City of Neighborhoods – Panel and Audience Discussion

Greater Philadelphia Roundtable
Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent
March 28, 2012

Following opening remarks by Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia co-editor Charlene Mires, moderator Carolyn Adams (Temple University) introduced the panelists and discussion topic, “City of Neighborhoods, City of Homes.”  To begin the evening’s discussion, Adams asked panelist Linn Washington Jr. (Temple University) to summarize his essay “City of Neighborhoods,” which was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer and on the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia Web site prior to the roundtable.  

Washington first recalled his experiences living in cities like Pittsburgh and London and observed that, in comparison to other cities, there is something special about Philadelphia’s people and neighborhoods.  Washington shared how he got to know the city while working as a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News, a job that exposed him to the city’s history, people, and geography.  Traveling through neighborhoods like Mount Airy, Washington saw how Philadelphians cared about their communities and was struck by how their love of the city draws Philadelphians together despite their differences.  Even as Philadelphia often gets lost between New York and Washington, D.C., Washington argued that the city has incredible characters and an undeniable aura that he tried to encapsulate in his essay.  Washington concluded his comments by asserting that it is this so-called “Philadelphia attitude” that defines the city and its people, both in terms of who they are and what they do.

Turning to the second panelist, Domenic Vitiello (University of Pennsylvania), Carolyn Adams asked Vitiello to counter Linn Washington’s upbeat assessment of Philadelphians’ love of neighborhoods by remarking on the downsides of such attachments.  Vitiello responded that, as an urban historian and planner, it is often his job to recount what goes wrong in cities, including the socioeconomic effects of industrial decline and its impact on neighborhoods.  Vitiello then detailed some of the ways in which cities change, such as immigration and the rise of urban agriculture, and noted that, particularly in the twentieth century, the vicious side of neighborhood pride are riots and other disturbances that are often tied to change.  Notably, Vitiello observed that the terms sociologists have developed to talk about change in cities, such as “invasion” and “succession,” suggest conflict.  Turning to Philadelphia specifically, Vitiello described the shifting color line in North, South, and West Philadelphia during the 1950s and 60s, as the decline in manufacturing prompted whites to flee the city and those who remained fought over what was left.  Vitiello asserted these racial changes made many Philadelphians defensive, particularly working-class Catholics who owned their homes and were effectively stuck in changing neighborhoods; as a result, by the 1960s, neighborhoods like Fishtown and the upper Northeast became, as Vitiello termed them, “the places where whites still lived.”  To this point, Vitiello underscored that Philadelphia’s global neighborhoods are a relatively new phenomenon and shared his memories of growing up in Mount Airy, a neighborhood unique for its history of stable racial diversity.  Describing the efforts of realtors and welcoming committees, Vitiello highlighted the ways in which Mount Airy has welcomed a variety of people over generations and concluded his remarks by emphasizing the importance of personal relationships in making neighborhood change less violent and tension-filled.

Carolyn Adams then asked the third panelist, Thoai Nguyen (SEAMAAC), to speak about his experiences as an immigrant and share his insights about how immigrants choose their neighborhoods.  Nguyen responded first by asserting the need to unpack the idea of “the immigrant,” explaining that different classifications exist within that broader concept.  To this point, Nguyen delineated different classifications of immigrants as defined by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), including refugees, asylum seekers, victims of trafficking and non-UNHCR classifications such as professionals, and students.  For the purposes of the evening’s discussion, Nguyen focused his remarks on the first three classifications and observed that such individuals do not have a choice of neighborhood in their initial resettlement.  Rather, Nguyen detailed how these immigrants receive a federal grant of $450 for each family member and work with resettlement agencies that, having received a small subsidy as well, are primarily concerned with finding affordable neighborhoods.  Nguyen then described his personal experience coming to Philadelphia as a refugee in 1975 and settling in South Philadelphia.  As one of the few Vietnamese families in the neighborhood at the time, Nguyen’s family was welcomed and treated well, an experience that changed as the number of Vietnamese families and attendant racial tensions grew.  Nguyen reiterated that, for the vast majority of Southeast Asians, resettlement is not so much a matter of choice as an economic necessity historically influenced by such factors as the 1978-9 recession and the availability of cheap real estate and housing around 7th Street and Snyder Avenue.  With reference to Chinatown, Nguyen also detailed other factors affecting resettlement, such as exclusion legislation and anti-miscegenation laws that forced Asian men to congregate in the worst parts of the city and effectively gave rise to what today is considered a strong, unified Philadelphia neighborhood and community.

