Suburban Sprawl: Census Shows Segregation Is Spreading in the Philadelphia Region

By Daniel Denvir
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 28 | Posted Mar. 16, 2011

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“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.”

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Comments 1 - 28 of 28
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1. Philosopher said... on Mar 16, 2011 at 08:29AM

“More should be done to see that everyone has a quality education. When it rains , it just does not rain on the rose bush, it rains on everything. God made this planet for us all......”

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2. cn2004 said... on Mar 16, 2011 at 01:16PM

“Typical liberal nonsense. You quote all these statistics, except the one that explains the reality. Take a look at the crime rates of the communities when they were mostly white, then compare that to the crime rate when the neighborhood changed to mostly minority. That's the reason for white flight. You didn't have the guts to include that in your article, but you made sure to insinuate racism as the reason.”

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3. Anonymous said... on Mar 16, 2011 at 02:22PM

“Agree with comment cn2004. Crime statistics are the primary reason for flight from a neighborhood.”

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4. Anonymous said... on Mar 16, 2011 at 02:33PM

“I would tend to agree. Having grown up in the 'near suburbs' of Delaware County, the change in my lifetime in crime has been significant. I used hop on the trolley all the time and head down to Upper Darby. Now, you cannot feel safe in shopping around the Terminal building. The same has happened in Yeadon and Lansdowne. It is the crime that increases along with the new arrivals and the quality of life decline.”

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5. Anonymous said... on Mar 16, 2011 at 06:12PM

“I think the article is great. It's a shame that so many people seem to have missed its point. Minorities began to move into the near-city suburbs in pursuit of the American Dream when the communities were still thriving. White flight began not with a surge in crime rate, but with the new presence of minority neighbors. It is white flight that produces and then exacerbates the decline of near-city suburbs because of the tax dollars that are then lost to other communities. No community could thrive without public funds. As funding declines, so do the school systems and public programs. Proprty values plummet and crime rates surge. The community then becomes unattractive to even families with lower-middle class incomes. The cycle continues until the community cannot recover.”

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6. Anonymous said... on Mar 16, 2011 at 10:12PM

“So what is it exactly that whites bring to the community if they stay and what do they take with them when they leave? How come the new arrivals do not bring the same things when they arrive? Does it all come down to money? Does behavior or quality of life standards factor into this at all?”

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7. ben said... on Mar 17, 2011 at 08:18AM

“Not all racists are rightwingers. Some lefty racists think blacks are incomplete until they're living with whites. Others believe whites are supposed to teach blacks how to act. Well guess what--it's not working. Instead, young non-blacks are mimicking "ghetto". Whites, Asians, Hispanics and African-Americans who have their shit together leave when neighborhoods turn black because they have a right to seek peace and a decent way of life--the same as blacks who leave the slums. Too many ghetto blacks simply live by different standards, don't know any better and don't want to, largely because they've been convinced that their ways are "equal" no matter what. But look at the racist anger displayed by some blacks when whites move into mostly black areas, as in the previous article about 52nd St. Would Philly Weekly run an article about blacks overrunning and terrorizing Center City shopping streets, the Gallery, 69th St, etc.?”

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8. Anonymous said... on Mar 17, 2011 at 12:20PM

“It is a shame that some people missed the point and an opportunity for this region and this country to tackle white flight head-on.There are no simple and easy solutions. The first black family (or latino, or asian,etc) does not bring crime to a white neighborhood. When these hard-working people move to a mostly white community,some white people see it as "there goes the neighborhhod" based soley on the color of their skin or ethnic make-up. Others follow suit based on a perceived notion that the neighborhood will change for the worse and that property values will decrease. They manifest destiny because as they leave,so do the tax order for the community to sell real estate,they have to drop the price of some properties, less people, less funding, poorer education,less programs, less banks, less business-owners etc etc. Look into your heart and you will find all the truth you need.”

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9. Denise El said... on Mar 18, 2011 at 02:22PM

“Im not native to Philadelphia, however when I moved here I noticed the clear lines that divide this city. Segregation is something unspoken, but understood by those that live hear. Ive lived in a lot of places in the United States and abroad and I honestly can say this is the most racist place I have ever lived in. I cant just say one race or the other, everyone just hates each other except during baseball and football season...lololo. What saddens me the most is that this is the only reason I will not stay here, because of the clear lines that divide. In today's society, everything that has been sacrificed by all of our ancestors, in this city, is in vein. White people just think their better than blacks and its just not true, we all are human beings, some more humane than others. As we all get old and decrepit we realize that, every race. Just dont waste time on ignorance, its such a waste of time.”

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10. Brotha Shiz said... on Mar 20, 2011 at 04:06AM

“I often find it interesting to read the ignorant thought of other's as well as the one's that make clear sense. Giving the fact that crime and destruction is slapped on the screen for the public to see from particular communities makes people Bias to a particular race. I do agree that no one should be afraid to live where they call home and we all should have an equal educational back ground. However, their is a particular group of people that feel the same way as the racist pig of the past that some deserve a better living than others. The bottom line is that we are all equal, we all feel, hurt, bleed, and mostly we love the sad part is that some of us are to stuck in our own way to see how equal we are. It was a sight to see that when a certain group of people began to face forclosure the world should care but did the world care about the fact that this has been a problem in certain communities since the beginning. The answer is no. I personally don't dislike any race.”

