But in 1991, the year Sugrue was brought to Penn (after receiving his PhD from Harvard he did a post-graduate stint at the Brookings Institute), neither Katz nor Kuklick would have imagined the extent of his involvement in Philadelphia. “Philadelphia worked for me right from the start,” Sugrue explains, adding that as a “wannabe architect” he was moved by the vital remains of the 19th and 20th-century city, its walkability, and its large, residential-commercial downtown. Beginning in 2001, Sugrue spent seven years as vice-chair of the Historical Commission, serving as senior historian and often presiding over monthly hearings (the chair, lawyer Michael Sklaroff L’67, was repeatedly forced to recuse himself because of conflicts of interest). In the summer of 2006, as Sugrue neared the end of the research that would form Sweet Land of Liberty, a 1950s Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood called Greenbelt Knoll was brought before the commission for historic designation.

For Sugrue, it was a not-so-unusual confluence of scholarship and community involvement. Fellow commissioner Harris Steinberg C’78 GAr’82, director of the School of Design’s civic planning agency Penn Praxis, says, “Here was Philadelphia, architecture (it’s believed that Louis Kahn Ar’24 Hon’71 designed some of the development’s houses), the story of breaking down racial barriers, and his own ongoing scholarship. All this came together for him.”

Greenbelt Knoll was one of a series of purposely integrated suburban-style housing developments built by Philadelphian Morris Milgram, who was in the vanguard of open housing advocates in the 1950s and ’60s. According to Sugrue in Sweet Land of Liberty, “open housing activists came to view the creation of stable, racially integrated communities as the key to breaking down the psychological barriers of race.”

Soon after being hired by Penn, Sugrue moved to Mount Airy, one of the first urban places to resist white flight and rapid social dissolution by embracing open housing and intentional integration. In 1953, with African Americans from North Philadelphia moving up the “Gold Coast” to upper-middle class neighborhoods like Mount Airy, three religious organizations—one Jewish, two Christian—formed a covenant, an embrace of racial integration. The covenant, one of the first of its kind in the country, fomented a new kind of local activism. Residents fought “block-busting” real-estate agents, made straw purchases for black families, lobbied large employers to hire African Americans, and spent time in neighborhood schools helping newly integrated students and teachers adapt. In 1959, community activists formed a civic organization, West Mount Airy Neighbors. The goal wasn’t to defend territory, but to open it, in a way that achieved social stability. By the early 1990s, with about half its residents black and half white, Mount Airy was one of the most thoroughly integrated places in the nation. West Mount Airy Neighbors, however, had lost its efficacy.

Enter Sugrue, who took over the organization’s presidency in 1996. “When Tom became president was the beginning of the organization’s spirit of renewal,” says West Mount Airy Neighbors executive director Laura Siena, who for five years until 2003 was chair of the Fund for Open Society, the organization started by Morris Milgram. “Anything I’ve done in four years is part of Tom’s legacy,” she says. Much of that legacy followed his own study of the social history of the grassroots. He wanted the organization, so seated in progressive ideas and urbanity, to reengage with the wider political process. That meant shaking off the parochial interests of an increasingly affluent constituency and reaching out across Germantown Avenue—to join forces with East Mount Airy Neighbors, a more traditionally African-American and working-class group, to solve broader, more intrinsic problems. The initiative met with opposition.

“One of the main issues we struggle with,” Sugrue explains, “is that often our vision is really small. We can’t solve the problems of the city by gussying up storefronts. I love and am a member of the grassroots, but ultimately they have the will but not the capacity. One take-away from [Sweet Land of Liberty] is that far-reaching gains in Civil Rights require people to organize locally but form a broader coalition, providing a longer reach. But we tend to think real small.”

On the other hand, he says, “It’s the small things that matter” to people in city neighborhoods. He means that a meaningful understanding can only come from close observation. “One of the most interesting features of the urban landscape is going to places in the day and night. I don’t play golf or tennis, but I do go out and explore, ride the buses and subways. So, for example, at night the street changes. In some places it becomes marked. Women, especially, feel trapped. They’re made to feel they can’t go out.”

We’re walking near the corner of Germantown and Chelten avenues, the bustling, cacophonic, commercial heart of Germantown. Men, in groups of five and six, gather on street corners. Some make deals, some leer, and some shuffle and laugh. Here are church towers and high rises, Dunkin’ Donuts and Villa Sneakers, Divine Toddler Town and Risque Video, the Foxy Diva and Empire Books (“We Ship to Prisons,” it says in the window), Dollar Crazy and Dahlak, the Germantown branch of the well-loved Baltimore Avenue Ethiopian restaurant. There are vestigial murals and vestry robes, the Lions of Judah and Mr. Hook (“We Fry Fresh Fish”).

Sugrue mentions he needs a new winter hat, but the mission is soon forgotten. “Tom has a kind of childlike ability to look up and around him to see details, immense riches,” says Siena. Foxy Diva’s traditional storefront displays black iconography, memory, exhortation, and hope. Here are reprints of slave auction announcements, the faces of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X. Here are large, framed prints of the First Family, and a poster of Barack Obama. In large letters, it says, Destiny.

“In some ways, my single intellectual trait is insatiable curiosity,” Sugrue tells me. “I find the city endlessly fascinating. There’s always something to see with new eyes.” It’s no passive joy. Sugrue’s willingness to look harder has thoroughly altered the narrative of cities in the 20th century. Says the Free Press’s McGraw, “Tom’s analysis eviscerated the accepted wisdom for years in Detroit that its downfall really dated from the 1967 riot and especially from the reign of Coleman Young, Detroit’s first African-American mayor, who held office from 1974 to 1993. Young was very controversial, especially among whites, but he had become a scapegoat for much of what’s wrong about Detroit. Tom effectively demolished that school of thought.”

 

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COVER STORY:
The Vital Thread of Tom Sugrue By Nathaniel Popkin


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