many great things: American Bandstand, cheesesteaks, soft pretzels, and some good years from the Phillies (and perhaps the Eagles long, long ago). Now, however, I hope Philadelphia will keep and eradicate the ugliness.

  3. Postscript: I grew up in Pittsburgh and was envious in many ways of people who got to live in Philadelphia, on the other end of the state. Pittsburgh had little to brag about. Philadelphia had plenty.

    And now I hope Steven Riddle's observation does not become commonplace.

  4. Jonathan9:44 PM

    I'm not sure how much of this is a recent or new development. The history of Eastern Seaboard cities (Boston, NY, Philadelphia among others)is replete with riots, mass disturbances and unruly mobs.

    Urban historians, over the last two or three decades, have explored these behaviours more thoroughly, and found that in the 18th and 19th centuries, they were common and characteristic features of the American city. Even in the twentieth century, urban communities continued resorting to mob violence.

    Rather than seeing these flash mobs as unprecedented, perhaps they're no more than the latest incarnation of a longstanding urban behaviour.

  5. Jonathan, perhaps you are correct. However, based on the information currently available, these incidents seem to involve a new kind of malice that is mindless except for one egocentric motivation: gather together and mock civility within the community and respect for self and others.

  6. Postscript for Jonathan: I would add that the race component must not be overlooked here, and the newspaper article makes that quite clear. This kind of variable makes all of this even harder and more dangerous to analyze properly. As I noted elsewhere, I hope all of this is an anomaly that will soon fade away. But I have my doubts about that hope.

  7. Jonathan10:37 PM

    The mocking of civility, is unfortunately nothing new. In the 19th century, working class men and women, dressed and acted in ways that were consciously intended to mock and intimidate the sensibilities of the middle class. The Bowery Boys of New York are classic examples of this. (The practice of lower status groups mocking and offending societal norms and 'civility' through attire has a long, well-documented history, although it falls outside this conversation about group violence - slaves, sailors, the poor all showed disdain for 'civility' in such ways.)

    Race/ethnicity has always been a prime consideration of mobs in choosing their targets. From Manhattan panics/mobs about slave revolt in 1741, to 19th century nativists in Philadelphia attacking the Irish, and later the Irish attacking African Americans, racial and ethnic violence has been a constant feature of American cities.

    In the twentieth century, race certainly played a role in the Harlem riots of 1935 and 1943, as well as the mob violence in Boston in the early '70s around the bussing of students. Further examples can be found following the death of MLK, as well as the outbreaks of violence in Crown Heights, Brooklyn between the Hasidic and Black communities. The history of racial riots in Los Angeles is equally full.

    Some historians might argue that the mobs that greeted Freedom Riders, as well as some of the more chaotic demonstrations in the 1960s might also fit within this larger tradition of mob violence.

    I'm not suggesting that residents affected by the flash mobs referred to shouldn't feel alarmed. Telling them, after all, that such activities can be seen as fitting within a long line of urban violence is neither comforting nor helpful. I'm just suggesting that perhaps if we take a longer view, we might not feel these times, and this violence, are harbingers of societal collapse.