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11. Anonymous said... on Mar 21, 2011 at 05:46AM

“cn2004 has an excellent point. People want to live where they are safe, and where their children can get an excellent education without worrying about violence.

American blacks are their own worst enemies. They act, speak and dress like uneducated fools, then turn and blame everyone else for their failure. They line up behind useful idiots like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, while calling out real successes like Clarence Thomas and Condoleezza Rice as trying to be White.

No one runs from blacks because of the color of their skin; rather they run to maintain their standard of living.

I've lived in two neighborhoods, in Wayne and Ardmore, that had black neighborhoods nearby. In both cases these blacks could be considered rich by comparison to their city brethren. You would think that life would be good for them. Rather, they acted only slightly better than they do in the city (mainly because of the police). Still, they found time to torment the "honkeys" for being white, and ba”

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12. speak2011 said... on Mar 21, 2011 at 04:45PM

“I was a teenager in one of the districts during the transition. I'd experienced typical childhood teasing, but when I was 14 years old sever minority girls in my school began physically harassing me (and others). I'm a quiet, open, friendly, avoid-conflict kind of person. I suddenly found myself slammed up against the wall/locker, told to "mind my own f***ing business" when I picked up a makeup compact one of the girls dropped and handed it to her, and about a dozen other incidents. Things were getting worse and my younger brothers experienced much worse. Between all 3 of us, we only reported 2 incidents. In both cases we realized that the school administration was unable to take action without being accused of racially profiling the students. My family finally moved after I left for college. My amazing college friends are from all races, so I'm confident that my judgment is not based on race; it's based on the way children (are taught by parents to) treat each other.”

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13. Whiny White Person said... on Mar 21, 2011 at 06:42PM

“I'm just a whiny white person scared of those blackies. They frighten me with the large penises who take the white girls away and their superior athletic skills. I just drink beer, watch TV all alone in the cul-de-sac and pray that no blackies will move nearby.”

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14. Agreeswith Whiny White Person said... on Mar 21, 2011 at 09:33PM


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15. Loser Black Person said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 07:13AM

“Yep, them white hoes just love coming back to my crib in the ghetto. After I make him do me and my friends we just sit on our front stoop checking out the cars going by. Good fun. Sure, all my brains are in my penis, and I got no job and no future. But da women love it anyway 'cuase I's got superior athletic skills.”

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16. denny004 said... on Mar 25, 2011 at 09:20AM

“I'm black, my community is black, my community is 14 years old and I want to move out already. We generally respect each other, so there is no crime however only a handful of use take the time to maintain our property. Black communities all over the city has this problem. I see why white people leave. For the record Bala Cynwyd will be the next area of white flight if it didn't start already.”

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17. Jesus Christ said... on Mar 29, 2011 at 07:44PM

“My children, I have just taking a moment from listening to all the prayers from my children especially my children in Libya, JC hears you and I'm talking to my dad about answering some of those prayers, it is a shame that you Americans are still worried about the color of your skin, you all should be focused on hating other countries or the fact that your soccer teams never wins a world cup!!! Ignorance knows no color everyone that made a stupid comment about race, rest easy knowing that your fear of the unknown and you lack of self respect are the factors that make you more alike then different, now think about that!! and please note that everyone that said something stupid, I'm going to sucker punch your favorite aunt tonight, with my velvet Jesus”

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18. Scraprok said... on Mar 30, 2011 at 02:43AM

“It's 3 in the morning and I'm up cause i just caught 3 black kids robbing my car. Now I try to be a fair person and tolerant of a lot of things but in my desegregated little area over here in Philly it always seems to be some black kid or Spanish kid or even white kid who wants to be black committing all of the crime. It damn sure makes me wanna move me, my wife, and our two kids right the hell out of here cause you dont even get help from the cops and ya wind up getting arrested for handling it yourself cause then all of the sudden the criminal has more rights than I do. They need to go get some jobs or something cause we don't buy things with our hard earned money for them to steal cause they think it's cool.”

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19. Stardom said... on Mar 31, 2011 at 11:44AM

“Give me a break! These kids listen to music glorifying murder, drugs, and being street thugs (i'm talking every race). Tell me different! Wheres the Marvin Gaye's and the good soulful artists of the urban environment? When we going to wake up and realize that all races have hate for other races and just live with it! You can't change everyone and thank god for that. People who have no ignorance and are open minded will prevail and the others will continue to look like fools. You see babys throwing up gang signs like they're tough guys. Its dumb and its laughable by outsiders with knowledge. I've never been racist and I never will and i'm not afraid of another race. I'm afraid of ignorance and thats what kills not a race. I lived in SWP during riots and was stabbed, house robbed ect.. White flight is because people don't want to come home to there s%$t being messed with. They don't want to get hit in a cross fire. Yeadon is where everyone moved during the WP,SWP, NP turbulence.”

