Race still an issue in Philadelphia. Latest problem surfaces when whites don't want blacks for neighbors

The crowds did not gather in a southwest Philadelphia neighborhood this weekend -- either to protest or to support the one black couple and one interracial family that have recently moved into this predominantly white community. Last week, a crowd of as many as 400 white residents gathered to protest the arrival of the two couples. Earlier, vandals shot BB guns, smashed windows, and broke the heating pipes of one of the homes.

Mayor W. Wilson Goode declared a state of emergency in a more than 10-block area, banning groups of four or more people from gathering outdoors, except while waiting for transportation or while engaged in religious or recreational activities.

``It is time for the city to assume control over the streets in that neighborhood,'' said Mayor Goode Friday.

But a visitor walking through the quiet, working class neighborhood Saturday has no problem figuring out where the families live. At the corner of 64th Street and Buisto, clusters of people are gathered.

Frustration pervades the atmosphere. Many people here have become press weary and will not talk at length about what is happening in their neighborhood. But whether they support the new families or not, these people are uneasily eyeing changes in their lives.

The neighborhood of Elmwood has been an all white -- mostly Irish and Italian -- enclave for years. They have watched nearby neighborhoods become largely black communities.

The rows of houses are neat, but not always prosperous looking, and property prices have been falling for 30 years. Unemployment is high, particularly among youths. In some areas, one-fifth of the residents live below the poverty level.

And some residents report that after the homes were sold to the two families -- who bought them through a Veteran's Administration auction -- they received calls from real estate brokers saying they should sell now as blacks begin to move in.

Southwest Philadelphia has long been known for racial tensions. There have been deaths and beatings of both blacks and whites, mostly during the early '70s. In 1980, the Southwest Task Force was formed by the city to help ease the problems. Many in the area say progress has been made.

But despite descriptions of the situation as ``economic'' and not racial, it is hard not to detect bitterness.

``It stinks,'' says a white man who stands catty corner from the home of the interracial couple, Gerald and Carol Fox. But he will not say why.

One woman down the street says, ``I think they have a right to be there, but don't put down my name.''

Most people differentiate between the most recent tensions and the confrontation between the city and members of the radical, mostly black, group MOVE. But several people admitted that a ``pass the buck'' attitude that seemed to prevail during the recent hearings on the MOVE incident may have had some effect.

``Possibly there is a feeling that no one will protect them [blacks] from terrible things,'' says one observer.

Andrea Powell, a black who works at the Southwest Task Force, says she was not surprised at the outbreak of tensions.

``There are a lot of misconceptions from both communities,'' she says. ``Economics has a lot to do with it.''

Ruth Floirendo, a long-time resident, has seen progress -- such as the interracial basketball league that the task force has sponsored. But she says many whites consider this neighborhood theirs, as they have watched surrounding neighborhoods become largely black communities.

``There is a saying, `You can push me to the wall, but don't push me through it.' ''

Though some groups have protested the Mayor's state of emergency, many think it is necessary to keep the calm.

Others have tried, individually, to ease the tension. ``People have called and visited the families,'' says the Rev. Yeats, of Woodland Avenue United Presbyterian. ``It's the beginning of a welcome wagon.''

Bobby Malone, executive director of the Southwest Task Force, says cooperation between groups involved in the conflict has been evident. The gathering of whites on Thursday night was smaller than Wednesday, partly because community leaders had called off a demonstration. Several black groups had planned a march through the neighborhood Saturday that was cancelled.

``I don't think racism has gotten worse,'' says State Rep. Alfonso Deal, president of the North Philadelphia branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

The NAACP canceled their planned march because they felt the Mayor's actions were sufficient to protect the families and their rights, and bring calm to the neighborhood. It is, however, prepared to take such actions as going to the parish churches in the Elmwood area to meet with the people, in order to bring about better relations.

The Catholic church is a strong force in the neighborhood. A statement, protesting the disturbances, will be closely listened to at churches -- both Protestant and Catholic -- this weekend, says one city official.

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