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Twilight in Mayfair

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By Ryan W. Briggs

It is an unseasonably warm night in February and the Mayfair Rec Center is besieged.  Not by unruly children in search of a pick-up game, but by news vans.  CBS, NBC10, Fox, the daily papers, all the big media outlets are there. 

I had come to interview the captain of the newly reorganized Mayfair town watch, Milt Martelack.  He said he would have some time before a community meeting called because of a rash of tire slashings in Mayfair. When I arrived, he was surrounded by news cameras. The interview would have to wait.

Shooing away a pack of grade schoolers who had quit playing basketball to try to mug for the cameras, Martelack and 15th Police District Captain Francis Bachmayer took turns giving tough talking speeches about combating 'punks' and increasing patrols in the affected area.

Meanwhile, reporters waded through the assembled neighbors, nodding sympathetically at their descriptions of the decaying social fabric of the neighborhood.

"I've lived here for 30 years and it's just gotten worse," said one woman. "You can see it the most in the last six months, it's terrible."  Her partner chimed in dramatically, "People just don't know where their kids are these days."Interview use This.jpg

Looking out of the rec center's windows, I could see rows of neat, shamrock-adorned Airlite rowhouses with small, well-tended front lawns and seemingly well-adjusted children heading home from the gleaming community center. The neighborhood seemed anything but 'terrible'.

But it's a common trope in the city's expansive Northeast, where uncertainties about what lies ahead for places like Mayfair and surrounding neighborhoods has heightened anxieties and racial fears among long-time residents, who turn every crime or institutional failure into a metaphor for larger decline. I found the reality to be much more nuanced.

Fear is understandable. Lower Northeast Philadelphia, a band of postwar quasi-suburban neighborhoods sandwiched between Frankford Creek and Pennypack Park, has become a modern day frontline for the continuing process of middle-class flight that has gripped the city for decades.  Long seen as safe havens for the mostly white, ethnic working- and middle-class people moving up from decaying older sections of the city, neighborhoods such as Mayfair, Holmesburg, Oxford Circle, Tacony, and Wissinoming are being tested by age and unprecedented demographic change. According to census data, the Northeast has lost one-third of its white residents in the last 20 years, while gaining population overall through influxes of black, Asian, and Latino residents.  Some census tracts are now among the most diverse in the city, with no dominant racial group.

Is it declining?

While new the residents may have a different skin tone, the census' 2009 American Community Survey showed only small decreases in household income for most of the Lower Northeast, indicating that most new arrivals are, like their white counterparts, middle class. This data, along with the mostly quiet, intact neighborhoods I visited, offers an alternative theory to the gloomy 'it's terrible' outlook of long timers. Rather than declining, these neighborhoods are still landing pads for families graduating to the middle class. Homeownership remains high. Poverty is far below the city average, while household income is far above it.

The Lower Northeast is changing, undeniably.  But declining?

Joe DiFelice, head of the Mayfair Civic Association, feels that as pervasive as change may be, many of the characteristics that defined the Lower Northeast are still intact.

"If people want to sit and wait for the Northeast turn back into what it was in the 1950s, they're always going to be disappointed," he said. "But if you can accept it for what it is now, you'll see that you've still got some great neighborhoods here."

"You got to bridge the old with the new," said DeFelice, whose mission is to do just that.

Clearly, not all change has been positive. Some areas, like parts of Oxford Circle, lost the majority of their white population in just the last 10 years. The chaotic out migrations rapidly depressed property values. Sudden waves of rental conversions flooded certain areas with increasingly poor residents and spiraling crime rates. Issues with slumlords and squatting have touched most neighborhoods, a shock for areas defined by homeownership.  This echoes the white flight of decades past, and has fueled residents' sense of impending doom.

Some residents say what is happening today in the Lower Northeast is just the beginning of "The Creep", as some call it -- the expansion of poor minorities from ravished places such as North Philadelphia bent on destabilizing middle-class white neighborhoods. In their minds, it is an outside force that cannot be stopped. Decline is inevitable.

