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Autumn 1994
   
Integration Without Tears
Roger Starr
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In the hills of northeastern Pennsylvania, a thousand vigorously competitive land subdividers have inadvertently achieved a breakthrough in public policy that many levels of government have tried vainly to accomplish for years. Without intending to—and without quotas, subsidies, or artificially cheerful television appeals to human goodness—these developers have given birth to scores of brand new, stable, racially mixed communities. From the Boston area to the environs of Portland, Oregon, many similar solid, integrated communities have sprung up beyond the rings of existing, largely segregated suburbs, on sites previously deemed too far from the central city job market to be “commutable.”

A fairly recent resident of northeastern Pennsylvania’s Monroe County, I commute with 46 other passengers by express bus between the Delaware Water Gap and the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York. My return bus leaves the city at 5:45 PM each day, bearing many regular passengers back to Pennsylvania. About three-quarters of us are white, the rest African-American with a small sprinkling of Latinos. Some of us sleep; some talk to our neighbors, occasionally making dates for barbecues in each other’s yards; some read, do crossword puzzles, or test each other with Trivial Pursuit. We complain when traffic is heavy. We have our favorite drivers, and we hear them warn each other by citizens’ band radios of lurking New Jersey State Troopers. As the bus rolls into increasingly rural landscapes, there’s a cheerful undercurrent of ribbing, mock flirtation, and homeowner chatter about heating systems, television reception, and even visiting bears in the garbage.

The under-forty males, supplemented by acquaintances from other buses, have established a softball team whose members may drive twenty miles or more to play league games on summer weekends. The coach is a senior accountant for a university endowment fund. The first baseman is one of several computer specialists. One of the outfielders writes magazine articles on country music and jazz. No Jackie Robinson was needed to break the color line on this team, nor on some of its rivals.

Until the late 1970s, the region had been accessible from New York City and Philadelphia only with difficulty. The railroads had gone out of business long before, after the decline of anthracite coal mining; their dilapidated but once handsome slate-roofed stations (slate mining was another historic occupation) testify to the region’s long-protracted economic decline.

The land subdividers saw two facts that piqued entrepreneurial interest. The legislated development of the interstate highway system eventually would cut travel time between northeastern Pennsylvania and New York City, Philadelphia, Newark, and Wilmington. Secondly, they foresaw, along with students of public opinion, an astonishing growth of demand among American urban families for a second home. The northeast corner of Pennsylvania seemed like the ideal place to fulfill that desire. The handsome land was cheap because of its dwindled accessibility and economic paralysis—and cheap to build on, because building codes and union protocols had not yet crossed the Delaware.

Although the subdividers were right that people would buy the houses they built, they were wrong about why. A growing middle class, made up not only of white ethnic Americans but also African-Americans and members of other ethnic groups, hankered to live in areas free from both the traditions and institutions of racial exclusion, such as country clubs, and the disorder and crime of the city neighborhoods in which they then lived. They looked beyond the near suburbs that had become too costly for them and that had hitherto served as a wall against their escape from the central city.

New middle-class seekers of escape from the city read the newspaper advertisements of subdivisions in northeastern Pennsylvania. They liked what they saw—the prices, the scenery, the proffered services, the greeting—and they bought lots. Turning the expectation of the subdividers on its head, they acquired not a second home, but a primary residence. They abandoned their rented apartments and began commuting from Pennsylvania to their jobs in the city during the week, an adventure made practical by the expansion of express bus services along the two new interstates across New Jersey.

By mastering new fields in communications, office technology, and medical services, or by becoming a two-job family, many of the migrants, white and nonwhite alike, had risen beyond the shabby standard of living their urban neighborhoods offered. They sought to escape the whole tangle of urban problems—the poor public schools; the high taxes in exchange for fewer or lower quality public services; the entrenched poverty, with its attendant welfare dependency, homelessness, violence, and drugs. Certainly the departure from the city of such solid neighbors and taxpayers won’t make it any easier to ameliorate the conditions they fled.

No precise census can be taken of those new northeastern Pennsylvania residents who have established their primary residence in the area and commute to jobs in northern New Jersey or in New York City. What is known—from the 1990 census—is that northeastern Pennsylvania’s central Monroe County has experienced a 53 percent rise in its total permanent population since 1980. The black segment of the population rose at half again as fast a rate—75 percent. Most of the newcomers have left central cities, predominantly New York. The Pocono Chamber of Commerce asserts that growth of the permanent population has been continuing since 1990.

