Introducing "Cokeville," the New American Suburb - Page 2

By Jeff Deeney 11/08/11

With a collapsed economy and shrinking middle class, Coatesville, Pa., represents small-town America. Now, the cocaine market is the only industry that's booming. Is this our nation's future?

Coatesville's Fleetwood Street engulfed in an arsonist's flames, January 2009.
photo via

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Further west, north, and south, there are ever more small cities that even 20 years ago would never have been viable drug-dealer destinations and yet today find both hustler transplants from larger markets looking to set up shop in new territory and homegrown would-be kingpins getting into the business—entrepreneurs in an economy that has contracted to the point of implosion. There’s no end in sight to this downturn in job opportunities for the less educated and minimally skilled in an increasingly information-driven economy.

Closer to the coast there’s a profusion of such small cities with collapsed industry bases and thriving drug markets. Chester, Pa., pop. 33,000, has long been the hub of cocaine traffic for suburbanites living between Philadelphia and Wilmington. Sun Shipbuilding & Drydock Company used to drive a booming local economy, with residents cranking out tanker ships for use in World War II. Long past its glory days, Chester has lost half its population, with those remaining mostly poor and black. A virulent gang culture took hold along with crack cocaine, and gun battles over drug turf have been known to rival those of Philly and Baltimore in infamy. In September, six were injured in a single shootout, and October saw yet another homicide.

In his 2009 book, Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, journalist Nick Redding documented the rise of the Midwest methamphetamine epidemic, concentrating on the town of Oelwein, Iowa., pop. 6,400. His investigation traced the same classic pattern of drug market formation and the spread of addiction in the wake of industry decline. In towns and small cities across the nation, Americans with economic mobility have, for decades, followed the jobs to more prosperous parts of the country, leaving behind concentrated poverty, eroded tax bases and a dearth of opportunities. When the most educated and skilled move away, a death spiral takes hold; poverty and unemployment mean fewer and fewer tax dollars, which over time decimates public services, most notably, perhaps, the public school system. A lack of skilled workers makes it impossible to attract new industry. The remaining opportunities for rapid economic advancement are centered primarily in crime—above all, in making and selling meth, and the grind of low-wage, often brutal work in rural poultry factories and the like creates a ready market of hope-deprived buyers. In this way, the heartland becomes methland.

In towns and small cities across the nation, a death spiral is taking hold: The remaining opportunities for rapid economic advancement are centered primarily in making and selling drugs, and the grind of low-wage work creates a ready market of hope-deprived buyers. In this way, the great American heartland becomes Methland and Cokeville.

And in between methland and the East Coast, of course, is Appalachian, with its own fabled history of social problems, including generations of poverty, unemployment, undereducation—and, more recently, a thriving market for diverted black-market pharmaceutical pain killers like OxyContin. Pharmaceutical drugs rule the mountain ranges because by the time the heroin pipeline delivers product from the big cities on the coast, it is too diluted and too expensive for most consumers. If a bag of heroin costs $40 and is already stepped all over in Reading, Pa., imagine what’s left when it finally gets to West Virginia. In the far interior reaches of our vast nation, diverted Oxys and Vicodins are the better deal on price and potency.

This covers, if sketchily, quite a bit of America’s geography; a more in-depth survey would surely yield similar patterns in other regions. The desperation and hopelessness that accompanies our nation’s uniquely pervasive drug economy, having left in its wake entire generations of ruined lives in these hardest-hit regions, have propelled the issue of addiction to the forefront as the most pressing of America’s many social ills.

Consider the kind of nation we have built: divided, unequal, with unlimited opportunities for a very select few and very few opportunities for the teeming masses. The industry that promises the most economic mobility for increasingly large swaths of Americans as the bottom has fallen out of our manufacturing base is the street drug market. Here one’s own profit is fed by the despair of one’s neighbors, bereft of any upwardly mobile potential. The new century’s version of the once-noble American dream, it seems, now that Ozzie and Harriet have moved out, is the hustle for fast money and chasing quick, cheap highs.

Jeff Deeney, a Philadelphia social worker and writer in recovery, pens a weekly columnist for the The Fix.

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Jeff Deeney is a social worker, freelance writer and recovering addict in Philadelphia. He is a contributor to the Atlantic and has written for the Daily Beast, The Nation, and The Marshall Project. Follow Jeff on Twitter.