Philadelphia Metropolis

Metropolis Report


Black Exodus: Part Two

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By Mike Mallowe
There is never a moment, Shoshanna Edwards-Alexander said about her experiences as a black woman in the suburbs of Philadelphia
- good times, for the most part -- when she is "unaware of my own presence." The examples can range from poignant to amusing.
"I'm usually the only one," she goes on. "If I want to get my hair done; when I take my kids to school, running out for groceries. You get beautiful suburbs, but you don't get diversity. And, I never feel that way on campus, or in the city. It's different when it's the place you go home to."
She is one of the few women color in the place where she lives, but she expects to be joined by others.
"I know more people moving out this way now, African-American families, trying to get used to it, wanting the best place they can find to raise their kids; wanting to fit in," she explained. "They're making it work..."Soshanna Edwards-King.jpg
Her husband likes to walk. Everywhere. When they lived in
West Philadelphia, he walked. When they lived in a house i Overbrook Park
, he walked. That's who he is.  He's a walker.
"But, when he's out late at night, walking everywhere; I remind him, 'Look, Vino; there's still a lot of little old ladies in this neighborhood who never met us; they don't know that we live here, that we own this house. They aren't expecting to run into you walking around after dark."
When she says that, she looks a little exasperated. Yet, that's still the reality of race in
. People of color have long been expected to live in certain placers and white people in other places. The fact that statistical and sociological reality has now upset these preconceptions changes very little on the who's-that-walking-in-my-neighborhood level.
Edwards-Alexander and her family live in Havertown, in
Delaware County. She is the director of Multicultural Life at Saint Joseph's University. She is also funny and down-to-earth and just as grounded in big city authenticity as you might expect a former social worker from the Bronx to be. Before settling on Havertown, they also looked at houses on Lincoln Drive in Philadelphia, and in other suburbs like Ardmore, Glen Mills and Yeadon. In Philadelphia
, they lived in different places in West Philly and Overbrook.
Now, they have a pretty single-family home, great backyard, nice neighbors, a neat driveway with off-street parking, a solid, slyly under-rated public school system, and a family of rambunctious foxes who decided to take up squatting rights in and near that backyard shortly after they moved in a few years ago. In other words, they are enjoying the hard-earned fruits of suburbia's serene upward mobility.
They also represent one of the most socially significant trend from the last decade, one that has come to clearly define the early years of the 21st century in ways that are still being studied and understood: Edwards-Alexander and her family are highly-educated and quintessentially upper middle class people of color. To evoke that old marketing cliché - they could live and thrive anywhere, but they are choosing to live in the very same inner and (in some cases) outer ring suburbs that welcomed the millions of middle-class Americans who comprised the "white" flight of 40 years ago.
This middle-class flight is still taking place, but it is now significantly composed of high-earning African-American families who are also rejecting the diversity, the social ills, the high crime, the scarce jobs and the second-rate public schools of the big cities.
As Edwards-Alexander put it: "I can't ever see living in the city again," she said. "This works too well for us."

