There were some kids who were mixed. There was some kids who were Jewish, and there were some white kids, too. But it never dawned on me as a child. I never knew the difference. I went to an all-black school for the first three years of my life, which was a block away.
-Gwendolyn Bye, daughter of Powelton Co-op founders Jerry and Louis Bye.
During the 1940s and early 1950s, West Philadelphia’s “Powelton Co-op” was a haven for people seeking a tolerant, racially-integrated community. It was a mixture of Penn students, social activists, professionals, and musicians. They stood against war, nuclear proliferation, and segregation. Most leaned politically to the left. Some identified as Communists, a bold stance just before the rise of McCarthyism. There was also a strong Quaker influence, as many residents were involved with the American Friends Service Committee.
“There were Jews. There were WASPs. There were gay people. There were African-Americans. It was a real mixed bag,” remembered Gwendolyn Bye, whose parents Jerry and Lois Bye met at the Powelton Co-op in the late 1940s. Regarding the Powelton Co-op’s Marxist leanings, Bye explained: “It was a much more innocent form of community and social questioning: the rich being corrupt, everything’s for everyone, we work together for the common good. And the underlying message was a very innocent one, but it was one that was very strongly felt by my mother and father and the people who formed the Powelton Co-op.”
The co-op’s sphere of influence would eventually encompass a group of blocks that today is known as Powelton Village: bounded by Powelton Avenue to the south, Spring Garden Street to the north, Lancaster Avenue to the west, and the Schuylkill River to the east. There were plenty of big old houses that could be bought or rented for very little money, and the neighborhood was also within walking distance of the University of Pennsylvania.
Originally developed in the decades after the Civil War, Powelton Village had once been of Philadelphia’s premier streetcar suburbs. By the 1890s, it was home to German-American beer barons, Pennsylvania Railroad executives, and Quaker entrepreneurs who ignored the stigma of living “North of Market.” Yet fashion moved on, as did the descendants of the original wealthy families. As a result of New Deal housing policies, most of West Philadelphia north of Market Street was “redlined,” meaning that banks refused to give prospective homebuyer mortgages. Worse still, insurance companies refused to issue homeowner policies. Much of this was racially motivated: as soon as a black family moved into a neighborhood, the whole area was deemed “hazardous” and marked as red on the lending institution’s map. During the 1940s and 50s, brokers routinely engaged in a practice known as “blockbusting,” informing white families in a neighborhood that African-Americans were moving into the area. Afraid that their property values would decrease due to redlining, the white residents would then “panic sell.” The realtor would then sell the property to a black family, pocketing the commission. Entire neighborhoods would turn over within a decade or less. The idea of an integrated neighborhood was a foreign concept to both residents and policy makers. Until the passing of Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which made it a federal crime to discriminate “in the sale, rental and financing of dwellings based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin,” this practice was a major driver of white flight, not just in Philadelphia, but in cities throughout the United States.
Jerry and Lois Bye, who were among the founding members of the Powelton Co-op, happened to be in real estate, but they were realtors on a mission. Devout Quakers and pacifists, they believed they could be agents for the creation of an integrated neighborhood. Among the other founders were realtor George Funderburg (an African-American) and his wife Maggie (a German-American). In addition to the cheap housing, West Philadelphia was one of the few places where interracial couples such as the Funderburgs felt comfortable. Anti-miscegnation laws, which prohibited marriage between people of two difference races, were on the books in fourteen states. And even in states such as Pennsylvania that permitted interracial marriage, couples were often met with hostility or even violence by their neighbors.
Initially known as the “Friendship Co-op,” the group’s first home was set of buildings known as “The Court,” located at the intersection of 37th and Baring Street. As shareholders in the corporation, all members shared expenses, childcare, and the household chores. A communal meal was held every night. At the end of the year, the co-op members would get equity according to their contributions. After a few years at “The Court,” the Powelton Co-op moved to a large house at 35 North 34th Street, and then another one at 3709 Baring Street. There were plenty of hulking old homes for the taking. A Victorian mansion in this part of West Philadelphia could be purchased for as little as $12,000. Many had been turned into rooming or halfway houses, and were generally in poor repair.
The Powelton Co-op would be this group’s laboratory, and Powelton Village was the perfect location for it. They betted that the neighborhood would be a much better place in the long run as an integrated one, rather than one defined by a single ethnic group. The Funderburgs, Byes, Marshalls and other founding families intended to raise their children in a place where they would feel comfortable with people from all backgrounds.
It would be a difficult road, but in the end they would succeed in achieving their vision.
To be continued…
Interview of David and Anne Lodge, December 26, 2017.
Interview of Gwendolyn Bye, July 17, 2013.
Interview of Gwendolyn Bye, October 5, 2016.
Interview of Gwendolyn Bye, December 26, 2018.
“The Fair Housing Act,” US Department of Housing and Urban Development,” https://www.hud.gov/program_offices/fair_housing_equal_opp/progdesc/title8, accessed February 16, 2018.