Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The Greatness of the Northeast

This evening, I was driving around Northeast Philadelphia, nothing new for me. Even though I live near Center City, I have always been fascinated by this vast, important part of Philadelphia. My mother's family all hail from there, and some of them still call it home. Everytime I venture through the Northeast, I find some new corner of it that appeals to me for some reason.

For those of you not so sure about where the Northeast is, here's some help. Northeast Philadelphia is the vast "right arm" of the City and County of Philadelphia, extending as far as nearly 20 miles from Center City at its northeastern-most border with Bucks County. At its lower end, it straddles North Philadelphia and Kensington and Fishtown. For decades, it has been quickly understood upon mention of its name as a bastion for the middle class of the City. It is also widely understood to be a preserve for whites of eastern and southern European background, and of course, the omnipresent Irish-Americans.

There have been many articles written since the mid-1990s about the Northeast's shifting demographics. Many whites are getting older and older, some communities almost seem to be chock-full of retirees. Yet there are still many children in the Northeast. A drive through the area's venerable Mayfair section reveals legions of little ones playing in front yards and back driveways.

For many that long-ago left the City, much of the Northeast represents what they remember about most of Philadelphia in their youths. For example, my grandmom recalls that in her younger days, in the 50s and 40s, you could go to any part of Philadelphia and find areas that were as spotless and safe as much of the Northeast is today. She and many others long absent from town remember large sections of North Philadelphia still being white, working-class bastions with streets full of people sweeping and talking with one another. A time before the media depicted those same areas today as violence-ridden and at times, derelict regardless of how many good people still live in those places. For many I talk to, it seems implicit in their eyes that when these communities were white and homogeneous, they were "good" and that diversity signalled "bad" or "declining" places. This is a simplistic and often ignorant snap judgment.

This is why I firmly believe the City is unwise to continue to pay little attention to the quality of life in the Northeast. The Northeast is changing and finding diversity for the first time in large numbers, and longtimers are starting to grumble, and some are panicking and leaving. Who is to step in and ensure discussions occur to ensure strong, stable communities remain down the road? This sort of tumult is nothing new for the Northeast.

For decades, Northeast Philadelphians have threatened to secede from the city, or to vote out politicians that worry about other areas but not the Northeast. The people of the Northeast realize they are stable residents and pay a lot of the taxes that make the city's coffers solvent. Still, today, Philadelphia, like many of its contemporaries, neglects to ensure future stability in its most stable neighborhoods. The City is also guilty of neglecting other stable communities like West Oak Lane or parts of Olney, for example. All of these are communities that still appeal to a wide spectrum of families but fail to receive basic services that often are splurged on Center City residents or forlorn parts of North Philadelphia from which people are running fast.

It's got to be a tough battle for City politicians to find ways to revive the worst neighborhoods, while giving credence to the people of places like the Northeast. So often, we just assume that stable and attractive communities will exist in perpetuity. But as Philadelphians, we have ample evidence to the contrary. Just 50 years ago or less, large sections of Germantown were nicer and more stable, same goes for much of Southwest Philadelphia. These places were simply allowed to decline and age, and the City did little to help fight racism and promote stable integration in those areas, for example.

With much of the Northeast, particularly the strong rowhouse lower Northeast, becoming more racially diverse, you have to wonder if the city will step in and make sure basic services and diversity can thrive there. Seemingly simple things like new sidewalks and sewers, street lighting, new schools, recretion centers all are going to be crucial to ensuring that tomorrow's Northeast remains a nice place to call home.

But further, and quite importantly, the social organizations and civic groups of the Northeast must fight hard to ensure that neighborhoods don't go through rapid white flight, but rather, become places to live for all people that wish to make a home there. We must look to the examples of Mount Airy and other communities that have been able to maintain stable existences while being home to a palette of people. If we allow the Northeast to simply flounder and assume it can stand without City support, a grave disservice will be done to Philadelphians.

It is time to realize that the Northeast is not a charmed "other" amid the rest of the city. Rather, it is younger and only starting to show the pains the other older Philadelphia communities were left to falter in some 30 or 40 years ago.

Philadelphia can ensure a bright future for one of it's most stable sections, if it take the time now to start planning wisely what it will become.