Still, there are those moments when they feel like strangers in a strange land.
"We like sweet potato pie around Thanksgiving," she recalled, "It's a tradition in our family. Simple, right?"
Not really. "So, I go to the Super Fresh and try to get sweet potato pie. "I don't think they ever heard of it. The guy was really nice; he's trying to show me apple pie and pumpkin pie and every other pie in the store. But no sweet potato pie."
She and her husband and two kids also love jerk chicken and a bunch of other delicious dishes from the islands. "Don't go to Super Fresh, though," she says, "you can't even get the spices you need, the ingredients.
"We talk over the fence; have barbecues; my kids go to all the other kids' birthday parties; we all get along fine. My husband grew up in the city, too. He likes it out here now; really likes it, but it did take time for him to get used to the quiet.
William Frey, the chief demographer for the Brookings Institute has studied this population shift of the African-American middle class and has addressed it extensively in interviews and in reports.  According to Frey, "This is the decade of black flight . . . The suburbs represent, to a lot of people, getting that brass ring - moving into the middle class, being part of a community that has good resources, good schools, has some status associated with it. It's much different than what they used to think of - living in segregated, highly concentrated city neighborhoods that maybe their parents were living in, or maybe their grandparents were living in."
However, for Edwards-Alexander, the reasoning behind her family's move was even simpler. "My son was getting ready to enter pre-school," she says and the waiting list at the pre-school
Saint Joseph's has was really long. "I couldn't count on that. We lived on 56th Street
, which meant that his elementary school would have been Gompers."
She let that sink in; Gompers will never be mistaken for Masterman. "I knew that wasn't going to happen," she says. Then, they checked Friends Central and Episcopal. "You know what those tuitions are like. That's when we realized that even with buying a house and carrying a mortgage, if the public schools were OK, we would still make out better."
As it turned out, the Havertown schools were very good, indeed; just not as highly publicized as places like Radnor or
Lower Merion
. "Much to my surprise and amusement," Dr. Edwards says, "I discovered that the head of the kids' school is an African-American woman."
None of this is very surprising to Martha Boyer, who owns Imani Realty & Associates, in
Willingboro, New Jersey
. She knows that all families seek essentially the same thing in the suburbs.
"Crime is part of it," she says. "But, only part of it. It's all about the family and what's best for the family. What I hear the most is, 'More space for the kids to play; a front yard. A place where you can just drive up and park and a little distance away from the neighbors.'"
Dr. Moore Use This.jpgRobert M. Moore, III, grew up in West Philadelphia. He loved the neighborhood and appreciated the variety and mixture -- as well as the energy -- of the people who lived there. He fit in; he knew who he was - he was proud, African-American and every inch a baby-boomer.  
But, as he explains, "My parents wanted more for their children. They wanted some space, some grass, trees; everything that people believed constituted the American Dream."
Moore's family made their move to the suburbs at least a full generation earlier than the black middle-class of the last 10 years.
Today, Moore, a sociologist, author and chair of the department at
Frostburg State University, in the mountains of Western Maryland, looks back on that experience with equal parts nostalgia and trepidation. He even wrote a book about it, They Always Said I Would Marry a White Girl, Hamilton Books, 2007.
"We were in Lansdowne," he explains, "and I went to
Beverly Hills middle school. Quite a place. "My parents thought they were giving me a better life. I've often talked with them about it. My mother was behind that particular location. She didn't want Upper Darby. That was the natural inner-ring suburb, where everybody who was moving was moving to, but she could see that even back then, it was too much of the city. She wanted to look further out. So, she and my father went to Landsowne.
"To be honest with you, I was very scared most of the time. I don't know if you remember it, but my days there were like that old Sidney Poitier movie, To Sir With Love."
Once again, school became the deciding factor for
Moore. "I would have gone to Upper Darby High School, where there were about seven different gangs - all working class white, by the way. I honestly don't know if I would have survived it. So, even though we had moved to the suburbs to give me that better life, my parents still had to send me to private school, to a Friends' school."
Harrowing as some of his experiences were, Moore is convinced that the African-American mass movement into suburbia is not only here to stay, but also the start of a whole new phase in the black American dynamic.
"When you look at my current students, for instance,"
Moore says, "they have none of the identity issues that I sometimes did. These kids are just one thing - and that's middle-class suburban. The black-white thing really doesn't even come into it the way it did for me.
"My family is light-skinned, to begin with, and that worked against me on both ends. I was still too dark for Lansdowne, but when I would go back into
Philadelphia, even when I lived near South Street, after college, I wasn't black enough for African-Americans that I knew. In many ways that was a troubling time for me."
However, Moore (and others) see a change taking place that is almost unprecedented among the scholars, like
Moore, who study these things.
"The aspect that's undergoing the most profound transition is the attitudes,"
Moore continues. "And I see this first-hand, in my own family. I have to qualify it a little, because my family, my cousins, have always highly valued education and have always been very connected to the church, throughout our lives. These are clearly determinative factors.
"When I look at my cousins today,"
Moore says, "of course I see black men and women who are my contemporaries. But, when they see themselves, I really believe that the main things they are seeing are what their neighbors are seeing, too: not accomplished African-Americans, but upper class suburbanites who share very conservative values, who worship in evangelical churches and who most likely vote Republican.
"This is a sweeping, important change in our national culture and, at least in my case, and in many similar cases, it all started with that move out to the suburbs."
Welcome to the neighborhood, to the newest American neighborhood.  


In Part Three, Upper Darby grapples with rapid racial and asian migration.

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