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Integration Without Tears

from the magazine

Integration Without Tears

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

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.

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