Abigail Perkiss

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[Cross-posted from New Books in History] Sitting in my home office this morning, I’ve periodically looked up from my computer screen and out the window to see who the dog is barking at. Sometimes it’s a young mother pushing a stroller, sometimes an older man walking his dogs, occasionally a young woman jogging. Regardless of age, gender or agenda, all of the people I’ve seen have one thing in common. They are white. This is not unusual, of course. Blacks and whites throughout America live separate lives. They attend separate schools. They worship in separate sanctuaries. And, most obviously, they live in different neighborhoods.

This remains true despite the dramatic migrations of the mid-Twentieth Century. The racial identity of specific neighborhoods changed. But the persistence of segregation even after the gradual dismantling of legal and extralegal barriers to black mobility and choice is striking. However, there are a few neighborhoods that chose strategically to invite certain black families to put down roots in their part of the city. This was not an easy task. The obstacles, institutional, cultural and economic, were great, and often subverted such efforts. But a few neighborhoods surmounted these to become national models of what integration might look like.

Abigail Perkiss discusses one of these neighborhoods, West Mount Airy in Philadelphia, in her wonderful new book Making Good Neighbors:  Civil Rights, Liberalism and Integration in Postwar Philadelphia (Cornell University Press, 2014).  Having grown up in the neighborhood, Perkiss has both an instinctive sympathy for the residents of the neighborhood and a thorough understanding of  the cultural, economic and demographic challenges facing the city.  Her study reflects this familiarity while remaining analytically rigorous.  As a bonus, she writes beautifully.   The result is a book that sheds much light on what the residents of West Mount Airy meant when they talked about integration, how they strove to integrate their neighborhood and how they struggled to address the challenges to that accomplishment.

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