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Sunday, December 8, 2013

URBAN MILLENNIALS on the Fishtown Party Circuit

Published • Wed, Dec 04, 2013
By Thom Nickels

Everyone is talking about the Knockout game, and the chatter is not good. It’s not good because it’s been reported that the Knockout game can occur anywhere and at anytime in so-called safe neighborhoods. Last week, for instance, a 30-year old chef from New York was attacked in Old City by a group of six to eight males, all under the age of 21, and left with a broken nose and jaw, proof that attacks of this sort aren’t necessarily confined to the post-midnight hours, or during aimless walks through the city’s more undesirable neighborhoods.

What are good citizens to make of this? In a city as large as Philadelphia, it isn’t feasible to cross the street every time you see a group of potential Knockers following you or headed your way. Doing this would only have you aping Gene Kelly’s dance maneuvers because there could just as well be another Knocker group on the other side of the street. Of course, you could always decide to minimize your city walking and concentrate on taking the subway, El or the bus even for short trips, but even this wouldn’t guarantee safety. You could, for instance, pay your fare at the El only to find another Knocker group waiting for you on the platform; or if not on the platform then just beyond the doors of the train as you enter. Fed up, you might vow to forget public transportation altogether and, if you have a car, drive everywhere you have to go. But even this plan has holes. What happens if you walk out your door to get to your car just as a bunch of Knockers are walking past?

While it’s true that the news media is sometimes prone to exaggeration—i.e., the suggestion that Knockout gangs hang on every street corner—it’s also true that becoming enslaved by fear, and having fear rule your life, is something no sensible urban person wants. You might as well go back in time and join John Travolta in the Boy in the Bubble.

Various forms of the Knockout game have been going on with some irregularity since the 1990s. I remember an experience I had when I lived in Center City in the 1980s and 90s. Walking along Market Street towards City Hall one night, I casually walked into a group of ten males, all young, who were walking in the opposite direction. Not wanting to be thought a coward by walking to the other side of the street, I maintained eye contact with the group as I walked past, but before I could blink I saw two guys close in and then I felt a hand violently grab my back pocket where my wallet was. The assaulter failed to grab my wallet on the first take; instead, he ripped my back pocket which in turn ripped off a good portion of my trousers, leaving me partially exposed right there in the heart of the city. The attacker’s clumsy maneuver still spelled doom for the wallet-- it was gone in a flash, and I had to return to my apartment looking more than a little indecent, a scenario that reminded me of those nightmares in which we find ourselves naked in the middle of the city looking for a place to hide. I was glad I was not injured and that I had managed to take the cash out of my wallet before venturing out, so the rude intruders got nothing for their effort. What I got, besides shaky nerves, was considerable hassle replacing my driver’s license and a few other cards, but other than that I was fine. Even the trousers I choose to wear that night were on my ‘way out to the trash collection’ list, so I felt lucky in many respects.

The New York Times has categorized the Knockout craze as "Nothing more than the random assaults that have always occurred." One Times journalist even concluded that the police have yet to see evidence of "an organized game spreading among teenagers online." On the other hand, the game can hardly be called an urban myth. An urban myth is something that does not exist, but nationwide reports of the Knockout game cannot be denied. Former New York City Police Department detective contradicted The Times in a devastating television interview in which he spelled out the uncomfortable reality of this game, but I won’t go into that here.

Most urban dwellers, I think, have a natural adversity to seeing large groups of people walking together on city streets. This is true whether the group walkers are Knockers, Japanese tourists with cameras, clubbing revelers, organized class trips, or historic architecture tours.

One group in particular, the clubbing revelers or the so called millennials (our twenty-something friends both in college and out) have perfected group travel to the level of a science.

