Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Overlooked

Overbrook is one of Philadelphia's most venerable communities. Since the 1890s, people have called this area home. The Overbrook area is relatively large, pieced-into several distinct sections that traditionally were divided by economic class and ethnicity. That said, the community runs from about 59th Street on the east, to City Line Avenue on the west, Vine to Lancaster Avenue. Like the borders of most every Philadelphia neighborhood, they are open to dispute and discussion.

Prominently situated at 63rd and Lancaster, sits Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. This is the parish I call home and it is a landmark building in a community full of great architecture. It was after Mass this past week that I had the chance to speak with a fellow parishioner about the Overbrook community and its many changes during the last 15 years. For the sake of anonymity, I'll call this woman Dee, and she's lived in the area her entire life. She's in her early 50s and like many Overbrook residents of the past, is Italian-American.

I had figured out that Overbrook had a large Italian community long before anyone ever suggested it to me. To this day a few Italian businesses sit in the area: Ugo's Salumeria and Caffe Sportivo Italiano both at 64th and Callowhill. Haverford Furniture, a nice store owned by an Italian-American family still does business around 65th and Haverford. And there are two Italian-American social clubs, one near Ugo's, the other sitting quietly at 67th and Haverford.

Since the early 1990s, Dee told me, the vast number of Italian-Americans, as well as a sizeable Irish-American community, have left Overbrook for other places. Broomall in Delaware County, and of course, New Jersey, she said are the two biggest destinations.

I suggested to Dee that perhaps one major reason for this recent exodus was racism. Anyone that knows me can tell you that I firmly believe racism has been the biggest push factor in why so many stable, white rowhouse communities in Philadelphia have suddenly resegregated into usually African American neighborhoods. This process is often fueled by realtors that scare residents by barraging them with "Cash for Homes" ads and other tactics that fly just below old blockbusting strategies. These factors leave communities just as lacking in diversity as they were originally, and most of the fears of former residents never become reality.

Dee was more than happy to confirm that it was indeed race that played a major role in Overbrook's abrupt turnover of residents. She said it seemed as though everyone disappeared at the same time - and most people mentioned that the neighborhood was "going down," an old favorite of phrases in working class Philadelphia.

"People started getting jumped," Dee remembered. "You gotta watch now," she continued, suggesting that in the past one did not need to mind their surroundings in Overbrook. Dee said hookers and drug dealers infest certain corners along 63rd Street, and that shootings have popped up from time to time in the otherwise quiet community. "You didn't used to have that," Dee stressed.

I couldn't help but wonder if people got jumped back when Overbrook was all white. I couldn't help but wonder if maybe prostitutes walked parts of 63rd Street before non-white residents moved in. I refuse to tie the arrival of minority families to the types of urban ills that may touch Overbrook from time-to-time.

It is doubly humorous to me that while so many former Overbrookers feel the community they once knew is in decline, the homes are selling for more than ever. Rowhomes routinely fetch over $110,000 each now. Twins and singles can top $200,000 or more, especially in ritzier Overbrook Farms immediately east of City Line Avenue. The old fear that land values would drop has never been realized.

You can still buy Italian goods at Ugo's, find great water ice at Morrone's on 63rd or the Dairy Bar at 68th and Lansdowne. Children still play baseball at Papa Playground across from the Dairy Bar. Every street teems with children playing jumprope or riding bicycles. There is a feeling on most every street that there are stable families living in Overbrook. Indeed, this community seems to have changed in skin color only, welcoming new residents that were seeking a nice house, a quiet street, and a place for their children to relax outside. Why couldn't more of the longtime residents remember that?

Dee is a kind lady and I was glad to meet her. It was fun to recount stories about Italian stores and traditions in the neigborhood.

But I was left without an answer to the greatest mystery I know: Why can't white working class Philadelphia sit still when a few non-white faces move into their blocks? What makes so many rock-solid communities still today think they are at risk because the street is no longer Italian, or Irish, or even American-born for example? It is not an Overbrook problem, it is not even a Philadelphia problem, rather, it is an American problem.

Any outsider I have ever driven through Overbrook has commented to me that it's nice, the houses are well-kept, and it's got a lot of eye appeal. That's true, it really is a great community.

Places like Overbrook are overlooked by yuppies because they're not close in enough to Trader Joe's on Market Street or the Ritz Theatres. They are not red-hot with young people because they don't know any friends that are dying to move there. But maybe it's time all of us started considering these great communities that while they may not be the ethnic bastions they once were, are still great places to call home.

To visit Overbrook:
By SEPTA - use the 10 trolley from 15th Street Station and ride to the end of the line at 63rd and Malvern. Walk west into the neighborhood.

By Car - Use 63rd Street northbound from Walnut Street heading from Center City. Or drive in from the Main Line on Lancaster Avenue east across City Line. You're there.

Give it a good look - there's a lot to appreciate.

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