The Green Grass Of The Middle Class


The lush, green, diverse streets of Oxford Circle in Northeast Philadelphia | Photo: Bradley Maule

The lush, green, diverse streets of Oxford Circle in Northeast Philadelphia | Photo: Bradley Maule

Back in 2006, the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program released a report documenting what researchers Jason C. Booza, Jackie Cutsinger, and George Galzer saw as a worrisome trend: the decline of middle-income neighborhoods in America’s large cities. The researchers looked at 12 major metropolitan areas. These neighborhoods–which the report, using Census Bureau classifications, characterized by median family incomes between 80 and 120 percent of the metropolitan area’s median family income–shrank by a greater amount than it had at any time since 1970. Three of the largest–Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia–experienced even steeper declines than the group as a whole.

The Great Recession has only accelerated this trend. The demographic profiles of our largest cities are hollowing out: more people who might have once lived in middle-income neighborhoods now live in enclaves of the affluent or the poor. City governments in some cities, such as New York, have begun to sound the alarm about the threat the disappearing middle represents to the viability of the city as a whole.

What the Brookings researchers found in 2006 should be a wake-up call for us in Philadelphia as well. While many of us celebrate the reversal of the city’s declining fortunes as indicated by rising population and house values, especially in the center, that declining middle is a sign of potential trouble down the road, for it has historically been the middle class that has been the backbone of our economy.

Which is why anyone who cares about the future of Philadelphia should pay attention to the state and fate of the Northeast.

The last part of the city to be fully built out, the Northeast is home to roughly one in every three Philadelphians. While parts of its lower reaches, such as Kensington, Port Richmond, and Frankford, are old established places with histories of their own, most of the rest of the Northeast is a product of the auto-centered mid-20th century. Philadelphians post-war, like city folk everywhere, began to desire houses with yards and room for kids to play.

Restaurants of Brazilian, Caribbean, Russian, and, in this case Albanian, persuasion indicate the steady growth from immigrant communities in Northeast Philly | Photo: Bradley Maule

Restaurants of Brazilian, Caribbean, Russian, and, in this case Albanian, persuasion indicate the steady growth from immigrant communities in Northeast Philly | Photo: Bradley Maule

The neighborhoods of the Northeast continue to serve that function today. Only the origins of the new arrivals have changed. Instead of coming from places like Strawberry Mansion, Kensington, or South Philadelphia, they’re coming from places like Port-au-Prince, Belo Horizonte, or Kyiv. But like the Philadelphians they replaced, these immigrants from abroad moved here in search of something better than they had in their old neighborhoods.

And they’ve been a key component of the city’s reversal of fortune. They first made their presence known in the 1990 Census, the same Census that revealed the first signs the city’s decline was coming to an end. It showed two areas of the city gaining population at a decent clip while the rest continued to leak residents. One was Center City. The other was Juniata Park in the Lower Northeast.

And in both cases, the growth began to spread: from Center City to the Northern Liberties and Queen Village, from Juniata Park to Oxford Circle and Castor Gardens. According to the City Planning Commission, the Lower Northeast planning district, which includes those latter two neighborhoods, added more residents than any other part of the city since 2000–and the growth came in the form of births rather than a further uptick in in-migration.

What that tells me, every bit as much as the patio furniture and grills in the front yards of the houses on some Oxford Circle streets do, is that the new residents are claiming a place on the staircase of upward mobility–a staircase in which middle-income neighborhoods like those of the Northeast figure prominently.

These aspirational residents are the people cities should work to attract and keep every bit as much as they now do the better-off members of the so-called “creative class.” Yet they are vanishing, even here, where they are so desperately needed (the city’s insensitivity to this issue has cost it substantial numbers of Korean immigrants, who moved from Olney across Cheltenham Avenue to Montgomery County). Immigrants may start out with relatively meager incomes, but they take jobs and build businesses that soon lift their incomes upward, to their benefit and that of the city as a whole.