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20. regularguy said... on Jun 2, 2011 at 11:22PM

“Philly has quite a mix of good and bad neighborhoods. Obviously some parts of town, sadly, I think are too broken to ever fixed, (hey I just say it like it is) but other parts of town that are on the border of becoming a bad ghetto can be turned around. What city hall needs to do is take a hands on approach and realize that hey, guess what, alot of us make low wages (of all races) who live in the city. But, that doesn't mean we should get a bad school system. The community needs to organize, and work together to make the school district and the city a better place for a higher graduation rate. It can be done, it just takes ALOT of hard work that is worth it in the end if parents get involved. Also, even the little things like neighborhood beautification in Mayfair, Tacony and South Kensington would go a long way to improve the quality of life, and I'm sure indirectly lower the crime rate.”

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21. YeeahBooyeee said... on Jan 27, 2012 at 11:58AM

“Whit flite otta be illegal. Go kick down dem whites doors and move dey asses to our neighborhoods and redisriubte somma dat welf. An give us dem nice big houses out in the burbs. Jus like mah boy Robert Mugabe did in Zimbabwe.”

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22. WelfareRatsRuinEverything said... on Aug 19, 2012 at 04:48PM

“Yeahboy, whatever you say. Keep asking for a handout jerkoff. Mugabe=racist. Don't expect everything to be handed to you but of course that's why this country is fucked up right now. Work for what you get and you can have one of "dem nice big houses out in the burbs". If you're handed one of them, it will become ghetto bc you didn't work for it so you can't appreciate it. Those houses in your neighborhood will be nicer if people who care moved in.”

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23. Anonymous said... on Aug 22, 2012 at 09:35PM

“And why does white flight make communities lose tax dollars?? Do blacks not pay taxes?? I am not sure here but sounds like it is the whites who are keeping the communities together and why is this harder for the black population??? That is what I got out of the article? Why should tax funds be lost due to who resides there? Confused!

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24. Anonymous said... on Jan 23, 2013 at 06:04AM

“I grew up on the East Mount Airy. My parents were professionals and they bought the house I grew up in in early 1971. My parents were originally from West Philly. They moved out to seek a better life for themselves and us, their children. When I was a little kid, We had friends that were both Black and White (Specifically Jewish). Over the years, It got darker and darker and visiting my old neighborhood now, I only see a handful of Whites. There is nothing "Ghetto" about my parents or my siblings (Which got us into trouble when the area began to "Change".) If Whites didn't flee in massive numbers because people like my parents (again, professionals who made a lot of money)moved in, I'm sure that part of East Mount Airy would be more like West Mount Airy. Instead, Whites fled allowing the void to be filled by people who couldn't have moved into the area initially. Never judge a book by it's cover, not all Blacks want to be criminals or thugs.”

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25. Anonymous said... on Feb 8, 2013 at 01:53AM

“In the 1960's, West Oak Lane was turning from all white to all black as it is now. People moved out fast. The reasons they left quickly wasn't that blacks moved was the incredible amount of violence that arrived. It was the trash, it was the grafitti. Anyone that has a choice and can protect their family will choose to move away from this. That's any race. People with long ties to the neighborhood...with their businesses, their places of worship...their friends and family don't just opt to move because blacks move in....they left quickly because their neighbors were robbed, ..or their customers were mugged...or their kids were beat up. Anyone that loves their kids and their family would do anything to make sure they're safe, even if it means leaving the place they grew up...the place they had so many good memories. funny, you never hear about how crime goes through the roof in these neighborhoods when blacks moved in...that part always gets misses.”

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26. Proud conservative behind enemy lines said... on Apr 4, 2013 at 12:22PM

“Anyone want to guess which part of the city our pro-diversity integration minded author lives?

Yup, right in that nice little predominately white, somewhat asian corner just northwest of NE Phila airport. Not a blue dot in sight.

How do I know this? Well let's just say the internet is a very resourceful tool when you know how to use it.

You liberals ought to try taking a look in the mirror before you climb your high horse and commence your finger-wagging lectures.”

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27. Anonymous said... on Sep 20, 2013 at 12:02AM

“To anonymous with professional hard working parents...I am sorry that happened to you. Whites don't move out because a black family moved general we feel if you can afford the property and take care of it you are welcome to be here. However once a few black families arrive in an area more of their unwelcome relatives also come and the problems begin. The biggest problems with the black community is the large numbers of them who just want to take and not give back, they are well schooled at falsifying income tax and other forms, They don't really want to work they just want Freebees. Abuse of the system has taught them how to be takers not makers. Too many young black girls have to many children to many different men, who are not supporting them. Instead they are out making more babies. The problem with the black community is the failure of the black family. Find me a 2 parent family (married) and you'll probably have a good one. Good blacks are embarrassed by their own kind.”

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28. LEE said... on Nov 4, 2013 at 09:30PM

“I Agree good blacks are embarrassed by some of our own kind.

I am a university educated single black female who does not have biological kids because I have never been married.

I would like to find an affordable neighborhood in Philadelphia that is not mostly black and crime ridden.”


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