The Philadelphia neighborhood where they chose to plant their roots had become, by the early 1970s, no one’s idea of a peaceable kingdom. Located west of Penn’s campus and along Baltimore Avenue—the old colonial road—it had grown up in the late 19th century as a classic example of a ‘‘street car suburb.’’ Its large, elegant, late Victorian houses were home to prosperous Anglo-Protestants and Irish Catholics. The Catholics, in a show of their own ethno-religious pride, built the Church of St. Francis de Sales, a remarkable, vaguely Byzantine structure, whose bells still ring throughout the neighborhood and whose dome can be seen from points all over the city. Not to be outdone, the Methodists built the magnificent Calvary Church at 48th and Baltimore and topped their sanctuary with a breath-taking Tiffany glass dome. Residents of the neighborhood took their leisure at Clark Park, once the site of a Union hospital during the Civil War and now a leafy strolling park. And to underscore the bourgeois domesticity of it all, the neighbors erected a statue of Charles Dickens—the only one of him in the United States—with Little Nell at his feet in one corner of the park.

In the postwar years, that prosperity diminished somewhat. Many of the houses were subdivided into rental units and the population became more decidedly middle and working class. By the late 1960s, black residents began to move in from other surrounding neighborhoods. By 1971 the neighborhood seemed poised for the kind of collapse that had become so common in cities around the country. Crime became such a scourge that few people ventured out after dark, and many put bars up on their windows. Real estate agents went door to door goading white home owners to sell immediately—black people, after all, were moving in, and home values were only going to drop.

While the people who joined the MNS came with concerns about the big issues, the neighborhood itself became the first test case for their ideas. They began by addressing the problem of safety—organizing a system of block captains, neighborhood patrols, and neighborhood alerts. They helped calm the fears of at least some of those older residents who were poised to flee and persuaded many of them to stay. And they made sure that in all their efforts black and white residents worked together. The neighborhood stabilized. At a time when neighborhoods from the South Bronx to South Central Los Angeles descended into chaos largely because of racial tensions, the MNS created a model of how neighborhood transition did not have to mean neighborhood implosion.

The MNS was busy with other things as well, campaigns against the B-1 bomber and against nuclear power to name just two. But whatever the issue, as George explains, the 18 houses that collectively constituted the MNS Life Center served as the laboratory to try out new ideas about strategy, organizing, decision making, and so forth. ‘‘We were our own guinea pigs,’’ George remembers, and all these experiments were driven by the group’s maxim: ‘‘Most of what we need to know to be effective we have yet to learn.’’ The result was a profusion of creative ideas, some of which flopped, many of which were hugely successful. The 1970s and 1980s were, as George points out, disappointing times for Americans on the left. The promise of the 1960s proved, if not illusory, then at least a long way off. To sustain themselves, MNS members ‘‘set proximate goals for ourselves,’’ George explains, ‘‘so there was always some victory to celebrate.’’

The MNS hit the peak of its influence in the late 1970s, when roughly 300 people identified with it in cities such as Atlanta, Baltimore, Seattle, Toronto, and even in the tiny village of Yellow Springs, Ohio. Back in West Philadelphia, the MNS established New Society Publishers and a food co-op, which is still selling food on Baltimore Avenue.

The MNS was officially laid to rest in 1989, its remaining membership deciding that this particular experiment had run its course. There are still several group houses owned by the Life Center and they continue to provide a home and a haven for young people involved in community and political activism. George Lakey, too, still lives in the neighborhood and since 1992 he has run Training for Change. He travels around the world helping to build the capacity of activist groups to work for democratic change. He helped establish a network of activists in Russia in the tumultuous period after the Soviet Union collapsed and has been smuggled into Burma to train pro-democracy student groups there. The last time we spoke, George had just returned from Zimbabwe.

When I pointed out to him that he was merely exporting the utopian idealism of his West Philadelphia neighborhood around the world, he laughed and agreed. In 1982, a German television crew came to Philadelphia to mark the 300th anniversary of the founding of Philadelphia. German speakers, of course, constituted a major stream of migrants to Penn’s city; they came seeking religious freedom, and the television crew wanted to know what had become of the ‘‘holy experiment.’’ After talking with people at the Friends Center, they were sent to West Philadelphia. There, they were told, Penn’s dream was best being kept alive.

I should confess: this has been my neighborhood too, on and off for the last 15 years. It is a remarkably diverse, remarkably harmonious place. It still has a vibrant—indeed, sometimes exhausting—civic life, filled with community projects, political engagement, and festivals in Clark Park. It is where I have learned much of what I know about community and coexistence, about both the difficulties and the exhilarating possibilities of urban life. One of my neighbors (and my electrician, as it happens) has a bumper sticker that reads: ‘‘Heaven is a mixed neighborhood.’’ It may not be heaven, and it certainly is not immune to some of the city’s grinding problems, but it is still the closest thing I have known to a peaceable kingdom.

Reprinted with permission from Metropolitan Philadelphia: Living With the Presence of the Past by Steven Conn, copyright © 2006 by the Universityof Pennsylvania Press.

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 06/28/06

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EXCERPT: "Heaven is a Mixed Neighborhood"
By Steven Conn


Once home to prosperous Anglo-Protestants and Irish Catholics, the West Philadelphia neighborhood was nobody’s idea of a peaceable kingdom in 1970.

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