Black, White and Golden

Greenbelt Knoll residents celebrate 50 years of historical significance.

By Gwen Shaffer
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Jun. 20, 2007

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Made in the shade: The development's homes were situated to fit around trees.

When developer Morris Milgram broke ground for Greenbelt Knoll in 1956, he built significantly more than houses. He laid the foundation for tolerance, understanding and lifelong friendships. Milgram, a pioneer in the nation's open housing movement, built Greenbelt Knoll in Northeast Philadelphia as the only planned integrated development in the city, and among the first in the United States. He stipulated that 55 percent of the buyers be white and 45 percent be nonwhite.

Residents who've lived in Greenbelt Knoll over the past 50 years met on their cherished Longford Street this past Sunday for a reunion. They flew in from as far away as New Delhi, Florida and Indiana. Under an overcast sky they exchanged hugs, reminisced and of course grilled burgers.

All 19 original homes in Greenbelt Knoll--on a cul-de-sac bounded by Pennypack Park on three sides--are similar in appearance. Each consists of a single-story rectangular box with a flat roof, broad windows, natural wood siding and a tubular metal chimney soaring toward the sky. Renowned architectural firm Montgomery & Bishop designed the houses with input from Louis Kahn.

Virginia Barlow, one of the original homeowners on Longford Street, chose plot No. 3 from a blueprint. "My husband thought ahead. He liked the design, he told me, because we'd need a house with few steps when we got older."

Roosevelt Barlow, who went on to become one of Philadelphia's first African-American fire captains, passed away about three years ago. Not long after, Virginia made the difficult decision to live in a senior citizen complex. "But the neighbors in Greenbelt Knoll always took care of me," Barlow says. "They hated to see me move."

Larry Schwartz's family made a "conscious choice" to buy a house in Greenbelt Knoll when he was in the sixth grade. "It took incredible commitment to move into this community in the mid-'60s," says Schwartz, now the spokesperson for the U.S. embassy in New Delhi. "Growing up in Greenbelt Knoll taught me to live with people who are different. That's the single most important gift my parents gave me."

Certainly the folks who moved to Greenbelt Knoll before the civil rights movement were swimming against a powerful tide. Their actions have been equated with high-profile events like the freedom marches in Mississippi and lunch counter boycotts.

Barbara Bodner was 3 when her parents bought a brand-new house in Greenbelt Knoll for about $20,000. "My parents moved here for noble and visionary reasons," Bodner says. "As a little girl I was like a hummingbird that got nectar from all the other houses. There was a real feeling of connectedness among the neighbors."

While making her rounds, the young Bodner knocked on doors of luminaries from all walks of life. Robert Nix Sr., the first African- American from Pennsylvania to serve in Congress when he was elected in 1958, was the original owner of No. 16 Longford St.

Rev. Leon Sullivan, the eminent civil rights leader who founded the Opportunities Industrialization Centers of America, lived in No. 12 Longford St.

Milgram himself, along with his family, chose to live in house No. 5.

Path to enlightenment: Greenbelt Knoll was one of the nation's first integrated housing developments.

Bodner says growing up in such an "idealistic" environment--surrounded by people who saw beyond race and religion--influenced her adult choices. She characterizes herself as "a student of the Dalai Lama," and practices acupuncture in Bloomington, Ind. Her brother still lives on Longford Street.

Shosh Friedman was 5 when her parents bought No. 4 Longford St. Friedman says she was completely unaware of any racial difference separating her from new best friend Shirley--until the following year when they began attending public school together.

One day kids were playing the classic schoolyard game duck-duck-goose. As each "fox" walked around the circle, tapping "ducks" on the head, Friedman noticed that her white classmates avoided touching Shirley.

"I came home crying, and asked my mom why the other kids were mean to Shirley," says Friedman, who flew in from Miami for the Greenbelt Knoll reunion, as well as to visit her parents, who still live there. "It didn't make sense to me."

Greenbelt Knoll developer Morris Milgram died a decade ago. But during the 50th anniversary festivities, his son Gene unveiled a street marker from Pennsylvania's Historical and Museum Commission.

The blue-and-gold sign recognizes Greenbelt Knoll for its political, architectural and social significance. The Philadelphia Historical Commission declared the community a historic district last summer. That designation protects the homes against physical alterations and demolition.

Gene Milgram, himself a city planner, recalls watching the street being built as a small boy. He says his dad was ahead of his time in terms of environmental awareness, and that he made an extraordinary effort to minimize the number of trees chopped down on each plot. Morris Milgram achieved this by laying out the street so that it followed the curve of an existing dirt road, as well as by designing reverse windows on the houses.

"In fifth grade I tried explaining to my classmates where I lived," Milgram says. "And one of them responded, 'Oh, you live in the chicken coops.'"

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1. George Monaghn said... on Apr 9, 2014 at 09:01PM

“I remember it being built. We used to lib out of the woods nd ply in the holm under contruction. I don't remember ever hering about the race thing at all ?


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