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.
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.