“It all starts with housing,” says Puriefoy-Brinkley, noting that people using Section 8 housing vouchers are overwhelmingly concentrated in towns like Yeadon. “We would have success with a lot of these problems if we had people of mixed-incomes living together.”
Urban development is very much a zero-sum game. As state and federal dollars have subsidized the sinuous roads, big boxes and annular cul-de-sacs of the “exurbs” built on distant farmland, the sewers, streets and school districts of older communities like Yeadon and Philadelphia have fallen into disrepair. Those with the money to escape often do, taking their tax dollars with them. Poorer people, disproportionately black and Latino, are left to fund social services, including declining schools in districts like William Penn in Delaware County.
Next door to Yeadon, the borough of Lansdowne lost 41 percent of its white population and gained 2,000 blacks over the past decade. Mayor Jayne Young, a white woman, says she sees a big problem in her borough: the dollars that the fleeing whites take with them as they set out for new subdivisions. Gesturing toward Lansdowne’s main street, Young muses over the exurban “town centers” popping up and down the highway. “Most of that big open space developed is incentivized, with roads and sewers,” Young says. “Our tax dollars from this area go out to incentivize development in a place that will compete with us for our tax base and population.”
“They’re a model of a pretend main street at the expense of our real main street,” she says referring to the exurban town center in Exton, 20 miles to the Northwest. “Look at my downtown.”
One is easily struck by Lansdowne’s Victorian architecture, intricately ornamented for the wealthy Philadelphians who moved here in the early 20th century. A new coffee shop and movie-rental place bookend a 1927 movie theater that a local group is heroically trying to revive. It’s really nice. But the downtown, a lively and eclectic thrift store Mecca, suffers from an overabundance of “For Rent” signs. Across the street, the beautiful stone St. John the Evangelist Episcopal church has sat bereft of worshippers since Oct. 11, 2009, its doors affixed with signs reading, “All services at this church have been discontinued.” There were too few parishioners.
There is no single culprit in this saga, but the 2,900,663-square foot King of Prussia Mall, the east coast’s largest, makes for a pretty good composite sketch. Opened as a small strip mall in 1963, its motto, “Life. And All Its Stores,” well reflects the scale of exurban ambition on display just 20 miles outside Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia metropolitan area sprawls through southeastern Pennsylvania and across the Delaware River, through the crumbling city of Camden, into South Jersey, Delaware and down the Delaware Valley into Maryland. The Center City renaissance has been unable to counteract the job growth in places like King of Prussia. Beyond the mall, development has leapfrogged down highways further out, and 54 percent of the area’s office space is now located in these “edgeless cities.”
Suburban sprawl drives segregation, moving white people and jobs farther away from the impoverished neighborhoods where many people of color are consigned to diminished opportunities in education, employment and personal health. Last year, Philadelphia was ranked the 13th most segregated metro area out of the largest 100.
White flight also continues in city neighborhoods like lower Northeast Philadelphia, where whites are leaving as blacks and Latinos arrive, most likely departing high-crime and jobless North Philadelphia neighborhoods that continue to experience population decline. According to a Philadelphia Inquirer analysis of 2009 data, the lower Northeast had “the greatest increase in the percentage of people living in poverty over the last decade.”
The millions of blacks who migrated from the Jim Crow South to Northern cities in the early and mid-20th century were met by a new regime of housing segregation: Realtors refused to sell homes to blacks in white neighborhoods; many houses were bound by restrictive covenants, which barred owners from selling their homes to nonwhites; and federal mortgage loans were explicitly limited to all-white neighborhoods. According to University of Pennsylvania historian Thomas Sugrue, just 347 of the 120,000 homes constructed in the Philadelphia area between 1946 and 1953 were open to blacks. Just as the government began to outlaw de jure segregation, segregation by jurisdiction took hold.
Northern cities grew to have higher degrees of residential segregation than in the South. In cities like Philadelphia, working-class whites violently policed the boundaries of their neighborhoods, while the middle and upper classes fled to the suburbs and abandoned them well into the 1990s. The 1950s suburban dream and the growing urban nightmare was built on segregation.
“The patterns of housing segregation in metropolitan Philadelphia are the legacy of discriminatory public policies and real-estate practices that played out for most of the 20th century,” Sugrue says. “Though discrimination is now illegal, those patterns of segregation were so deeply entrenched that many people came to see them as ‘natural.’”
Desegregation was once a movement priority in the area, and continues to be so for some activists. Morris Milgram, the Jewish son of left-wing garment-worker activists, was the nation’s biggest activist developer, building his own integrated neighborhoods in the 1950s and ’60s. The first was Bucks County’s Concord Park, which was built as a near replica of the then-whites only subdivisions in Levittown. Milgram also built and moved into Greenbelt Knoll, an intentionally integrated neighborhood in Northeast Philadelphia near Pennypack Park.
There are a handful of communities in the region that demonstrate that segregation is no inevitability. In the Northwest Philadelphia neighborhood of West Mt. Airy, progressive whites organized, knocking on doors and convincing white neighbors to stay when blacks began to arrive during the 1950s and ’60s.
But four Census tracts in West Mt. Airy lost 14 percent of their black population while the white population increased just 3 percent. Sugrue, who lives in the neighborhood, says that a number of factors might be at play, including increased property values and blacks moving to more affordable housing or to the suburbs to take advantage of better public schools.
Meanwhile, the white population at the neighborhood’s two elementary schools—Charles W. Henry and Henry Houston—have sharply declined over the past decades. In the 1994–95 school year, Charles W. Henry was 33 percent white and 64 percent black, while Henry Houston was just 15 percent white and 83 percent black. Today, Henry is 16 percent white; Houston just 3 percent white.
“The middle-class white population has always had a lot of private school options,” says Paul Socolar, editor of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook and parent of former Charles W. Henry students. He says that past cuts to popular school programs had a hand in decreasing white enrollment, but that more recently the rise of charter schools could be the driving force.
Setbacks aside, West Mt. Airy’s successes are a tough act for other neighborhoods to follow.
Pennsauken, N.J., a middle-class suburb in Camden County, is now giving the Mt. Airy formula a try—minus the hippies. When black and Latino families began to arrive in 1996, white families put up “For Sale” signs. In response, an inter-racial group founded Neighbors Empowering Pennsauken, a group that knocked on doors, invited longtime residents to get together with newcomers, worked to integrate newcomers into civic groups like the PTA, and asked Realtors to stop “steering” white homebuyers away from the town.
“When I moved here in 1987 we had a choice as a couple,” says Harold Adams, a black real-estate appraiser and integration activist. “The block that I’m on had a white neighbor on one side, a Latino on the other side, another black neighbor, and an Asian neighbor down the street. The appeal was having that feeling of inclusiveness.”