Thursday, February 02, 2012

The Old Neighborhood

The New York Times a few months back ran an article accompanied by some maps of the greater Philadelphia area in 1970, 1990, and 2007 with the intent of demonstrating the growth of income inequality over that period (Link gear, King Lear). On the maps the areas colored darkest green represent affluent municipalities or neighborhoods, those colored darkest purple poor ones, etc. The most striking impression one gets, no doubt intentionally, is how overwhelmingly poor the city of Philadelphia has become even since 1990. I have noticed this to an extent on my increasingly rare visits back there, in that neighborhoods on the edges of the city near where I used to live and in which I used to walk around quite frequently, such as Olney and the neighborhoods in the northeast around Cottman and Rising Sun Avenues, have gone markedly downscale in the last 15 years. Most of the local businesses, restaurants and drugstores and so on that I was formerly familiar with appear to be long gone, and the chain stores in these neighborhoods, the Rite Aids and KFCs, have grown decidedly scuzzier. The main revelation of the graphs that seized my interest was that my own ancestral stomping grounds--the Cheltenham-Abington-Jenkintown area, the exact location of which on these unlabeled maps is roughly the corner niche right on the north and west border of the city--were designated as affluent in 1970, largely affluent in 1990, and drifting downwards towards merely upper middle and even middle-middle income in 2007. Among the numerous reasons for my finding this interesting are that the area did not seem particularly affluent in the 1970s, certainly by the standards we would apply to that term today, while today it has, like so many places, seemingly become more expensive and competitive and difficult to maintain either one's former social position or even one's household; yet at the same time one senses that there is some truth in these designations. There are more highly educated and professional people, more and more of whom have no previous familial connection to the area than was common when I was growing up, but there also more seem to be a lot more people of an extremely low quality of education and culture--numerous of my own extended family members fall into this latter category as well now--then there used to be. Indeed, I can think of several families where either the ascent or descent from a common 1950s middle class origin is growing increasingly marked with each succeeding generation; and of course those individuals who have fancier educations and serious professional pursuits are much more likely to have left the area permanently.

The 'affluent' 1970 neighborhood, into which I was born, as I have noted, didn't seem all that affluent. I suppose there were a high number of professionals, a substantial Jewish population, lots of people who never went to college but were still smarter than most people with master's degrees seem to be today who worked in insurance and advertising and things like that, just like on Mad Men. In retrospect, everybody was quite comfortable, they had the finished basement with the bar and the extra fridge and four televisions and all of that, but of course that was made fun of by sophisticated people, and if you were smart you were supposed to be ashamed if you came from this kind of vulgar environment. Now it is increasingly difficult to afford to live there and make any sort of decent income without highly specialized training, at the same time that the overall quality of the population appears to be declining, and this declining segment of the population to be growing. It seems to be easier to follow a pseudo-bohemian lifestyle, provided one has some sense of how to do that, which I was never able to develop; this no longer seems to depend exclusively on social access to somewhat elite artistically and politically active groups in major cities and college towns and select rural outposts. The market has found a way to bring certain aspects of this particular need to the suburbs.

(I could only get the 2007 map to transfer to my page. See the link above for the other two) While I am on the subject, I have a few more anecdotal stories about the old economy, so many aspects of which are fascinating in the light of our current situation, where scarcely anybody is deemed to be adequate for the job he has, let alone to be hired for any new one.

In 1971, my grandmother, 50 years old and out of the labor force since the end of World War II, having no schooling beyond high school of any kind, decided, her children being grown and it having I suppose become dull hanging around the house by herself all day, decided to get a job. She was able to get a position with "the Township" in their offices. I don't remember exactly what her position was, but she used to dress up to go to it, and at Christmas she would get a bottle of booze each from the police chief and the controller and all the other local bigwigs, so I took it to be a pretty grown-up job. She worked there for fifteen years and got a pension, heaven forfend, and they probably would have given her health insurance too but my grandfather worked for Blue Cross for 39 years so he had about the best health insurance you could possibly have when he retired.

When I was a child there was this enormous house in Jenkintown that we used to drive by on occasion which my father was fond of saying he could have gotten for $11,000 in 1969 if only his in-laws, whom he liked to recount as having been hostile to him (with good reason, as it later turned out) from the day they laid eyes on him, had been willing to lend him the money for the down payment, which evidently they had not (people did used to be quite harsh that way. Nowadays no one actually has the money to lend, but back in the day they did have it, and wouldn't give it up). He developed, or at least claimed to have developed, the belief, that our lives, which were evidently less than they might have been, would have turned out completely different had we been able to live in that house. I did used to wonder if indeed this might really have been the case...but I doubt it. I wonder if the bit about the house costing $11,000 is even accurate. Probably not, as my father is fond of embellishing and telling fantastic stories. But even if it was $25,000, that still would have been a pretty good deal. The place must be worth 400 today at least.

Given all of this talk about real estate, I looked up the house we eventually did live in on the internet, and I see that it was caught up full bore in the house flipping craze. The price history, which goes back to August, 2004, shows that it was sold at that time for $197,000. This is pretty crazy, considering that this is just a typical little semi-detached house in the kind of neighborhood where Archie Bunker lived. My parents I know paid $30,000 for it in 1977, and I don't remember exactly how much they sold it for in 1985, when they had to offload it rather quickly due to their impending divroce, but I think it was probably around $60,000. Anyway, March, 2005, seven months after the previous sale: Sold, for $250,000! And it gets worse! December, 2005, sold again, to some lunkhead for $300,000! You've got to be kidding me. Whoever this was got left holding the bag. The place went on the market in May, 2008 for $300,000, and the price kept going down, down, down until it was sold in August 2010 for a $130,000, which still sounds like too much to me. The great question regarding this house, which all the real estate sights seem unable to answer, is whether the wallpaper I had in my room featuring 1910s-1930s baseball cards is still there. Something tells me it probably is not.

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