Will Philadelphia Ever Be Home to a Middle Class?

Jake Blumgart has watched his friends decamp his adopted hometown for places with more opportunities and city services. Will anyone be left to build a better Philly?
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Jake Blumgart has watched his friends decamp his adopted hometown for places with more opportunities and city services. Will anyone be left to build a better Philly?
The Philadelphia skyline. (Photo: marianovsky/Flickr)

The Philadelphia skyline. (Photo: marianovsky/Flickr)

I moved to Philadelphia four and a half years ago. I’ve lived in my current apartment longer than I’ve lived anywhere besides my childhood home. (Find a good landlord, stick with her.) I settled here after a brief stint in Seattle and 10 months in deepest Silver Spring, where I quickly learned that spending your first year out of school in an isolated suburb is just as ghastly as it sounds.

Most of my friends followed similar patterns after college, bouncing around big cities: New York, Philadelphia, D.C., Boston, Chicago, Seattle, the Bay Area, New Orleans, and Portland, with a few outliers thinly spread across the upper South. Now most of us are on the cusp of 30 and a few enterprising couples are even cultivating kiddos.

After close to half a decade in my adopted hometown, though, I’m starting to worry about how many of them will stick around after discussion of the state’s systemic underfunding of Philadelphia’s public schools turns personal. Recent research by Pew showed that half of the 20- to 34-year-olds polled did not expect to be living in the city in five to 10 years, largely because of concerns about education and career opportunities (the ones that never knock).

What will happen—to me, to the city—if the bulk of today’s middle class follows their parents and trickles out to the suburbs or other, less troubled, cities?

I love Philadelphia, it has become my home. But what will happen if the bulk of today’s middle class follows their parents and trickles out to the suburbs?

A little context is in order, for those who don’t know much about Philly besides the usual cliches about cheesesteaks and Rocky. For a big coastal city, housing is relatively cheap and mostly composed of environmentally friendly row houses and apartments (we have more attached housing, proportionally, than New York or Chicago). Center City and the neighborhoods haloed around it are very densely populated and walkable. (On comfortably warm summer nights, I’ve strolled off the beer calories by walking home from a movie theater on 5th Street to my apartment on 50th.) Our much-maligned public transportation agency, SEPTA, operates reasonably well considering its limited resources. It certainly compares favorably with the howling transit void available in most corners of the country. When paired with a bike, there’s really no need for a car.

But like most old centers of industry, manufacturing capital has long since gone in search of more pliant and easily abused workforces. Boosters termed Philly the “Workshop of the World” in the 19th century, but 90 percent of the manufacturing jobs have been lost since 1970 along with 22 percent of the population. The latter decline bottomed out in the last decade and, just as I moved here, Philly managed to edge out Phoenix as America’s fifth most populous city. (Although the Sunbelt city was cheating, in my opinion, by gobbling up its surrounding suburbs for many decades longer than Philly was allowed.) The population grew from 1,488,710 in 2006 to 1,553,165 in 2014. But the tax base never recovered from de-industrialization and, as a result, neither did city services. The school district, in particular, is caught in the unenviable vice of caring for an incredibly high-need student body while being forced to rely for funding on the caprices of a state government notorious for its anti-Philadelphia sentiment.

When I first arrived in 2010, at the age of 24, the state of public education did not concern me. My attention focused on mapping bike routes, absorbing the intricacies of the Citywide Special (a shot and a beer for $3!), and questing after the finest burritos in the land. Far from worrying about where to send their kids to school, my friends were wholly devoted to warding off the slightest possibility of pregnancy.

But as my 29th birthday draws uncomfortably near, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend. I’ve attended more going away parties this year than weddings. These exoduses have mostly been motivated by the end of grad school (or its beginning elsewhere) and Philadelphia’s other big problem: There aren’t enough jobs. (Twenty-five percent fewer than in 1970, office jobs are still leaking out into the sprawl, and job growth lags the region and nation.) The poles of Washington, D.C., and, especially, New York pull away those who want more money, while more stable school systems in the Research Triangle, Denver, and Seattle have claimed many of the educators and/or would-be parents. As my former housemate put it, rather brutally, on Facebook recently (and I paraphrase): “Now I see how this works—party in Philly in your 20s, move to Seattle and have kids in your 30s.”

I cannot, of course, begrudge my departing friends. They are all making rational choices about the availability of jobs and education in a city that has been robbed of many of its advantages by world-historical forces. And they are all pretty much of the demographic that is most likely to move anyway. A 2011 Pew study found that, across America, 77 percent of college graduates have moved at least once (compared with 56 percent of those with a high school degree or less) and many have lived in four or more places.

Part of my trouble is that I’m simply not used to transient communities. None of my childhood friends left the neighborhood until after graduation. My social scene in college proved stable, despite the break-ups and abroad trips, until being shuddered apart at graduation. I’ve been warned again and again that such things do not last: You graduate, keep the friends you made in your youth, and just reconcile yourself to seeing them once a year or so. A cohesive social environment outside the workplace is unlikely, unless you attend grad school.

During my lonely year in the D.C. suburbs, it appeared the doomsayers were correct. Life out here, away from the homey wastes of my campus apartment complex, was an atomized, dull grind. But in Philadelphia I discovered that it didn’t have to be that way. You could still walk to a friend’s house at night for a drink on the porch, run into your favorite people on the trolley, and navigate sprawling parties laced with internecine drama—the advantage in living in a huge, dense city where driving is not necessary most of the time. Community exists here in a way that it did not in the sylvan recesses of Silver Spring. I want to believe the world can be like that.

Far more serious, of course, but linked to my fears of lost community , is the fact that a city cannot survive without a diverse class base. The Philadelphia region is littered with the shells of those—Chester, Camden, Trenton—that have been reduced to their most impoverished populations and, then, abandoned.

Philadelphia’s recent population growth has not been a result of an expanding middle class but of lower-income immigrants moving to the city from abroad. As Ryan Briggs discovered, using the Census’ Flowmapper tool:

6,800 households earning more than $100,000 annually­­­ moved into the city last year. But almost twice as many, about 14,800, left over the same period. ... [T]he middle 50 percent of income earners showed a much smaller disparity — about 20,000 moved out, while 16,000 moved in. There was very slight growth amongst households making less than $25,000 ... the census estimated that 68,000 people moved out of Philadelphia while 55,000 people moved in last year. However, the survey also estimates that around 11,000 residents moved into the city from abroad.

The city’s expanding immigrant population is a blessing. But I fear that Philadelphia is already caught in a vicious cycle where high-needs, low-income populations are stuck with degraded services—education chief among them—while the higher paid working-class families and middle-class professionals are scared off by those very issues and decamp for more amenable locales. (White flight is not the appropriate description of Philly’s reduced middle class; in recent decades, many wealthier black families have also left.)

Individuals cannot be expected to make their own life choices in pursuit of a quixotic bid to stave off the stubbornly persistent urban crisis. The real issues are not my friends moving to Seattle, but stagnating wages, terrible tax policies, ironclad residential segregation, and the educational inequities that stem from it. But changing all that requires, at the very least, that some people who have the option to move instead decide they want to stay and see things through.

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