The Changing Streets of Cedar Park

In a country deeply segregated by race, this uniquely integrated part of West Philadelphia stands out. But that might soon change.

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Photo courtesy of JJ Tiziou | www.jjtiziou.net

Monica Allison moved to West Philadelphia’s Cedar Park in 1997, buying a gorgeous red brick Victorian town house for $67,000. She’d been renting closer to the University of Pennsylvania, but her neighbors repeatedly called the police on her teenage son when he was home alone, just hanging out around the house. Allison, who is African-American, had to rush home from her job as an insurance underwriter time and again to find him handcuffed on the couch.

Even today, as the country’s increasing diversity makes racial isolation less common, Cedar Park is a rarity because of its longstanding mixture of black and white households. When Allison moved there, it had been roughly evenly comprised of black and white households since at least 1970, although the white population continued to slowly decline. That remained true even as the neighborhoods to the west, north and south of Cedar Park became more than 95 percent black. But by the end of the 1990s, Cedar Park’s white population plummeted to 27.9 percent as crime spiked and several high-profile murders racked the neighborhood.

(For simplicity’s sake, we’re calling the area that lies between 45th and 50th streets, and Pine Street and Kingsessing Avenue, Cedar Park, although the exact boundaries are variable.)

Today, the neighborhood is rapidly changing once again. Cedar Park is one of the hottest areas in the city, and housing values are spiking dramatically. As of 2010, the neighborhood is majority-white for the first time since 1970, a stunning reversal from the 2000 census that showed the percentage of white residents at an all-time low. In 2014, Allison sold her house for $150,000. After an investor purchased and rehabbed the property, it sold for $445,000 last year.

This kind of a racial U-turn is extremely unusual in the United States. Throughout the rest of West Philadelphia, white populations fled as African-Americans in need of decent housing moved in. Once an area became majority black, it stayed that way. And in country with hardwired racial and economic inequities, it is difficult for hyper-segregated black communities to thrive in the long term. That goes for individual communities and the city as a whole, so the reversal of white flight, even if just in this one corner of West Philadelphia, is a positive trend.

The question is whether the community will remain mixed-race, at the neighborhood level. Cedar Park maintained a rare degree of integration even during the peak of the urban crisis, despite block-by-block racial differences. But can integration actually be a long-term condition in a grand old neighborhood just to the west of the University of Pennsylvania? Or will it just be a passing occurrence on the way to re-segregation?

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TODAY, CEDAR PARK IS 52 PERCENT WHITE, 38 percent black, 4 percent those who identify as two or more races, 4 percent Asian, and 2 percent Latino. The neighborhood’s commercial corridor, Baltimore Avenue, looks entirely different than it did 15 years ago. Most vacancies are filled, but many of the businesses that primarily catered to black residents are gone. Between 2000 and 2010, the neighborhood also lost more than 1,000 residents.

“I don’t feel like the diversity has caused people to move out,” says Allison, who is 53 and now runs a day care near the city border in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood of West Philly. “The diversity is a reason to stay, but unfortunately finances come with that diversity, so you kind of have to make a choice.” She says that rising property taxes, in addition to her mortgage and the big house’s need for repairs, were part of her decision to move away.

The demographic shift in Cedar Park since the turn of this century is primarily racial, although wealth is also a factor: Median incomes have stayed roughly the same even as housing costs have risen, which indicates that residents have some access to wealth that isn’t showing up in Census numbers.

This transformation has been incentivized in part by policy changes at the University of Pennsylvania under former President Judith Rodin, who decided to actively engage with the neighborhoods to the west by investing in security services, a public school, and programs to attract Penn employees to settle in the area. This outward turn from the university, which previously approached its surroundings as either territory to be conquered or an alien presence to be kept out, had the effect of transforming the area into an appealing space for young professionals and the upper middle class.

