By Lise Funderburg
O, the Oprah Magazine
Welcome to a neighborhood where people of just about every race, religion, class, belief system, and sexual orientation come together and play very nicely, thank you. Sound like an extremely unlikely TV show? LISE FUNDERBURG reports from West Mt Airy, Pennsylvania.
If you drive through Mt. Airy, a neighborhood on Philadelphia’s northwestern edge, what you see might perplex you, catch you off guard, strike you as unusual. More than one local bumper sticker claims UNITY IN DIVERSITY, and indeed, difference is the heartbeat of the place. In Mt. Airy, like almost nowhere else in the country, you can’t generalize about the inhabitants’ ethnicities, incomes, religions, sexual orientations, preferences in music, or even likelihood of shoveling when it snows—all of which is exactly why I came here ten years ago and why I feel so at home.
This poster child of a diverse neighborhood is a refuge for the unorthodox and the ostracized, people who’ve broken from family, community of origin, or previous self. It is also a place for the aesthetically betwixt and between, those who want both a yard and an easy commute to the center of town. You could say I was born to the jumble. My sisters and I have parents from two races (black and white) and two regions (rural South and urban Midwest), who raised us in another of Philadelphia’s rare mixed neighborhoods, Powelton Village. In my childhood home, in my extended family, and throughout my life, I have known difference: in skin colors, foods, mores, accents, and etiquettes —an abundance, it seemed to me, and one umbilically connected to love.
What’s closest is often the hardest to see, and I was well traveled and almost 30 years old before I realized how challenging it would be to find a neighborhood committed to that same abundance. And how much I wanted—ached—to live in such a place.
My sisters paved the way to Mt. Airy: When I wanted to be close to family after 18 years of living in other cities, they had both moved here already. Like Illinois’s Oak Park, Ohio’s Shaker Heights, and New Jersey’s Montclair, Mt. Airy is known for being multiracial. That reputation, a half century old, draws newcomers whose explicit intention is to breathe diversity on a daily basis. In West Mt. Airy, where I live, the population is 50 percent black, 44 percent white, with Latinos, Asians, and “other races” on the increase. By contrast, the national picture shows enduring patterns of racial segregation, according to Brown University sociologist John R. Logan: The average white person, for example, lives in a community that’s at least 80 percent white. And unlike the rest of Philadelphia, much of which is segregated into homogeneous enclaves, in West Mt. Airy you would be hard-pressed to find a single block in which age, race, income, and other demographics hold from one house to the next.
THE ROOTS OF THIS MOTLEY, HOPEFUL, and occasionally infuriating community run deep. Before it was annexed by the city in the mid-1800s, Mt. Airy was where well-to-do Philadelphians would summer to escape the stench and contagion of the urban center. The faux chateaus and heavily timbered Tudors are offset by small 1940s row homes and squat, characterless 1960s apartment buildings. Mostly, though, you’ll see 1920s Colonials and houses like mine, two- and three-story conjoined twins circa 1900, fronting the street with wrought-iron fences, stone walls, and ample sidewalks. Some are impeccably maintained, painted in historic colors and landscaped within an inch of their lives. Others, including several on my street, could be mistaken for abandoned properties, with leaks and sags and broken windows left unfixed for years, an apparently intentional choice of their otherwise socially and politically conscientious owners.
The range in housing ensures an income mix, which for nefarious reasons of unequal wealth distribution encourages a racial mix. But this neighborhood is also the product of residents who fought against white flight and who were willing to hang in there despite an uncertain future. On my block alone, we are Guatemalan, Iranian, Indian, British, and American; Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, Unitarian, and atheist; hetero and homo and indetermino; black, white, Latino, Asian, and multiracial; single, partnered, divorced, and widowed; and young, old, hardworking, trust-funded, retired, and just starting out.
With median home prices at $241,000, most residents could have afforded a number of other communities. So why put up with an ailing, expensive public transportation system, a hefty residents’ tax, and underfunded schools and municipal services when less than a mile away, suburban towns offer more on all those fronts?
Let me speak for myself. Actually, let my mother speak for me. She lived in Powelton Village for 50 years, a place that taught her three daughters to think of heterogeneity and normalcy as synonyms.
“What did you get out of it?” I ask her, this white woman who came from Chicago’s South Shore, which was all white and struggling middle class in her childhood.
“I just don’t think you can know people unless you live with them,” she says. At 81 she’s still full of what research psychiatrist Mindy Thompson Fullilove has called the “thirst for diversity”—the deep wish to learn about people as a way to communicate respect, or, for younger generations in an increasingly intermingled world, out of necessity, like breathing. Whatever the motivation, these people create “human bridges,” Fullilove says, “linking cultures, preventing us from falling too deeply into the morass of sameness and self-congratulation. They teach us to encounter the ‘other’ and to allow its different tastes to flavor our own more limited existence.”
For my mother, bridge building requires more than living next door. “I mean that you engage in each other’s lives,” she says. She’s referring to Powelton’s elaborately organized interracial babysitting coop, its playreading group, the potlucks and street fairs and house-to-house caroling.
I believe in engagement, too, but also that “next door” is huge. I’ve learned that no matter how people are packaged, they get up each day and go about the business of living. As neighbors we share the first warm day of spring, watch one another’s children grow, see who has bought a car or planted a new shrub or whose arthritis seems to be getting worse. What a humanizing, we-are-the-world message that quotidian exposure sends. As members of the same community, we are collectively cowed by the power of garbage collectors, equally frustrated that curbside leaf collection is never on schedule, and mutually appreciative when misdelivered mail is dropped off and strayed pets are returned.
