Creating Community at the Powelton Co-op – Part 1

Powelton Co-op families doing the laundry in the basement of 3709 Baring Street. Mrs. John L. Atkins taking care of 21 month old Alan Bye, as his mother Lois Bye handles the washer and wringer. Mrs. John H. Wrenn hangs clothes on the line, while Mrs. Hsien Ti Tien irons a shirt.  Photo courtesy of Gwendolyn Bye.

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…

 

The northwest corner of the 3700 block of Baring Street, December 14, 1962.

Sources:

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.

 

 

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8 Comments

  1. lou
    Posted February 17, 2018 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    This is an un-geocoded photo, but it’s 35th St, south of Powelton Ave, looking north, from my own research. Look at the Drexel Students of the day. All that’s missing are the slide rules.

    https://www.phillyhistory.org/PhotoArchive/Detail.aspx?assetId=131107

    • Ken Moberg
      Posted April 3, 2018 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      No, that is indeed 37th and Baring. The Fisher’s house is just up the block to the right of the photo, and that big corner house with the wide wrap-around porch is to the right of the photographer.

  2. Sharon Lauderback
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    I use to live in this house back in the 90’s. Many good memories!

  3. Rebecca Roter
    Posted April 2, 2018 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    I grew up in Powelton . My parents lived at and met each other while living at Friendship Coop. They were both Penn students . I lived at the courtyard. Other coops were formed in Powelton subsequent to Friendship Coop.

  4. Rebecca Roter
    Posted April 3, 2018 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    A comment from my mother Zandra Moberg-Price who lived at Friendship Coop while a Penn student : “Well-written piece that nicely conveys the spirit of the Coop. There are, however, some inaccuracies…… Jerry Bye was the first manager. It started out with single people living together communally at the house on 34th Street. We were part of the cooperative movement which was a movement going way back to mitigate the unfairness of capitalism.
    The story I got (this was 1955) was that at least some of the founders were former conscientious objectors who were looking for ways to live after the War (WWII). By the time I got there the residents were a fascinating mix of progressive types, including early computer geeks,social work students, Quakers, foreign students, working people, social workers, intellectuals, Swarthmore dropouts, Penn students, Drexel students. We had frequent house meetings regarding house matters and rules. I remember a book of guidance on how to run a coop. It was communal living, all single people. It worked well and many of us have fond memories of the Coop.
    By the time I moved in the Coop had bought apartments in the adjoining neighborhood because–surprise, surprise–a lot of couples met there and got married. They needed apartments. Where the money came from to buy real estate I have no idea but there was some resentment at the way Coop finances were used to get apartment for the couples.
    Families living in coop apartments shared a lot of things, like laundry facilities, tools,babysitting, yard space,but they did not eat together. We had privacy. It was, I thought, a perfect arrangement. But by the 60’s it was a different world and the Coop began to unravel… I don’t know the details. We moved out of our Coop apartment at 3617 Powelton Ave and spent a year living at 54th and Locust. But then we came back to an apartment at 37 something Powelton Ave. By then the Coop had ceased to exist and had become Powelton Village Development Associates–a business.
    I am going to forward this article to the Haverford College academic who did a lot of research on the Coop for a book which she did not complete. One of the problems here is that a lot of the folks from early Coop days are not around to ask.”

  5. Carla Atkins
    Posted June 18, 2018 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    My parents were John and Dorothy Atkins. In the article, it shows my mom (there’s a typo in Dad’s name – he was John Richard Atkins, no middle initial of L) sitting with Alan. My parents were married in 1950 after having met through a Quaker Friends group, perhaps it was called Friendship House. One of the main goals of the group was to end racial segregation and a small number of marriages and many lifelong friendships grew out of that.

    I was born in 1951 and remember an apartment on Baring Street and many anecdotes from my mother about what life was like there. When the Bye’s, the Marshall’s, and other in the co-op (along with my parents), wanted to move into their own houses, they found them on Hamilton Street (which is where we lived until the Co-op sort of fell apart through attrition). Many of the graduate students involved in the Co-op, including my father, had to leave Philadelphia to pursue careers. We moved first to Pittsburgh for a year or two while Dad was working on finishing his PhD. We moved back to the Co-op for a few more years but Dad got a teaching job at Cal Tech which took us to Pasadena and, when my parents divorced, Mom went back to school for her own PhDs at UC Berkeley. Eventually all four of us kids lived with her in Berkeley and we have stayed in the SF Bay Area ever since. When we left Philadelphia, my Mom’s parents moved into the house on Hamilton Street since it was really their house officially. As with most of the students in Powelton, the step towards owning their own homes was fueled by the financial support of parents.

    Because our grandparents lived there, Mom and I spent a lot of time back in the area visiting during summer vacations until my Grandmom’s death in 1991. Even then, our Uncle Cliff still lived there until he sold the house and eventually moved out here to be closer to Mom and us kids.

    I got married and changed my name to Carla J Patterson about 20 years ago. Carla Cryptic is my mail art name.

    Some of the people from the Co-op when I was little who ended up in the SF Bay Area include Dick and Judy Shouse, Joe Bailey, Jolly (who changed her name to Marianne) Robinson, and Peter Kleinbard (among others).

  6. Tom Atkins
    Posted June 18, 2018 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    Wow! My mother is the African-American woman in that photograph and I was one of the little kids in that co-op! We’re just now heading back to Philadelphia from the San Francisco Bay area at the end of June for a visit.

  7. Tom Atkins
    Posted June 20, 2018 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Gwen!!! Would be fun to see you and share whatever memories we have. You probably remembered my sister more but I was there too.

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