Neighbor Ladies

In the 1950’s white Americans were fleeing inner cities, spurred on by a legal but unscrupulous real estate technique known as blockbusting. In places such as the Mount Airy neighborhoods in Philadelphia, PA, real estate companies would identify a majority white neighborhood and purposely sell a house to an African American. The agents would then blanket the neighborhood with flyers or even make phone calls to white homeowners alerting them to the ‘changing’ nature of the neighborhood, encouraging them to sell immediately before house prices dropped. The result of this was panic selling. Entire neighborhoods could be flipped in less than a month, creating racial distrust while lining the pockets of real estate agents and companies. Neighbor Ladies shares the stories and strategies of community activists and regular people who decided to organize and fight back against the system. LeAnn Erickson is Professor of film and video production in the Department of Film and Media Arts at Temple University and has been an independent media artist and filmmaker for over 35 years. Her work has appeared on public and cable television and in media and art galleries, and has won national and international recognition in video and film festivals. In 2010 she completed ‘Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of WWII’, a feature length historical documentary that has screened internationally and is distributed by PBS, Inc. In 2014 she released ‘The Computer Wore Heels’, an interactive iPad bookapp that shares the Top Secret Rosies story with young adults. Currently she is developing two television series pitches and an animated documentary on the life of fitness guru Jack Lalanne.

00:00Copy video clip URL Video opens on a residential street corner in East Mount Airy, a neighborhood in northwest Philadelphia, PA. Jane Cosby introduces the viewer to the neighborhood. Patricia Debrady describes the feelings evoked by her memory of living in the neighborhood.

01:10Copy video clip URL Herschell Gordon, a retired public school teacher and former resident of East Mt. Airy, reminisces about her arrival to the neighborhood.

01:40Copy video clip URL A narrator relates biographical information about Gordon’s family. In 1957, the Gordons became the first African-Americans to move into East Mt. Airy. The narrator introduces the term “blockbusting,” a business strategy fueled by racial discrimination and exploitation real estate agents employed in the United States after World War II.

02:09Copy video clip URL Title sequence.

02:25Copy video clip URL Chapter title “introductions.” Marie Tervalon, a retired public school teacher, displays her garden. She has lived in the neighborhood for the past 44 years.

03:31Copy video clip URL At the Weavers Way Co-op, Anne Ewing, a community activist, describes why she and her husband Bill moved to the neighborhood in 1970.

04:36Copy video clip URL Shirley Melvin, a real estate agent, shows a house on Edmundson St. built in the 1920s.

05:56Copy video clip URL Introductions of Shirley Melvin and Doris Polsky, twin sisters and joint partners of a woman-owned and operated real estate agency that they opened in 1965.

06:30Copy video clip URL Rachel Lawton introduces herself in narration over scenes of Philadelphia streets and at the Philadelphia Municipal Court. Lawton, now the Deputy Director of Civil Rights Enforcement on the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations (PCHR), recounts why she became a resident of Mount Airy and describes the mission of the PCHR and enforcement of the Philadelphia Fair Practices Ordinance.

08:16Copy video clip URL At the East Mt. Airy Neighbors Association office, Jane Cosby introduces further autobiographical information relating the circumstance of her family’s move to the Mt. Airy neighborhood. She is employed as the Office Manager of the East Mt. Airy Neighbors Association.

09:28Copy video clip URL Francine Fox talks about her participation with the East Mt. Airy education committee and her interest in increasing parent involvement in schools. In 1971, Fox was among the founders of Project Learn in East Mt. Airy, a school with a co-op organizational structure where parents are integrated across all levels of administrative and decision making in the school’s operation.

10:34Copy video clip URL Camera returns to Herschell Gordon. Gordon visits the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration, which she joined in 1961. The church is hosting a social hour before its service. Patricia Debrady is in attendance at the church, having joined in 1964. Debrady talks about her experience of trying to find a “welcoming” community.

12:55Copy video clip URL Chapter title “fences.” Debrady depicts the realities of racial and economic segregation where she grew up in Erie, PA. She compares this with life in Philadelphia. Pictures from her childhood and background are shown.

14:01Copy video clip URL The documentary revisits newspaper headlines from December 1941. All major airlines have received orders to ban or detain any “Japanese nationals” from travel.