The anecdotal evidence for this trend is eloquent. The bus station parking lots keep filling, growing, and filling again. New faces appear on the platforms almost daily. When the 5:45 PM arrives at Stroudsburg around 7:30 PM, a cluster of New York City Transit Authority workers, men and women, black and white, has gathered. They take an evening bus into the city, work from midnight to 8 AM, take an early-morning bus back home to Pennsylvania, and congratulate themselves on their escape.

In the most common type of subdivision, the entrepreneur plats the individual housing sites, lays out the community center, and sells each site subject to certain zoning rules that govern the size of the house, its placement on the lot, its color range, and its general conformity to the subdivision’s prevailing architectural style. Successful subdividers have found the balance between communal harmony and individual self-expression.

These arrangements affect the relations between homeowners. The rules treat everyone identically, without different zoning districts applying different standards to nearby houses. All of the houses are of relatively the same size and value. Everyone belongs to the same community association.

Jim and Joyce Signorelli—he is a building maintenance engineer, she a legal secretary—moved to Bushkill, Pennsylvania, from Richmond Hill, Queens, three years ago. No one in their big extended family in Queens expected them to “stick it out” in Pennsylvania. “They thought we’d be back in six months, homesick,” Joyce says. “Of course,” she adds, “we do miss a good Italian restaurant.”

The Signorellis told me that, in the large, hilly subdivision into which they had bought, nothing resembled a New York ethnic neighborhood. There aren’t any German, Italian, or Jewish sections. “When you see colored people on the bus or in the community center, color doesn’t come into it,” Jim Signorelli says. “They’re the same kind of people we are; they’re as afraid of crime as we are. That’s why they’re here in the first place. Their children are the victims. Here, they have a better chance for a decent education.

“Someone said to me,” Signorelli continues, “’No wonder you feel safe up there. There are no black people to rob you.’ I said, ’What has black got to do with it? Black, white, yellow, green, they’re all the same. In New York, if you see people arrested for a crime on the television news, they’re likely to be black. But up here, they are likely to be white.’”

In a different type of development, a contractor has constructed a 25-unit row house complex designed in an eighteenth-century style evoking colonial Williamsburg. Three stories high and lining four sides of an open square, the houses sell for about $130,000. Though a sharper contrast with the typical regional development would be hard to imagine, all the houses have been sold.

Among the purchasers are a pair of African-American widows who have spent their careers working for New York City’s Human Resources Administration. Emily Robinson, born in Maryland and a longtime Bronx resident, is the managing director of the agency’s East Bronx office, having risen step-by-step from an entry-level job. Originally from Flatbush in Brooklyn, Cheryl Alston, who shares the apartment with her, works in the same office. The two women commute daily to the Bronx, sharing the driving of Mrs. Robinson’s car.

Their principal motive in coming was the desire to escape what they felt New York City had become. Now, getting to the office between eight and nine requires them to leave East Stroudsburg by seven. “During the week,” Mrs. Robinson says, “we don’t do much of anything when we get home except sleep and wash clothes. But it’s worth it.”

The two women found their home by chance on a weekend trip. Mrs. Robinson had noticed on previous visits the “friendliness” of the area, she says. Returning to a small restaurant for breakfast a week after their first visit, Mrs. Robinson recalls, she was astonished that the waitress remembered exactly what she had eaten the last time.

“We have all kinds of couples represented here,” she told me. “We are two black ladies sharing a home. We have an Oriental couple. We have an interracial couple. We have a black nurse living in a house by herself.” This diversity does not reflect deliberate social engineering; it is a perfectly voluntary development. People saw the townhouses, liked them, found they could afford them, and were not faced with the prospect that if they as nonwhites moved in, the development would become entirely black.

Says Mrs. Robinson: “The small size of the community allows people to get to know each other, and discover that, since the housing can only be occupied by others of the same socioeconomic class, they have more similarities than differences. When we first moved into the building, we were invited to a barbecue in someone else’s backyard simply because we were new and our hosts wanted to make us, like any other newcomers, feel welcome. We do. We’ve become friends.”

The high hilltop in appropriately-named Effort, Pennsylvania, that Harold Wentz, his wife, and their three children chose is a sharp contrast to Mrs. Robinson and Mrs. Alston’s housing. The view on the way up the hill is spectacular. Impressive also is Mr. Wentz’s daily commute. He takes an express bus to New York City and then changes to a PATH train that takes him back to New Jersey, where he now works.

For the Wentzes, the decision to move from Queens Village in New York City came while he was in his former job as a computer specialist for Westvaco in its Park Avenue office. Wentz wanted to find a lifestyle that fitted the salary bracket and level of responsibility he had earned. What’s more, the Queens Village apartment would soon be too small: Mrs. Wentz was expecting twins.

