Nov 3 12:45 PM

Philadelphia suburbs look to avoid becoming the next ‘Ferguson’

Philadelphia's inner-ring suburbs are suffering from a dwindling tax base and crumbling infrastructure.
Lucius Kwok / Flickr

JENKINTOWN, Pennsylvania — The week before Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial election, the Salem Baptist Church was half full for an event titled “From Ferguson to First Suburbs: Connecting the Dots.” Many of the attendees were older African-Americans, with a sizable contingent of college students from Penn State’s Abington Campus filling out the crowd. Salem was the first black Baptist Church established in Montgomery County, which lies to the north of Philadelphia and is predominantly comprised of older, middle-class suburbs.

“Our highly taxed, highly stressed, small, middle class communities have more in common with places like Ferguson than big cities like Philadelphia,” said the opening speaker, pastor and Norristown Councilman Marlon Millner. He also co-chairs Building One Pennsylvania, a coalition of inner-ring suburban leaders and the organization sponsoring the event. “We often get lost in the sauce of public debate in Harrisburg and Washington, when politicians fail to acknowledge the expanded frontier of underfunded schools, crumbling roads and bridges, and failed housing policies that foster segregation.”

Like most Northeastern and Midwestern cities, Philadelphia lost a huge portion of its population in the postwar years to its surrounding suburbs (it’s a fifth smaller today than in 1950). This trend was epitomized by the second Levittown (no blacks allowed), built where old broccoli and spinach farms once stood, close to a big U.S. Steel factory, in neighboring Bucks County. This arrangement echoed throughout the region — new jobs and houses for white people moving to the suburbs, while African-Americans remained bottled up in older urban neighborhoods with shrinking employment opportunities. Unlike Canadian cities, such as Toronto, where metropolitan-wide authorities were established to share the fruits of the postwar boom regionally, the Philadelphia area’s riches were hived off into a welter of hyper-local municipalities.

As overt residential segregation broke down, and some African-Americans garnered enough income to purchase larger properties, some of Philly’s inner-ring suburbs began to integrate. (Levittown not among them.) But as black families began to move in, many whites moved out to colonize spinach and broccoli farms even further afield. In a state with 2,562 localities, each empowered with their own zoning powers, it’s very easy to keep out what a given community might see as “riffraff,” and horde local property tax dollars (which fund an unusually high percentage of Pennsylvania’s education needs). Inner-ring suburban infrastructure and schools are left to suffer a fate similar to Philadelphia.

There is “a tremendous amount of sprawl, they are just devouring land … we are concentrating our poverty and dispersing our wealth,” says David Rusk, former Mayor of Albuquerque and a pioneering proponent of suburban-urban regionalism who works with Building One Pennsylvania. “Look at the urbanized population of the Pittsburgh area: Between in 1950 to 2010 it grew only 13 percent, but the amount of land the population occupied increased from 254 square miles to 905 square miles, a 250 percent increase.”

As wealthier people move outwards, the inner-ring suburbs they once inhabited are often deprived of their tax base. Millner and his colleagues at Building One Pennsylvania used last week’s meeting to highlight these stresses and the desperate need of their communities (he noted in particular $34 million in state funding needed by his local district).

Decrepit sewers are a constant worry, too. Many inner-ring suburbs are downstream from low-density exurban sprawl, which generates 16 times the runoff of undeveloped land, burdening systems nearing the end of their projected 85-to-100 year lifespan. (A 2008 study commissioned by former Governor Ed Rendell found that the state needs $36.5 billion in investments in drinking and waste water infrastructure before 2028.) Without investments in these city services (along with greater housing and employment opportunity), the fear is that inner-ring suburban communities in Pennsylvania will continue to stoke outrage similar to what was witnessed in Ferguson this summer, or in North Philadelphia, circa 1964.

Building One Pennsylvania is a studiously non-partisan organization; their constituents are more likely to be bipartisan than those who live in the city or the exurbs. Both Republican and Democratic candidates attended the forum and promised to commit themselves to the cause (the former harping on anti-Philly sentiment, the latter playing up shared interests). But if the organization refuses to endorse a gubernatorial candidate, it appears one of the candidates has all but endorsed the organization.

Democrat Tom Wolf is heavily favored to win the governorship on Tuesday, and he has a history with the very issues Building One Pennsylvania is trying to highlight. Wolf and  Rusk worked together in the 1990s on issues of segregation and sprawl in the candidate’s York County home. Rusk is one of the only individuals named in Wolf’s policy platform “A Fresh Start [PDF],” where he is featured in a section promising to establish a Smart Growth and State Planning Office and policies to incentivize “fix it first” projects over new development.

Still, Millner strikes a cautious note. “We know Wolf has book knowledge, but we need someone who will put their hand to the plough,” he said in response to a question about the candidate’s history with these issues. “He needs to replicate what he did on a local level, but statewide.”

It is also not clear whether Republicans in the legislature, who are likely to retain majorities in both houses, will share these concerns. The Republican state Senate leader, Dominic Pileggi, lives in a deeply distressed small city, but the General Assembly is dominated by more polarized exurban and rural representatives. In a state recently ranked the most racist outside the South, many politicians are unlikely to be interested in containing middle-class, and usually white, flight.

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter