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Black Exodus: Part Three

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By Meldon Jones

The largest township in the country has seen enormous change in the last 10 years, the demographic equivalent of pressing down on the fast-forward button.

"I remember when Upper Darby was mostly Irish Catholic, white Protestant, Jewish and Italian; there weren't many minorities at all" said Helene Curley, who has lived in Upper Darby for over 60 years and has been a witness to the rapidly changing demographics.
When Curley first moved into the township just over the border from Philadelphia, it was mostly a working class area with twins and rowhouses reminiscent of the city neighborhoods so many had fled.  And it was predominantly white.  In fact, the township had a reputation to being openly hostile to people of color.

That held true even 10 years ago, when 77 percent of the township's population of 82,000 was white and only 11 percent was black.

By 2010, the numbers had shifted dramatically.  About 16,400 whites departed, but the population of the township actually grew with the arrival of 17,400 blacks, Asians and Latinos. Today, Upper Darby is still majority white - but just barely, at 56 percent.

It is one of the most diverse communities in the region, certainly in the suburbs, home to over 100 ethnic cultures. No wonder it has earned the nickname "The United Neighborhood".

A trip down 69th Street shopping strip is a linguist's dream. An astute listener can hear 50Upper Darby Pix.jpg languages, including some obscure African and Asian dialects. The crowded streets are framed with colorful restaurants and grocery shops from almost every imaginable place.

Local residents are likely to have spicy homemade ceviche for lunch as dhalpuri roti, a Guyanese dish that consists of hot flatbread stuffed with ground yellow split peas, garlic and pepper, usually served with savory curry).
"I moved here because of the diversity," said Monica Routh, a new resident who moved to Upper Darby a year ago. "The high school is very good, and it's very close to downtown Philadelphia, too." And Routh's favorite thing about her newfound home? "The shopping" she gushes. Indeed, the local businesses are ripe with interesting finds; from catchall shops run by local Sikhs to large chain stores, filled with glossy posters of the latest Nikes.
But Curley remembers the glory days of shopping in Upper Darby. Her blue eyes take on a dreamy quality as she reminiscences. "People used to come from the outer suburbs to shop here," she said. "The big department stores around then -- in the 50's and 60s -- were you know, Gimble's, Lit Brothers, Woolworth's. Everyone came here to shop, especially around the holidays."

Although she denies it, Curley is an unofficial Upper Darby historian of sorts. As she stood in the chilly afternoon wind, tiny shopping bag in tow, she pointed out the exact spots that individual trees were planted almost half a century ago - "in front of every other house" she notes, the better to give this urban area a suburban feel.

Curley can tell you the history of almost any building in downtown Upper Darby and can even name the nun who ran the local Catholic school around the corner 30 years ago.
But Curley also hinted at larger issues surrounding the changes in Upper Darby.
Not only have the last 20 years seen the arrival of newcomers from abroad (15 percent of residents are foreign born), it has seen a large growth in people coming from nearby West Philadelphia, mostly working-class blacks taking a step over the border looking for a version of suburban life.

Housing is cheap in Upper Darby, certainly compared to other suburbs.  The average price of houses sold was $83,000 during the first half of the year, with prices even lower the closer you move to 69th Street. (It is much more expensive in the more suburban western end of the township, which includes Drexel Hill.)

This black influx has implications for the ethnic make-up of Upper Darby. According to U.S census data, the African American population increased from 11 percent in 2000 to 27 percent of the total population in 2010. As West Philadelphia residents started moving in, the white population decreased.
The history of Upper Darby's race relations is a delicate subject. George Burell, who moved to Upper Darby 10 years ago, recounts "Upper Darby used to be one of the most prejudiced places ever: if you were a black guy who walked through there, the white guys would kick your butt!"

That atmosphere had died down by the time Burrell and his family moved in, even though they were the first blacks on their street.
Curley has her own theory about what caused the shift in the black/white population: "I heard that when the Mayor at the time wanted to build that pedestrian bridge on 69th street, the government basically said "we'll give you your bridge if you allow Section-8 here". Curley quiets for a minute, as if wondering if she dares to say more.

That story may be apocryphal, but - as in other areas undergoing change - Section 8 usually gets blamed for ruining the neighborhood

Section 8 is the federal program that gives housing vouchers to poor people, who then are free to rent approved apartments or houses where they please.  It was a Republican program, designed to bring free market choice to public housing.

Burell however, doesn't like the program and doesn't mince any words: "It was like a complete flip. They let a lot of Section-8 residents in and then the neighborhood became much dirtier: trash, drugs, crime - everything. It's a shame man; it's mostly my own people."
 "The area started getting more renters instead of owners, and the renters seem to not be interested in maintaining the property," said Curley. Burrell and Curley are observing the shift that census data has picked up, which shows that owner-occupied housing units decreased in the last decade, though 60 percent of the units are still owner occupied.

The wealth of residents also has declined slightly in the last 10 years, though at  $51,325 it is higher than Philadelphia's median household income, which hovers around $37,000, and almost exactly matches the national average.

The quick demographic change has also brought a mini-baby boom to Upper Darby, as older white residents gave way to families with children.

"There are a lot of young families moving in, which is nice" said Curley.
Still, Curley can't help but recall the terrifying experience she had a few years ago. First, the sound of gun fire, then bullets flying through her home, shattering the windows right above her head.

"I got down on the floor, thinking that it was just BB guns or something." Curley recalls she went outside later and was asked by police to provide a towel in order to stop the blood flowing from the man dying in her front yard.
"But I still think this is a decent town, with decent people," she says.
Bill Muth has good things to say too. Muth is the owner of the Upper Darby True Value Hardware Store, which has been there for over 30 years. Muth takes issue with some who would claim the residents of Upper Darby neglect their homes: "I know because I'm in the home improvement business. People actually do take care of their homes. They might not be moving out for a long time so they figure it's best to take care of what they have".
Muth admits that "a lot of [his] friends have packed up and [gone] to the suburbs", but he feels committed to the area.

 "We're no different from a lot of places, except the population is really dense. And If 5, 10 percent of that population are knuckleheads, then of course there's going to be a little trouble." said Muth. "There are a lot of good things going on here, and I'd rather look at those things than concentrate on the bad."
Despite Curley's traumatic experience, she chooses to see the good in Upper Darby too. Unlike Burrell who is contemplating moving soon, Curley fiercely resists friends' attempts to get her out: "I'm not interested in moving. I don't feel unsafe here, although I don't go out at night."
Curley paused before she said: "It's change. It's just what happens."

 

 

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