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White Flight Is Not Black Fright

Two majority-black suburbs of Philadelphia maintain property values and civic spirit

ON a suburban street of identical three-story homes with postage-stamp yards, an elderly white man gingerly shoveled snow off of his narrow driveway and talked about why he thought his town was headed in the wrong direction.

``[Yeadon] is going downhill, the taxes keep going up,'' said the man who did not give his name, ``I'd like to leave.''

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As he warmly greeted a young black man walking down the street, he said that the problem in Yeadon, a suburb of Philadelphia, wasn't racial.

``No, no, they're not all bad,'' he said, referring to the town's growing black majority. ``I understand that they're trying to get away from the city and the drugs. But some of them don't have the money to keep up their properties.''

Over the past decade, racial fears and stereotypes have been played out with ruthless efficiency on the lawns and oak-filled streets of this suburb, as well as in Willingboro, N.J., another suburb that has seen a rapid influx of blacks.

By 1990, these two towns have seen a switch from majority white to majority black. But in a new ending to an old story, the sky hasn't fallen in Yeadon or Willingboro, as whites expected.

Property values haven't plummeted and crime hasn't shot through the roofs of the homes that dot the tree-lined streets. In interviews, many blacks said that their towns have taken steps to halt white flight. Some blacks said they would prefer integration over living in all-black communities. But many others said that more middle-class blacks will fill the economic gap left by fleeing whites.

``I know what's going to happen here, it's going to change over [to all-black],'' said black Yeadon resident James Mosley. ``But it's not going be a ghetto.''

Yeadon, which borders Philadelphia's western edge, has had an affluent community of black doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and teachers in its western half since the 1950s. The 1.6-square-mile borough is filled with older houses that vary from stately colonials to two-family row homes.

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Since blacks began to move into predominantly white sections of Yeadon in the early '80s, the black percentage of the population more than doubled, from 32 percent in 1980 to 66 percent in 1990.

Integrated by court

The shift to majority black in Willingsboro has been more gradual. The town was integrated after a New Jersey state supreme court ruling forced suburb-builder William Levitt to sell homes to blacks in the early 1960s.

Middle-class blacks, many from nearby military bases, flocked to the town's affordable housing. An attempt by Willingboro officials to slow white flight by banning ``For Sale'' signs was overturned by the United States Supreme Court in the mid-1970s.

``It's a shame that [white] people feel they have to run, but it doesn't frighten me,'' says black resident Dr. Alva Gault. ``If civic pride is kept up and we elect people who want to maintain the community, we'll be OK.''

Black Willingboro resident Raymond Frindley, who owns a computer company and is a school board member, said, ``This isn't a race issue. It's a quality-of-people issue.''

Willingboro's median household income has remained high and was $47,121 in 1989. Race relations in the town, despite some tensions in local politics, are ``excellent,'' according to blacks and whites.

Paul Krane, one of the first whites to move into Willingboro when it was built in 1958, said the shift to black majority had ``no significance.''

``In a way I think it's a natural progression,'' said Mr. Krane. ``With more whites getting older and dying or retiring or moving away, it's natural for a community that's predominantly black to attract affluent blacks.''

Local officials said both towns suffered in the early '80s when realtors illegally steered poor blacks into homes they could not afford to maintain. White residents in both towns were also urged by realtors to sell their homes before the community turned majority black.

``They sent out notices encouraging you to consider getting out while you had some value in your home,'' said one white Yeadon resident who chose not to give her name.

White and black Willingboro residents also blamed realtors for creating a crime problem in the town in the late '80s. Some area realtors were convicted of moving low-income families into the community by misusing affordable housing programs. The families have moved out and crime has dropped somewhat, but a high-crime image still persists.

``Willingboro is not as bad as people [outside the community] perceive,'' said Lt. Barry Armstrong of the Willingboro Police Department.

Residents in Willingboro have been fined for failing to cut their lawn, paint their house, or clear their driveway since the '70s.

``You can't get away with letting your house get run down here, because we'll fix it up ourselves and bill you for it,'' Willingboro Mayor Doreatha Campbell said. ``We have [housing codes] that other towns don't have to make sure that the community remains viable and that property values remain high.''

Ending white flight

Blacks and whites said it was too early to tell whether the towns are headed toward resegregation. Some said that the white flight has ended and that the whites left in both towns are the ones that want to live in integrated communities.

The relatively low cost of housing in both towns is attracting some young white families, and both towns have attracted numerous interracial couples.

``There are three families left on my block that are white and I don't like it,'' said Richard Wade, a black homeowner.

``I prefer to live in an integrated community. It makes it a better environment for my kids,'' he added. ``If they want to go anywhere in corporate America, they've got to know how to work in an integrated environment.''

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