A quick turnover

"The Creep" is the all-encompassing theory that is used to cast all change in a negative light. 

On the other hand, there is reality.

The Lower Northeast is not the favored destination it was 40 years ago for white middle-class families. There is more competition today, especially from suburban areas that offer bigger houses, more green, less crime and better schools.

 At the same, the neighborhoods did have a large concentration of elderly residents, who had moved in as young families. As they die off in increasing numbers, turnover in housing stock also has increased.  In Mayfair, for instance, 44 percent of the owner-occupied units have changed hands since 2000. For the most part, these new homeowners are not the dreaded poor from North Philadelphia.  They consist of a multitude of different racial and ethnic groups, many of them newly middle class. Many of them are young families who are moving to the Lower Northeast for the same reasons families did 50 years ago -- affordable houses and stable, quite neighborhoods.

(Click here for a profile of Mayfair, comparing 2000 to 2009.)

Milt Martlack Use This.jpgAs the community meeting on the tire-slashing concluded, I asked Captain Bachmayer how many blocks had been hit by the vandals.

"Two."

Multiple cars had been hit on each block, and neighbors were justifiably upset.  It was impressive to see they had organized a meeting to deal with a crime that might be considered par for the course in other neighborhoods. But I was surprised at how much media attention only two incidents had drawn.

The media seemed to feed -- and also feed off -- the collective apprehension in the neighborhood. Were the reporters really there to shed light on incidents of petty vandalism, or to present a feast for the naysayers awaiting the neighborhood's death knell? I finally sit down with Martelack in the wake of the "media spectacle", as he describes it.

Burly, with clean shaven head, Martelack has the air of a nightclub bouncer.  He has been in charge since DiFelice asked him to restart the dormant town watch group two-and-a- half months ago.  Maybe a sign of the times, maybe a preemptive move. I ask him, as someone who voluntarily trolls for the underbelly in the neighborhood, just how bad things really are.

"Have we had some isolated incidents of crime, yes, absolutely. But Mayfair is still a good community with a lot of good people," he says.

No turning back

Martelack is hopeful.  "I see things going in a positive way, and I think you can't use demographics as an excuse [for decline], if you have people working together, you'll have a stable neighborhood.  You have people that want to sit back and hope things get better on their own...well, they're not going to."

Growing up southwest of Mayfair at 8th and Roosevelt Boulevard, Martelack witnessed his childhood neighborhood, Hunting Park, fall apart.

Until a couple decades ago, Hunting Park was a stable white- and blue-collar neighborhood. With northern fringes featuring rowhomes with postage-stamp lawns, and it's easy to look at Hunting Park as a kind of primordial version of the Lower Northeast.  Rapid housing turnover largely fueled by racial clashes and fear of encroaching blight brought with it increasingly poor residents, drugs, crime, and vacancy. Neighborhoods like this embody the fear many white residents in the Northeast voice of "creeping" decay.

I asked him what changed In Hunting Park.

"I'll tell you exactly what changed," he said, "and this goes for any community.  People started taking small quality of life issues for granted.  Very soon small issues turned into big issues. Like, 'Lets not care about the trash lying all over the lawn', or 'See that house there with the absentee landlord?  Lets keep our mouths shut'," said Martelack.

It was clear from the community meeting in Mayfair that many people still deeply cared about their neighborhood. But were DeFelice's and Martelack's hopefulness easier to affect when their neighborhood's issues mostly minor, such as tire slashings and drunks on the St. Patrick's Day shuttle bus that cruises through the neighborhood each March 17?

At the community meeting, I heard about another town watch group forming in Wissinoming, a similar neighborhood to the south that directly abutted another violent and drug ridden section of the city.  A place where the fight to keep the neighborhood together was much more urgent.

 

Click to read the companion piece about the Northeast:, Nighttime in Wissinoming 

 

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