Adams’ wife is a bank executive, and has helped neighborhood kids land jobs. Economic and racial diversity provides opportunities, he says.
“When you go to Camden, who do you know who’s a bank manager?” Adams asks. “That’s where the opportunities stop. That’s the real issue with concentrated areas of people of color. It takes away all the opportunities they would have living in an integrated neighborhood, like Pennsauken.”
Adams says that the community organizing effort has burned out over the past years. And Census data shows that the white population continued to drop over the past decade, losing 14 percent, while the black population inched up and Latinos boomed.
“Among advocates of racial diversity, Mt. Airy is very well-known and many communities have attempted to replicate its history of intensive community organizing around racial issues,” Sugrue says. “Most of those places, however, haven’t succeeded. Pennsauken is quickly resegregating. I expect that those patterns will continue in the next decade.
“It hasn’t turned around. But I can tell you, it would have been a lot worse if it wasn’t for the things we’ve been doing,” says Adams, noting that the rate of white flight was cut in half. “It’s a battle. That’s for sure.”
Integration is also precarious in gentrifying black neighborhoods like Cedar Park and sections of University City. Taking the 34 trolley from Center City up Baltimore Avenue into West Philadelphia, you can usually predict that every white passenger will get off by 50th Street. But there are also about five blocks where people of all sorts—blacks and whites, Arabs and Africans—get on and off the trolley. Ethiopian restaurants, coffee shops, African food stores, a food coop, a gourmet deli and a soul food lounge and restaurant exist side by side for now. Gentrification poses the same problem of white flight, but in reverse: Can people, with all the economic and political forces working against them, live together? Maybe.
Suburbanites like Young, the Lansdowne mayor, not just traditionally liberal city-dwellers in Mt. Airy or crusading civil-rights activists like Milgram, are now taking the lead in campaigning for regional planning and integration. The Southeastern Pennsylvania First Suburbs Project employs community organizing tools developed on the streets of Chicago in the ranch houses of old suburbia; their membership includes seven municipal governments, along with churches, the NAACP and the William Penn School District.
Across the river, the New Jersey Regional Coalition does similar work, and successfully pushed for the elimination of “regional contribution agreements,” a bizarre tool that allowed wealthy municipalities to pay poorer cities to take their share of affordable housing.
“The policy wonks didn’t have an audience,” says Young, a leader in First Suburbs. “Now they do.”
People tend to think of diversity and integration as a problem of getting people to be less racist. This certainly helps. But the real issue is government money, and how and where it gets spent. The federal government, with billions of dollars in transportation funding, has tremendous power over how our region grows. Advocates were dismayed that much of the stimulus money was spent through what a Brookings Institute report called “business as usual delivery systems” to “shovel-ready” projects, though new leadership at the Department of Housing and Urban Development have voiced support for regional planning.
Congress has been the least helpful. Legislation governing federal transportation spending for the next six years is 18 months overdue. Activists want federal dollars to help shift influence from highway-friendly state Departments of Transportation to the nation’s 384 Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) like the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, regional bodies that can plan land use and transportation comprehensively but currently lack real power.
A lot is at stake politically, too. The first suburbs are swing communities and have a lot of potential power. The white population in particular, buffeted by rising property taxes and declining schools and roads, is vulnerable to conservative scapegoating. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie’s tax cuts have shifted the tax burden to localities, and the austere budget Gov. Corbett proposed last week will likely do the same.
“I’m super concerned about Corbett’s budget,” says Young, who is currently running as a Democrat for a seat on the Delaware County Council. “If you cut public school funding by 50 percent, what will we do? We’ll have to lay off teachers, increase class size. We already have a struggling school district. So then everyone who can will either move or send their kids to private school.”
Over the past decade, Democrats have picked up hundreds of thousands of new voters in the Philadelphia suburbs, once GOP strongholds. Upper Darby, a township with a population bigger than all but five Pennsylvania cities, is still a Republican center of power in Delaware County. But Upper Darby also gets a disproportionate share of the region’s Section 8 housing, and boasts a vibrant and diverse downtown at the Market-Frankford line’s 69th Street terminal. The first suburbs are a strange and often overlooked political animal. And they have a unique opportunity to speak to conservatives about sprawl and segregation. Indeed, the Republican-led township was a founding member of the First Suburbs coalition.
“The issue is the loss of a middle class and the concentration of poverty in certain areas,” says Puriefoy-Brinkley. “And these older suburbs are places where this has begun to happen. What First Suburbs is about is stopping that. We’re really all in this together. It’s happening to middle class and poor, Democrats and Republicans. When we recognize what’s happening to our communities and we work together to change that, those political lines are blurred.”
Graphics provided by John Paul DeWitt of the University of Michigan's Social Science Data Analysis