Much of what I learned about postindustrial Philadelphia I learned around the Market-Frankford Line, that giant, silver serpent that travels a concrete-and-steel path over the rooftops of modest neighborhoods, slithers below ground on its belly in deference to Center City, and then shoots up again to compete for sunlight in other less-favored parts of the city.
After I moved to Philadelphia some 40 years ago, I lived for about six months near the Church Street El stop, then five years near Somerset, and then another five near Tioga. I rode the El most days back then.
Lots of good, hardworking people lived near the El. And then there were the people who hung out near the El during the hours when working people were not around.
When I arrived, there were jobs for the marginal - the marginal who would become less marginal as they learned skills, and the marginal who would remain marginal because they missed their chance or never had a chance to acquire skills.
In those days, more Philadelphians had room to fall and get up again. You could be fired from a factory on Friday and hired by another one on Monday. I'm not talking about solid union jobs; I'm talking about jobs that weren't great. But they were jobs that paid money and, as often as not, offered some minimal health insurance.
Those jobs are mostly gone. Year by year, they disappeared. The people who once held them started spending more time under the El and in its stations. Smashed amber bottles and the smell of beer became common in some of those stations, and then the smell of urine. So did middle-of-the-night slurred insults, often followed by sounds of shouting and scuffling.
Bad as it was, what followed was worse. Cocaine made a special hell for the women who worked the sex trade under the El. The price of crack and prostitution plunged into the single digits, creating a new perverse market as the old industrial one failed.
The world under the El was a measure and manifestation of growing trouble. Too many people had no place other than under the El.
Years later, at a back-to-school night at the high school my children attended, I met one of the men I remembered from the Tioga stop. He had met a good woman, a nurse, who helped him straighten out. He ran his own roofing crew. He told me that many of the others from back in the day were dead of huffing, heroin, and the traditional drug of choice, alcohol.
There is no longer a place for too many in a world where the skilled compete against the skilled for an insufficient number of jobs. There is no longer a place for the marginal - except maybe under the El.
Michael Carroll is a Philadelphia writer.