Our commingling can be ethnicity based…or not. I’m invited every winter to the Hanukkah latke party on the corner. At the Pan-Latino Posada across the street, I eat pernil and drink coquito, a heavenly Puerto Rican version of eggnog. While I don’t have much sense of what it means to be Indian or Iranian in 21st-century Philadelphia, my new neighbors, Meenal and her husband, Afshin, and I convene over a shared passion for reuse and recycling as well as concurrent kitchen renovations—the trials of plumbing and the tribulations of insulation.
UNTIL LAST YEAR’S OPENING OF the instantly beloved High Point Cafe, Weavers Way Co-op was West Mt. Airy’s socializing center. The klatching still goes on there, and while I stand in line to pay, people in front of and behind me talk about going to shul, the latest gig for a band called Bumrunner, or international adoption (while the children being discussed plead for juice boxes). Much to the chagrin of people trying to shop in the converted Tudor house’s narrow, food-lined aisles, the other cooperators, as members are called, engage in traffic-stopping reunions, recipe exchanges, and produce recommendations (“Try that watermelon radish!”).
Pierced 20-somethings coexist with tweedy types, who coexist with fiber-art wearers, who coexist with people whose idea of a haberdasher is a sporting goods Web site. If anything is frowned upon, it is conspicuous consumption—you’ll see more Priuses than Lexi around here, and any one of them might sport a bumper sticker that says FAMILIES COME IN ALL COLORS or IF YOU’RE NOT OUTRAGED, YOU’RE NOT PAYING ATTENTION. A personal favorite (in a neighborhood that can veer into overly earnest righteousness): VISUALIZE WHIRLED PEAS.
AMID ALL THIS EBONY AND IVORY harmony, the truth is that humanizing proximity can also be annoying and expose deep, possibly irresolvable conflicts. Half a dozen long-standing battles simmer on my block, most having to do with home maintenance, invasive bamboo, and overgrown trees. For all the highly touted community ideals, these are Hatfield-and-McCoy-worthy standoffs, often pushing opponents into guerrilla actions and borderline lawbreaking.
I am not immune to prejudices. I wrestle with my discomfort when I see so many white neighbors who are willing to adopt children from Asian or Latin countries while tens of thousands of American children, many of them black, need families. I grapple with this gut-held conviction even as I support all forms of adoption, respect the complexity of the process and the absolute hegemony of individual choices, and wouldn’t begin to deny the foreign-born children I know and have held in my lap the homes they now have.
There’s a lot wrong with where I live. Some black people feel like decoration, as if their white neighbors view a smidge of diversity as a desired embellishment but would never, for example, go so far with that rainbow coalition love as to move to a place where they themselves were in the distinct minority.
Some white residents feel rebuffed by their black neighbors, at a loss for how to get beyond polite greetings and talk about the weather. Thanks to middle-class flight, the public K-8 school across from the co-op doesn’t reflect the community: The student body is 85 percent black, and many come from lower-income areas. Increasing property values threaten to undermine socioeconomic diversity. I hold my breath when houses go up for sale, hoping that the buyers will not always be white.
At the High Point Cafe, owner Meg Hagele poured the concrete counter and riveted the shades for the hanging lamps herself. She grew up in Mt. Airy, earned her barista chops in the caffeinated mecca of Seattle, then came back. The naysayers who thought there wasn’t enough parking or that proximity to the school across the street would make for chaos were all wrong, and have come to be known to Meg by name and beverage preference. The regulars are black and white and British and lesbian and childless and childful, and Meg does a brisk morning trade in hot cocoa with kids on their way to class. But the cafe replaced a day care operation that served only black kids. Where did they go?
I don’t, in fact, think you can begin to appreciate the splendor of this neighborhood without embracing its challenges as well as its triumphs. Physical diversity does not automatically ensure social diversity. Convictions and real-life choices do not always jibe. But I love my neighborhood as much for what it hasn’t resolved as for what it has, for the ways it doesn’t work, for the paradoxes and heightened self-awareness that come from its in-your-face juxtapositions.
Princeton professor Cornel West once noted that the challenge of living in a multiracial society is to evolve from territorial fears and us-them prejudices to untainted, open-minded appraisals of the “other.” The challenge, he said, is to “disentangle difference from degradation.”
I’M CONVINCED THAT THE REASON we find most mixed-race people interesting to look at—exotic, beautiful—is that their combination of features is unexpected, takes you by surprise. You can’t slot them into known categories; you have to investigate their identities on a person-by-person basis. Mixed-race celebrities are admired for their surfaces, for the promise of difference their features present. For me, being mixed ensures a kind of wakefulness, a birthright invitation to see the world from more than one perspective. You can’t coast when you’re mixed; you have to navigate the deep investment people hold in their own and your identity.
I know of what I speak. I may be multiracial, but I’m from the melanin-challenged, straight-haired, blue-eyed end of the mulatto spectrum and thus a kind of racial double agent. My surface looks to most people like one thing, while my experiences are something else altogether. I am white and black; I am neither white nor black; I am more than both and less than both. I am all of it. “I am large,” Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass. “I contain multitudes.”
Not everyone celebrates the multi-faceted self. Speak who you are, and sometimes you will be delivered into the heart of other people’s bigotry But relish the dissonant chords of your personhood, the irreducible personhood of those around you, and the result is liberation— an object lesson in how fungible identity can be, how authentically your sense of self will shift as contexts change.
Living in Mt. Airy is like having been dropped onto a stage set that matches my internal landscape. Living the inside out. It’s not perfect, but it’s alive and mostly well intentioned. And because of the effort people make, their willingness to partake in the process of becoming, their intentional wakefulness, this much is true: It is always a beautiful day in my neighborhood.