It’s unlikely the institution’s efforts would have proven so transformative, however, if there hadn’t been decades of neighborhood activism intent on keeping vacancy in check and preserving a degree of racial integration. A recent study of Chicago neighborhoods found that those most likely to gentrify had at least a robust minority of white households, a floor of 35 percent.

Cedar Park only dropped below that floor briefly. At the same time, a dramatic nationwide decline in crime, which began in the mid-1990s, made itself felt. In Cedar Park and its eastern neighbors, the university’s extensive security operation—which stops at 50th Street—bolstered an already robust police presence to drive crime down even further. Then came the (probably related) renewed appetite for urban living among a segment of the professional class, which found Cedar Park to be a viable option.

“This dynamic means that people who used to move to the suburbs are now moving to neighborhoods in the city,” says Jonathan Tannen, director of research for Econsult Solutions, a longtime resident of Cedar Park and author of a recent report on racial gentrification in Cedar Park and other Philadelphia neighborhoods. “Even a small shift could lead to really big boundary movements that seem extreme within the neighborhood, but are relatively small population changes for the city as a whole.”

Tannen’s research shows that while Cedar Park looks integrated on the Census tract level, it is still quite racially separated on the block-to-block level—something sociologists have deemed “intimate segregation.” That means the line between the largely white part of the neighborhood and the largely black part of the neighborhood that he recalls being set at 49th Street in his youth pushed out past 50th Street and over where Allison’s old house is located. The neighborhood behind that line isn’t uniformly white—it’s still quite diverse by American standards—but the black population is greatly reduced.

In many ways, the neighborhood was primed for a spike in white population. This corner of West Philadelphia is stocked with beautiful gingerbread-like Victorian houses, an abundance of leafy trees, and trolley lines that whisk commuters to Center City in 25 minutes.

After the broader white middle and working classes evacuated West Philadelphia in the 1950s and 1960s, Cedar Park still attracted white professors, graduate students, Quakers, hippies, and a certain brand of liberal-to-leftist intellectual types. Cedar Park Neighbors formed in 1960 to foster an integrated environment in the neighborhood. A little later, mostly white anarchists and other radicals established a network of collectively owned group houses, with whimsical names like “The Gathering” and “Kool Rock Amazons.” The Mariposa Food cooperative, which is now located on 49th and Baltimore in a former-bank-building-turned-black-church, sprung to life in the 1970s as part of a larger effort to establish a more radical way of living.

These majority-white groups with political commitments to egalitarianism and collective living weren’t the only reason the neighborhood stayed integrated. “When I came here three years ago, no one would think about 49th Street,” a white real estate agent enthused in a 1977 Philadelphia Bulletin article entitled “Cedar Park: Boom Bringing in Whites,” which noted that Penn employees were moving into the neighborhood. (The real estate agent describes selling homes for as high as $35,000, or $139,000 in today’s dollars). “Now the area is growing so fast we are running out of houses.”

During that decade, academic luminaries like Michael Katz and Elijah Anderson moved into the neighborhood, too.

“There’s something unique and satisfying about the neighborhood in terms of race,” says Elijah Anderson, an African-American professor of sociology at Yale University who lived in Cedar Park from 1980 to 1995, a period when he authored the classic text Streetwise: Race, Class and Change in an Urban Community. “There are plenty of parts of the country that don’t have the same ethos of openness, tolerance and anti-racism. We would attend racially mixed parties in the neighborhood, everyone getting on together at places like the University City Swim Club. It was really special and really unusual.”

Then, in the mid-1980s, crack hit. The crime wave that swept the nation’s cities destabilized Cedar Park. Violent crime eventually peaked nationwide in America in 1993, but for residents of West Philly, the decline in crime that took place afterward wasn’t immediately obvious. In 1998, the first year the police department can provide accurate data, the roughly 9,500 residents of Cedar Park’s two census tracts reported 14 rapes, 62 robberies, 36 aggravated assaults and 116 burglaries. (By contrast as of late 2016, there were two rapes, 30 robberies, four aggravated assaults, and 18 burglaries.)