Over the years, I’ve noticed a tendency, especially among urban millennials, to travel into Center City and to the bars and clubs in Fishtown, in packs of five, ten or more. I don’t know when this trend started but it is now at full tilt. Stand for a time at the El stop at Front and Girard on a weekend night and you will witness great segments of millennial armies walking in unison as they march up Girard Avenue. When I was 21, I never went out on the town with this many people. I had friends, of course, and would arrange to do things with one or two at a time, but never ten or fifteen at once. It’s difficult enough to get two or three people to agree on when and where to club and socialize, but getting fifteen people organized that way is something only party planners used to do. Seeing these millennials rush down the EL steps at Front and Girard and then head to the clubs makes me think of organized class trips.

These are not Knocker groups, of course, but they are large groups nevertheless. Large groups traveling at night have become so commonplace in the city I don’t think the average person looks at them twice. This makes it easier for young men with untoward intentions to blend in as their own group, even if those millennials return to the El after clubbing with just half their members, a phenomenon which makes me wonder where the others got to and what happened to cause the downsizing. Whatever the reason, the homebound millennials suggest the truth of a universal rule: that while it may be possible to corral fifteen people to leave together from point A, keeping them together for the duration of a pub crawl is almost always impossible. At Front and Girard, you’ll sometimes see lone stragglers, or former groupers, walking back to the El, but this is a rarity. When this happens, the straggler in question will usually hail a cab rather than wait for the El shuttle or the 15 to take them to Broad Street and beyond. Waiting curbside, alone, for a bus or train seems to be the last thing that millennials want to do. This suggests, perhaps, that most of them have been trained to be wary of walking city streets alone late at night. Another theory, of course, is that they are all stuck in group think.

While the city can be a wonderful place, and has the sleepy suburbs beat many times over, there’s always talk of danger, some of it warranted and some of it exaggerated. The people who exaggerate the dangers of the city seem to have the edge every time. Their message has saturated the suburbs, and even affected some members of my own family, who tend to eschew all trips into the city, no matter the occasion. Fortunately, city people feel no compulsion to ban the suburbs from their exploratory repertoire. Many city people, like a poem by Whitman, are broad and expansive.

With the emergence of Knockers, exaggerated or not, it’s going to be even harder to convince suburbanites that it is okay and even exciting to spend a day or two enjoying the diverse-- sometimes perverse-- delights of the city. Having come from the suburbs myself, I know how suburbanites can exaggerate their dislike of city life: how two murders becomes twenty, how every dilapidated neighborhood, even those experiencing high intensity gentrification, harbors a rapist or two, a knife wielding maniac, muggers, or homeless people ready to breathe on you with their stale fish breath. In the Teflon shopping malls of Exton or Radnor, there are no such horrors, although death by boredom is the number one killer there.

I close with this small story, which I think illustrates how times have changed.

Less than two hours after my parents brought me to Baltimore to begin my first year of college, I set out to explore the neighborhood, walking far past the four block townhouse radius of my immediate neighborhood and out into unknown territory, eager to see the sites and to get a sense of Baltimore’s gritty underbelly. I was excited to be in a new city. I had read enough writers’ biographies to know that a writer should not be afraid of new experiences. And so, with a degree of naivety maybe, I started out on this very long walk that took me to the heart of a ghetto where I encountered barefoot children sitting on stoops, women on lawn chairs peeling string beans, and men drinking bottles wrapped in paper bags. While some of the boarded up houses I passed introduced me to my first views of graffiti, I remember feeling exhilarated on that sunny day and thinking, as only a 20 year old could, that I was inhaling life and soaking up new experiences with every new street I encountered. Suddenly, and in a very unexpected way, it seemed as if the universe was agreeing with me when an old black man on a stoop, his face drawn in a world weary way, called me over and handed me a beautiful wooden box with a clasp that probably held medical instruments at one time. He gave no reason for the gift, but when I returned home and proudly showed it to my Baltimore-born roommates, I got a good dressing down because I had walked into a neighborhood where, they said, no sane person ever ventures.

"Don’t you know," they kept saying, "Don’t you know?!"

I thanked them, but in the end and to this very day, I’ve kept my own counsel.