Following these opening remarks, Carolyn Adams posed several questions to the panelists about young people’s views towards Philadelphia’s neighborhoods.  With reference to Linn Washington’s work with students at Temple University, Adams asked how his students see neighborhoods and whether they specifically perceive them in terms of place or people.  Washington observed that his students’ relationship to Philadelphia’s neighborhoods follows an interesting pattern, whereby neighborhoods are first perceived as physical places, but this understanding evolves as students interact with the residents and focus more on people.  To this point, Washington shared his hopes to re-tool journalism in ways that move beyond infiltration and extraction and sensitize students to the people they encounter.

Building from Washington’s comments, Adams then asked Domenic Vitiello whether the current generation of students is more adventurous and appreciative of diversity.  Speaking from his experience working with undergraduates, Vitiello asserted individuals’ sense of diversity depends upon where they are from, emphasizing that diversity is approached differently if you come from a city than from a more homogenous area.  To this point, Vitiello observed that Mexican immigration has become a national phenomenon, yet certain places are just confronting what diversity means and the challenges it poses.  Asked to comment on the other panelists’ observations, Thoai Nguyen described SEAMAAC’s robust community after-school program which, much to the surprise of some observers, draws a diverse crowd of participants.  Among the program participants, Nguyen added that diversity is largely taken for granted, as the young people appreciate it on one level, but likewise can’t imagine an era when anti-miscegenation laws were enforced.  Nguyen’s remarks prompted Domenic Vitiello to comment on the importance of community organizations and the efforts of mayors like Michael Nutter and John Street to welcome immigrants.  Vitiello also described the tensions between newcomers and African-Americans, many of whom find it difficult to not see outsiders as a threat, and argued that incidents arising from such tensions wrongly obscure community organizations’ efforts to ease tensions and promote a politics of shared prosperity.

Following the panelists’ remarks, Carolyn Adams opened the discussion to questions and remarks from the audience.  The first audience member spoke about the destructive effects of government on neighborhoods, specifically referencing the impact of the proposal for a South Street expressway and eminent domain.  In response, Adams observed that city planning has both positive and negative effects and, on the positive end, cited how citizen activity sometimes prevents more destructive plans from being implemented.  Thoai Nguyen concurred, describing how citizen protests in Chinatown influenced the expansion of the Vine Street expressway and Pennsylvania Convention Center, eventually quashing plans for a casino and pushing the Vine Street project two blocks north.  Along similar lines, another attendee asked the panelists for their thoughts on gentrification, specifically in the Old and University City areas of Philadelphia.  Linn Washington shared his experiences covering the issue for the Philadelphia Daily News and remarked on the role of market forces and government funds.  Washington described how, in the 1970s and 80s, money provided to stabilize and build up neighborhoods was squandered and effectively pushed residents out of neighborhoods with little concern for what happened to them.  To this point, Domenic Vitiello noted that Philadelphia is the poorest big city in America and acknowledged the feeling that, while in New York City gentrification is a dirty word, Philadelphia perhaps could use more rich people.  Vitiello then countered this view with the reality that many residents lose out in the gentrification process and advocated a more nuanced approach that recognizes the value of more affluent renters, but somehow eases the tax burden on poor homeowners and allows them to stay in their homes.  Vitiello also recognized that gentrification brings both public and commercial amenities to neighborhoods and asserted that there exists a role for the public sector to manage change with fewer losers and maintain a sense of stability for those currently living in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods.

During the question and answer period, other comments focused on neighborhood change, with one audience member remarking how historically, as individuals have become more prosperous, they move out of neighborhoods, a trend mimicked by immigrant groups.  Another attendee likewise described his experiences growing up as the first gentile in Logan and how he was encouraged to achieve a measure of success that would allow him to move to a nicer area of the city.  The attendee observed that children often are encouraged to do better than their parents did, which creates a pattern whereby one ethnic group follows another in and out of a neighborhood.  To this point, Thoai Nguyen asserted that succession is key to the evolution of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, but warned against attributing upward mobility to all ethnic and immigrant groups.  Citing Cambodian refugees as an example, Nguyen described how, for one generation, the irreplaceable loss of lives and talents at the hands of the Khmer Rouge created such trauma within the Cambodian community that resettled in the United States  that it will take several generations to overcome.  On the theme of change, another audience member remarked on the impact of transportation, describing how rail and trolley lines largely defined neighborhood boundaries until the automobile helped residents cross those boundaries.  Finally, in terms of community outreach, one attendee asked about strategies for engaging immigrants and getting them involved in their neighborhoods.  In response, Thoai Nguyen detailed several key issues in immigrant outreach and engagement, including location, language, and culturally-appropriate strategies.  Following the question and answer session, the evening ended with small group discussions in which audience members shared additional comments and proposed topics for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

Connecting the Past with the Present, Building Community, Creating a Legacy