Many longtime denizens of the Northeast feel they get short shrift from the rest of the city. The downtown crowd look down their noses at them while City Hall takes their money and gives them little in return, is how they see things. Perhaps it’s time the rest of us rethought our vast in-city suburb–not only in terms of strengthening its urbanity, but in terms of keeping it the kind of place other cities would love to have within their borders, where those in the middle can grab on to the good life still.

About the author

Sandy Smith has been engaging in journalism and its hired-gun cousin, public relations, in Philadelphia for nearly 30 years. He started award-winning newspapers at the University of Pennsylvania as part of a team and at Widener University all by himself. He has a passionate interest in cities and urban development, which he gets to indulge as editor-in-chief of the Philadelphia Real Estate Blog, and in trains and mass transit, which he indulges wherever and whenever he gets the chance. (You may know him as "MarketStEl" if you lurk on Philadelphia Speaks.)

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  1. Strongarmsamson

    Excellent story – you are absolutely right about this. What, specifically, do you think the city can do to help keep the Northeast viable?

  2. Wondering if there is any update since the now seven year-ago report from Brookings on whether the Great Recession forced more middle class homeowners to leave or if they were forced to stay b/c of lowered home values. The notion of the Northeast losing middle-class residents and gaining lower-income residents is conventional wisdom but would be helpful to know if it’s backed up by data and if the premise of the piece is still correct.

  3. The only thing the city needs to understand is how to attract and retain jobs. The middle class won’t go as much if their jobs don’t force them to. That’s the real issue behind this, behind violence and crime, between bad schools… Jobs and the ability to make a decent living, that’s the number one issue of all time. Everything else stems from it.

  4. I think the issue the Northeast is having is indicative of a larger issue across the country which is the fundamental decline of decent paying jobs through which people can earn a livable wage and maintain a decent standard of living……and something no one talks about……the prescription drug epidemic. As a Northeast resident who moved away, I am amazed at how the quality level of the people have dropped. Many of the new residents are almost Dickensian in their ignorance and poverty. Furthermore, its not about race….its about class and the new blood in the NE are not of the middle or lower middle…..they are members of the lower and or criminal classes.

  5. I agree wholeheartedly about making the NE more walkable. I recently did a policy memo for a class focusing on Bustleton Avenue as a possible walkable corridor for the Northeast. It’ll really bring the area to date in terms of sustainability.

  6. WeBuiltThisCity

    Please define middle class. Is middle class an income range? Or is it a squishy “people who are not wealthy and not poor and are working class and not yuppies or hipsters, gritty, workforce, etc.”. I don’t know how this conversation can be had unless parameters are defined.

    I see “middle class” people moving in to all Philadelphia neighborhoods, Center City included (not every apartment is a 3,000 SF penthouse).

    The Northeast’s biggest problem is its competitiveness from a real estate perspective. It isn’t as walkable or transit accessible as the more inner neighborhoods. It isn’t as quiet and quaint as suburban county neighborhoods. It has the City taxes without all of the City benefits. The 1950s idea of a suburb has changed quite a bit and left the NE behind.

    Basically, NE Philly needs to you-know-what or get off the pot. Urbanize further (possible) or suburbanize further (basically impossible).

  7. I think by “middle class decline”, we are talking about the same old white flight, and to a lesser extent, black flight back to the south(when we are talking about northeastern cities).Why? The schools systems are a shambles and municipal unions have made it difficult for politicians to confront the reality that there are fewer taxpayers left to pay the bills. Philadelphia wants to tax soda pop, taxes rain water run off and has chased many small businesses out of the city with its crazy business tax rates. It just spirals until you have a Detroit-lets pray Philly never gets there and the voters wake up.

  8. Nice summary but what have you actually said? it was the departure to the suburbs of the children of the large Jewish population that lowered property values and opened the door to most of the Northeast to the low income immigrants. The closing of Catholic Schools further fragments the city into desirable and undesirable areas. The current crop of council critters and State reps are all talk and bluster, but are powerless to stop the decline in the Northeast.

    Invest in West Philly.


  1. Oakland & Cheltenham in Oxford Circle - City-Data Forum
  2. Report: ‘Anyone who cares about the future of Philadelphis should pay attention to the state and fate of the Northeast’ « NEast Philly

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