"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, May 16, 2014

They Call It “White Flight” (Ninth in a Series)

Several years ago, while doing research for my book What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania From Main Street to the Malls, I interviewed an elderly man, the son of an Italian immigrant.  He related to me his backstory, greatly illuminating what it was to be poor and Italian in Norristown during its heyday.  He also, inadvertently, provided me with an equally illuminating insight into how not just our major cities, but also much smaller urban communities such as Norristown reacted to the influx of African Americans after World War II.

My interviewee had lived the American experience.  Dirt-poor in childhood and laboring under ethnic discrimination, he not only survived, he married, raised a family and served in World War II.  He had learned a trade through his G.I. Bill benefits, and by 1950 he owned a car.  Thus empowered, he decided to join those moving to the crabgrass frontier, or sort of.  He moved just a short distance, to adjoining Plymouth Township, but he did get the lawn and a little distance from his neighbors that he wanted.  He also, he admitted, effectively abandoned Norristown, returning only to his church, to which he remained very attached.  That in itself is a useful lesson, but what he did during the process of leaving is equally so.  By leaving when he did, he became (as he remembers it) the first person on his block to sell his property to an African American family.  His specific motives for leaving did not include racism, and thus I would place him in that second phase of the move to the periphery, of those enabled after World War II.  What quickly followed, however, was different.  Speaking about his old neighborhood, he admitted, “We all eventually sold to black people.”  What he also admitted (off the record) was that by the time the last white family left, the price for their house was much lower than what he had received.

His act of selling to a black family and what followed offers a microcosm of what we call “white flight,” that portion of the post- World War II movement to the periphery that was motivated by the desire to avoid neighbors of a darker hue.  This phenomenon came to national attention during the 50s and 60s.  It struck just about every urban area of any size for which a suburban area was coming into existence, and there were plenty of them, thanks to the followers of William Levitt.  The process itself has been studied, with a great many results published, in both scholarly journals and popular magazines.  It was complex and remains controversial, and cannot be summed up in a blog post.

I want to make just one point about the first stage of this historical phenomenon, the arrival of “the first black family” into a previously all-white neighborhood.  Let’s not let any recent history (or myth) color our understanding of what might have happened—should  have happened—if our society had actually been as colorblind as many of our elders seem to remember it was.  At this time in our history the new African American arrivals to a previously white working/middle-class neighborhood weren’t clutching any Section 8 housing vouchers, no federal (nor state) programs to assist minorities, no “set-asides,” no subsidies or any other “special benefits” with which you might be familiar.  They bought the property because they could afford to.  Not only did the father have a good job, more than likely his wife did also.  He may even have been a veteran, exercising his benefits under the G.I. Bill just like all the others.  The family clearly had upwardly-mobile aspirations, just like all the others.  Measured on an economic basis (like the one I suggested a few posts earlier), the first African American family to appear in a previously all-white residential neighborhood had at least as good a claim to home ownership in such a neighborhood as did the family that was leaving.  They did not represent decline in any tangible way whatsoever.

So what happened?  Did they get the chance to prove that they could fit in?  You know, keep the house painted and in repair, shovel the sidewalk, take in the kids’ toys at night, that sort of thing?  They didn’t, of course.  They simply triggered one or the other of those most visceral of reactions, fight or flee.  So well known is the flee option that it has earned its own niche in U.S. history, as “white flight.”  Don’t let the simplicity of the term fool you.  What actually happened varied greatly in detail.

The oft-abused phrase “domino effect” actually seems to apply in this case (rather more than it did to the spread of international Communism, which was allegedly occurring at the same time).  That first black family in the neighborhood did not precipitate immediate mass exodus.  But it probably did stimulate the exodus of one or two of the most sensitive neighbors, whose departure (and sale to another black family) would in turn discomfit the slightly less intolerant, who would themselves decide to leave as their individual tolerance for diversity was exceeded, and so on, in a descending spiral.  I say “descending” because the only ones to profit were those involved in the real estate transactions themselves.  The process often accelerated as it progressed, and could devastate a neighborhood’s economic value and social cohesion in quite a short time (remember, we are talking perception here, not reality).  The result was a catastrophic decline in the value of many (but by no means all) urban residential properties, brought on by the departure of the very people on which any tax base depends:  working and middle-class families enjoying ample employment.

A few managed to profit rather well from all this (they too shall always be with us), but the homeowners who sold, those who bought and the neighborhood itself all lost.  This is the point in our urban history when the irrational decline began, the one resulting not from dreams or incentives, but from racism.  Our urban areas, large and small, deal with its consequences to this day.  We can measure the economic loss in an abstract way, but the personal, individual loss and the loss to our urban areas is incalculable.  We need to face this truth without flinching, and add it to our list of reasons, making sure to mix thoroughly, as it was in real life.

Please keep in mind that we are simply blending this new factor into an already heady mix of post-war yearning, government subsidies and technology-fueled opportunities.  “White flight” made its contribution to the decline of our urban areas just as surely as did the G.I. Bill, as both were riding the crest of a transportation revolution and an unprecedented national prosperity, at least for a while.  That national prosperity included the transfer of wealth from cities and towns to the new suburbs, so while the net indicators were rising rapidly, those for our older urban areas were not.  Once the quickly-following collapse of America’s urban-concentrated “smokestack industries” added its hugely negative effects to this already lethal mix, the condition of our urban areas began a collective descent, differentiated only by the degree, extent and the specifics of decline.

The largest cities were the most affected by this loss, but the example I began with shows how widespread it was.  Of the eight towns in my lower Schuylkill Valley study group, those with the largest population—Norristown, Pottstown and Phoenixville—experienced the greatest degree of population replacement, in sharply descending amounts.  The smallest—Royersford, Spring City and West Conshohocken—avoided it almost completely.  Such preliminary findings require further study.

The visceral options open to racists were to fight or to flee, and don’t let the above deceive you for a minute into thinking that “white flight” was the only reaction of urban residents to the influx of African Americans.  There were other reactions than flight, because not all chose to flee.  Our larger cities saw neighborhoods resort to violence and intimidation to keep out African Americans.  The towns of the Schuylkill Valley saw little of that.  The smallest managed to resist the influx of African Americans almost entirely.  The larger the town the greater the influx, and the greater the flight it triggered.  

There were, however, other equally disturbing similarities, which collectively reveal that despite the hurt being so widely spread among both large and small urban areas, for specific groups of people, it really was all about the Benjamins, because they knew how to turn a nice profit out of general misery.  A brief look at this, perhaps the most sordid portion of a sordid story, and at some other techniques used to determine who moved where within an urban area, will follow when this series continues.