Keeping the peace in Paulsboro.

While we’ve all seen “crime watch” or “neighborhood watch” placards upon entering a residential area, I couldn’t help but be a bit alarmed by the sign I saw as I swerved onto a local road in Paulsboro, New Jersey.

Paulsboro warning sign

Needless to say, it’s the upper of these two signs that merits consideration. Not only because of the content (saying “NO TOLERANCE” twice) but the standard symbology embedded in the yellow diamond, a shape and color standardized through the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) to represent an upcoming warning, usually in relation to an upcoming potential change in road conditions that could pose a hazard to motorists. The potential change could involve an intrinsic physical feature (sharp curve, narrow bridge, slippery when wet) or to signal a higher level of awareness because of vulnerable living things nearby (duck crossing, blind/deaf child).

But it’s not every day that the sign itself is an outright threat to the person approaching. I can’t think of where I’ve ever seen such a thing. But I suppose Paulsboro is a bit atypical on its own terms.IMG_9773The above photo is little more than a pivot about 180 degrees from the warning sign. And it shows a standard block along Delaware Street, Paulsboro’s main street. And at this point, it probably goes without saying that Paulsboro, directly across the Delaware River from the Philadelphia International Airport (PHL), is not among New Jersey’s most flourishing communities. A Google Street View trip along Delaware Street suggests a commercial corridor pockmarked with surface parking lots and bare grass where other buildings once stood.

To be fair, Paulsboro is not the most distressed New Jersey town in the area: that award unequivocally goes to Camden, the devastated factory town directly across from center city Philadelphia. Paulsboro, consisting primarily of single-family detached housing, seems to suffer comparatively little vacancy, despite decades that have resulted in an over 25% population loss since its 1960 peak of over 8,100. In a state with housing costs significantly above the national median, Paulsboro may in fact serve as a reprieve: the blue collar town offers cheaper housing than most neighboring suburbs, helping it stave off further decline because it’s a beacon for moderate-income prospective homebuyers.

But a sign indicating so little tolerance for noise, breaching the piece, littering, loitering for drugs, et cetera et cetera…it conveys both a firm stance on crime and a confession that Paulsboro needs a firm stance on crime. If it wasn’t obvious that Paulsboro has been through economic challenges—and to most people it’s very clear (though less obvious than Camden)—this sign along the fractured main street is tantamount to a confession. I wonder if it achieves the desired effect, or if the more innocuous and more commonplace “Neighborhood Watch” sign below it might offer the same message but with a more neutral tone. As New Jersey continues to grapple with its housing affordability concerns, it will be interesting to see if this Philly suburb—conveniently situated, except perhaps in terms of the noise from airplanes—will turn itself around through its stern promotion of a safe environment…or if these same peremptory approach will scare people away.

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2 thoughts on “Keeping the peace in Paulsboro.

    1. AmericanDirt

      Thanks for commenting. I’d imagine you’re a much more nuanced thinker than your observations here would suggest, so, if you haven’t read it already, I’m going to recommend Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” to you, especially the section that describes the typical American’s treatment of Natives and (enslaved) Africans–how it instills in those two races a sense of hopelessness and humiliation that makes it impossible, even those emancipated, to reconcile with what Tocqueville recognizes are, by and large, less advanced cultures. The book is almost 200 years old, and it still offers a far better balance of empathy with pungent pragmatism–much better than, say, Jared Diamond’s flashy, entertaining, cognitive backflips to reach a cultural relativist argument in “Guns, Germs, and Steel”.

      After reading Tocqueville, I’m found myself far better prepared to ask some of those difficult questions, akin to the predicament you address. And I’d extend a few more your way:

      – Since 0% non-white is unrealistic and unconstitutional, what would be the acceptable percentage for you?
      – How do you reconcile your observations on Camden with the social conditions in much rural Eastern Kentucky, which are sociologically similar but nearly all are white?
      – How do places like Oak Park IL, Silver Spring MD, West Orange NJ, Dunwoody GA and countless other prosperous communities with sizable non-white (often African-American) populations fit into this binary? Are they mere outliers? If so, how do we continue to argue this when they are becoming more and more common?

      Life is infinitely complicated. Tendencies to harness racial/ethnic identities for political arguments (no matter to the far left or far right) tend to ignore this.

      Reply

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