Making Good Neighbors

Making Good Neighbors: Civil Rights, Liberalism, and Integration in Postwar Philadelphia

Abigail Perkiss
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Cornell University Press
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    Making Good Neighbors
    Book Description:

    In the 1950s and 1960s, as the white residents, real estate agents, and municipal officials of many American cities fought keep African Americans out of traditionally white neighborhoods, Philadelphia's West Mount Airy became one of the first neighborhoods in the nation where residents came together around a community-wide mission toward intentional integration. As West Mount Airy experienced transition, homeowners fought economic and legal policies that encouraged white flight and threatened the quality of local schools, seeking to find an alternative to racial separation without knowing what they would create in its place. In Making Good Neighbors, Abigail Perkiss tells the remarkable story of West Mount Airy, drawing on archival research and her oral history interviews with residents to trace their efforts, which began in the years following World War II and continued through the turn of the twenty-first century.

    The organizing principles of neighborhood groups like the West Mount Airy Neighbors Association (WMAN) were fundamentally liberal and emphasized democracy, equality, and justice; the social, cultural, and economic values of these groups were also decidedly grounded in middle-class ideals and white-collar professionalism. As Perkiss shows, this liberal, middle-class framework would ultimately become contested by more militant black activists and from within WMAN itself, as community leaders worked to adapt and respond to the changing racial landscape of the 1960s and 1970s. The West Mount Airy case stands apart from other experiments in integration because of the intentional, organized, and long-term commitment on the part of WMAN to biracial integration and, in time, multiracial and multiethnic diversity. The efforts of residents in the 1950s and 1960s helped to define the neighborhood as it exists today.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-7085-1
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Introduction: Civil Rights’ Stepchild
    (pp. 1-9)

    On June 20, 1975, at the sixth annual meeting of National Neighbors, an initiative bringing together racially integrated communities from across the country, Eleanor Holmes Norton took the podium as the keynote speaker. In front of a crowded ballroom filled with representatives from dozens of interracial community organizations, the New York commissioner of human rights spoke on the state of racial justice in the United States. “There is a special urgency attached to housing discrimination in America today,” said Norton, “more special than continuing discrimination in unemployment and, despite the harangue and failure of busing in some cities, more special...

  6. Chapter 1 “A Home of One’s Own”: The Battle over Residential Space in Twentieth-Century America
    (pp. 10-30)

    In 1945, the 4600 block of Labadie Avenue was a quiet street in a residential St. Louis neighborhood. In the thirty-nine homes between Taylor Avenue and Cora Avenue, there lived thirty-nine white families.¹ Though houses turned over, as houses do, the community remained relatively cohesive with stable demographics and little outside pressure and no national attention. And residents liked it that way.

    In September of that year, though, everything changed. Louis and Fern Kraemer decided it was time for a move, and they put their Labadie Avenue home on the market. The duplex, selling for $5,700, attracted a fair number...

  7. Chapter 2 Finding Capital in Diversity: The Creation of Racially Integrated Space
    (pp. 31-55)

    In May 1967, George Schermer came to Philadelphia to participate in a panel discussion on the future of racial integration. The trip took the Washington, DC-based consultant back to the place he had called home for more than ten years. Schermer had moved to West Mount Airy in 1953, just as the integration efforts were gaining steam, and he became one of the most influential forces in the creation of an economically stable, racially integrated community. Reflecting on the success of that integration project that they had embarked on nearly fifteen years earlier, he spoke of the way his community...

  8. Chapter 3 Marketing Integration: Interracial Living in the White Imagination
    (pp. 56-67)

    On May 13, 1962, two hundred individuals from thirty-one United Nations member countries came to West Mount Airy to, as WMAN described it, see how Americans lived. As thePhiladelphia Evening Bulletinreported, “They [saw] Americans from a grass roots level: eating typical meals, enjoying a get-together, watching TV, seeing historical sites—finding out what [made] the average family tick.”¹ West Mount Airy Neighbors had organized the event to “[sell] the neighborhood through creative marketing.”² Seeking to offer an example of a thriving interracial community, residents invited UN delegates and employees to stay in their homes and live with their...

  9. Chapter 4 Integration, Separation, and the Fight for Black Identity
    (pp. 68-89)

    When Juilliard-trained opera singer Gail Tomas returned home after several years of performing, she was ready to settle down. Originally from South Philadelphia, Tomas visited her brother at his house on Johnson Street on the Germantown/Mount Airy border, and found herself taken with the area. Shortly after, she and her new husband rented an apartment east of Germantown Avenue and then another on West Mount Pleasant before purchasing their first house on Westview Street in West Mount Airy in 1963. The area was green and lush, Tomas thought. It was clean and safe. There was space between the homes and...

  10. Chapter 5 “Well-Trained Citizens and Good Neighbors”: Educating an Integrated America
    (pp. 90-119)

    On April 26, 1971, Bernard C. Watson of Temple University offered the keynote address at the West Mount Airy Neighbors’ thirteenth annual meeting. A scholar of urban education and former deputy superintendent of planning for the School District of Philadelphia, Watson spoke of the challenges facing the city in public education. “If we cannot deal openly and honestly with the problems,” he said, “we had better be prepared to be run over by them. Time is short, and the road is tough, but it has to be traveled. If not us, who? If not now, when?”¹

    Watson spoke of the...

  11. Chapter 6 Confrontations in Black and White: The Crisis of Integration
    (pp. 120-144)

    On June 9, 1975, George Schermer once again addressed the WMAN board at its seventeenth annual meeting. In recent years, the organization had found itself in the midst of an institutional crisis. The rising culture of black power and the growing hostilities in area schools were, by the late 1960s and early 1970s, also giving way to racial clashes within the West Mount Airy community. At the same time, the city of Philadelphia was experiencing a political and economic crisis as deindustrialization drew resources away from the northern urban center, resulting in intensifying decline and increasing incidents of crime. As...

  12. Chapter 7 The Choice to Live Differently: Reimagining Integration at Century’s End
    (pp. 145-167)

    In 2005, Patricia Henning became the newest member of the Germantown Historical Society Hall of Fame. Henning, who moved to West Mount Airy in 1967, was a realtor, a part-time librarian at the Germantown Historical Society, and WMAN’s longest-standing board member, serving from 1968 to 2003.¹ Henning also founded the West Mount Airy Neighbors Historical Awareness Committee in the early 1980s, through which she worked to cultivate an active and living history of the community. At her induction ceremony, WMAN executive director Laura Siena spoke of Henning’s commitment to spreading that historical narrative. The neighborhood has thrived not simply because...

  13. Epilogue: West Mount Airy and the Legacy of Integration
    (pp. 168-174)

    In 1975, Christie Balka graduated from Germantown Friends School and left her childhood home in Mount Airy to begin her freshman year at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado. When she arrived, the white, Jewish woman was appalled by the endemic racism that she encountered. “I was furious with my parents for giving me the impression that our society had overcome this,” she recalled. The daughter of former WMAN president Jerry Balka, Christie had experienced racial difference throughout her life—when faculty laughed as she and her best friend, a black student, dressed as twins during the Henry School Halloween...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 175-212)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 213-226)
  16. Index
    (pp. 227-232)