“We were the first family to buy and build on the top of the mountain,” Harold explains. “Now we have companions. A year ago, my new friend Bob and his wife moved into the house they built on the same street as ours, and we have become friendly neighbors. His wife and mine exchange recipes and vegetables. Two new houses are going up across the street from us.”

Harold, of Cherokee Indian and African-American descent, is pleased to find that his neighbors on the mountain treat him and his wife with a respect commensurate with the status he has achieved as a systems programmer and analyst. Since moving to Pennsylvania, he has changed jobs, going to a Jersey City brokerage firm. “I can’t agree that this is heaven or Shangri-la,” he says. “There is no such thing. But I find that the people here are very understanding. Since the civil rights revolution of the 1960s—in which I was too young to participate actively, but which I think was the most thrilling event of my lifetime—most people have come to understand that people are people, and that what most of us want is a good place to live, a good school for our children, and a chance for our children to have things a little better than we have.”

His two grandfathers were sharecroppers, Harold says. By dint of determination and hard work, his mother’s father was able to buy a 140-acre farm in North Carolina by 1939, long before the civil rights revolution. His own father, one of 14 children, was a chef in a Miami restaurant owned by people who would not serve either blacks or Jews. “I wasn’t old enough to understand what that really meant,” Harold says, “but the time came when the restaurant was sold to a group of Jewish people, and beginning right away that same restaurant served anybody who could pay.

“I was very much impressed by that,” Harold told me. “It proved something my father had been impressing on me for a long time: that the only real empowerment is the empowerment of money and ownership. I’m proud of my grandfather, who was able to own a farm, and of my father for sticking to that same principle.”

Eric Seale, an occasional rider on the 5:45 bus, lives with his wife and high school-age son in Tamiment, long ago a socialist summer colony. Today, Tamiment is a three-thousand-acre tract that boasts a hotel, ski slopes, swimming, golf, and tennis. Of some two hundred homeowners, the Seales, who are African-American, are among forty full-time residents. The rest are summer and weekend people. The home sites are small—Seale’s is half an acre or less. But each home is a house in the woods. Searching for separateness, the Seales moved from Flatlands, Brooklyn, to escape from the city and get into the woods.

Seale is a customer engineer for Xerox, sent out to provide whatever repair or maintenance buyers of large, high-speed machines need. After graduating from high school during the Vietnam War, he volunteered for the Air Force, where he learned how to repair and service fighter aircraft. He subsequently worked for Boeing. Although born in Brooklyn, he greatly prefers the country to the city. His wife, office manager for a real estate development firm in New York City, feels the same way. The Seales also have a grown daughter who lives, as Seale describes it, “on the other side of the mountain.” The couple takes the bus to New York from the park-and-ride station about 17 miles from their house.

“The main difference between New York and Tamiment,” Mr. Seale says, “is the peace and quiet of the woods. Deer are so common that we don’t bother to plant flowers—the deer would eat them. My wife has counted as many as thirty wild turkeys in our driveway at one time.”

All these people—ethnically as diverse as can be imagined—live in harmony because they share the same middle-class values, concerns, aspirations, and status. It is a heartening contrast with the not-so-distant past. In his classic 1937 book Caste and Class in a Southern Town, sociologist John Dollard argued that persons of color in the United States are a separate caste from the white population, with permanently diminished status no matter what social class they would belong to by virtue of income, occupation, education, and family history. A black man might be called “Doctor” or “Reverend” or “Counselor” by whites—but never “Mister.” Eradicating that caste line, Dollard believed, would be a difficult, perhaps impossible, task.

My experience in northeastern Pennsylvania strongly suggests that the caste line between blacks and whites has largely faded, even, in certain circumstances, disappeared. This does not mean that social class distinctions, considerably more difficult to overcome, are not still very strong—they may always be. The percentage of black Americans relegated to the lower class because of income, education, dysfunctional behavior, and lingering prejudice is surely larger than the percentage of whites similarly classified. But a significant number of blacks—undoubtedly in the millions—have moved into the middle class.

The relationship between blacks and whites in the residential subdivisions out beyond the suburban ring suggests that middle-class people of both races recognize each other as equals. Among middleclass Americans, at least in the special circumstances of these Pennsylvania communities and others like them around the country, the terrible burden of race has been lightened greatly.

 

 

 
On the outer fringes of the New York metropolis, racial equality has become a reality.
City Journal Autumn 1994.
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