City's black residents now top all groups

Their numbers dropped, but other changes put them first. Population rose for the first time in 50 years.

Michael Burch returned to this neighborhood on Viola Street, near Fairmount Park. He grew up here, moved to Drexel Hill, then came back. (David Swanson/Staff)

African descendants have called Philadelphia home for centuries, with the first U.S. Census, in 1790, listing 2,099 "free" blacks and 373 slaves.

Today, the city's black population is 644,287, according to the latest census, and for the first time it clearly outnumbers all other racial or ethnic groups. (See graphic.)

This evolution happened even though the number of African Americans in the city, excluding Hispanics, declined about 1,800 over the last decade and their share of the population remained about the same.

Key to the new black plurality: the continued steep decline in the city's white population. In 2000, each group accounted for about 42 percent of city residents, but the white share is now 37 percent, after a loss of 82,000 people.

Meanwhile, an influx of Hispanics, Asians, and other groups - now 21 percent of the city's 1.5 million people - boosted Philadelphia's total for the first time in 50 years.

The black plurality coincides with another trend: More and more middle- and working-class African Americans are leaving the city for suburbia. Since 2000, the black population of the city's Pennsylvania suburbs jumped 26 percent - by 47,000.

"You need to look at it not only from a racial-ethnic point of view, but also the distribution of incomes," said Mark Mather, senior demographer with the Population Reference Bureau, a nonprofit in Washington that interprets census data.

Are relatively "higher-income blacks moving away from the city, leaving behind a poorer population without a lot of prospects?" he asked. "That wouldn't bode well."

In the last decade, average income in white households in Philadelphia rose 4 percent to $65,100, adjusted for inflation. But black household income fell 10 percent to $40,200. Overall, the average income in the city fell 1 percent.

Neighborhoods with the highest concentration of African Americans - West Oak Lane, Kingsessing, and Nicetown, among others - were slammed twice.

Many who could move out did. Many who remained experienced a significant drop in income. In Tioga-Nicetown, which is 94 percent black, average household income fell 35 percent in the last decade - the city's biggest drop - to $26,800. That's half of the citywide average.

As gentrification gathered speed in some predominantly black parts of the city, superheating property values, several things happened. Some homeowners cashed in and bought again, either in suburbia or other parts of Philadelphia. Some renters got squeezed out or were left stranded in pockets of poverty.

"Yes, Philadelphia has 42 percent blacks," said Voffee Jabateh, director of the African Cultural Alliance of North America, a Southwest Philadelphia advocacy group for African immigrants, but by and large "these are not blacks that have a strong economic voice."

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, a Democrat whose district covers parts of North and West Philadelphia and Montgomery County, said he saw the movement of black residents to better neighborhoods as "identical in many ways to patterns of other demographic groups . . . as people make their way into the middle class."


Migrating to the suburbs

Across Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware, and Chester Counties, the proportion of black residents grew in 176 of 238 municipalities, mirroring a national trend, though still fewer than 10 percent of Philadelphia-area suburbanites are black.

In the 1950s, said Norristown municipal administrator David Forrest, mortgages "were more available to whites than blacks," leading to "primarily white suburbanization."

Black upward mobility and more available credit, particularly in the last decade, he said, spurred movement to inner-ring suburbs, especially in southeastern Delaware County, where better schools, lower housing density, and public transportation lured people from Southwest Philadelphia, including large numbers of African immigrants.

Sharon Hill and East Lansdowne for the first time became majority-black towns, according to the census. They joined Yeadon, Colwyn, Darby Borough, Chester, and Chester Township - already majority black in 2000 - as new pillars in the inner ring of predominantly African American suburbs.

"It's the upward mobility of people coming out of the city," said Mary Bell, manager of demographic and economic analysis for the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. "The impact is biggest in Delaware County because the houses there are more affordable."

Unlike Delaware County, where a fifth of the population is black, Bucks and Chester Counties experienced little change. According to the 2010 census, fewer than 6 percent of residents of those counties are black.

In Montgomery County, the number of black residents grew from 55,303 in 2000 to 67,582 in 2010, nudging its percentage of the total population to 8.4 percent.

Suburban diversity also was spurred by the arrival of Latinos, up 105 percent last decade, and Asians, up 72 percent.


