Seeing Pennsauken as a local melting pot

LINDENWOLD — In the parish hall at Our Lady of Guadalupe here on Wednesday, June 30, some 70 gathered to watch “The New Metropolis,” a documentary on integration in suburban communities, and reflect on the question posed in Luke 28: “Who is my neighbor?” Among those present were people of different ages and the many ethnic groups that comprise the diverse community here.

Bishop Joseph A. Galante, who celebrated Mass before the gathering, spoke after the film.

“The New Metropolis: New Neighbors: How One Town Created A Vibrant, Integrated Suburb,” is the second episode of a documenry series by Andrea Torrice. The half-hour film chronicles the suburban town of Pennsauken which, in the 1950s, was filled with many middle-class families looking to achieve the American Dream.

But it was mostly whites that were able to take up suburban living at the time. Access to the new housing tracts was largely controlled by discriminatory federal and local policies, including exclusionary zoning and mortgage companies’ redlining practices.

Then in the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement fought to overturn housing discrimination, and Congressional passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act helped protect the rights of minority families to live where they chose. Since the 1980s, the number of minorities living in suburbia has doubled. But new development and wealthier homeowners continue to move farther and farther out from metropolitan centers. Despite federal laws, many suburban towns are segregating along racial lines in the same manner as urban centers did decades ago.

The film centers on two individuals, Harold Adams and Lynn Cummings, and Pennsauken’s move to further embrace diversity and integration in the past 20 years.

Adams, a black real estate appraiser, bought a house in Pennsauken for his family in the 1990s, hoping to give his children a good education in the town’s schools.

Cummings, a white housewife, had been a resident of Pennsauken in the 1960s. When she noticed “For Sale” signs going up in front of white neighbors’ houses after a black family moved in, she was stunned.

Along with the increasing segregated nature of the town, Adams realized, as well, that with the rapid home turnover and declining house market, something had to be done.

Emboldened to reverse this “white flight” and make Pennsauken a town where diversity could be respected and appreciated, Cummings and Adams started bringing together older residents and the newer minority families, in an organization called “Neighbors Empowering Pennsauken,” to improve relations and encourage interaction.

The organization educates town residents through word-of mouth, seminars at the local library, training workshops, and community events, spreading the word that although they come from different backgrounds, they all have the same goal: to live in a stable, safe environment with good neighbors, where their children can grow up.

“We must learn to live together, work together, go forward together,” said Cummings, present at the screening. “We made a commitment to embracing diversity.”

Bishop Galante said he hoped to see Pennsauken’s growth as a model for other suburban communities in the Diocese of Camden. The bishop said the film “proves to me that people of faith, who live God’s teaching, can change the world.”

Differences “make us broader, more richer in cultural life,” he said.

Calling the movie “inspirational, moving, and hopeful,” Larry DiPaul, director of the Office of Life and Justice, recalled growing up in the 1960s in West Philadelphia, where the only world he knew was “Italian and Catholic.”

When he went to high school in North Philadelphia, though, he started meeting others with different backgrounds and worldviews. This, he noted, was the time when “my territory, my world, and my God” were widened.

DiPaul says that in the future, the documentary will be shown in other parishes, with the hope of creating a diocesan awareness of these struggles, and infusing “the issues of the marketplace with Catholic charisms.”

Father Joseph Capella, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, spoke of the need to be neighbors to everyone, like Luke 28’s “Good Samaritan,” regardless of their differences, in his homily during the liturgy before the screening.

“We cannot face the Blessed Sacrament under this roof, and not allow our brothers and sisters to have it under their roofs,” he said.

For more on “The New Metropolis,” go to www.thenewmetropolis.com

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