Introducing "Cokeville," the New American Suburb

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

An hour’s drive west of Philadelphia, where suburban sprawl gives way to rolling hill country that stretches all the way across Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh, little Coatesville (pop., 13,000) doesn't often make the evening news. But back in 2008 and 2009, when it was hit with a bizarre series of arsons, the small town began to realize it had big city problems. More than 70 fires were set over the span of 18 months, one of which turned an entire block of picture-perfect Fleetwood Street to ash.

It's been rebuilt, mostly. And while there are encouraging signs of rebirth all around Coatesville, there’s one problem the town can’t shake even after the firebugs—a total of six, all working independently, including a firefighter and a schizophrenic—have been arrested and put away. The problem is that while fires have stopped, but the cocaine business is raging.

Coatesville has long been the primary coke supplier for Philly’s western suburbs. Local teens who move the crack bags and act as corner lookouts call their hometown “Cook Cokeville.” The town was once a major supplier of steel under the Lukens and later Bethlehem Steel banners; its mill even produced girders for the World Trade Center. The mill remains operational, owned now by Luxemburg conglomerate ArcelorMittal, and while its sprawling campus still dominates the landscape, it no longer drives the local economy as it once did. Crack cocaine replaced the steel.

Coatesville's rep as the state’s cocaine hub likely played a role in the extraordinary arson spree. One local, who believes the town is cursed, explains it this way: “Burn down the poor black part of town with the crack houses—nobody cares about the families who live there.”  Then maybe all the problems will go disappear.

One benefit of the collapse of the steel industry was that as skilled and mobile workers moved away, the sagging economy drove down housing prices, making a quiet home in the country affordable even for poor families. Close to half of Coatesville’s population is African American, and many are relatively recent Philly transplants. Most of these ex-pats do prefer Coatesville’s comparative verdure to their blasted and blighted neighborhoods of origin back in the Brotherly Love. But many of urban poverty’s chronic social problems migrated with them, invisible stowaways.

Mark Kennedy is a Philly transplant. While having a smoke outside the Step Above Barber Shop where he cuts hair, he says that he moved to Coatesville in 1995 “to get away from the madness” in his native North Philadelphia. Kennedy is a big man with a hard face outlined by a finely manicured goatee. The name “Maria” is written in fading ink on the back of his right hand.

“It used to be real nice and quiet out here, but over the last year or two things got crazy,” Kennedy says. “During the fires the community was in a state of hysteria.” He smiles sadly and absently brushes his black barber jacket with his hand. “What with the arsons and the poverty and the drugs, Coatesville’s problems are still real deep.”

Kennedy says that the local drug demand has a long history because Coatesville is home to one of the largest Veterans Administration drug rehabs on the East Coast. Generations of highly addicted war veterans have come from far and wide to detox at Coatesville, and many end up staying after they’re discharged, renting rooms and living in halfway houses. The VA’s success rate is as low as any other rehab’s, and plenty of vets relapse, making their way to the east side to hit up at one of the city’s crack houses.

Coatesville's reputation as the area’s cocaine hub seemed to many residents to have played a role in the extraordinary arson spree. The sentiment, especially among African Americans, was that arsonists were venting their crazy rage against the town not unlike the way defenseless street addicts are frequent targets of casual violence. Fleetwood Street was engulfed in flames set by a 19-year-old from a neighboring town, Downingtown, whiter and more affluent than Coatesville. “Burn down the poor black part of town with the crack houses—nobody cares about the families who live there” was more or less how Coatesville’s black population explained what had come to seem a curse on the town.

In early October the media reported the bust of a drug dealer named Lester Womack—a.k.a. the “Breadwinner of Coatesville”—whose team of low-level sellers and commuting Philly drug runners ran a network of crackhouses, fortified military-style with barricades and protected by firepower, that netted $100,000 per month selling $20 rocks to area addicts. Law enforcement raided and shut down these operations weeks ago, but the same Saturday afternoon visit that found once-decimated Fleetwood Street coming back to life also found a number of corners on the city’s east side still doing a brisk crack business despite this big hit to local supply. Knots of young teens sat on the drooping, paint-peeling wooden porches of rundown brick houses calling out that they’ve “got product” as I drove past.

Coatesville’s story is hardly unique in Pennsylvania or, for that matter, anywhere in America. A new analysis of U.S. survey data by the Brookings Institution shows that the number of poor people in our nation’s suburbs jumped by more than half over the last decade, compared to our cities, which saw a one-quarter increase. The Great Recession and the foreclosure crisis have wreaked havoc with many middle-class Americans, knocking them down the income ladder, as indicated by the fact that two-thirds of the new suburban poor “materialized” from 2007 to 2010. Meanwhile, city budgets are being slashed, with police, firefighters, teachers, and social service providers laid off in large numbers—some to become poor themselves. “The whole political class is just getting the memo that Ozzie and Harriet don’t live here anymore,” Edward Hill, an urban-affairs expert at Cleveland State University, told The New York Times.

Just up the highway from Coatesville is Reading, Pa., pop. 88,000, which last month supplanted Flint, Michigan, as “Poorest City in the Nation.” Reading has a profile similar to Coatesville’s, but on a larger canvas: the same networks of dope corners and crack houses run by New York and Philly transplants and the same exurban and rural poor left behind in the labor market by the collapse of the local industry. Reading’s drug traffic is also fed in some measure by local treatment center dropouts: area addicts say that those leaving “AMA” (against medical advice) from the nearby Caron Foundation, the chi-chi dry-out spot preferred by celebrities and the children of the prosperous, make a bee-line to Reading to cop heroin before hopping trains back to the coast. Word has it that the dope in Reading is a rip-off—it goes for as much as $40 a bag and “smells like Nikes” because it’s been stepped on so many times.

Drive further west, and you hit Lancaster, Pa, pop. 60,000, known to tourists as “Pennsylvania Dutch Country” with its “quaint” Amish relics like horse-and-buggies—but the Amish live in the countryside. In town, there are Latino-run drug networks where a small community of corner dope pushers rep the “Lanc-Lanc” as their home turf.

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.