A tale of two communities

Two swaths of the city that experienced significant population change during the last decade were parts of North Philadelphia - including Tioga-Nicetown, which lost 1,977 people, 10 percent of its population - and the largely white lower Northeast, which grew in numbers and diversity.

Tacony, for instance, was 9 percent minority in 2000; now it is 39 percent minority, including African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians.

Louis Iatarola, president of the Tacony Civic Association, attributes that change to the mid-decade real estate boom, which created new homeowners and investors, who sometimes carved houses into affordable apartments.

On the loss side of the ledger, Majeedah A. Rashid, executive vice president of the Nicetown Community Development Corp., said she saw why the population in her part of town had fallen: "In the last 20, 30 years, there was really nothing going on here."

Rashid cited the "flight of industry," including the closing of the Budd and Tastykake factories.

"Those things make a big impact," she said. "People are moving away from the neighborhood to find better housing conditions and more valuable employment."

Her group is working to retain and attract residents by brokering such things as the construction of Nicetown Court, a mix of commercial business and 34 new affordable-housing units, and the installation of lights in one of the community's two-acre parks. "That's a big deal in Nicetown," Rashid said.

Michael Burch, 51, who grew up in the Parkside section of West Philadelphia, is among those African Americans who picked up and moved.

After Burch earned a master's degree in science education from Temple University, he left in 1982 for a more affluent city neighborhood - Wynnefield.

"I was slowly making my way out of the city," he said, jokingly, of his move to near the Montgomery County border. He counts himself as part of a generation whose education and careers afforded it the means to move up and eventually out.

Burch, director of youth programs at the Franklin Institute, later settled in Upper Darby, then in Drexel Hill.

He said his main reason for leaving "was just the congestion of the city." But after his mother died five years ago, instead of selling his three-story childhood home in Parkside, he moved back in.

"Growing up in that neighborhood as a child," Burch said, "I had so many good and fond memories of the house and neighborhood and living near Fairmount Park, which was a big part of my life then. I thought I could add something to the neighborhood now."


In Delaware County

In Collingdale, Pat Reilly of Reilly Real Estate said his business formerly had been based in Southwest Philadelphia, "but the area got pretty much sold out" after West African immigrants, especially from Liberia and Ghana, started snapping up houses a decade ago.

Then some of them, along with African Americans, moved into Collingdale, he said. Census figures show the proportion of black residents jumped from 4 percent in 2000 to 35 percent of the 8,786 residents in 2010.

A typical rowhouse that sold for about $105,000 half a decade ago sells for $80,000 to $85,000 today, Reilly said.

Those buying affordable Collingdale houses, he said, are mostly first-time buyers, often single mothers who work as health-care aides and certified nursing assistants.

Houses come on the market because of estate sales, Reilly said, or when elderly retirees move into nursing homes or to live with family.

The Rev. Michael Fitzpatrick of Collingdale's Grace Reformed Episcopal Church said the arrivals were helping to resuscitate his congregation.

When he arrived at the parish from Havertown in 2003, he said, the church was down to 27 members, all white except for one Liberian woman. Today, thanks largely to the influx of African Americans and West Africans, there are 160 parishioners, including 30 who are white.

Church members have told Fitzpatrick that they moved to Collingdale for the heightened sense of security, better schools, and backyards.

Jacquelynn Puriefoy-Brinkley, a former president of Yeadon Borough Council, is a retiree in her 70s. She recalled moving to Yeadon with her parents in 1947, along with other "mostly upper-middle-class" black residents who lived in an enclave on one side of town.

Puriefoy-Brinkley's father owned several businesses and was a salesman for Wyeth Pharmaceuticals.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Yeadon was about 10 percent black, she said. Over time, a larger cross section of African Americans from the city moved in.

Today Yeadon is 88 percent black. NAACP membership forms are available at the circulation desk of the public library. A shopping strip includes the Mohammad Ali Variety Store across the street from the Harlem Cafe.

Going from virtually all white to virtually all black is certainly no triumph of coexistence, Puriefoy-Brinkley acknowledged, but she feels the pattern of movement has been basically positive.

"Maybe the upside," she said, "is that people who didn't have opportunities to live in decent housing or walkable communities have those opportunities now."


Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or