14:37Copy video clip URL Marie Tervalon talks about her family’s background, her son and husband, and how they moved from New Orleans on account of her husband being stationed in Philadelphia while serving in the Navy.

15:42Copy video clip URL Narrator recalls a news story of Mark Ethridge, then a member of president Roosevelt’s Fair Practice Committee, who decried racial discrimination and bias against Jews by industries supporting wartime efforts.

16:25Copy video clip URL Melvin and Polsky describe their background and history in the East Mt. Airy neighborhood. She describes an instance where her father encountered anti-jewish sentiment when he asked a member of the North Philadelphia Realty Board about the prospects of their family moving to a house on that side of the city.

17:08Copy video clip URL Narrator tells another news event from August 1944. The story tells of a racially charged attack of a black delivery driver, for which the white attackers receive only a “lecture” afterward when they are brought to the police station. Jane Cosby recalls the event and the greater issues of racial relations in Philadelphia.

18:52Copy video clip URL Chapter title “houses.” Herschell Gordon and Francine Fox describe racial segregation in Philadelphia and the homogeneous racial makeup of formerly all-white neighborhoods where they lived. Fox recalls the economic and social conditions that made East Mt. Airy a relatively accessible and attractive neighborhood for servicemen and their families returning from WWII. Jane Cosby describes the aspirations and hopes for black families who wished to own a home at the time. A narrator intersperses selections of commentary about interior design, focusing on the range and limits of “white walls.” Marie Tervalon recalls her impressions and observations about the atmosphere of East Mt. Airy.

22:26Copy video clip URL Chapter title “block busting.” Rachel Lawton defines the practice of block busting. Fox tells of her initial awareness of deceptive strategies of certain real estate brokers. Doris Polsky describes how some real estate brokers spread influential messaging through disseminating fliers.

23:56Copy video clip URL Herschell Gordon remembers a phone call her husband received from a realtor warning him that “Negros are moving in” to the neighborhood.

24:40Copy video clip URL At the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration, a church service concludes with a benediction. Patricia Debrady narrates the growing awareness and activism of Rev. Rudolf C. Gelsey, pastor of the church, as he became aware of the block busting tactics happening in the neighborhood. Gelsey spoke out against the motives that helped precipitate “white flight.”

26:58Copy video clip URL The narrator recites an excerpt from a sermon delivered by Rev. Rudolf C. Gelsey on Sunday, November 14, 1965.

27:38Copy video clip URL Francine Fox and Anne Ewing sit together talking of the first meeting they attended at the East Mt. Airy Neighbors. The narrator recalls the history of the organization, whose impetus is said to be the Rev. Gelsey.

30:18Copy video clip URL Herschell Gordon guides camera to the neighborhood of Cedric Neighbors.

30:54Copy video clip URL Chapter title “neighbors.” Shirley Melvin and Doris Polsky present one strategy they developed to counteract the racist real estate practices of block busting. Gordon, Fox, and Cosby describe the cascading effect of homes being sold on the market and its psychological and financial consequences. Redlining was implemented in neighborhood blocks that contained over 33 1/3% of black families; otherwise known as a neighborhood that “goes.”

35:32Copy video clip URL Lawton outlines the “anti-solicitation” provision in the Philadelphia Fair Practices Ordinance. Lawton views it as a legal tool that was used by residents in neighborhoods with changing demographics to dispel a climate of fear and panic selling generated by real estate agencies inundating the neighborhood with solicitations.

37:54Copy video clip URL Melvin guides the camera to the grounds of the newly remodeled Allens Lane Art Center. Polsky describes her involvement with the arts center and her aspirations for starting a real estate agency. While starting the agency, she and her sister slowly became aware of the predatory practices of other real estate agents and sought to change their exploitative practices.

42:48Copy video clip URL Debrady and others expound upon the kinds of roles available to women in social and religious organizations as well as women’s contributions to these organizations.

46:14Copy video clip URL Chapter title “yards.” Marie Tervalon walks through her garden. Debrady talks about dynamics of social identity.

49:48Copy video clip URL The narrator gives a history of the importance of Philadelphia’s ban on sold signs in neighborhood lawns and how this ban was overturned in the year 2000.

50:25Copy video clip URL Dedication of the documentary to Herschell G. Gordon.

50:33Copy video clip URL End credits.

51:03Copy video clip URL Extra take of an interview with Debrady shown over credits.

 

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