The University of Pennsylvania stirred to action over the murder of two graduate students: In 1994, Al-Moez Alimohamed died of gunshot wounds suffered in broad daylight during a robbery; then in 1996, Vladimir Sled died nearby of multiple stab wounds after attempting to defend his girlfriend from a mugging near Clark Park. These high-profile killings, and the general tide of crime and violence, coincided with the largest white exodus from the neighborhood since the 1960s (a 13.5 percent decline between 1990 and 2000). Many people left in those years, including some black residents like Anderson, who wrote an op-ed for the Philadelphia Daily News at the time explaining his family’s decision to leave their house at 47th and Hazel.

“We moved after the Pakistani student was shot and killed by a group of homeboys,” remembers Anderson. “Crime was getting so bad. A lot of crazy stuff was happening in the neighborhood. Our friends were besides themselves with concern. They were trickling out. I loved my house, but my wife was very concerned about the kids. All of this was before Penn got involved.”

Allison saw the effects of crime on her street, too. In 2001, a couple of young men from the neighborhood shot it out with each other in the park in front of her house. Both died.

“At that time, I did not see myself as a community organizer or activist,” says Allison. “But that kind of pushed me into [it]. I had to get involved.” She joined Cedar Park Neighbors shortly thereafter, and began spearheading plans to rehabilitate the triangular spit of greenery that forms the literal Cedar Park—which was poorly lit and dangerous after dark—and the drab commercial stretch of Baltimore Avenue.

Under the direction of university president Rodin, Penn became much more active in the neighborhood too, investing capital in underutilized spaces, bolstering the local public schools, and establishing unarmed security patrols. The institution acted with a less heavy hand than it had during the urban renewal era of the 1950s, when several black neighborhoods were wiped out through eminent domain. This time Penn promised to not expand its footprint westward, and moved to build more housing on campus to suck undergraduates out of the residential neighborhoods.

The university also established the Penn Alexander School, a collaboration between the university and the school district, which provided a new public school option for the communities adjacent to the university (only the eastern sliver of the two census tracts that cover Cedar Park are included in the catchment). In her 2007 book The University and Urban Revival, Rodin describes the student body as 57 percent African-American and 19 percent white—proof that the school was not seeking to gentrify the neighborhood. But as of the 2014-2015 school year, it had become 39 percent white, 24 percent African-American, 18 percent Asian, 7 percent Latino, and 19 percent international.

At the same time, a series of mortgage and housing repair assistance programs incentivized people employed by the university to purchase and maintain properties in the neighborhood. Between 1998 and 2004, Penn-affiliated purchasers obtained 386 properties in the broader University City area, which terminates at the outer edges of Cedar Park. Meanwhile, crime had been falling since 1998, when there had been 229 non-homicide violent crimes and burglaries in the neighborhood. By 2009, there were only 136 of these crimes reported; in 2015, there were 88.

ALLISON BEGAN TO NOTICE racial changes on her block during the first decade of the 21st century. “There were four white families on Catharine when I moved in, and now there are three black families left,” says Allison. “Penn has their mortgage program and they were able to acquire the properties and rehab funds. It’s close to transportation, it’s close to their jobs. If I was in their shoes, I’d move there, too.”

Tannen’s block-by-block analysis for Econsult shows Cedar Park’s majority-white blocks advancing westward between 2000 and 2010. Although the neighborhood became majority-white for the first time in 40 years, he argues that the reality is even starker than census tract data alone suggests.

“When you zoom in on the blocks, they are remaining just as segregated, and it’s just that the proportion of all-white and all-black blocks has shifted,” says Tannen. “I was struck by the number of blocks in just the span of 10 years that went from almost entirely black to mostly white.”

