New people are arriving, new problems are arising
By Meld0n Jones
The largest township in the country has seen its fair share of change.
“I remember when Upper Darby was mostly Irish Catholic, White Protestant, Jewish and Italian, there weren’t many minorities at all” said Helene Curley. Curley has lived in Upper Darby Township, PA for over 60 years and has been a witness to the rapidly changing demographics.
Now Upper Darby is a smorgasbord of ethnicities, home to over 100 ethnic cultures earning it the nickname “The United Neighborhood”. A trip down 69th street is a linguist’s dream, where a slow stroll will treat the astute listener to over 50 languages. The crowded streets are framed with colorful restaurants and grocery shops from almost every imaginable place. Local residents are just as likely to have spicy homemade ceviche for lunch as Guyanese dhalpuri roti (a hot, buttery flatbread stuffed with ground yellow split peas, garlic and pepper, usually served with savory curry).
“I moved here because of the diversity” said Monica Routh, a new resident who moved to Upper Darby a year ago. “The high school is very good, and it’s very close to downtown Philadelphia too.” And Routh’s favorite thing about her newfound home? “The shopping!” she gushes. Indeed, the local businesses are ripe with interesting finds; from catchall shops run by local Sikhs to large chain stores, filled with glossy posters of the latest Nikes.
But Curley remembers the real glory days of shopping in Upper Darby. Her blue eyes take on a dreamy quality as she reminiscences about bygone years: “People used to come from the outer suburbs to shop here. The big department stores around then-in the 50’s and 60s- were you know, Gimble’s, Lit Brothers, Woolworth’s. Everyone came here to shop, especially around the holidays!”
And Curley would know. Although she denies it, Curley is an unofficial Upper Darby historian of sorts. As she stood in the chilly afternoon wind, tiny shopping bag in tow, she pointed out the exact spots that individual trees were planted almost half a century ago – “in front of every other house” she clarifies. She notes that some were intentionally cut down, which makes her “hate to see them go because they’re nature’s air conditioners.” Curley can tell you the history of almost any building in downtown Upper Darby or even the nun’s name that ran the local Catholic school program around the corner 30 years ago.
But Curley also hinted at larger issues surrounding the changes in Upper Darby.
Not only have the last 20 years seen an explosion in newcomers from abroad, it has seen a large growth in people coming from right next door in West Philadelphia. This too has implications for the ethnic make-up of Upper Darby. According to U.S census data, the African American population increased from 11.3% in 2000 to 23.2 percent of the total population in 2008. As West Philadelphia residents – predominantly but not exclusively Black American- started moving in, the white population decreased from 77% in 2000 to about 64% today.
The history of Upper Darby’s race relations is a delicate subject. George Burell, who moved to Upper Darby ten years ago, recounts “Upper Darby used to be one of the most prejudiced places ever: if you were a black guy who walked through there, the white guys would kick your butt!” That type of atmosphere had died down by the time Burrell and his family moved in, even though they were the first Black Americans on his particular street.
Curley has her own theory about what caused the shift in the black/white population: “I heard that when the Mayor at the time wanted to build that pedestrian bridge on 69th street, the government basically said “we’ll give you your bridge if you allow Section-8 here”. Curley quiets for a minute, as if wondering if she dares to say more.
Crime and drugs
Burell however, doesn’t mince any words: “It was like a complete flip: they let a lot of Section-8 residents in and then the neighborhood became much dirtier: trash, drugs, crime – everything. It’s a shame man; it’s mostly my own people.”
Section 8 is a reference to the portion of the U.S. Housing and Community Development Act of 1974. The program is a type of federal assistance provided that sponsors subsidized housing for low-income families and individuals.
“The area started getting more renters instead of owners, and the renters seem to not be interested in maintaining the property.” said Curley. Burrell and Curley are observing the shift that census data has picked up, which shows that owner-occupied housing units decreased by about 2000. Interestingly, the relative wealth of residents in Upper Darby has not declined; the median household income is $52,900 and the poverty rate has risen only slightly. “There are a lot of young families moving in, which is nice” said Curley.
Still, Curley can’t help but recall the terrifying experience she had a few years ago. She seems reluctant to describe the incident in which gunfire sent bullets flying through her home, shattering the windows right above her head. “I got down on the floor, thinking that it was just BB guns or something.” Curley tells of how she went outside later and was asked by police to provide a towel in order to stop the massive quantities of blood flowing from the man dying in her front yard.
“But I still think this is a decent town, with decent people” Curley reassures.
Bill Muth has good things to say too. Muth is the owner of the Upper Darby True Value Hardware Store, which has been there for over 30 years. Muth takes issue with some who would claim the residents of Upper Darby neglect their homes: “I know because I’m in the home improvement business. People actually do take care of their homes. They might not be moving out for a long time so they figure it’s best to take care of what they have”.
Muth admits that “a lot of [his] friends have packed up and [gone] to the suburbs”, but he feels comitted to the area. “We’re no different from a lot of places, except the population is really dense. And If 5, 10% of that poulation are knuckleheads, then of course there’s going to be a little trouble.” Muth still fervently believes that there’s hope for Upper Darby: “There are a lot of good things going on here, and I’d rather look at those things than concentrate on the bad.” Muth speaks specifically of some faith-based programs springing up to assist revitalization efforts like IC Movement, which is a non profit orginization that serves underprivelaged inner-city kids through theatrical productions, training and strategic community partnerships.
“I ain’t seen nothing but good here” said Muth.
Despite Curley’s traumatic experience, she too chooses to see the good in Upper Darby too. Unlike Burrell who is contemplating moving soon, Curley fiercely resists friends’ attempts to get her out: “I’m not interested in moving. I don’t feel unsafe here, although I don’t go out at night.”
Curley paused and looked thoughtful when she said “It’s change. It’s just what happens.”