A Week in ‘Murder Town’

An Explosive History

My week researching at the Hagley Museum and Archives, Delaware (USA) begins with me fumbling around in the midnight darkness, trying to find the Blacksmith’s cottage where they put up visiting scholars.

It’s pitch black and I’m freezing cold but at least I’m now travelling light: American rail’s Philadelphia baggage office have lost all my luggage. I’ve spent much of the evening admiring the Art Deco train posters in Philadelphia 30th Street Station in an attempt to keep my temper.

At Hagley, I eventually find the blacksmith’s cottage beside an enormous wrought iron gate on which the imposing words ‘DuPont’ are inscribed in huge white letters.

The gate is the boundary of a ghostly Victorian worker’s village. At this gate, in the nineteenth century, hundreds of DuPont company workers would assemble to be searched before work each day.

Their task was explosives manufacture for their chemical giant employer. Deadly explosion were frequent and so each worker was body-searched for anything potentially explosive, even a humble match. You can almost see them lining up solemnly in their flat caps, flanked by their children (whose own children are now long since dead).

American Food

I’m researching food display at World’s Fairs. The records are part of Hagley’s excellent business history collection.

The 1939 World’s Fair in New York boldly asserted a consumerist World of Tomorrow in which food technology would consign kitchen drudgery to the dustbin of history.

Canned food and transport improvements promised abundance and choice: any cuisine was now accessible to the Consumer of Tomorrow.

Visitors to the World’s Fair Food Zone, passing through the giant Heinz dome (shaped like a giant pickle) were treated to songs extolling the virtues of the company’s 57 varieties by Mister Heinz Aristocrat Tomato Man and could sample soups from round the world. Outside they could marvel at a Wonderloaf the size of a block of houses.

The World of Tomorrow was, though, destroyed by World War. Nation-states-no-longer, like Czechoslovakia, defiantly exhibited their beer and hams in their half-finished building. The German pavilion was withdrawn at the organiser’s request. The Soviet pavilion was ripped down after the Nazi-Soviet pact. The British pavilion was bombed. The World of Tomorrow crumbled shortly afterwards, receding into the swamps of Queens, bankrupt and broken.

Race in America

Hagley’s nearest town is Wilmington. ‘Murder Town’, as the press call it, has the highest per head murder rate in America. The killings don’t occur in the vast mansions or leafy parkland or even downtown, where tax-shy big business hangs out, but in the cramped few streets in which the city’s black underclass reside. A brief visit to a bootleg booze store and some bars in the area affords me the chance to chat to some locals.

Policing is a high tension issue in the States right now and Wilmington’s black residents are certainly wary of the boys in blue. Later on in my trip, in New York, I see at first hand the lack of cops on the beat: the NYPD are on a go-slow following remarks by the city mayor in which he implicitly criticised their handling of the black community. ‘They’re only responding to absolute emergencies’ my taxi driver assures me.

But it’s not just my Texan housemate-for-the-week at the blacksmith’s cottage who defends gun ownership. The majority of people I speak to on the matter think it is a good thing to own a firearm.

Terror

It’s the day after the French Charlie Hebdo killings and so my yellow cab driver casts his mind back to 9/11 and an abiding image which still haunts him …

“I knew something big had happened when I looked out of my car window and saw a big black cop standing just off the sidewalk.

I can’t describe it … it was as if he was frozen in time. He was just staring into his radio. His eyes were all bulging y’know, as if he was, like, totally transfixed.

His stare scared the shit outta me, I admit. It had this wild – what’s the word? – intensity. That’s it. Intensity. This cop was just looking into his radio as if he had just been told the absolute fucking impossible: that little green men had invaded or something.

No, actually was as if he’d had a fucking stroke. His eyes were fixed on his radio that intensely. As if he just couldn’t believe what his radio had told him and he’d just frozen in time. A woman was trying to get his attention and eventually started tugging at his sleeve. But he couldn’t see or hear her.

The news had obviously just reached him. He just kept staring into his radio.

Just thinking of his stare scares the shit outta me even now.”

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