EDITOR’S NOTE: A little while back we received a note from The Daily Beast peeps wondering if we would be terribly upset if they poached Jeff Deeney for a piece they wanted written about the Coatesville Arson Insanity. We responded something to the effect that introducing writers like Deeney to places like The Daily Beast was half the purpose of Phawker, BUT NO FUCKING WAY! Just kidding about the last part. You can read Deeney’s Coatesville arson piece HERE, co-authored with Philly native/DB staffer Gregory Gilderman. Below you will find an addendum to the piece that Deeney filed for Phawker. Congrats to Deeney for making it to the Internet Big Time, and kudos to the Daily Beast for having such a keen eye for good writing and impeccable taste in their Philly blog-reading!
BY JEFF DEENEY Coatesville has the frozen-in-time quality common to most of Pennsylvania’s ailing former steel towns. Its forward momentum stalled out decades ago, and downtown feels almost like a movie set for a film that takes place in the 1980s. The storefronts along its two-lane main drag, Lincoln Highway, are occupied by faded furniture stores with severely outdated stock on clearance sale, used clothing stores, dingy Laundromats, beauty supply shops and rundown bodegas. Some storefronts are entirely empty, and clearly have been for some time. The City of Coatesville downtown office has two framed pieces of fiberboard in its front window with papers tacked on advertising the city’s current big redevelopment plans. The plans primarily include a couple sewer upgrades and improvements to public housing.
On the back streets, away from the main drag, there are more concerning signs of decaying social fabric that residents say started maybe fifteen years ago. Alleyways are covered in gang tags and “Stop Snitching” graffiti. While much of the small city look pretty on springtime afternoon, with lots of green lawns and well-tended flower patches, in Coatesville’s poorest neighborhoods there are familiar sights you might find in North Philly: boarded up and abandoned houses and vacant lots riddled with trash. There is a thriving crack market here; local corner drug crews call their hometown, “Cook cokeville.”
As many readers already know, ground zero of Coatesville’s arson catastrophe is Fleetwood Street, between 3rd and 4th Avenues where on January 24th fire consumed the entire block. Months later, the air here still smells of smoke. Front doors are hung with bright yellow Codes Department signs declaring them uninhabitable and community watch posters proclaim the area under around-the-clock observation for drug or other suspicious activity. Some of the tiny front yards here are piled high with burnt debris; others are littered with shards of shattered window glass.
As many readers also know, as a social worker I’ve been exposed to the grittiest realities of urban poverty. I’ve been caught in drug corner crossfire and gone into crackhouses looking for endangered children. It’s hard to fluster me because there isn’t much I haven’t seen. But how do you stand on Fleetwood Street and not get emotional? The enormity of the destruction of an entire city block by arson is nearly incomprehensible. The senselessness of the damage done to the families who lived here and the surrounding community is profound.
Even though tiny, down-and-out Coatesville has received national attention in the wake of the arsons, its woes are far from over. Everywhere you go around town there is a consistent response when residents are asked how long it might take the city to recover. “Years, man, it’s going to be years before we come back from this.” And a few months after what was hopefully the last fire, things aren’t looking much changed. On Fleetwood Street there’s one moderately damaged house where church-based volunteers are helping repair smoke and water damaged, but the houses here and at other sites around town still stand in ruins.
However, there is also a uniform resilience among residents, a common sense in this town where everyone knows everybody else that Coatesville will see better days. Everywhere you go, people are also saying, “We’re coming together over this, and we’re gonna get through it. Coatesville will come back, believe that.”