Baltimore Avenue blossomed with coffee shops, restaurants and small businesses. Establishments that managed to cater to the older African-American population and the influx of white residents thrived, most of them Ethiopian-owned bars like Queen of Sheba, Dahlak and Gojo. Establishments with a majority-black clientele, like Abby’s Desert Lounge and the New Third World Lounge, faltered and went out of business.

“From a citizenry point of view, it has been a joy to watch the neighborhood change,” says Allison. “It has been a joy to bring businesses into the community. At the same time, older neighbors are saying Baltimore Avenue isn’t for us anymore. It’s for the young people, although not just Caucasian people—young people.”

She believes that many older African-American residents enjoy the changes, especially the increased police presence. But they have chosen to leave for financial reasons. For those who don’t have family living with them, the old Victorian homes can be imposingly huge. As they age, it becomes more difficult to pay for repairs of the neighborhood’s hulking houses, along with the increased property taxes and imposing utility bills. The lure of the hugely increased property values is a factor as well. A home purchased for much less than $100,000 in the 1990s can now be easily sold for $200,000 at the very least. The lure of a hugely profitable sale is obvious.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood may simply not be as appealing to older African-American residents as it once was, and not just because many of the new shops are oriented towards the young: a bar with overly loud music, tattoo parlors, and a punk rock barber shop. Philadelphia in general seems to be having a hard time retaining its black population, as Tom Ferrick reported back in 2011 in Metropolis, with the African-American population of the suburban counties growing as the city’s numbers stagnate. On a regional scale, a 2011 USA Today series found that Philadelphia was one of the top five northern metropolitan areas for its loss of black population to its Southern counterparts.

There are ripple effects of Cedar Park’s ongoing transformation. As crime in the area continues to fall, the census tract to the west of Allison’s old block is 15 percent white for the first time since 1970; in 2000, it was 2 percent white. Other neighboring census tracts have become whiter as well, although railroad tracks seem to have slowed the rate of change to the south.

It remains to be seen how much further white residents will move beyond Cedar Park, where the housing stock becomes more modest. Penn expanded its forgivable loan program westward to 56th Street in 2014, but as of last year only five households have taken advantage of it within the new boundaries.

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Photos courtesy of West Philly Local

THERE’S BEEN PUSHBACK AGAINST THE CHANGES. Gentrification is the topic of many a heated discussion at the neighborhoods’ barrooms and house parties. Between 2013 and 2014, Cedar Park itself saw the highest year-over-year rent increase in the city, which occasioned much soul-searching. Just to the east, spray-paint-wielding vandals have twice struck the bougie eatery Clarkville, in Spruce Hill, writing “fuck you” and “gentri go home.” The pricey restaurant occupies a building previously occupied by a takeout beer and pizza joint that served as a base for mostly black old-timers to drink and watch sports in a well-lit space.

For her part, Allison wishes the old West Philadelphia High School, which will soon be converted into market-rate condos, could have been repurposed as a space for elderly residents of the neighborhood who no longer need a full-scale house.

The changing demographics are evident in the literal Cedar Park that she helped revitalize, but there are still a group of older people—mostly black, mostly men—who hang out at the eastern end of the park to drink and play cards. That’s a point of tension with some new arrivals, but Allison says she asked the men to move down there when the playground equipment was installed at the park’s western end.

“New neighbors are always fusing about the guys in the park, and my thing is that it was their park before it was your park,” says Allison. “It’s a public space, so either learn how to approach them or ignore them. Because they aren’t disrespectful. They just do their thing and they want you to leave them alone.”

Allison speaks more extensively of the positive changes in the neighborhood, though. She talks lovingly of Queen of Sheba, an Ethiopian bar on Baltimore Avenue, which still serves as a communal hub and enjoys a mixed-race clientele. On the whole, Allison says she quite loves Cedar Park as much as she always did. “I love my neighborhood, I still call it mine,” says Allison, who visits the area regularly. She moved just to the west in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood after selling her house. “I tell people all the time, ‘I only moved ten blocks down the street, y’all can’t get rid of me that easy.’”

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